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Resistance

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Day 1

This place probably had a name, but as the prison transport swung low and prepared to land, Tony could only think one thing.

We’re in Hell.

That was what this world looked like.  It was barren, brown and gray without a speck of visible vegetation to ease the harsh monotony.  The transport was circling around a huge mountain range filled with towering, jagged peaks that were sharp and ugly against a dark, mustardy sky.  Down below and around them the terrain was no more pleasant: stone as far as the eye could see, rock and dirt reduced by the elements to finer sand in some places and gathered into lumpy crests that more resembled blemishes than rolling hills.  It looked hot, endless, cracked and cruel and unbelievably dry because just as there were no trees or grass there was also not a drop of water.  It looked like hell.  Add some fire and brimstone and it’d be perfect.

Tony swallowed and turned his gaze away from the grungy window.  Forget hell.  We’re in deep shit.  He couldn’t help a shiver, which rattled the cuffs around his wrists where they were secured to the central bar of the transport.  He’d always wanted to go into space.  It was one of those silly and far-fetched dreams he had as a kid, one of those “wouldn’t it be cool” sorts of ideas.  This wasn’t quite how he’d pictured it happening, to be honest.

And he was with someone he hadn’t ever imagined being with for the ride.

Steve stiffened beside him.  The other unfortunate souls in this godawful box didn’t notice Tony’s fear, but Steve did, of course.  It was hard not to, considering they were practically sitting on top of each other and had been for the entire lengthy flight from the slaver ship to wherever they were now.  Steve jerked, his own manacles clanking.  “What?” he whispered.  “What is it?”

In the shadows, Tony could see Steve’s eyes, so deeply blue while they roved their surroundings anew.  He was craning his neck, trying to get a glimpse through the grime covered glass beside Tony’s spot, but he couldn’t get a decent vantage.  It was probably for the best.  “Nothing.”

Steve frowned that frown of his, the one that always pissed Tony off so much.  Despite all the bickering and arguing they usually did, he couldn’t find it in him to be so much as annoyed right now.  He sank as much as he could onto the uncomfortable bench, the man – alien thing with red skin and three creepy eyes and holy shit what the hell did we get ourselves into? – next to him on his other side grunting unhappily as he took more space.  The lot of prisoners were crammed on the transport benches, packed uncomfortably tight like sardines, and everything was claustrophobic and strange and terrifying.  This whole nightmare had been strange and terrifying from the get-go, from the second the space pirates (at least that was what Thor had called them, and they’d certainly looked the part) had attacked San Francisco.  It wasn’t clear what they were looking for, though Thor suspected word of Midgardian technology was spreading throughout the galaxy with first Loki’s invasion and then the events of the Convergence.  These extraterrestrial assholes (that was what Tony had called them, and that was becoming more and more apt with each passing second) could have been targeting Pym Tech or Stark Industries’ satellite offices or any other weapons or biological R&D facilities in the area.  It didn’t matter.  With the Avengers deployed by SHIELD, the whole attack had been thwarted.

But not before both Steve and Tony had been kidnapped.  The fight had been going great until that unfortunate turn of shitty events.  The mercenaries had used some sort of technology not unlike Erik Selvig’s portal to punch onto Earth right over the Golden Gate Bridge.  Ships had come through it that were small and ragged and in various states of disrepair with all sorts of menacing emblems and symbols sloppily painted on their hulls (like a hodgepodge pirate fleet as Clint had said, making predictably bad pirate jokes all the while).  From those ships they’d launched skimmers and speeders, things that looked like something right out of Star Wars, to pillage and plunder the city while the bigger vessels went after the area tech manufacturers.  So the Avengers had split up.  The ragtag band of alien mercenaries had obviously thought humans were easy pickings, because they boldly went up against them and, in short order, found they were pretty well outgunned by Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (having the Hulk and Thor on your side definitely helped).  Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow had handled the riffraff (Tony had endlessly cackled that Steve actually called them that – what a fucking square) that were tormenting the citizens on the streets while Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor had shut down the bigger threats.

Just as the bad guys had realized their monumental mistake, however, and turned tail back toward their portal like a bunch of cowards, Tony had gotten trapped.  One of the smaller vessels had some sort of harpoon-like system (whalers, that was what came to mind – space whales.  Tony had spent the last awful hours stupidly wondering about that.  Were there such things?  What the hell would they look like?  Like those behemoth, flying monsters the Chitauri had?  That brought to life all sorts of unpleasant recollections).  The pirates aboard the ship had been shooting at the Hulk with the harpoon, but apparently they couldn’t aim for shit.  It had missed Bruce and hit Tony where he’d been chasing another ship into the portal.  The thing had hurt when it had pierced his suit and gouged his hip (thank God the suit had taken most of the hit), but that hadn’t been the worst problem.  No, the big problem had been it retracting, faster than Tony could stop it, tangling up in his legs and arms as the ship had twisted and turned to avoid the Hulk coming after it.  It had damn well tied Tony up, pinned his arms to his side so his aiming his palm repulsors was damn near impossible, and before he’d even realized what was happening, the ship was speeding toward the portal.

“A little help!  Need it now!  Right now!  Help!”

“It’s got Tony!”

“They’re running!  Shit!”

“Thor!”

But Thor hadn’t been the one to jump after him as he’d been yanked across the bay and over the bridge.  Steve had, Steve who’d been right there on the damaged Golden Gate, helping civilians escape what had essentially become ground zero.  Tony had been dragged at a speed that was too fast for an ordinary human to see much less stop, but Steve wasn’t an ordinary human.  He was Captain America, the goddamn perfect and self-sacrificing paragon of virtue and heroism, and the dumb asshole had timed it perfectly, jumped straight up from the top of a truck, and caught Iron Man’s legs.  He’d clambered up his body, hooking his knees around Tony’s waist for stability, shouting something about hanging on (like Tony had had any other choice) and holding still (again, like there’d been any choice).  Steve had brought his shield around to try and cut through the cable pinning Tony’s arms and squeezing hard and making every repulsor blast go wild and Jesus we’re fucked.

And they had been fucked.  Apparently the harpoon thing had a hell of a zapper attached somewhere above because one of the space pirates had activated it, and it had fairly nicely electrocuted both of them.

Even now, Tony’s scientific brain was still uselessly wondering how much juice it took to drop a space whale because he and Steve had essentially been pumped full of enough voltage to short out a billion-dollar weaponized suit of armor just like that.  Iron Man had gone dead, his connection with JARVIS silent, his comm link with the team completely neutralized.  Everything had been lost in one instant, weapons, thrusters, emergency systems, everything.  He’d hardly been able to see, to do anything, and when he’d blinked, he’d noted in horror that Steve was unconscious, his shield that had been raised to strike at the cable nearly slipping from his fingers, his back bowing as he’d tipped and started to fall.  Tony had barely been able to move his trapped arm, but it had been just enough to grab Steve’s hand as he’d tumbled.

That had all happened just as the ship had plunged back in the portal and dumped them out into space.

Of course, the shock of having left the planet didn’t really register.  They’d landed instantly into the hangar bay of what could only be another space ship, this one massive, and that had been lucky as hell because Iron Man wasn’t outfitted to handle the dangers of outer space (which he’d so unpleasantly learned delivering that nuke to the Chitauri mother ship during the Battle of New York).  As unequipped as Iron Man was, though, Captain America had zero protection against it, so it was damn fortunate.

Mostly.  Because that little jolt had pretty fantastically stopped Steve’s heart, too.

So they’d started this fun adventure with Tony desperately trying to get out of his dead suit, get free of the tangle of cables, struggling to do all of that while holding onto Steve and with the pirates swarming them with their guns at the ready.  Tony panicking and fighting to give Steve fucking CPR because he wasn’t breathing and he didn’t have a pulse and Christ I can’t do this don’t you fucking die on me Rogers I need you I need you–

The super soldier serum was amazing stuff.  If Tony hadn’t hated his father so much for a lifetime of never being good enough for the bastard, he might have been more willing to admit it to himself a while ago.  It was hard, since he and Steve didn’t exactly get along.  They weren’t cold to each other or nasty or anything like that (well, they weren’t like that anymore).  But they didn’t see eye to eye.  On anything.  Steve was so no-nonsense, so straight-cut morals and all American looks and unwavering integrity.  Tony was pretty much the opposite with his boundless extravagance and eccentricities.  Steve liked things calm and orderly, and Tony thrived in chaos and dissonance.  Working together as teammates was a challenge sometimes (particularly when Captain Stick-Up-His-Ass got on Tony’s case about bullshit like “teamwork” and “trust” and “listening”), but they got through it for the most part.  Tony had to admit it was endlessly entertaining teasing Steve about the future, getting under his skin about, well, anything that got a reaction out of him.  And he liked getting Steve all hot and bothered.  It was so damn easy sometimes, and sometimes Tony pushed buttons and ignored orders on the field and screwed up just to see the younger man riled.  It was a hobby, petty but so rewarding.  Like low key flirting, really.

And he had to admit that, back on that pirate ship and in the wake of getting Steve living again with the panic mostly receding, he’d been thinking about how it had felt to kiss him.  Not really kiss him, and he was a genuine asshole even to be twisting that horrific moment where Steve had finally started breathing again, choking and sputtering and shaking in Tony’s arms… turning that into anything other than what it was: him saving Steve’s life.  But the relief – so much relief he couldn’t even believe it – tied to the feeling of Steve’s lips and Steve’s body curling into his and Steve’s blue eyes, wet and staring hazily up at him with shock and gratitude…

It was the closest he’d ever felt to Steve, maybe the closest he’d ever felt to anyone.

Of course, things had pretty rapidly gone to shit after that.  They’d been taken prisoner instantly.  It was extremely obvious a few minutes into the situation that these alien bastards, huge, ugly guys with scars and weird faces and tattoos and sometimes extra appendages, had no interest in simply reopening the portal and kindly returning the two Avengers to Earth.  Steve’s shield had promptly been taken.  Iron Man, too.  The pair of them, with Steve still shivering and suffering mightily with the after effects of being dead for all intents and purposes, had been hauled at gun point to the brig.  There they’d been locked in separate cells for hours until the pirates had decided to sell them to make some money from their failed plunder of Earth.  The heartless bastards wanted to sell them and their gear.  Tony had seen the emotions play across Steve’s face at losing his shield as the head pirate held it and taunted and demanded to know if it was worth anything.  It wasn’t worth as much to anyone as it was to Captain America.

But that seemed a minor thing to be upset about, all things considering.  And there’d been no getting it back or stopping any of this.  The pirate ship had docked somewhere and they’d found themselves being dragged aboard a large space station that was clearly involved in human (and not so human – mostly not human, actually) trafficking.  They’d quickly realized that Steve was far too strong for them to restrain normally, and then they’d quickly realized that keeping a gun constantly on Tony kept Steve in check.  That was fucking frustrating and terrifying at the same time.  They’d been dragged through rows of prison cells where other unfortunates were kept, gaunt faces and frightened eyes peering out at them through shadowy bars.  The whole thing had seemed like some sort of weird dream, a scene out of a crazy science fiction movie.  No one knew who they were, not that they were Captain America and Iron Man or Steve Rogers and Tony Stark or Avengers or anything.  Here they were nothing but fresh bodies and new attractive faces.  The star on Steve’s chest was meaningless (as was the money in Tony’s wallet).  No one cared.  Thus Steve’s shield and Tony’s damaged suit had been sold like they were just junk.  And a slave trader had bought two humans off the pirates like goods to be sold, and the slave trader had in turn put them on the auction block.

Goddamn Steve Rogers.  Steve’s natural inclination to lay down on the wire and take a hit for the team and use his body like his fucking shield had always pissed Tony off before.  No one should be that unreservedly good.  Steve wasn’t a martyr, and he didn’t do what he did for accolades or awards or any of that.  He did it because he genuinely believed in protecting people.  So that was what he did here too without a second thought.  When it became obvious the two lone Terrans, smaller and significantly more fragile than most of the slave stock available, were going to be at the very least separated or at worst sold to someone really bad (there were quite a few people in audience who were definitely in that category), Steve had very publically revealed just how damn strong he was.  Just how fit.  Just how fast he healed considering he was pretty much back to normal despite being electrocuted less than twelve hours ago.  Just how worth it he was.  And how he how wouldn’t cooperate unless Tony stayed with him.  When that still hadn’t convinced the buyer, a fat, ugly man with ridges on his head and hideously awful teeth, that Tony had value, Steve had simply blurted out that Tony was an engineer.  Not just an engineer.  A skilled one.  The best Earth had to offer.

Stupid idiot.  For being such a “master” tactician, the Man with a Plan and all that nonsense, Steve had a propensity to think with his stupid fucking heart rather than his head.  Tony had wanted to hit him (had, actually, had socked him square in the stomach the minute they were being led to their new owner for being such a goddamn stupid bastard), but at least they were together.

But that wasn’t going to be a good thing if Steve kept insisting on doing his hero thing.  Like hovering and asking Tony if he was okay, which he’d done about a million times since he’d been recovered enough to do so.  And this particular frown was usually a precursor to the inevitable question, so here it came.  “Are you okay?”

Tony was terrified enough – we’re probably millions of miles from home with no hope of being rescued and we were just sold into slavery or worse and – so he just snapped, “Do I look like I’m okay?”

Steve’s face fractured more into an even deeper frown.  The whole shock of this situation, of being abducted and Steve almost dying, and then being sold into this nightmare, had quieted their usual chronic inability to tolerate each other.  But now reality was setting in hard and fast, about as hard and fast as the transport was making its descent.  However, whatever Steve was about to say was cut off by the guard who’d been walking up and down the length of the hold.  He hit Tony hard upside the head, barking something they couldn’t understand.  Figuring out what their captors were saying hadn’t been so easy so far.  Unsurprisingly, English wasn’t a common language out here, wherever the fuck here was.  The pirate ship had been equipped with something that had roughly translated for them, and the auction had had some translators available.  Tony supposed it could only have been Asgard’s influence in the galaxy that had spread English to that paltry extent.  But so far it had mostly been a lot of shouting at them with rough words they didn’t understand and a whole lot of floundering to follow directions before getting smacked around.

Smacking and hitting and shoving and generally being cruel seemed to be the language of choice out here.  Steve jerked beside Tony, and despite his ears ringing and the tears blurring his eyes, Tony could tell he was gearing up to fight.  Steve was predictable that way.  There wasn’t much give in the length of chain between his wrists and the bar, but he was able to grab Steve’s knee.  That stopped him.  If Steve put himself in between every thug’s fist and Tony’s face, this was going to be really frustrating.

The transport shuddered, and Tony turned, blinking to clear his vision.  They’d flown through the mountains, and now they were slowing down over a deep valley.  It was dusk, so the peaks were casting huge shadows that made the rocks look deeply gray.  In the middle of the valley, there were four towers that extended from the rocks below upward far, far into the yellow clouds.  Tony caught a glimpse of what looked like massive elevators slowly crawling up and down them.  Inside something bright blue twinkled in the dying sunlight.  Stranger than that, though, was the way the dark metal of the towers seemed like…  Like it was moving.  Vibrating.  Covered in something?  What the hell?

Tony blinked and blinked again, but by the time he’d cleared his vision more, the towers were out of his line of sight.  The transport banked sharply, tipping his window downward, and he turned away just as he saw a massive door opening in the ground.  “Where are we going?” Steve whispered.

He had no idea.  The guy who’d purchased them had said something about a mine, though Tony hadn’t been able to understand what.  It hadn’t sounded good.  The daylight coming through the transport’s windows vanished as it descended through those open doors.  The whole thing rattled and shook, and Tony’s heart started pounding.  Beside him Steve was glancing around frantically, pulling on his bonds anew.  They still didn’t give, and that must have been the thousandth time Steve had tried.  Hope sprang eternal apparently, even when it was more than obvious their captors were used to restraining some seriously strong prisoners (some of those seriously stronger prisoners had been glaring at them from the other side of the transport for hours, but even they seemed scared shitless now).

Except for the weird guy next to Tony.  “Raxus,” he muttered.  With the guard down the way now, he was apparently feeling brave enough to talk.

“Huh?”  Maybe the guy didn’t speak English.

He did, though.  “Raxus Prime.  It’s a Kree outpost.”

What the hell is a Kree?  Finally, the rumbling and shuddering ceased.  The ship docked with a thud, and the rear doors hissed loudly as they opened.  Armed guards, all large, muscular humanoids with blue skin with black eyes, immediately charged inside the dark transport to secure the prisoners.  Chains were detached from the bar, and one by one they were hauled out.  In addition to rifles of some sort, the guards had long batons they were using like cattle prods, and they were all too willing to zap anyone who didn’t cooperate.  But most everyone did.  Despite their collective terror, there was an equally ubiquitous air of submission and defeat.  They all let themselves be taken away.

All save Steve, of course.  He struggled.  The second the guards unlocked his chains from the bar, he was yanking on them, scrambling to get to his feet, to get his fists up even though his hands were still bound together.  Tony choked on his breath as guards swarmed him, bellowing orders and curses most likely.  “No, Cap!” Tony cried, the batons crackling before his eyes.  “No!”

It was too late.  Steve never knew a losing battle when he saw one.

They brought him down, one cracking the baton across his back, the others driving him the rest of the way to the filthy floor.  Steve screamed.  Tony squirmed, trying to get to him, but the guard at his side dragged him away.  He couldn’t swallow down his wail when another baton was jabbed against his ribs and turned on.

Yeah, that hurt like a son of a bitch.

When the agony faded enough that Tony could breathe without choking and think without the memory of it sparking across his nerves, he blinked eyes that were half-lidded and unfocused.  He was stumbling, arms hooked through his elbows, his uncooperative feet dragging beneath him.  His lungs still didn’t want to work right, shivering with the after effects of the stun baton.  Tears dripped from his chin.  Someone was barking at him.  A blue face with black eyes.  Wake up!

He snapped to awareness and found himself being carried by the guards, and none too gently.  They dropped him on the floor, and he barely caught himself before he face-planted on the grating.  Steve was thrown down beside him, and he didn’t manage to do the same.  His cheek smacked into the metal, and he moaned.  Tony winced.  Steve’s face was bruised, welted, lip split and blood all over his mouth and one eye nearly swollen shut.  The guards looming over them had their guns on them both, and one of them was still shouting at them furiously.  Tony couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but the message was pretty damn clear.  “Stop fighting,” he hissed to Steve.  “Stop!”

Steve groaned, pushing himself up weakly with his fists beneath his sternum.  “Not my style,” he groaned, and he spat a mouthful of blood to the floor.

Fuck your style! Tony thought in panic.  There was no chance to say anything though, because they were both lifted up and made to walk.

Of course walking was difficult.  Everything hurt from that one quick jolt from those overpowered glow sticks.  Sometime while he’d been mostly passed out they’d attached a chain around his waist, and his hands were now cuffed to that.  His feet were still shackled, and that led to shuffling more than anything else.  They were all shuffling in a pathetic line.  Alien chain gang.  If it wasn’t so damn terrifying, maybe Tony would have laughed.

Instead he chanced a look around.  This was definitely a landing bay of some sort.  It was surprisingly small, though, dark and dirty and there were no ships but the one offloading prisoners.  A glare from the guard to his left made Tony drop his gaze.  He felt weak and ashamed for giving up already, but the bastard was huge and his stun baton was right at Tony’s side.  Steve was limping behind him; they were close enough that Tony could almost feel his rushed breath on the back of his neck.  Don’t do anything stupid.  Christ, how could he be so submissive?  He couldn’t stop thinking it, though.  He couldn’t do anything but plod along and try not to look and chant this mantra in his head.  Don’t fight.  Don’t argue.  Don’t struggle.  A blast of hot air rushed over them, and it smelled strange.  Foul and oppressive.  Tony refused to see where they were going.  He kept his eyes firmly on his now filthy sneakers, on the grating beneath his feet.  Don’t fight.  Don’t draw attention to us.  Don’t don’t don’t…

Suddenly the concrete or whatever firm dark surface had been beneath that vanished, and he was looking straight down.  Their little parade reached a railing, and Tony gasped.  “Holy shit.”

Hell.

Complete with levels, it seemed.  Many of them.  The drop before them was massive, hundreds of feet at least.  It descended down so far that the lights that lined the floors looked like meager dots struggling to shine in the darkness.  There were dozens of concentric platforms encircling a wide central pillar.  The pillar looked like the towers outside, with monstrous cables running up and down it connected to smaller platforms and elevators.  Aboard the lifts there were huge crates which glowed that same pale blue, and these were being carefully carried to the top.  Gases rose from below, and that was from where the godawful stench was coming.  It was miserably hot, dark as night, and constructed almost entirely of metal.  Grime was everywhere.  Dirt coated everything, adding an unpleasant layer of grunge that looked like it had never been cleaned and was thus years thick.  A series of complex walkways and stairs criss-crossed below, bridging the levels all the way down to the bottom.  Gigantic pipes ran down along the sides of the pit, down into what Tony was realizing was a city of a sorts.

A city on top of a mine.

“Holy shit,” he whispered again.

The blue guard next him bellowed viciously in his ear, and the baton snapped and crackled with charging energy.  That broke Tony from his awestruck, horrified stupor, and he jolted into a few clumsy steps.  Thankfully Steve stayed complacent behind him.  He was probably just as amazed and frightened.  Tony wanted to look at him, really wanted to just to see he was there and be grounded by that, but he didn’t dare.

The line of prisoners was marched to the central lift.  It was huge and octagonal, and they were all loaded inside again like cattle.  A dozen guards surrounded them, screaming demands, and again Tony didn’t need to know the language to get the picture loud and clear.  He stood still, head down, eyes on his feet, bound hands limp in front of him.  Trying not to move, not to breathe, to be as small as possible.  Steve was stiff as a tree beside him and not nearly so pliant.  That chant started in Tony’s head again.  Don’t say anything.  Don’t move.  Not now.  Don’t do anything.

Thankfully, Steve didn’t.  He was stubborn and ridiculously optimistic and the least likely person in the world to lay down his proverbial weapons, but he was smart enough to realize that fighting here and now would be a monumentally piss-poor idea.  They went down, the whole lot of the prisoners quiet and submissive.  It was so crazy.  Tony wasn’t terribly tall by any means.  Steve had a good inch or two of height (and a good seventy pounds of muscle) on him, but even he was positively dwarfed by most of the aliens around them.  The blue guys must have been seven or eight feet tall, and Tony saw now that there were blue guys as prisoners, too.  There were others, though, that were bulky and huge, bulkier and huger than they had seemed in the cramped confines of the transport.  Like wrestlers on steroids with leathery, thick skin that was an armor all its own.  And Steve and Tony stood among them, two small, fleshy humans who were very far from home.

Now Tony chanced a look at Steve.  He had his head up.  Defiant.  Tony didn’t know how he could be so strong.  This was bad.  This was really bad.  Deep shit.

Eventually the lift shuddered to a stop.  The doors rattled open, and the guards started herding them out.  It was as dark and dirty and grim here as it was everywhere else so far.  And here was the bottom.  The pit.  There were loads of guards, the blue guys lining the sides of the room.  And there were other prisoners Tony didn’t recognize from their transport.  A processing center?

Sadly, yes.

They were lined up in front of a few massive doors that opened occasionally to admit prisoners before sealing anew.  It was disturbing to note the number of doors and in-take lanes, since that was a pretty sure indication of how many prisoners were typically being processed, which, in turn, was probably an indication of how many died down here.  As Tony stood and waited his turn, his mind – always fucking thinking even when he wanted to check out and be numb – was putting the pieces together.  Obviously this was a labor camp.  Obviously the prisoners were doing the mining.  Obviously they were mining whatever that blue stuff in the crates was and obviously the central pillar transported it up from below where it was sent to the towers that extended into the clouds.

And obviously there was no way out but up.

And obviously they were fucked.

One of the guards screamed at him, and he belatedly realized he was holding up the line.  Dropping his gaze, he made himself take another step forward.  Steve was still behind him.  Don’t leave.  Stay with me.  Don’t leave.  Don’t leave.  Ahead there was screaming, yelling, struggling.  The prisoners weren’t so complacent now, faced with whatever lay behind those doors.  Tony flinched.  His heart was trying adamantly to pound its way out of his chest.  He couldn’t breathe.  The seconds they spent waiting, shuffling forward, waiting, shuffling…  They passed so slowly.  Tony was too afraid to focus much on it, but he was hungry and miserably thirsty.  He wondered if Steve was feeling the same.  He peeked over his shoulder at the other man, but Steve was staring at his boots, white and helpless and outwardly defeated.  He was finally revealing it, it seemed, finally succumbing to it.  And he was letting himself be that way because he thought no one was paying attention to him.  He thought Tony wasn’t watching.  Tony averted his eyes angrily, feeling even lower and more frightened.  He blinked back tears.  This couldn’t be happening.  They couldn’t be here and this couldn’t be happening.

It seemed to take forever, but finally it was their turn.  The door opened again.  A blue-skinned bastard – that has to be a Kree – grabbed Tony’s arm, unhooked him from the chain gang, and yanked him inside.  Struggling made no sense because this was really a false sense of freedom, but he did it anyway.  And he started running his mouth for the first time since they’d been captured.  He was so panicked the word vomit just came spilling out.  Better than actual vomit, he supposed, though his empty stomach was clenched so hard that he felt a breath away from puking.

“You guys could work on your manners,” he stammered.  He felt better for it, even though they didn’t answer because they couldn’t understand him.  “Your manners suck.  And your décor.  And, well, everything.  This place smells like ass.  Been in some shitty situations before back home, caves and prison cells and the like, but this is probably the worst.  Really bad.  There a comment box some place?  Because I have some things I’d like to express, you know, and it’s pretty obvious anonymity is the way to go here.”

The guard socked him in the gut.  Hard.  Tony doubled over as the air rushed from his lungs.  Vaguely he heard Steve yelling, a scuffle behind him, but he couldn’t make himself move.  Once again he was being dragged.  He sucked in a whistling breath through his teeth.  “Ugh.  Seriously.  Also gotta say that slavery is bullshit.  And indentured servitude went out centuries ago on Earth.  Mostly.  Nowadays we have a choice, and I choose not to be employed by you assholes.”  He was belted across the face.  Blood poured into his mouth from where he’d gnashed his cheek with his teeth.  He coughed.  “Fuck.”

The Kree screamed at him.  Then he threw him rather unceremoniously into a large, concrete room.  Tony slammed into the far wall and slumped.  The place had no windows.  No furniture.  No nothing but a drain in the center of it.  It was sopping wet, water puddling on the floor and dripping from the other wall.  Steve was tossed after him, and he immediately scrambled closer to Tony.  A few more prisoners were shoved in as well, and the Kree guards sneered at the group as they lined up on the wall.

With a chirp and a beep, the cuffs came loose.  Tony jerked in surprise as the restraints dropped from him.  Okay?  “Cool.  Over already?  Exit interview?” Tony asked.

“Tony,” Steve warned.  The guard sneered sadistically at them.  He yelled something, and the other people started to strip.

Oh, hell no.  Tony gulped.  Steve shared a horrified look with him.  The Kree guard shouted louder, coming at them with the stun baton.  “Okay, okay,” Tony whimpered.  His hands shook as he went for his t-shirt.  A deep breath calmed him to the point where he could almost function.  He wanted to make a couple more cracks about this usually being the other way around, that usually there was booze and fun involved beforehand, that the least these fuckers could do was buy him dinner.  The thoughts flitted across his brain, but they shockingly never made it to his lips.  Instead he pulled his shirt off, toed his shoes off, unbuttoned his jeans.  Beside him Steve was fumbling with the zippers to his uniform.  His face was burning, his hands shaking, too, his eyes wide with embarrassment and anger and helplessness.  And fear.  He peeled his combat suit off, and Tony’s brain was so screwed up that he couldn’t help but stare.  He’d seen Steve without a shirt before.  They lived together in the Tower, so there’d been the occasional time he’d caught Steve down in the gym, beating the hell out of a punching bag or swimming or doing any number of the ridiculous things he constantly did to workout.  And Steve had been hurt once or twice (or maybe more times than Tony cared to remember) during their tenure as Avengers.  So it wasn’t like this was new.

But it was at the same time.  And like when he’d breathed for Steve because Steve had been unconscious and dying in his arms, this was really inappropriate.  But everything was so fucked up and his brain was looking for an escape and he was checking Steve out before he even realized it.  He was staring at all that pale, unblemished skin and rippling muscles and perfect abs and pecs on display right before him.  And everything below the belt.  Steve was wearing blue boxer briefs.  Somehow it made sense that Captain America would wear blue boxer briefs, like a puzzle piece clicking into place in his brain.

Steve noticed him staring and glared hard.  Tony gulped and looked away, horrified for an entirely different reason.  The Kree exclaimed something again, and he put some speed on taking off the rest of his clothes.

The guards didn’t really wait, though.  Suddenly the wall vibrated, like pipes creaking, and the Kree bastards moved aside.  That was all the warning they had before water sprayed out of the opposite side.  It struck with what felt like the force of a freight train, battering them against the wall and holding them there.  Tony cried out, the jet of it slamming into him.  It was cold, so fucking cold, like a million piercing needles made of ice, and it smelled and was brackish and filthy.  There was no escaping it.  His mouth flooded, the water choking him, getting in his throat and his eyes and his ears.  The wash down seemed to go on forever.

But it eventually stopped.  Tony slumped, the wind punched out of his body.  Jesus.  God.  He was sopping wet like a drowned rat, and he covered himself pathetically, teeth chattering and freezing cold.  Jesus!  He wrenched around with sudden realization and looked at Steve.  Steve was pressed against the wall, eyes squeezed shut, shivering so hard it seemed he was about to shake apart.  He was pale, the bruises all over him even starker and more hideous.  He appeared utterly stricken.

Tony reached for him but not before the Kree got to them.  Their huge hands curled around Tony’s forearm.  His cry died in his throat as he was wrenched away from Steve and dragged to the doors on the other side.  Steve was immediately surrounded by two more guards.  He wasn’t fighting.  He wasn’t even moving.  He was lost up his head, in memories or flashbacks to the Valkyrie’s crash seventy years ago.  He was shivering, helpless, vulnerable as they grabbed him and hauled him away, and Tony lost sight of him.

No!  Don’t take him!

He struggled now, but it was pointless.  He was nothing more than a slick, squirming piece of flesh these assholes were manhandling.  He ended up in another room, this one barely bigger than a closet.  There was a table there.  Tony was pushed to that.  “No,” he gasped.  “No!  Don’t!”  There was no choice.  He was lifted and shoved facedown onto the table, shocked again when he struggled.  The awful jolt made the world dim, made the forms around him into monsters and memories.  Afghanistan.  A cave and the Ten Rings and Yinsen with his fingers in his chest.  Tony wailed, frenzied with the need to get away, but once again struggling was senseless.  His hands were locked into shackles, and his face was pushed down into some sort of headrest, but the cushion smelled like vomit and he was fucking prone and all he could see through the tears trapped in his eyes was the floor and oh God oh God oh God don’t touch me!

The guards were talking.  Another Kree was in the room, and he was readying some equipment.  Tony tried to watch, but a hand grabbed his hair and slammed his head back down.  He was held still and helpless as machinery whirred up.  “No, please…  Stop!  Stop!”  He couldn’t see anything, but he felt heat and light was bright in the periphery.  Laser.  There was a sharp pain along the side of his neck.  Along both sides.  Tony screamed.  It burned, and it burned badly.  Then the twin points of agony were shooting up the side of his head like lightning before settling into his skull, right behind the lower portion of his ears.  The torture continued for an endless second – they’re cutting into my head stop stop God someone help me! – before abruptly terminating.  Then something cold was pressed to both sides.  The sound of something being shot into him was unbearable.  He felt it dig in, through skin and into bone.  He slumped, sobbed, tried to breathe through the residual pain.  He saw blood and sweat and tears splatter on the concrete.  The ringing in his ears lasted another moment or two, the echoes of his own screams loud and vicious, and then he heard English.

“Implants are responding well.  Get him up.  He’s done.”

The shackles loosened and he was dragged from the table.  He didn’t get far before puking.  He wasn’t given much in terms of time to throw up, the guards heartlessly hauling him back up from where he’d slipped down on his knees.  One laughed.  Tony whimpered.  Behind him, he could hear Steve shouting.

The guards dragged his trembling body to another room.  It was all happening quickly now, and he was so dazed he couldn’t fight.  They forced him down on his knees, and another Kree came over with some sort of handheld gun.  Tony blinked hazily as they held him firm, arms outstretched.  “Mechanic,” announced one of them.  The Kree with the gun looked disinterested as he tapped a few spaces on its control panel.  Then he jabbed the barrel of the gun into the skin right above Tony’s left pec, right over his collarbone.  “Log him.”

“What’re you–”  His question escalated into a hoarse scream again as his chest burned.  He shivered, crying until he ran out of air.  That was alright.  Steve was screaming for him.  Or just screaming.  He didn’t know which.  Either way, it was awful listening to it.

When the misery was over, Tony looked down and saw gray lettering branded into his skin.  The tattoo was a couple inches long and shimmery, glowing, oddly translucent in a way.  He couldn’t read it, a short line of symbols that were jumbled and meaningless.  No.  Not meaningless.  A serial number.

God.

“Next,” barked the Kree, and Tony was up and out of the room again.

By the time Tony and his escort reached the final room of this hellish procedure, he was mostly over the pain.  His head throbbed and his neck ached and his chest stung, but he was alright enough to walk.  At this last station, a set of clothes was thrust at him.  “Dress,” ordered the final prison officer.  Tony stared at him senselessly for a second, unable to process the command.  The guard clubbed him with the stun baton, and he jerked in terror even though it hadn’t been activated.  “Dress!”

He dressed.  He was clumsy, shaking, flinching when he heard more screaming.  That didn’t sound like Steve.  Stepping into the clothes (which were brown and itchy, a jumpsuit of sorts that zipped from up from the crotch to the chest), he tried not to worry.  Had they done all this to Steve?  Where was Steve?  Behind him?  In one of the other rooms?  Christ, please don’t take him.  Please don’t–

Boots were shoved at him, scuffed and obviously well worn, and suddenly he wondered who’d died in these clothes before they’d been given to him.  His stomach couldn’t handle the thought, so he tried to shut his brain off again as he stuffed his bare feet into the shoes.  No socks.  That was quickly going to become unpleasant.  “Out,” snarled this Kree, and the guard grabbed his arm and dragged him away.

Finally, Tony found himself in front of a door.  Who the hell knew what was beyond that.  Hell.  Light years away from home, away from the other Avengers, from their friends and teammates.  Light years away from help.  No one was going to come for them.  He could hardly breathe.  “What am I supposed to do?” he asked.  His voice was surprisingly level.  Firm.  Apathetic almost.  Accepting.

The Kree’s face was stony, but the light in his black eyes was feral and sadistic.  “Work,” he responded in a rumble.  “Work or die.”  Tony closed his eyes and looked down.  “Just die.  You’re a waste.  I know of you Terrans.  You humans.”  The guard grunted.  “You’re small, weak.  Fragile.  You won’t survive long at all.  Killing you now would be a mercy you don’t deserve.”

“Fuck you,” Tony hissed.

The guard laughed, the door opened, and Tony was shoved out.

And right into a wall of stinking, filthy bodies.  He gasped, horrified, as hands reached for him, reached for the other new prisoners being expelled into the prison.  New flesh.  New victims.  They were clawing at his clothes, ripping at him, and – Jesus – there was no way out.  A mob, hundreds strong, of hungry, vile, violent prisoners, each desperate to kill the incoming workers just for a chance at their clothes, a chance to vent frustrations, a chance to tear the meat from their bones in all likelihood.  He wrenched away, stumbling, pushing to the side with panic tight in his gut.  A thousand voices were shouting.  Some were screaming.  Tony twisted around, barely avoiding a claw-like thing swinging toward him.  He was shoved, hit, knocked about.  He went down onto his hands and knees, crawling as fast as he could.  He’d be lucky if was only trampled to death.

A hideous scream pierced the ruckus right next to him, and he picked himself up finally only to see the red guy who’d sat next to him on the transport being absolutely torn to shreds.  The alien had fallen in the mob, swept under the wave, and a huge, hulking creature crushed his head with a single step.  Holy shit.  Holy shit.  Fuck.  Tony scrambled away, but it was too late.  The thing saw him.  Saw him with way more than two eyes no less.  Shit!

Tony tried to run, but there was no going anywhere.  The alien towered over him, a desperate gleam in its eyes, and caught Tony by the neck.  It lifted him a good foot off the ground and pulled him closer.  Tony choked, scrabbling at the huge fingers squeezing his throat, panicked beyond the pale and terrified and he was going to die right here.  That bastard guard had been right.  It hadn’t taken long at all.

“Let him go!”

There was a flash of the same brown jumpsuit and wet blond hair and a fist crashing into the alien’s midriff.  Tony fell, the awful pressure gone from his throat, and coughed and blinked and looked.

Steve.

Steve was there.  Steve hadn’t left him.  Steve hadn’t been taken.  Steve was okay.

And Steve grabbed his arm.  Don’t let go.  Don’t let go!  Tony grabbed him back.

The punch hadn’t done much even to knock the humongous bastard back.  The alien tried to hit Steve in retaliation, but Steve ducked and the careening paw battered someone else instead.  The mob was so riled and excited that a fight broke out.

But Steve and Tony were already moving.  Steve had his arm tight around Tony, pulling him close as they scrambled and struggled through the crowd of stinking bodies.  “We gotta stick together,” Steve gasped in his ear, wrenching free of the chaos.  “Tony!  You with me?  We have to–”

“Stay together!”  Tony choked on the words.  He limped, leaning on Steve, Steve leaning on him, as the horror behind them erupted into a full-out brawl.  They ran away, ran deeper into hell.

Stay together.  That was what they had to do.

Chapter Text

Hell didn’t begin to describe it.

Steve’s fingers were tight around Tony’s wrist, tight enough that it probably hurt, but the other man didn’t complain and Steve didn’t loosen his grip even for a second.  He pulled them away from the mob, heart pounding and mind lost to shock and horror.  The inmates were literally tearing at each other, fighting and pushing and shoving to get at the new prisoners coming in like dogs snarling and snapping at one another over fresh meat.  Steve sidestepped a massive alien coming at him – holy hell we’re in outer space and that guy’s covered in fur – and tugged Tony sharply with him.  The beast roared in annoyance, but it was too big and too slow to stop them.  Tony swore harshly, and Steve whirled in time to see another alien, this one tall and thin and covered in insect-like plating, scrambling to get them.  He ducked beneath a sweeping claw, pulling Tony down, and they both found themselves crawling in foul, wet mud.

Something screamed.  Something else roared.  Steve wrenched around and watched, eyes wide with barely restrained panic, as the brawl got larger and larger.  The blue-skinned guards were approaching now, stun batons crackling and guns spitting energy bolts, but they weren’t interested in keeping the peace.  Rather they opened fire on the crowd, bellowing orders to disperse, and whoever didn’t listen was clearly getting shot.  “We have to get out of here,” Steve whispered.

Tony was tucked up next to Steve, gasping and terrified.  “Great plan!” he sputtered, scrambling in the muck.  This stuff smelled awful, and there wasn’t enough of it to soften what felt like iron beneath their hands and knees.  Tony cried out, nearly trampled as a massive wave of prisoners abandoned the fight and fled the guards.  “Jesus!”

They were going to get killed down here, crushed or worse.  Steve clambered up, fighting for traction.  It didn’t help that his feet were sliding uncomfortably in boots that were too big.  He balled a fist in Tony’s clothes and yanked him up none too gently.  Tony slammed into his side as they both struggled for their footing.  Like a flood crashing against them, they were overtaken by the mob again.  The sea of bodies around them was staggering in its size and variety, and trying to keep upright in the onslaught was practically impossible.  Steve didn’t know where they were, what sort of nightmare into which they’d awoken, but it was unbelievable, the breadth of aliens around them.  So many, mostly humanoid but many strange and some hideous and all of them alarming.  A blur of colors and eyes and hair and fangs and ridges, of scales and scars and leathery skin, different faces and unusual body shapes and strange limbs, and almost every one was bigger than Steve and Tony were.  They yelled and screamed, beating and killing each other still even as they all ran from the guards.  That translator they’d inserted behind Steve’s ears was ringing and floundering to keep up with the rough words and harsh cries and vulgar demands.  If this was a prison camp, then some of these people – maybe all of these people – were criminals.  It was possible some of them were innocents captured and sold into slavery like Steve and Tony had been, but given this vicious, violent riot exploding around them?  Unlikely.

God, that didn’t bode well for the two of them.

It was a battle between the fear of being trapped in the mob and the fact that being trapped in the mob was actually moving them away from the brawl.  A slimy body wriggled its way between them, a man – Steve supposed that was what it was – who more resembled a worm with gray, slick skin and a bulbous head.  This thing pried them apart, using both of them for leverage to spring forward, and Steve grimaced at the awful feeling of the suckers or grippers or who the hell knew what on the guy’s skin roving over his own.  The miserable sensation was so unsettling that he nearly lost his balance, and Tony stumbled as it finally shoved its way between them and wriggled away and out of sight.

Before Steve could even think to tighten his grip on Tony anew, they slammed into two brutes in front of them that were intent on pulverizing each other.  Tony gave a wrangled cry, shoved back, and Steve lurched to go with him.  He kept his fingers tight in Tony’s shirt, desperate to hold onto him because if he let go, there was no way they’d get back to each other.  “Hang onto me!” he bellowed, catching Tony’s brown eyes.  They were steeped in terror as the two Avengers were wrenched further apart.  “Tony!”

The massive alien in front of Steve twisted around, and the next thing Steve knew an elbow was ramming into his face.  He felt his nose break, tasted blood pouring down the back of his throat, and the pain was shocking enough that he finally lost his grip.  He reeled, staggering, colliding with more prisoners who grabbed at him and ripped at his clothes.  Panic left Steve shaking, panting, and he shoved them back, gathered his senses, and frantically looked around for Tony.

Luckily he didn’t have to look far.  Tony was barely visible in the stampede, but he was on the other side of the two guys fighting.  He was hunched over in the muck, sleeve torn and bruised face twisted up in pain.  Steve saw it happening before it happened, saw the huge bastard who’d socked him in the face teeter and lose his balance.  He was twisting, turning, what was probably hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fat and muscle tipping toward Tony.  Steve was helpless, too far away to do anything other than watch.  “Tony!  Tony!  No!”

It was only the grace of God that saved Tony’s life.  The other combatant, just as massive as the first, didn’t let his opponent off that easy, and one massive, meaty paw snatched the other’s arm as he fell.  That stopped his descent, at least, and Tony scrambled away, but relief was short-lived.  Steve’s blood went cold, and he dropped to the muck just a split second before the guy howled and turned and swept his enemy around through the air by the arm, those hundreds upon hundreds of pounds smashing everyone surrounding them.  Steve covered his head, trembling and listening to bones break and men screaming.  Something heavy crashed into the back of his head and something else that was wet splashed over him – blood – and he almost choked on the smell.

A hand grabbed his forearm after the carnage had stopped, and Steve chanced looking up.  Tony.  The inventor looked sick and scared out of his mind.  “Come on,” he whimpered, tugging Steve closer.  “Gotta get out of here!”

Steve got his hands into the sludge and someone immediately stepped on his right.  The pain of his fingers being crushed hardly registered, nor did the fact his wrist twisted into a sprain when he yanked it free.  He cried out, turned, and a knee smacked viciously into his temple, so he was dazed and dizzy as he struggled upward.  Vaguely he wondered about the symptoms of a concussion because he couldn’t focus anymore, couldn’t see clearly and couldn’t hear over the thundering of his pulse and the distant roar of sound, and his head was pulsing in time with his heart.  But someone was pulling him, yelling his name.

Tony.

Tony had his fist tight in Steve’s jumpsuit, dragging him along, and Steve let himself be dragged.  His brain was rather stupendously quitting on him, the chaos and panic and sheer, unmitigated violence of this place overwhelming what meager focus he had after being hit in the head twice – three times? – by things much bigger than him.  He’d been in awful situations before.  He’d liberated concentration camps in Germany and Austria and Poland.  He’d seen men beside him blown to hell on the battlefield from Normandy to Azzano to Italy to Moscow.  He’d fought in the largest, bloodiest war in human history, for God’s sake.  He knew a thing or two about evil, about men reduced to their barest natures, about the desperate, frenzied struggle for simple survival in the bleakest hours.

Somehow all of that didn’t compare to this, to the sight of this pandemonium, this free-for-all where aliens were tearing each other limb from limb simply because they wanted to.  Where the guards were shooting fleeing prisoners like fish in a barrel just because they could.  It was an awful smear of color and sound, and Steve stared because he couldn’t make sense of it.  Tony was pulling and pulling, and they were finally breaking away from the crowd, getting to a little incline where the ground wasn’t quite so slick.  Steve looked back over his shoulder.  It had been difficult to estimate the size of the mob when they’d been trapped in it, but now he could see it had easily been hundreds, if not a thousand, strong.  And dozens and dozens of guards were still there, shoving and shooting and beating down the last of the resistance.  Bodies lay everywhere, clothes ripped off of them.  Steve spotted one prisoner taking a shoddily made knife to one of the corpses, cutting at the skin.  At the tattoo.  Steve dropped his gaze to his own chest where the weird silver writing had been stamped.  And there were others dragging bodies away like hyenas with carrion, some not even dead.  He didn’t understand, didn’t want to understand.

No place could possibly be this evil.

Denial set in fast and fierce, and Steve was moving before he thought to.  Tony jerked when he abruptly pulled away, scrambling after him to reaffirm his grip, but Steve was already stumbling toward a pair of prisoners who were hauling off a third, a smaller one.  The guy was screeching, terrified beyond the pale as the other two yanked him by the stringy mess of his long hair.  The pair of aliens had murder in their eyes.  Steve had seen that enough in the past, the malignant power used by the biggest and strongest to bully and brutalize the weak, and gritted his teeth.

“Steve, what – wait!  Wait!

Tony’s cried went unheeded.  Anger and disgust hot in his veins, he launched himself at one of the aliens dragging the smaller one.  The attack took the man (at least, Steve thought it was male) by surprise, and even though he had a good inch on Steve, Steve was stronger.  His fist slammed into the other’s stomach, which sent agony shooting up his arm when his damaged fist and wrist were jarred.  He didn’t care, sweeping the legs out from under the guy and immediately turning to face the second one.  He tried to throw a punch at Steve, but it was more brute force than accuracy, and Steve easily side-stepped it.  He caught the thing’s wrist, twisted hard until he heard a cry, and then drove him down.  A powerful kick to the alien’s face dropped him completely.

Their would-be victim was climbing to his feet, shaking.  Concerned, Steve immediately went to him.  “Hey, are you okay?  Are you–”  His words twisted into a sharp cry as the alien he’d just saved snarled and leapt at him.  He felt shock, icy and vicious, before he realized he’d been stabbed.

The guy had stabbed him.  In the shoulder.

Steve shoved the man away, seeing rheumy, red eyes wild with panic and with that same awful sadistic hunger.  The shank or whatever it was didn’t come free when the guy pulled at its hilt, and Steve swallowed down another cry.  There wasn’t any pain right away, adrenaline and the serum protecting him from that, but there was blood seeping out as the blade was twisted inside him.  The alien was fumbling for its slick handle, and Steve was so damn shocked that this was happening that he didn’t even think to do more than feebly push him back.

Tony did more, though.  “Get the fuck off him!  Get off!”  He grabbed the alien and shoved him away.  Then he was attacking, a flurry of fast, hard punches that sent the man to the filthy ground where he ended up in a moaning heap.  Steve couldn’t believe it.

Tony was shaking, tripping over his feet as he came back to Steve’s side.  “Jesus, are you okay?  Are you?”

Steve managed a nod, glancing to his shoulder where the grotesque, jagged handle of the shank was protruding.  There was no time to deal with it now, though, not with more prisoners coming at them as the rest of the mob scattered.  Tony snatched his arm and pulled him, but he didn’t need to.  Steve shrugged away from his hold, angry and still so deeply shocked.  He couldn’t wrap his mind around it.  Not any of it.  Not being here, thousands or maybe millions of miles from home.  Not being captured and sold into slavery.  Not this place, the way it smelled and the way it looked and the horrors inside.  He felt detached almost, like this couldn’t be him there, limping away with Tony at his side.  He was at home, back at the Tower, asleep in his bed and having some sort of insane nightmare.  This wasn’t the first time he’d thought that.  He’d woken up seventy years in the future after all, and he’d spent weeks after that questioning reality.

Questioning reality didn’t change it, though.

Ahead there was a nook, a crack in the rocky wall.  The pit was wider here, and Steve could see there were actual buildings around them.  Hovels and huts and shacks, all dilapidated and gray and covered in the same silvery filth that seemed to coat everything.  Built into the rocks ahead were tall, metal scaffolds, dozens and dozens of them crawling up the tall side of the pit, and beyond that were winks of light carved into the rock.  Living quarters.  Steve couldn’t see any more because Tony snatched his arm anew and dragged him into the tiny hiding spot in the rocks near one of the huts.  It went back a few feet, and both of them barely fit in there.

Steve entered first and immediately sagged against the wall, breathing heavily.  Tony was right beside him, panting himself, peering around the rocks.  There was more screaming.  More inmates running by outside.  Tony immediately ducked into the shadows, pressing closer to Steve.  They both stayed still and waited.

No one found them.  The chaos was quieting outside.  Less yelling.  Fewer prisoners running.  Steve let himself relax a tad, and when he did, the pain came.  Though it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle, it hurt.  And it wasn’t just the knife still in his shoulder and the hot blood rolling down his side and his arm.  It was the fact that they were here, trapped in this tiny crack, hiding from monsters.  They in a place where there was no decency, no morality, no compassion.  Compassion got you shanked apparently.

And Tony was furious.  He twisted around, curling his fist into the front of Steve’s jumpsuit, and pushed him back further into the cramped space.  “What were you thinking?  Huh?”  His eyes were bright with horror and panic, his face bruised and blood-splattered and covered in that shining muck.  “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“Tony, I couldn’t–”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not in fucking Kansas anymore!” Tony railed, and Steve was too horrified to joke that he actually got that reference.  “Out there?  It’s pretty obviously a wolf pit!  And you don’t help the other sheep when the wolves are after you!”

Steve already felt worn thin.  He’d been trying to stay calm since he’d regained consciousness in the brig of the pirate ship.  Sure, their situation was bad.  It was really bad.  Long odds didn’t describe how bleak the chances were that they’d be rescued by the others.  They weren’t on Earth, weren’t in their solar system, maybe weren’t even in their galaxy.  And there wasn’t any escape, at least not now.  Not like this.  Tony had been struggling with it all a lot; it was damn obvious that despair and terror was overcoming him quickly, and it hurt Steve that there wasn’t anything he could do to fix that.  Truth be told (and Steve didn’t often tell it to himself let alone anyone else), he cared a lot about Tony.  Sure, they had their differences.  Bickered like an old married couple (or so Clint kept saying).  Rarely saw eye to eye on even simple things.  Lost themselves in their back and forth and stressed the team sometimes with it.  But he liked Tony.  Tony was so smart, so vibrant, so fiery and alive.  Tony was intelligent and stubborn.  Unpredictable and extravagant and wild and unbridled.  Those traits didn’t exactly line up with Steve’s own, and they sure as hell weren’t always a blessing.  Tony could be abrasive, difficult, even mean when it suited him.  He didn’t tolerate anything he deemed stupid or unnecessary.  He talked fast and ignored common sense and criticism.  He was arrogant, a handful to be certain, and in some ways so similar to Howard that it was uncanny and in others such a complete anomaly that if their last names weren’t both “Stark”, Steve would have never pegged Tony as the son of his old friend.

But in the quieter moments, where Tony’s huge personality wasn’t in the driver’s seat so much, there was a whole different side to him.  These were the moments where Steve had first realized, after their rocky first few battles as a team, that there was more to Tony Stark than money and ego and fancy technology.  He was giving, generous without a thought of compensation.  He was wise when it suited him and funnier than anyone had any right to be.  He was sharp-witted and perceptive and charming.  Though poking fun at Steve’s seventy-year hibernation was one of Tony’s favorite past times, he never took it too far, and Steve knew sometimes he went out of his way to make things easier for him.  He explained things before Steve got confused, filled his StarkPhone with music (most of which Steve found he liked after he got over the initial loudness of modern rock), helped him navigate recent history and pop culture with a grin and nary a complaint, made him feel nothing but at home in a time and place where he knew no one and recognized nothing.  Those times where they’d been in Tony’s workshop, chatting like two friends instead of two Avengers…  Those were the first times Steve had felt like he’d found someone to be his friend in this new world.

So he liked Tony a lot.  But damn if Tony still got under his skin and rubbed him the wrong way.  Tony was so goddamn cynical, jaded, and pessimistic, and Steve couldn’t stand it sometimes.  He knew what Tony had gone through in his life: a father who was never there, his parents’ untimely deaths, the Ten Rings in Afghanistan and a man he loved like an uncle betraying him and almost dying due to the arc reactor poisoning his chest and almost dying ferrying the warhead through the portal in New York and almost dying at the hands of the Mandarin…  He knew how damaged Tony was.  He knew Tony was riddled with PTSD (or whatever the hell they called shell shock and battle fatigue nowadays).  But Steve had been through hell himself, his own series of traumatic circumstances and life-changing events, and he tried to make the best of it.  Tony was always too ready to look on the dark side of things, to condemn people rather than hope, to give up.  Steve had listened to Tony shoot down hope after hope, idea after idea, for hours in the pirates’ brig.  They’d talked from their adjacent cells, and Steve had postulated that Bruce would be able to trace where the portal had led, that Thor would be able to get the help of Erik Selvig or Heimdall, that the others wouldn’t give up on them.  That the two of them would find a way to get home.  Tony had argued against every one of his thoughts, spewing despair and bitter sarcasm left and right.

And Steve wasn’t going to stand for that now.  “I wasn’t going to let them kill that guy!”

“Did it occur to you that he was probably a murderer?” Tony hissed.  “The fact that he fucking stabbed you notwithstanding!”  He crowded Steve even more against the wall, reaching for the end of the shank.

“Doesn’t matter,” Steve said sternly, wincing as he looked down at his shoulder.  The hilt of the thing was a good two inches long and covered in blood.  His blood, mixed with all the sludge and filth and the blood (he thought it was blood) of others.  They had to get it out, and now seemed as good a time as any.  This sort of thing had never bothered him before.  He’d never been even close to squeamish, not with the number of ailments he’d had in his youth and the number of fights he’d been in and the war and what he did for a living.  Here, though, after seeing people torn limb from limb and their skin hacked off, he didn’t feel quite as strong in the stomach as normal.  He swallowed down the pain and the burn of bile and made himself keep talking.  “Not gonna let someone hurt someone else when I’m right there to stop it.”

“Christ, Cap,” Tony said sharply, shaking his head in very obvious frustration.  “We’re in hell.  Do you get that?  Hell.  I’m guessing helping other people is a death wish.  It’s every man for himself.  Doing the right thing like you’re so fond of doing all the time, being all moral and sacrificing and being Captain America…  That’s just going to get us killed.  There are no heroes here.  Do you hear me?”  His voice cracked.  “There are no heroes here!  There are survivors and the dead.”

Steve wanted to argue, disgusted at the pessimism, but he couldn’t find his voice.  Deep down inside where he let himself be afraid, he worried Tony was right.

But hell if he’d admit it.  He already knew Tony disapproved of his mindset when it came to things like this.  Not that Tony didn’t care about people; he certainly did.  But he was never as willing to lay down on the wire, to make that sacrifice play first and foremost.  But there was no point in arguing.  This wasn’t the time or the place and they had enough serious problems without fighting on top of it.  “Pull it out,” he ordered instead.

Tony’s expression was blank, like he’d expected the debate and didn’t know what to do with the command.  “Huh?”

“Pull it out, Stark,” Steve said again, struggling to hold onto his temper.  “Doesn’t do us much good as a weapon like this.  Or I can do it.”  Truthfully, he wasn’t sure about that.  The knife was in his right shoulder, and his left hand was all mucked up now.  He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to get a good grip.

“No,” Tony retorted, pale underneath the grime all over his face.  He shook his head.  “No, no.  Fuck.  I’ll do it.  Just…  You’ll bleed everywhere.”

“Already am,” Steve grunted, gripping the shank himself.  He was feeling light-headed with it in fact (and the concussion he thought he had wasn’t helping).  The knife hadn’t hit anything vital, but he was bleeding like a stuck pig and it was hurting more and more.

“Well, it’ll be worse,” Tony softly snapped.  The sound of heavy footsteps beyond their little haven quieted them both, and Tony moved even closer to him in the darkness, stiff with fear.  Steve was, too.  He watched the shadows over Tony’s shoulder, saw bigger shadows lumbering beyond those.  They slowly passed.  Tony was barely breathing.  Like this, he was practically pressed to Steve’s chest and his face was nearly in Steve’s neck, and Steve thought he could smell Tony’s aftershave, his cologne, the light, spicy scent of his shampoo.  It was so faint, just a dying trace of how things had been yesterday, and Steve was probably imagining it considering how they’d been washed down and how covered in filth and muck they were.  He didn’t care.  He closed his eyes and took a moment.

“Steve, you with me?”

Steve jerked at the soft call.  Apparently he’d drifted more than he’d thought.  Tony’s eyes were bright with worry.  He had a bloody hand wrapped around the hilt of the knife and his forearm across Steve’s chest, pushing him into the rocks.  “Ready?” he asked, although he didn’t look ready at all.

Steve couldn’t find his voice so he just nodded.  Tony nodded, too, took a deep breath to center himself, and pulled.

The shank came out easily enough, for all the floundering the man who’d stabbed him had done.  It still hurt like a son of a bitch, though, pain burning its way down Steve’s flank and arm and chest.  Going rigid against the wall, he bit his lower lip hard to stifle his scream; that would surely lead someone right to them.  The fire faded as he forced himself to breathe, and he felt something hard press over the source of all the agony.  He opened eyes he’d squeezed shut and saw Tony pushing his forearm over the wound, putting a good amount of pressure on it to try and slow the bleeding.  He was pressing on that with his other hand, using his sleeve to soak up the blood.  “Don’t,” Steve groaned.  “You’ll get covered.”

“Too late.”

Steve licked his lips.  “Shouldn’t have to wear my blood.”

“Yeah, well, it’s no worse than all the other shit all over me,” Tony quipped.  Steve grunted something that could probably pass for a chuckle.  “Besides, maybe it’ll dissuade someone from trying to steal my lovely jumpsuit, since clothes seem to be a hot commodity around here.  How’re you doing?”

The wooziness was worse, and he was having a really hard time focusing.  His shoulder hurt.  His hand hurt.  His head hurt where they’d punched those implants or whatever into it and his face hurt and his brain felt like it was pulsing against his skull.  Honestly, when he let himself really feel it, everything hurt.  For God’s sake, he almost died back when this whole nightmare had started.  He didn’t remember the electricity that had ripped through him and stopped his heart, but his aching bones and tense muscles and sparking nerves was a pretty sure sign it had happened.  It was all too much, and breathing through his nose was damn near impossible, and his mouth was so damn dry that breathing through that actually hurt.  “Fantastic.”

“Just take a minute to rest.  Get this under control.  I think we’re safe enough for the time being.”

Maybe.  There was no way to be sure.  Suddenly that seemed to be too much, being here like this, alone and surrounded by danger with no help and no hope of reprieve…  Steve was shaking hard, his heart fast in his ears, and everything spun.  We’re going to die here.

Tony’s hand was suddenly on his nape, tender, and Steve jolted in surprise.  “Easy.  Take it easy.”  Tony’s eyes were almost black in the poor light, but Steve still found them, focused on them.  The inventor gave a weak nod, his thumb a comforting caress against the side of Steve’s jaw.  “It’s going to be okay.”  Steve could tell he didn’t believe that.  It wasn’t said with confidence or faith.  It was empty solace.  But it was something, anyway, some solace.  At least Tony was trying.

They were still, quiet, for the first time in what felt like forever.  Steve let his eyes slip shut again, focused on his breathing and getting better control over himself.  Tony seemed to be doing the same.  A few minutes passed spent breathing and leaning into each other, meager comforts in the darkness.  Still, it was enough.  Steve felt a tad better, more stable on his feet at least.  Tony sniffled, pulling his arm away from Steve’s shoulder and peering at it.  “Gotta find something to bind this.”  Steve grunted.  That was one thing they needed.  Food would be good, too, but even more than that…  Tony read his mind.  “And you need water.”

“So do you,” Steve murmured.  God, he hadn’t even asked Tony if he was okay.  “Are you–”

“I’m fine,” Tony said shortly, “but I need to say something else.”  Tony pushed his other forearm, the clean one, against the injury.  The coarse fabric against the torn skin and muscles was agonizing, and Steve bit back another hoarse cry.  Tony didn’t let up, obviously trying to staunch the remainder of the bleeding.  “You can’t keep protecting me.”

That made Steve angry.  Really angry.  “For God’s sake, Tony, what do you expect me to do?  Letting these people tear each other apart’s one thing, but letting them hurt you?”  His voice tremored, and not just from the pain.  “I can’t let that happen!”

Tony’s eyes flashed.  All the tenderness of the moments prior utterly vanished.  “You can’t throw yourself on the wire all the time, you hear me?”

“I can take it.”

“Bullshit, Steve!”  Tony was practically vibrating with his own anger.  “Bullshit.  I don’t want to hear about the serum and how it means you can get hurt and it’s okay and you’ll heal and all of that fucking nonsense.  No.”  Hurt and furious, Steve opened his mouth to argue, but Tony shoved him back less than gently in warning.  “No.  No fucking heroics, not even for me.  I don’t want it.  All I want you to do is lay low and not attract attention and not get yourself killed and help me figure out how the hell we’re going to survive in here until–”  He cut himself off, sharply averting his gaze.  “Until this is over.”  One way or another.

The desperation in Tony’s voice was sobering.  God, Steve couldn’t agree to what he was asking.  He might not be as strong or as large as some of these aliens, but he was still stronger and more resilient than Tony was.  Without Iron Man, Tony was only human.  And it was more than that, too, more that he couldn’t say.  He couldn’t let Tony be hurt.  And he could take it.  The serum made it so that he could.  Even here, he’d heal.  Tony might not want to hear that, but it was true.  Pain was pain.  Steve had lived a life of it, and he never let it stop him or control him.

They stared at one another defiantly, Tony refusing to concede and Steve refusing to promise.  Eventually Tony looked away, and Steve closed his eyes.  The obvious came stampeding back.  “We can’t stay here,” Steve murmured.

Tony pulled his arm away and must have been pleased with what he saw because he wiped his hands on his thighs.  They both looked like victims in one of Clint’s splatter movies.  “Unfortunately,” he muttered, and as irrational as it was, it seemed like he was willing to sleep in this tiny, cold, dank space just to avoid having to go back out there.  Steve knew that because he was, too.  “That place ahead with all the lights…  It looked like a cell block.”

“Barracks,” Steve corrected.  One and the same in some sense, though barracks had far better connotation.

Tony gave him a withering look, and he couldn’t help a little teasing smirk.  Shaking his head, Tony knelt and collected the shank where he’d tossed it before.  It was little more than a jagged shard of stone, about the length of Steve’s hand.  The hilt was some kind of a metal, part of a broken tool or something, and it was held to the blade with twine or something like it.  Really primitive, but a weapon nonetheless.  Tony stared at it in disgust.

Steve cleared his throat.  “Maybe there’ll be water there,” he offered.  “Or something.  Though I gotta say the thought of spending the night near the others…”  The thought of spending the night here at all was terrifying.  But what choice was there?  None.  Steve tested his arm with a little movement, and it wasn’t pleasant, but he could function.  Tony offered him the knife.  “You keep it.”

Tony scowled, but there was no sense in arguing against the logic.  He fumbled for a second to figure out where to put the thing, and he settled for his boot.  It didn’t look comfortable, sliding the bloody blade in there against his ankle and calf, but comfort was likely a thing of the past now.  “While we’re on the subject of nomenclature,” Tony said with fake casualness as he turned around and limped back to the opening of the little spot, “I vote we fondly term this place Hell.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It’s pretty apt, don’t you think?”

Steve grunted.  Getting his battered body moving again was harder than it should have been.  “Sure.”  He’d been thinking the same thing, after all.

Tony was glancing around, probably trying to discern if the coast was clear.  “And the Kree can be the Blue Man Group.  I mean, that’s how you know you’re really in Hell.”

Steve had no idea what the Blue Man Group was, but he didn’t know what a Kree was either beyond the pushy the bastards with the guns and the stun batons.  “Yeah.”

“Alright, at least that’s settled,” Tony said.  He seemed satisfied that it was safe enough.  “Ready?”

No.  “Yeah.”

Out they went back into Hell.  Just seeing it again was overwhelming.  Things were oddly quiet now, almost like it was evening (though there was no way to tell time down here).  Steve took better stock of things now that they weren’t panicked and running for their lives.  There were the barracks ahead of them and the shacks around them.  And there were more passages around them that all led to dark places, and gruesome images of people being murdered there flashed across Steve’s mind.  He glanced over his shoulder before he could stop himself and saw that back down the slight incline the road (if it could be thought of that way) turned and disappeared behind a curve.  That was where they had come out, the doors sealed now, and there were places above them, a huge iron platform where it seemed likely the Kree would stand and yell at the mass of prisoners below.  The cavern twisted further, and he couldn’t see much beyond that other than the fact there were huge ducts leading upward and into the rocks.

“Stop looking around,” Tony hissed.  Steve jerked and flushed, angry with himself.  He ran black ops with Natasha and Clint for SHIELD, learned from Peggy during the war about spying and espionage.  He knew not to be so damn obvious.  Ahead there was another group of inmates, a half dozen big, blue-skinned guys.  They were laughing at something, probably the riot before.  The vibe coming off them was nothing short of cruel.  Steve knew bullies when he saw them, and normally they didn’t faze him.  Now, though, he averted his eyes but not before one of them saw him, a particularly huge Kree with tattoos down his temple, cheek, and neck.  They curved around his one ear as well, black, jagged lines down his shoulder.  For a moment Steve wondered if they were guards but no.  The silvery marks on their chests were barely visible through the jumpsuit, glowing faintly.

And there was more of that glow in a small satchel hanging from the arm of one of the aliens.  The fabric glistened wetly, wet with blood, and another image burst across Steve’s mind.  “Clothes aren’t the only hot commodity around here,” he whispered worriedly.  His throat was tight with disgust and fear.  “Look.”

Surreptitiously Tony did.  He looked away again in short order and picked up his pace.  “Yeah, okay,” he moaned.  “That’s seriously fucked up.”

Steve’s thoughts were racing without traction.  The Kree who’d spotted them grinned an awful grin, and Steve looked away again.  “They must have taken it for some reason.”  He didn’t want to think about why.

Clearly Tony didn’t either or at least he didn’t want to talk about it.  “We need to find water,” he said quietly.  “It’s much drier up here.”  Steve had noticed that, too.  “I thought there’d be some because things were so wet down there by where we came out, but I think it must have been runoff or something from above.  Or worse.”

“Worse?” Steve asked.   Then he understood.  He knew the thought of being covered in what basically amounted to sewage should have disgusted him more, but it was very quickly becoming par for the course.  “There’s gotta be some somewhere else then.”

“You think?” Tony said, but it lacked sharpness.  It was small and scared and weary.  “We need to find a safe place to get our bearings first.”

The group of Kree was behind them now, but Steve felt them watching.  He walked faster, ignoring how much it hurt.  Ahead the prison barracks were massive, much bigger up close than they had been further down the way.  They went at least a couple hundred feet above them, almost completely vertical in fact, and the metal stairs and gangways and scaffolds were the only way up.  At least that seemed stable, the materials filthy but thick and sturdy.  Steve and Tony reached the bottom and found more prisoners were congregating.  There was only one way up, it seemed, an entrance to the walkways above on one side and an exit at the other.  Both were guard stations at both and about half dozen Kree manning each, all of them heavily armed.  The sight of that was enough to give Tony and Steve pause, and they stayed at the back of the crowds.

Tony was watching what was happening but trying to be discreet about it.  Steve kept further back, watching Tony instead to be certain he was alright as he tried to figure out what was going on.  A few minutes later, Tony turned to him.  “The tattoo,” he said softly.  “It’s exactly what it looks like.  Prison ID number.  They’re logging people going up.  A machine scans it.”  If they tracked the prisoners’ comings and goings by it, maybe they tracked other things, too.  Like food and water and where you were supposed to be and what privileges you might have.  Suddenly it made all kinds of sick sense why people would want to cut that off the dead or dying (or whoever was close).  That was revolting, but it was… currency down here.

Tony obviously came to the same disturbing conclusion, and almost spastically he clutched at his chest where the tattoo was.  “Steve–”

Whatever he was about to say was cut off by a deep, echoing alarm.  It was so loud and so powerful it shook the entire cavern, rattling the rocks and the huts and even the ground beneath their feet.  Steve whirled, heart pounding anew, grabbing Tony’s arm and tugging him close almost instinctively.  What now?  What?

It didn’t seem to be anything that awful.  The rest of the inmates quit loitering at the huts and around the area, grumbling their way toward them.  Steve watched in stupefaction before realizing what was happening.  “Bed down,” he whispered.  “Lights out.”

Tony grimaced.  The crowd of aliens was pressing closer, lining up, and they quickly found themselves surrounded again.  There was no choice but to go, so they went.  Standing in another line of prisoners was distressing all over again because they were heading into another unknown, but Steve forced himself to be strong about it.  It can’t get much worse.  That was something he’d said a lot in his youth to Bucky and to himself.  During his worst bouts of illness and when the bullies had been particularly harsh, he’d chanted it like a mantra.  It can’t get much worse.  It has to get better.  It has to.  Stalwart optimism, Bucky’s mother had always said.  He just couldn’t fathom giving up, couldn’t let anything beat him without a fight, so he never let himself think otherwise.

He wasn’t going to let this beat him, either.  It can’t get much worse.

They reached the guard station.  Another low moan of the alarm horn blasted over them, summoning whoever remained out there.  It was hard to stay still with everyone pressed so close; some of these people might be the same ones who’d tried to kill them during the riot.  Everyone was so filthy it was difficult recognize anyone even with so many unique faces.  Eventually it was their turn to walk through the scanner.  It wasn’t much of a thing, a metallic arc that rotated from being parallel to the chest to above the head.  When it was in front of the person, it scanned them with a quick burst of blue light.  Then it admitted the prisoner.  For some reason, Steve expected the scanner to fail, that the guards with guns around them would see that and swarm just for the chance to punish them.  But it worked fine, both for Tony and for him, and they were in the cell block.  Up they climbed.

Each level had dozens of cells, and each cell was little more than a tiny hole in the interior.  There were no doors, at least not on most of them.  Some had curtains of a fashion, old, filthy cloth that barely covered the opening and certainly wouldn’t keep out anyone who wanted to get in.  Steve and Tony pressed close, watching the prisoners move about.  It was obvious almost instantly that there were no assigned living quarters, yet for the most part people seemed to go where they were supposed to go.  There was no fighting over spaces, though Steve noticed right away there wasn’t much of a reason to.  All of the cells looked roughly the same.  Still, it was odd to see quiet complacency after the free-for-all before, and Steve could only describe the mood as one of defeat.

The two of them walked the poorly lit halls through the block.  “Are we just supposed to take one?” Steve whispered, seeing every cell occupied.

Tony seemed as helpless as he felt, leading them deeper.   Despite the air of relative peace, more than one prisoner returning or already in his cell glared at them threateningly when they looked to see if the place was in use.  Steve and Tony moved on quickly, checking where they could.  The cell block was a goddamn maze, and they found themselves back at the stairs.  Climbing further was their silent decision, but the next level proved as full.  And the next.  Where were they supposed to go?

There were guards on one level.  Something told Steve asking them for help wouldn’t end well.  That klaxon blared again, louder than hell, and they growled at the two humans, weapons clenched and threatening.  “Move,” snarled one.  Tony skirted around them, though there wasn’t much room to move in the narrow corridor.  Steve followed, frantically looking around for a place to go.  He didn’t want to find out what would happen when lights out hit and they weren’t in a cell.

Just as panic was starting to shred their composure, they reached a tiny cell in a dark corner far from the steps.  It was even smaller than the others, barely an eight-foot by eight-foot box of rock and shadows.  There was someone inside already, but they didn’t realize that until they’d already peeled back the ratty excuse for a curtain and stepped through.

Once they saw him, though, it was sadly clear the alien was dead.  Murdered.  Recently, too.  Purple skin was splattered with a viscous black liquid that could only be blood.  It was like ink almost, spilling from a massive wound in the man’s abdomen.  He looked like he’d been stabbed.  Since there was only one set of bloody footprints on the floor, Steve supposed it had happened in the riot and he’d made it back here before dying.  That was more comforting in a way than thinking this poor unfortunate soul had met his end doing something so innocuous as coming home.

Tony was pale and horrified.  It probably made sense in this twisted world that they’d find a corpse where they had to spend the night.  Probably.  But it was still disturbing as hell.  “Is he dead?” he asked, though the answer was obvious.

And Steve didn’t know why he bothered to check, but he did, limping closer to the body.  The alien’s eyes, yellow and cat-like, were frozen open, sightless and lifeless.  Steve lowered his ear near his face.  No breath.  “Yeah.”

They stood in silence a moment, helpless and reeling.  Another blast of the horn jolted Steve out of his stupor.  It hurt tremendously, but he lifted the dead man up.  “What’re you doing?” Tony immediately asked.

“Getting him outside.”

“Wait.”  Out came the shank.  A queasy sense of unease went through Steve, and before he could stop himself, he was thinking about the bloody contents of that satchel he’d seen with the gang.  But Tony wasn’t – of course he isn’t – doing anything so heinous.  No, he unlaced the guy’s boots and pulled them off.  Steve readjusted his hold so Tony could unzip his jumpsuit.  Together they got it off him, which was easier than maybe it should have been.  Steve could see the signs of starvation on the alien even without knowing anything about his anatomy or physiology.  He tried not to feel sick or ashamed as Tony took the clothes.  Steve never cared for taking things from the dead.  He’d done it during the war in tough situations, ammunitions or guns or rations, but it hadn’t sat well with him then and it didn’t now.  The dead man certainly didn’t need these things anymore.  Still, he found himself saying a silent prayer for him.

Once the alien was stripped of everything they could use (the tattoo was there, silvery and awful, and Steve felt sick just looking at it), Steve quickly lugged him outside.  Being out in the hallway was terrifying, and he deposited the body in another shadowy corner before rushing back.

Tony was waiting by the opening, hiding behind the curtain and grasping the knife.  His eyes were wild with fear, like he’d been frightened Steve wouldn’t return.  They closed the curtain as much as they could considering one firm tug seemed like it would rip it completely before taking their meager supplies to the other side of the small room.  Tony sat down gingerly in the corner, and Steve pressed close beside him, and they both caught their breaths. 

The one solitary light fixture in the ceiling shed meager illumination.  It was barely anything.  There was a hole in the ground in the other corner, and the smell and stains around there indicated it was supposed to pass for the bathroom.  Other than that, there was nothing.  An unpolished box, filthy and grungy and cold and dank.  Once again the harshness of this reality, their new reality, threatened them both.  Steve could hardly breathe, like something was crushing his chest and constricting his lungs, like he was ten again and in the midst of a mounting asthma attack.  This was happening.  It really was.

Tony was abruptly moving, wiping disgusting hands across his cheeks like he was brushing away tears.  “Gonna cut this up.”  He set to it, slicing at the jumpsuit almost frantically.  His hands were shaking, and Steve could see he was cutting himself almost as much as he was cutting the fabric.  He leaned forward to help (though with a bad hand and bad shoulder, he didn’t know what he was going to be able to do).  As he scrambled through, he felt rocks behind him shift a little.  Confused, he twisted around and fumbled at the wall.  “What?”

“Rock’s loose.”  Steve pulled it free.  “Huh.”

Tony looked up.  “What?” he asked again.

Steve reached into a small hole in the wall that was behind the rock.  He pulled out a couple flasks.  One was definitely empty, but the other had more of a liquid heft to it.  Steve unscrewed the top and took a sniff of it, not daring to hope.  It had an unpleasant, mildew-like odor to it, but spilling a tiny bit on his hand revealed just what he’d thought.  It was water.

“Oh, thank God,” Tony murmured, scooching closer.  “Finally something going right.”

“Yeah.  Obviously he was hiding it.”

Tony took the flask.  He smelled it himself and wrinkled his nose.  “Think it’s safe?”

There was no way to know.  Clearly the alien had been drinking it, but who knew what his biochemistry could tolerate?  Tony had probably come to the same conclusion, but he, as usual, threw caution to the wind and took a sip.  Then a longer sip.  Then he handed it to Steve, and Steve hesitated for an entirely different reason.  “I don’t want to fucking hear it,” Tony hissed.  “Drink.”

Angry but unwilling to debate this again, Steve took the flask and sipped.  The water tasted as good as it smelled, but it felt good.  He made himself put the flask down, though.  They had to conserve.

“And unzip.  Let me bandage up your shoulder.”

“Tony–”

“Steve, God, just cooperate.  I don’t care if the serum will fix it.  I’m not going to let you bleed all night.”  Tony’s jaw was set and his eyes were fiery and obstinate, like this was something he could do and he didn’t give a damn if it was necessary.  He was doing it.

Again, there was no sense in arguing.  He unzipped the jumpsuit and struggled out of it.  It was difficult with his shoulder the way it was and the pain all down his chest and his hurt hand.  Tony didn’t let him flounder too long, hands rough at first as he pulled the fabric down but gentling when Steve grunted in discomfort. 

And there was the tattoo.  Those symbols he couldn’t read were gray and appeared deeply set into his flesh right above his left pec.  Tony was staring at it, too.  “Will the serum get rid of that?”

Steve hadn’t thought about it until then.  “Not sure.  Probably.”

“That’s going to be a problem.”

“Maybe,” Steve conceded with a wince.  “Maybe not.”

“You know, along with your hero thing?  I could do without your unending optimism.”

“And I’ll say it again,” Steve snapped.  “What do you want me to do, Tony?  Give up?  Yeah, we’re fucked.  We’re going to die here, and there’s nothing we can do.  So why bother, right?  We’re completely fucked.”  Tony flinched, both at the bitterness in Steve’s voice and at the vulgarity of it.  Steve didn’t swear often because his mother taught him to be better than that, but there were occasions that warranted it.  Like now.  He shook his head darkly.  “How’s that?  Huh?  Because that’s what it’s been like listening to you!”

Now Tony averted his eyes.  He was rigid with anger.  Steve watched the muscles of his jaw clench, watched him shudder through a breath.  That immediately cooled his own ire.  He sighed.  “You want to talk about survival?  Part of surviving is not letting this place destroy you.  I know you know that.  So stop please.  Please.

Tony stayed stiff.  For a second it seemed like he would argue more, but he didn’t.  He sucked a breath in through his nose and sighed heavily.  “Sorry.”

Steve nodded and slumped a bit.  Suddenly he felt like a class-A jerk.  Who the hell was he to tell Tony how to feel?  This was unimaginable, and he wasn’t above despair.  He wasn’t.  “It’s alright.  ’m sorry, too.”

A few seconds later they managed to move again.  Clumsily, they finally pulled the top of the jumpsuit so that it was around Steve’s waist.  Steve got a better view of himself, of the angry gash in his shoulder that was still seeping blood, the welts along his ribs where he’d been punched and kicked, the bruises on his abdomen.  His hand was swollen, but his fingers weren’t broken at least.  And his face was throbbing rather acutely now.  He wanted to swish some water to get the awful taste of blood out of his mouth, but that would be a waste.

“We can’t be at each other,” Tony softly said, breaking the silence.  That pulled Steve out of his daze, and he blinked slowly to clear the exhaustion that had suddenly clouded his vision.  He watched as Tony took the strips of cloth he’d made from the alien’s clothes.  The inventor sighed, seeming small and lost again.  “Can’t do it.  You said it.  We have to stay together.”

“I know.”

Tony was nothing but careful then as he started wrapping the strips around Steve’s shoulder.  His hands were light, tender, skirting against Steve’s back, but Steve couldn’t help but sag into the inexplicable pleasure of the touch.  The calluses on Tony’s capable fingers, put there by years spent thick in the throes of inventing and fixing, dragged across his skin.  That was good, felt so nice as little and meaningless as it seemed.  One spot of comfort in a cruel world of hurt.  Steve closed his eyes.  We’re all we’ve got.

They were silent a moment, Tony finishing with the bandages and then tying it as tightly as he could.  Steve grunted against the fresh burst of pain.  Just as Tony reached for another strip of cloth, the alarm blared again, one final, longer wail, and the lights abruptly went out.

The cell was pitch black.  Steve’s heart leapt in his chest, and he couldn’t breathe for his fear.  Tony jerked beside him, flailing and panicking.  “Steve?  Steve!”

Steve turned, grabbing at the other man and hauling him close.  “I’m here!  Right here.”

“Jesus Christ.  I can’t deal with this.  I can’t!”  Tony was shivering hard.  Suddenly it occurred to Steve how eerily similar this had to be to what happened to Tony in Afghanistan.  He didn’t know much about Tony’s time spent as a prisoner of the Ten Rings, but he knew the other man had been tortured, held captive in a cave.  “Oh, God.  Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

“Easy, Tony.  I got you.”  Steve held him tighter.  “I got you.  Just hang onto me.”

The distant sounds of shouting and talking and crying and laughter echoed loudly in the blackness.  Steve listened a moment, trying to control his own breathing, to detect if there was anything close by since even his serum-enhanced vision couldn’t penetrate the darkness.  There didn’t seem to be, despite how terrible and frightening it sounded.  “Steve…” Tony whispered.  “They’re gonna kill us.  They’ll come in here, and they’ll kill us.  Steve!  I can’t do this!”

Steve made himself take a breath.  “Easy.  We’re safe.”  He didn’t know that for sure, and Tony surely realized it.  But praying it was true was all Steve could do.  That and act surer than he felt.  “We’re safe here, okay?  Let’s just…  Let’s try to sleep.  Okay?  We’ll set up watches.”  He sure as hell wasn’t going to wake Tony for his turn even if he could get him to sleep, but he wasn’t going to tell him that.  “I’ll take first watch.  You sleep first.”

Tony didn’t argue at all.  He was silent, clearly scared out of his mind.  And why wouldn’t he be?  The obvious similarity to past traumas aside, it was dark beyond imagining with a whole prison full of murderers and criminals and worse surrounding them, and they had no protection.  Steve moved, praying that was enough to convince the other man that this could be okay.  He didn’t bother getting his jumpsuit back in place.  Instead, he just shifted to lay on his side, one hand secure around Tony’s wrist.  It took a long moment before Steve felt Tony move, but he did, lying beside him.  He didn’t let Steve let him go.

The proverbial night seemed endless.  The two men were quiet, listening to the howls of Hell around them.  Pounding hearts and fast breaths filled their little cell.  Neither one of them relaxed.  Neither of them slept, at least not at first.  Tony eventually turned, shifting closer uninvited with his back to Steve’s side, and Steve didn’t care one bit, didn’t tease or argue or anything.  “We’re okay,” he said again, digging his fingers lightly into Tony’s wrist to remind him.  “We’re okay.  Okay?  We’re alright.”

Eventually exhaustion overcame terror, and Tony’s ragged, panicky breathing evened out.  Now that he was calm, Steve wrapped his injured arm around him, hoping that grounded him and provided some security and solace and warmth.  It was all he could do.  That and keep watch.

His other hand felt around the ground until he found the knife.  And he clenched that tight and listened hard and stared into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Day 2

The same loud, awful, blaring horn woke Tony up.  He’d been sleeping a thankfully dreamless sleep when that racket knocked him right out of it.  He sat up with a jerk, heart pounding and eyes wide in terror.  The darkness was too thick to see anything, and for a second, Tony couldn’t remember where he was.  That didn’t last long.

The lights snapped on with a buzz, and Tony squinted in pain, squeezing his eyes shut and covering them for good measure.  Christ, that hurt.  When the skull-splitting headache receded to something more manageable, he chanced looking again.

Steve was standing by the tattered curtain, staring through the gap between it and the opening of their cell.  He had the shoddy knife in his hand.  The knife.  A barrage of awful memories came stampeding back through Tony’s dazed head, all of them unwelcomed.  The pirates.  Being kidnapped and then sold.  The prison transport.  Being processed into this place.  The Kree.  The riot.  Hell.  It wasn’t a nightmare.  It was real.

“Fuck,” he whispered, shutting his eyes again, falling back a bit, and rolling onto his side.  He wanted to cry, to give up, to close his eyes and imagine he was just about anywhere else.  He wanted to puke.

“Tony?”  Tony didn’t answer, ignoring the soft call entirely.  If he went back to sleep, maybe the next time he woke up, it wouldn’t be to this.  That could happen, right?  He was dreaming maybe.  This was just some huge, elaborate, fucked up nightmare.  As long as he didn’t wake up all the way, didn’t accept where they were and what had happened, it wasn’t actually happening and they weren’t really there.  Simple.

That was crazy, stupid beyond the pale, but desperation knew no bounds.

Neither did Captain America.  “Tony, get up.”  Steve’s hand fell to his shoulder, pulling gently but insistently.  “Tony.  Come on.  Wake up.”

Tony was about to tell him to go to hell when that horn blasted again.  It was so loud that there was no ignoring it, no avoiding it, and he rolled onto his back on the cold, unforgiving floor.  His mouth tasted absolutely terrible, and his tongue was a thick, uncooperative lump in it.  He managed to groan something garbled before doing a shade better by mumbling, “What the hell’s happening?”

Steve was stiff beside him, clearly worried.  Now that he was closer and Tony was actually paying attention, he saw the younger man looked… okay.  He was utterly filthy and still dressed in his stained jumpsuit, the upper half in place again and covering his chest and the wounds he’d sustained yesterday (at least it was probably yesterday – there was no way to tell).  Huge splotches of dried brown adorned his shoulder and side, but Steve was breathing better and moving better as he stood again and returned to the curtain.  He wasn’t as pale as he had been either, and the bruises on his face were faded to purple and yellow splotches.  All that healing had occurred, and he probably hadn’t slept a wink.  The serum was amazing.

Sadly, the serum and the shank Steve still had clenched in his hand were about the only things they had going for them right now.  “Something’s happening,” Steve declared quietly, peering anew through the ragged curtain.

Tony winced, pushing himself up more fully and – Goddamn it – that set off a flurry of aches and pains which nearly sent him toppling back to the ground.  He gritted his teeth and groaned his way through it, ignoring the pain and the dizziness and the way his brain was trying to pound its way out of his head. Getting himself to his feet, he staggered to Steve’s side.  “What?”

There was shouting down the dark and narrow corridor, a ruckus of yelling and feet banging on grating and squeals of pain.  Shit.  “It’s reveille,” Steve murmured, turning to watch down the way where aliens were emerging from their cells.

Reveille.  Fancy military way of saying get up and get your ass tending to your duties.  Tony stiffened as a parade of sluggish, filthy bodies started to pass outside their cell.  It seemed entirely impossible to forget everything, but somehow he had.  This was a labor camp.  A mine.  They were expected to work, to mine whatever was here that the Kree Warlord who ran this place wanted.  Work or die.  For all the terror he’d felt last night about coming into this cell, this hole in the rock that reminded him of his worst nightmares, this place where someone had perished the night before, where countless someones might have perished before that…  The thought of leaving now was utterly unbearable, and he was frozen in place, holding Steve’s arm and foolishly praying no one noticed them.

Yeah, right.

“Take this!” Steve whispered harshly, and he flipped the knife and shoved the hilt at Tony.  Tony barely grabbed it before it fell, barely got it back into his boot when the yelling stopped right on the other side of the curtain.  The cloth was wrenched aside, and before either of them could do a thing, a stun baton was jabbed into their cell.  Steve was right there, and there was nowhere he could go (or time for him to flee), so the rod rammed right into his side.  Tony scrambled, fumbling at his boot to hide their lone weapon, as electricity crackled and Steve wailed.  Like the Kree were subduing a rabid animal, they shocked Steve until he was limp, and then they grabbed him and yanked him into the hall.

Two Kree guards were right there, barking furiously at Tony.  The translators implanted behind his ears were slow to function at first, so there was a miserable half-second or so delay.  Not that it mattered because he didn’t need to understand to know what to do.  “Get out now!”

Tony skittered to obey, raising his empty hands in submission and skirting the Kree and their torture stick by as wide a birth as he could manage.  They still felt the need to shove him, and he tumbled right into Steve where the other man was gasping against the outside wall.  “Fucking hell,” Tony hissed as he quickly pulled Steve along and into the line of prisoners.  “What did I say about heroics?”

“Didn’t do anything,” Steve slurred, and Tony supposed that was true enough.  He chanced looking over his shoulder, but the guards were busy tormenting the next inmate who hadn’t gotten up and out fast enough for their liking.  Not daring to watch longer, he pressed closer to Steve both for comfort and to keep Steve steady while he reclaimed his bearings.  Steve was pale, swallowing stiffly, his gaze frantically scanning the hallway.  “He’s gone.”

“Who is?”

“The dead guy.”  It took Tony a second to figure out what he was talking about.  The body.  Steve had pulled it out here from their cell before, and now apparently the corpse was missing.  Tony swallowed down the burning in his throat and tried not to think about it.

They reached the steps where more Kree guards were making sure everyone went down with their usual care and concern.  Steve shook his head as they started to descend to the lower levels.  “Where are we going?”

“No idea,” Tony whispered.  No place good.  That was for sure.  The impetus to look around was stronger now than it had been before.  It wasn’t so much that he was any braver, but his baseline of fear had certainly shifted higher which created the illusion of it.  Furthermore, their chance of survival, let alone escape, was abysmally low, but it’d be lower still if they didn’t at least get an idea of what their surroundings were.  Accept that they were there and work with it.  Acceptance.  That was a step in a direction he definitely wasn’t ready to go.  It was too goddamn soon for that.  Still, as they went back down the steps, he took in their surroundings more fully.  The ugly expanse of the pit, still that awful silvery gray, spread out before them.  It seemed the entirety of the cell block was leaving in a mass exodus, heading out into the wider areas below.  From this vantage, the sheer size of the labor camp was on horrific display.  He’d figured the populace was huge from the riot last night, but actually seeing it was staggering.  He and Steve were two of a thousand.  Two lone humans in a gray sea of suffering, violent souls.

When they reached the bottom, some prisoners broke off from the main flock.  Tony wondered where they were going.  By chance he spotted the Kree guy from last night with the tattoos and looked away before he was noticed staring.  The huge inmate and his buddies were heading to one of the nicer-looking (and nicer-looking was a kind way of saying not a completely dilapidated piece of shit) huts right under the nose of a group of guards.  He couldn’t be sure, but it looked like some sort of preferential treatment.  What made them so goddamn lucky?

They were marched back down the slight slope.  The crowd around them was slowly moving, and Tony tried to keep his calm.  Yet again the sensation of being closed in was making his skin crawl.  The smell of the alien to his left was particularly revolting, and every time Tony risked a look at him, he was mortified at what he saw.  The poor guy was practically walking dead, a sagging mass of emaciated skin and awful, sharp bones.  A skeleton.  He wasn’t the only one.  There were plenty of huge, rough brutes around, but there was a bunch of prisoners on the verge of keeling over.  Tony stiffened against a shudder and moved closer to Steve.  No wonder they were bringing in loads of inmates, buying slaves off of auction blocks and doing who knows what else to keep their coffers of workers full.  This place ran through free labor like a kid went through candy.

Wonderful, he thought darkly as they passed where they had come in yesterday, where they’d nearly been slaughtered like livestock.  He wondered how long the half to mostly dead had been here to get that way.  Were they lucky to have made it this far, avoiding the murderers and maniacs who’d just as soon as kill you as let you breathe the same air?

God, they had to get out of here.

Panic rose up inside him again before he even realized it was happening, and keeping still in the mass of workers was suddenly damn near impossible.  Thankfully Steve grasped his wrist before he completely lost it.  His grip was firm, warm, sure, and Tony gave a little gasp as he looked to his right.  Steve was calm, steady, and he didn’t let go of Tony’s arm as they were directed into a cavern ahead.

Things slowed to a crawl there.  It was a massive place, better lit than the other areas they’d been in so far.  The two of them were shunted by the guards into one of a dozen lines, each column of prisoners separated by grungy metal rails.  Steve was in front of him now, and Tony couldn’t help but tense in fear at the thought of his back being unprotected.  As they’d been herded into lines, the skeleton thing had vanished and now there was a pretty big brute behind him.  As of yet the guy didn’t seem interested in harassing them, which was fortunate (or stupidly lulling Tony into a false sense of security – he didn’t know which).  It wasn’t clear what they were waiting for, but the guards were watching everyone very closely, so it was probably best not to ask.  That seemed to be a theme around here, keeping your head down and not attracting attention and waiting for the next nightmare to begin.

This one ended up not being quite all that.  It was still fucking horrible, of course, but Tony was quickly realizing that horrible had various levels down here.  “Breakfast in Hell,” he whispered, shaking his head with a wince as he saw the lines go into what was clearly a mess hall of some sort.  Each prisoner was being scanned, and most were being admitted through the gates ahead.  Some weren’t, though.  The guards yanked them out of line and dragged them back out.

“You have to work to eat,” whispered someone to his left.  Tony turned sharply, alarmed, and found a smaller fellow with crimson skin and platinum hair that came out of his head in stalks.  The alien glanced at him, frowning.  “They track everywhere you go.  You don’t work, you don’t eat.”

That made a sick kind of sense.  Just like that guard had said.  You work or you die.  How else could you motivate an entire pit full of criminals, captives, and slaves to labor for you?  Steve was listening too, and he sighed softly.  His voice was low and he didn’t quite dare to turn all the way around.  “We just got here.”

The alien shook his head.  “Then pray they’re feeling generous.”

Fuck.  The thought of not eating for even longer was unpleasant to say the least.  The last real meal they’d had was dinner two days ago, and Tony’s stomach was so miserably empty that it was beyond physically hurting.  Steve caught his eyes.  Considering the super soldier’s enhanced metabolism, it had to be worse for him.  “Eyes forward!” yelled one of the guards walking the lanes between the lines, and Steve jerked back around completely.  Tony gritted his teeth and tried to be still compliant.

It got to be their turn.  Steve went in through the gate first, right into the exact same sort of scanner as what was in the cell block.  The arm moved, and the light flashed, and the gate didn’t open.  Fuck!  The two guards manning their line’s scanner immediately went in, guns pointed like cattle prods.  Steve shook his head.  “We’ll work,” he quickly declared, taking a step back into Tony.  “We just got here!  We couldn’t work yesterday, but we’ll work now!  We’ll–”

The guard grabbed his arm and pulled him away.  Tony’s heart leapt in panic, and he reached for Steve as he was dragged past him.  He couldn’t touch him, and that simple fact left him reeling as the other guard shoved him into the scanner.  It’d be okay, though, because surely it’d deny him, too.  It wasn’t like he’d worked.  He didn’t know if he should be afraid they’d starve or relieved that at least they’d stay together. 

But they weren’t staying together.  The machine scanned him and the gate opened.

No.  Tony panicked, pure and simple.  All fear of retribution pretty solidly vanished, and he twisted around, desperate to get back to Steve.  The guard had already dragged him a few feet away, but Steve was fighting, too, scrambling to get back to Tony.  Everyone around them watched in absolute shock as they struggled and fought and labored to reach each other – stay together – no matter how impossible it was.  The fact that the guards and prisoners alike seemed flabbergasted by their show of loyalty only fueled Tony’s resistance, and he dug his boots into the ground and held fast.  “I don’t go without him,” he snapped.  His voice was ragged, shaky, but his eyes were hot with defiance.  “You hear me?  I’m not going without him!  I won’t fucking work without him!”

That split second of surprise didn’t much avail them unfortunately, and the guard holding his arm swung him toward the gate hard enough to nearly wrench his arm from its socket.  He was blinking away tears from that and from the thought that they were taking him away from Steve, so he didn’t notice at first that another of the Kree was stepping to the grime-covered console near the scanner.  The alien took one look at the screen and nodded.

And just like that, they were both being manhandled through the gate.

Steve had a fresh bloody nose from the fight, the damage from yesterday newly aggravated, and he was pressing his hand to it as they stumbled together onto the other side and starting walking away as quickly as possible.  “What’d you say?” he gasped, quivering, gratitude and surprise clear in his eyes.

Tony was shaking himself.  He took Steve’s arm and held on for dear goddamn life.  “Believe me, I’d love to take the credit, but I don’t think it was me.  I don’t know what it was.”  He was scared shitless that it didn’t mean anything good.  He’d figured the tattoo had a serial number in it, but maybe there was more that explained why he’d been let in and Steve hadn’t?  He hadn’t exactly had the interest, mental stamina, or wherewithal last night to compare his with Steve’s and note the differences.  It couldn’t matter at the moment at any rate.  He might have collapsed from his relief, but there was no time and this definitely wasn’t the place.  They had to keep moving forward, even if he found himself looking back and wondering all the same.

“Tony.”

Steve’s soft call made Tony turn forward again.  “Well, shit,” he breathed.

Water.

There were stations of sorts, each a water fountain within a stall-like structure, and there were dozens of them stretched across the width of the cavern.  The fountains were little more than blocks that were chest high and dirty just like everything else, and water was coming out of them through a spigot.  Tony wanted to cry just seeing that.  He thought about the meager sips he’d had last night in their cell and hoped Steve had hidden the flask again.  How the hell were they going to sneak that in here to refill it?  There were guards everywhere, again walking the length of the lines heading up to the fountains.  It seemed like each prisoner got about a minute in there, to wash or drink or do whatever.  When the system beeped and the lights on the side of each stall turned green, on came the water.  When the lights turned red again, the water shut off and the inmate was supposed to leave (some weren’t as willing, and there were guards there to ensure compliance).  Tony gritted his teeth.  One minute.  Sixty little seconds to drink and replenish his dehydrated body.  Fuck.

But there wasn’t any fighting it.  He went in first.  The stall was disgusting inside despite the water dripping down the walls and puddling on the floor before disappearing down a drain (and probably getting reused – and how likely was it that their hosts filtered, cleaned, and disinfected the water before sending it back through those spigots?).  Still, he leaned over and started drinking, trying to keep track of the time in his head, trying not to go so fast as to make himself sick, either.  The water had that same mildew-like smell and taste as what was in the flask in the cell, but he didn’t let that stop him.  There was no telling when they’d have access to more (though tomorrow morning seemed likely, maybe even tonight if this whole process repeated for dinner).  It felt glorious to his parched throat and dry mouth no matter how musty it tasted.  Tony drank and drank until he thought he had about ten seconds left, and then he cupped his hands in the flow and scrubbed the grime and blood away as much as possible.  Something told him it was a futile effort and a waste of time, but the illusion of moderate cleanliness was nice, anyway.

After he was done, he got out.  He dragged his feet a little as the line moved forward, trying to wait for Steve.  The guard was right there, so it was hard to linger and not attract attention.  He chanced a glance or two over his shoulder to see Steve drinking with that same mixture of desperation and restraint he’d had.  Steve’s minute was up before he had a chance to wash anything off him, and he was wiping his bloody nose and mouth as he left the stall and limped up behind Tony.  “Nothing like a nice long, hot shower to start your day,” he muttered dryly, and Tony actually smiled as they moved on.

Ahead there were a couple aliens at counter of sorts.  Tony frowned, not liking this at all at first, but then he saw that those behind the counter weren’t Kree.  They were clearly prisoners themselves if their jumpsuits and haggard appearances were any indication.  There were rooms there that were dark and shadowy, and Tony couldn’t see much more beyond the fact they were loading a machine with white, gloppy stuff via some sort of huge tube.  The machine extended to the counter, and the line of prisoners were pausing at its mouth where they were being scanned again.  More guards glared and gestured with their weapons toward the counter, and Steve and Tony headed there.  Tony watched and realized what was happening.  Like the water fountains, these were stations for doling out food, processed by the machine and rationed according the prisoner’s serial number.  When it was his turn, Tony stepped up to the unit, which consisted of a scanner and a dark, gooey inlet with a hole.  The thing scanned him again, aimed at the tattoo.  It chirped, and he stood there dumbly, not sure what to do. 

“Hand in the hole,” someone ordered, and – Christ – he didn’t want to stick his hand in there.  But he did, wincing all the while and expecting something awful to happen.  The only thing that did happen something warm and heavy dropping into his palm. 

Tony pulled his hand out.  He didn’t know why he’d bothered thinking there’d be actual food.  He’d been deluding himself, because what he’d been given looked barely edible: a hunk of white that resembled a bar of soap.  “What the fuck is this?”

Though Tony’s question was fairly rhetorical, someone actually answered.  “Your ration.”  That was the same voice as a moment before, and Tony realized it was coming from the alien working at the machine.  The guy was small, a good six inches shorter than Tony.  He had mottled skin, a different, lighter shade of blue than the Kree, and it was covered in thousands of tiny black dots like freckles.  His hands only had four fingers, and his skin looked paper thin and frail.  His face was oddly shaped, a larger, bony cranium and smaller jowls that instantly reminded Tony of a less ugly and menacing version of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.  Large eyes were a weird silvery hue and double-lidded.  When he blinked it was really disconcerting.  He did have a rather impressive mane of hair, though, long enough to fall down his back a couple of inches where it was tied into a thick, ropey tail.  “It’s cake.”

“Cake?”

Maybe that was the translator failing to properly handle the actual word so the nearest match in English had been selected instead.  The alien paused in loading the machine further.  “Cake.  Protein/carbohydrate base with added fat and nutrients.”

Jesus, it really did look like cake or soda bread maybe, only the driest, hardest, stalest lump of it imaginable.  Tony winced, lifting it to sniff it, but it didn’t smell like anything.  He didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.  Suddenly the alien was at the counter, grabbing his wrist and squeezing with a surprising amount of strength given his small stature.  Steve lurched closer, ready to jump to Tony’s defense, but the little man let him go right away.  His eyes flicked to Steve, analytical but not off put, and Tony got the impression right away that this guy, whoever he was, was shrewd.  “Eat, and do it quickly.  They’ll kill you if you don’t.”

It wasn’t clear who “they” was, and it really didn’t matter, but Steve being Steve felt the need to ask.  “Who’re you talking about?”

The alien shook his head sharply.  “You’re fresh.  The fresh die fast.  Don’t be foolish.”  He didn’t say anything else, returning to his work.  A guard came closer, and Tony moved away to let Steve into the machine.  It scanned him and gave a dull beep instead of a chirp.  Nothing came out.  Steve winced, shaking his head helplessly, but there was no time to argue or wonder.  More prisoners were coming in behind them, pushing toward the counter, and the guards were staring at them suspiciously.  Tony took Steve’s arm anew and dragged him on. He glanced over his shoulder, but the alien was acting like the exchange hadn’t happened at all.

Now they were in the other half of the cavern.  It was huge, empty, a giant box of gray rock that was apparently supposed to pass for a dining hall because everywhere prisoners were sitting, standing, and eating.  Some were talking in smaller groups.  Some were alone, staring with deadened eyes at the lump of cake in their hands.  Hundreds of people, and the mood was vacillating between utter defeat and aggravated tension depending on where you looked.  Tony tried not to look at all, not making eye contact with anyone, not drawing any more attention to them.  He cradled his cake close to his chest, sensing numerous sets of hungry, vicious eyes tracking him, and held onto Steve’s arm tightly.  There was a spot at the wall near the far corner where the crowd wasn’t so thick (or menacing), and he led Steve there, not stopping, not even pausing to take a breath.

It didn’t really occur to him until they were tucked into that place that Steve hadn’t been allotted food.  You have to work to eat.  “Fuck,” Tony grumbled, pulling his hand from his chest and appraising at the lump of cake in his hand.  He looked back to the food counter, and now he noticed other things.  Some prisoners were getting larger portions.  Some were even getting flasks, just like the one they had back in their cell.  More food and more water.  A rewards system for good behavior?  That didn’t exactly jive with the general tone of Hell, but he didn’t have any other explanation other than plain, old preferential treatment.  But even that didn’t make any sense.  They’d been here for all of twelve hours.  “What the hell did you do to piss them off so much?”  And what could he have done to win favor?

Steve was completely at a loss, but he looked worried.  Really worried.  “No idea.”  Behind them a fight started, and there was shouting and roaring and high-pitched screaming.  Steve whipped around to see what was happening.  The ruckus was too far away and there were too many prisoners between them and it to get a good view, but Steve was scared all the same, pushing Tony further down away from the fight.  This place was a massive hole crammed with aliens one meal away from starvation, and all that hunger and frustration and pain could only end in violence.  There was hunger and frustration and pain enough between the two of them, and once they were safe, Steve glanced longingly at Tony’s cake before forcing himself to look away.  “I’ll be alright.”

Tony rolled his eyes at the mere implication that he should eat all their meager sustenance and let Steve suffer.  He broke the bar in half and handed Steve some.  “Bon appétit.”

A few experimental bites revealed the stuff tasted like nothing.  Tony supposed that was a blessing, but it was akin to eating sawdust.  He sat down close to the wall, and Steve followed suit.  “How’s your shoulder?”

Steve was nibbling on his cake, even though it was pretty damn obvious he wanted to absolutely devour it.  He glanced at his injury with that sort of detachment one got when one knew there was nothing to be done for it.  “I’ll be alright,” he said again.  “What about you?”

What about me?  Coming up with an answer to that question was impossible.  “Surviving,” he said.  Anything more seemed too much to hope for right now.

They ate in silence a moment or two, both of them watching the inmates around them with their backs tight to the wall.  The fight had stopped, though Tony couldn’t tell if it was because the guards had intervened or someone had died.  Or both.  The Kree didn’t seem terribly interested in prolonging the lives of their interned labor force.  Why do that when there seemed to be a constant supply of fresh workers coming in?  Fresh.  That was what that alien had called them.  Fresh meat.  That was demeaning and terrifying all at once.

At least no one paid them much heed as breakfast went on.  They blended in already, as filthy and miserable as everyone else looked.  A couple of weeks on this bare-minimum concoction of protein and carbs and “nutrients”, and they’d probably be as starved and desperate as everyone else.  The serum would starve Steve quicker, and all that muscle mass he had would wither.  All his strength and endurance and resilience would turn into a hindrance rather than a help.  He’d go down first, but Tony would go right after.  Stop.  Goddamn it.  He shook his head to his own thoughts.  They could be here a while (a long while, like forever) so it was better not to allow his pessimism to get the better of him.  Steve was right about that, as much as it pained him to admit it sometimes.  Steve was right about a lot of things.

Including what he said next.  “They’re trading,” he murmured quietly, obviously trying not to draw attention to the fact he was watching the other inmates.  Tony forced himself to focus and get a more careful sense of the scene around him.  Sure enough, all around there were pairs of inmates swapping things surreptitiously.  Water flasks.  Food.  Tools.  Weapons.  He saw a few knives get passed around.  Worse than all of that, he saw one or two aliens exchange goods for skin.  It took Tony a moment to realize that was what it was, given the hundreds of different alien skin tones and textures.  They were trading for the tattoo, which had been cut off someone else like Steve and Tony had observed yesterday.  Steve noticed the same thing, stiffening beside him.  “Mary, Mother of God…” he breathed, curling his fingers into his chest where the tattoo was stamped into him.  Tony’s felt like his was throbbing.  They’d seen this last night but actually watching it happen…  There was a whole economy down here in Hell, and somehow it was only fitting that the thing of most value was a literal pound of flesh.

As unappetizing as eating the cake was, that made it worse.  Swallowing down the bile in his throat, Tony made himself continue.  They’d need each crumb of food they could get.  Beside him, Steve ate faster, pale under the grime and clearly shaken.  He cleared his throat a bit.  “We should figure out what we’re going to do if we get separated.”

Die, was Tony’s immediate and bitter answer.  At least he would without Steve to protect him.  Even with the knife in his boot that the guards thankfully hadn’t yet noticed or confiscated, he felt completely helpless in this room full of larger, meaner, more violent creatures.  He didn’t say any of that, though.  “I don’t know.”

“They’re gonna want us to work and hopefully that means together, but it may not.  We need a plan to meet somewhere.”

Tony closed his eyes.  He couldn’t think about this even though he knew Steve was right.  He didn’t know what was more disturbing, the thought of having to work himself until he collapsed or the thought of potentially having to do that without Steve right there.  If some of these bigger brutes were looking thin and tortured, what would that sort of manual labor mean for the two of them, Tony in particular?  “Yeah,” he ground out.  “Yeah.”

“Here?” Steve offered.  “Assuming there’s an evening meal.”

“And assuming they let you in,” Tony grumbled unhappily.  Who knows if they will.

Steve considered that moment.  He didn’t let that stop him, though.  “I’ll have worked.”  Tony snorted before he could stop himself.  Again with the damn pessimism, but who was to say these Kree assholes honored even their own rules?  You have to work to eat.  Or fuck you.  Work until there’s nothing left of you.  Then we’ll let the wolves tear you to pieces and plug the hole in the line with fresh meat.  He tore himself away from those thoughts because Steve was staring at him, frowning hard with admonishment like he knew the sort of fatalistic shit stampeding through Tony’s brain.  “This spot here is where we’ll meet.”

Tony made himself take a look.  There wasn’t much to mark it; there wasn’t any furniture or anything else to help him remember.  The walls were all the same ugly, gray rock.  There was a particularly large, ruddy, brown stain on the ground a few feet away.  He sighed.  Right side. Maybe twenty feet from the corner.  Near the dried blood.  Or shit.  He wasn’t sure which was worse.  “Okay.”

“If we can’t find each other here–”

“In other words, if they don’t let you eat.”

Steve frowned but didn’t argue or lecture.  “Then back at the cell block.”  At least he wasn’t continuing with the-cup-is-half-full crap of calling it the barracks anymore.  “You remember which one?”  Honestly, Tony had been so overwhelmed by everything that he didn’t.  Steve seemed to anticipate that. “Fifth level.  Back right corner.  Second cell on the right after the turn.”

He tried to commit that to memory.  “Okay.”

There was another brawl starting, making them both look up.  This one was significantly closer, and the crowd of prisoners nearest to them backed up into their space.  Steve got to his feet in a blink, clenching one hand tight around the last few bites of his breakfast and the other in Tony’s jumpsuit.  He yanked Tony away just as the mess of flying fists (far more than two pair, so either there were multiple prisoners involved in this impromptu melee or some had additional arms) reached where they’d been.

Tony sucked in shaky breath at the close call, but it was out of the frying pan and into the fucking fire it seemed as they dumbly and accidentally ran right into a huge, towering, hairy monster of a man.  It was like colliding with a wall, and Tony stumbled back into Steve before looking up with wide eyes.  He couldn’t be sure if it was one of the aliens who’d tried to pulverize them yesterday during the riot.  The guy sure acted like he had a bone to pick with him in particular, growling menacingly and glaring down.  “Excuse me,” Tony said quickly, horrified.  The alien’s biceps were bigger than his head.  “Pardon me.  Sorry.  Sorry!  My bad.  Didn’t mean to.”

His blathering wasn’t good enough.  The thing reached down and grabbed him about the throat, furious and baring fangs that were yellow and huge.  Steve scrambled to do something to help, but he was knocked into the wall by one swipe of a massive paw.  Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Steve’s head crack into the rocks and he slumped down.  The alien growled again like some sort of demon out of a horror movie, and he spied the lump of cake still in Tony’s hand.  He snatched Tony’s wrist, sniffing at the remains of Tony’s breakfast.  Then he turned back, probably realizing the meat on Tony’s bones would be a lot more filling.  Dark eyes glimmered in anticipation.  “Please don’t eat me?” Tony whimpered.

The guy never got a chance.  That goddamn horn blared again.  Tony didn’t realize what was happening at first, mostly because his eyes were squeezed shut in terror, but after a couple of seconds of not being devoured passed, he got brave enough to look again.

It seemed breakfast was over.  The guards were coming to herd the prisoners up and direct them to the other end of the cavern.  The alien holding Tony grunted in disappointment but unceremoniously dropped him all the same.  He hit the ground hard on his ass, gasping and groaning, and watched as the alien gave him a final glower before lumbering away.

Steve was right there, arm around his shoulders and helping him up.  “You okay?” he gasped.

Tony grabbed Steve’s jumpsuit just to feel the solidness of him.  He was shaking nearly to pieces.  “This place sucks,” he moaned, tailbone hurting and heart pounding.  “Fucking hell.  It sucks so much.”

“Can’t argue with you there.”  Steve held him closer, a little battered but no worse for the wear.  “Hurry up and eat the rest.”

Tony did, stuffing the last piece of the cake in his mouth and chewing no matter how dry and awful it was.  Obviously savoring your meal to try to appease your aching belly wasn’t a good way to go here.  He didn’t know if Steve had been able to finish his cake, and there wasn’t time to ask.  The horn blared again, and the Kree guards were less than gentle about forcing the inmates out of the cavern.  The far end opened, a massive door lifting into the ceiling with a deep rumble and deafening hydraulic hiss.  They were in a line again in no time and headed out into whatever lay beyond.

They shuffled, Steve behind Tony now.  There was a wide, dark tunnel, and then they were in a vastly more open place.  Tony recognized what it was.  The central cavern with the massive, main pillar.  It went up hundreds of feet, straight to the top where they’d been brought in yesterday.  The light was marginally better here, thousands of pale dots illuminating the way up the pillar and the levels above.  There were people everywhere, mostly Kree, and they were already working, moving supplies, shouting, starting the days’ tasks.  Maybe they were overseers or something like that.  Tony could see crates of the blue stuff going up, brought to the base of the pillar by carts on tracks.  The tracks (and the path ahead) descended into more darkness.  The mine.  It had to be.

There was a processing station ahead that prevented the prisoners entry into the main area until they were scanned.  There was something of a moving gate on the other side of the scanner, and it was turning depending on who was being scanned, opening one side of the path or the other.  There was also a huge, thick iron wall between the sides.  Tony watched as best he could, trying to figure it out.  Some people – mostly the big guys – were being sent right, down towards the big, dark tunnel.  A few were going left toward the pillar.  The disparity in the numbers going the left and right was pretty striking, and Tony couldn’t figure it out at first.

Not until it was his turn, anyway.  He stepped up to the scanner (he was already starting to really fucking hate those things) and the arm swung and the light washed over him.  The grimy metal gate moved, and it moved so he could only go left.  Horror left him cold as it dawned on him.  All of it.  Why Steve didn’t get food automatically.  Why some prisoners seemed to get preferential treatment.  Why he was going left to the pillar and not right down into the mine.

Mechanic.  That was what the Kree who’d performed his intake had said about him.  That was how he was marked, how he was labeled.  When Steve had blurted out just how good of an engineer he was at the slave auction, it had had far more of an effect than just convincing their new owner to take them.  Tony was a mechanic, not a mere miner, and mechanics were rarer than miners, than simple laborers, than fresh meat.  He was educated, talented, skilled.  Therefore, he’d get better treatment, a better chance to survive, because he was harder to replace.

And Steve wasn’t.  Here in Hell, Captain America was simply muscle, and muscle was used to mine.

They were going to be separated.

“No,” Tony whispered, shaking his head and turning around and digging his heels in because this wasn’t happening.  They weren’t forcing him away from Steve.  He’d been terrified of this since they’d arrived, and he couldn’t accept it.  It wasn’t happening.  “No!  I’m not working without–”  The Kree guard beside the gate belted him hard enough that he slammed into the railing, and blood filled his mouth, bitter and hot and awful.  One of his molars was loose, and Tony choked and spat.  He didn’t stop, though.  Behind him, Steve was pushed through the scanner, and sure enough the gate swung so he had to go right.  Right down into the mine.  Down deeper into Hell.

God, no!  “We stay together!” Tony snapped, not caring at all that better treatment definitely didn’t mean immunity.  They might kill him for being disruptive, but he didn’t care.  They weren’t separating them.  “He stays with me!  You hear me?  I don’t work without him!”  That worked before, hadn’t it?  He stood straight again, struggling anew against the guards coming at him.  “I’m not doing a fucking thing without him!  He stays with me!  He–”

“Tony, no!  Stop!  Stop!

It was too late.  A stun baton crackled, flashing before his eyes before it jabbed into his back.  He went down hard.  The agony was so consuming he couldn’t think or feel or see or hear.  Vaguely he felt his knees strike the ground.  Vaguely he heard Steve screaming, but he didn’t know what he was saying.  Vaguely he knew it was pointless and he was only getting himself hurt.  Resistance is futile.  He might have smiled because some part of his brain not jolted senseless with electricity was thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Borg and cliffhangers and catch phrases.  He was wondering about that – how old was I when that came out?  Nineteen?  Twenty? – when reality slowly phased back in.  It felt like a long time had passed, but it wasn’t.

It wasn’t because Steve was right there on the other side of the way, iron blocking him from reaching Tony, dividing them, but Tony could still hear him.  “Tony?  Tony!  No, let go of me!  I gotta – Tony!

“Steve!” he gasped, spitting blood out of his mouth and struggling to get his lips and tongue and lungs working again.  The rest of him, too.  He clambered gracelessly to his feet.  “Steve, I’m here!  Steve!”

“Are you okay?  Tony, are you–”  Steve’s voice cut off in a cry, and it sounded like he was being forced away.  “Tony!”

Tony scrambled to the wall, bathed in sweat, desperate and panicked.  “I’m okay!”

“Don’t fight!  You hear me?  Don’t fight them!  But don’t give up!  It’ll be okay!”

Tony choked on a sob.  How can you be so fucking stupid?  It wasn’t okay.  It wasn’t going to be okay.  The one thing they’d needed to do – stay together – they couldn’t do.  Steve was being taken down, and Tony was going up, and they might not see each other again – no.  No, I can’t give up.

Steve’s voice was getting fainter and fainter, coming from further down the wall between them.  “Tony, just hang on!  Don’t give up!  I’ll find you, Tony!”

And that was it.  Steve was gone, and the guards came and shoved Tony left, away from the path to the mine, away from down deeper into Hell, and toward the lift that would take him up.  Alone.  He bowed his head and tried not to cry as he was pushed into the small group of other mechanics.  Those that were more fortunate.  Those that would fix instead of mine.  Away from Steve and whatever horrors he’d endure down there.  Tony tried not to cry.

But he couldn’t stop himself.

Chapter Text

Stubbornly Steve wiped the tears from his eyes.  He wasn’t going to do this.  He wasn’t going to fall apart.  Crying didn’t solve a goddamn thing.  They’d made him go down, and Tony had been forced up, and if he wanted to see Tony again, he needed to stay calm and keep his wits about him.  That was it.  No matter what, he had to get back to Tony, and that meant he had to hold himself together and be brave.

God, that was going to be hard.

The tunnel descended steeply.  There was hardly any light beyond sporadic fixtures on the wall, and they shed pale, white illumination that barely shoved back the shadows.  Noise echoed up and down the way; screaming, aliens shouting, clanking and thunderous vibrations.  Those in particular seemed pretty ominous.  Steve winced, fighting the urge to glance around.  The long line of miners was shuffling slowly, and no one was making any effort to talk or struggle or do anything other than follow along.  Activity other than complete submission would draw unwanted attention.  He could little afford that.  He had no idea what lay in wait in the deep here, but whatever it was, he was going to have to figure out how to handle it ridiculously fast.  Weakness and failure obviously got one killed, and he highly doubted they’d take the time to teach him what he needed to do.  Sink or swim.  He prayed he was smart and strong enough to do whatever was required of him.

Ahead their dark and dirty path opened to wider cavern.  Now the sounds were even louder, echoing off the dark gray and black rock.  There was more clanking and hissing and guttural shouting.  The inmates in front of him slowed, and Steve could see there were massive racks lining the entrance to the cavern.  More Kree guards were there, and they were doling out tools to the miners as they passed.  The aliens in front of him took the pick axes (at least, that was what they looked like to Steve) and slowly marched onward.  One of the Kree handed an axe to Steve, and Steve grimaced as the item was thrust in front of his chest.  For some reason he’d pictured something more high tech and advanced, but as he spent a second considering that, he didn’t know why he had.  Everything else in this place was basic, the lowest common denominator, so this actually made sense.  The tool was fairly heavy with one pointed, sharp end and a hammer on the other side.  It was entirely composed of metal, but the handle wasn’t smooth thanks to chips and corrosion.  Steve couldn’t help but wonder how many other folks had used this thing before him, used it and died using it.  He shuddered.  Can’t think like that.

There wasn’t time to think at all, actually, and it wasn’t even the guards who hit him.  He was shoved from behind for his hesitating that second or two, and it wasn’t exactly a love tap.  Steve stumbled, feet tripping over the uneven ground, his litany of injuries flaring with pain, and he wasn’t quick enough to keep himself from ramming into the person in front of him.  That person, in turn, ripped around and hit him.  Needless to say, Steve ended up on the ground with a newly swelling jaw and with his pick axe practically stabbing him in the chest.  He was damn lucky the thing hadn’t impaled him.

And, of course, this was where the guards intervened and not on his behalf.  “Get up!” someone snapped, and a hand tangled in his hair and yanked him back onto his feet.  Steve grimaced, mouth full of blood, face throbbing anew and ribs aching.  He barely had his balance and his unhurt hand secure around the axe before they pushed him away.  He didn’t have the strength in the fingers of the one that had been stepped on yesterday to hold anything tightly (although the swelling was much better and the hand seemed to be on the mend).  He staggered and glanced behind him to get a look at the guy who’d shoved him in the first place.  He was a huge brute, a good head taller than Steve, with red skin and yellow eyes and huge mane of snarled black hair.  Fangs peeked out from under his lips when he grinned, which was pretty disturbing, but more perturbing than that was the hungry sneer.  Steve knew that look well enough.  He’d seen it on the face of every bully he’d ever encountered as a kid.  Schoolyard ruffians and alleyway hooligans and thugs itching for a fight.  All of them, hunting for a victim and practically beaming with sadistic glee upon finding one.  Since getting the serum, he hadn’t felt small like he did now, like he always did back in Brooklyn when he’d stood up to guys twice his size who got their rocks off on hurting other people.  Back then he’d been barely 5’4’’, barely ninety pounds soaking wet with his bad heart and crooked spine and defunct lungs, barely anything more than a twig the bullies wanted to snap in two with their bare hands.  Now he was over six feet and two hundred fifty pounds of pure muscle.  Usually he was the one towering over the bad guys, and he could kill with his bare hands.

But not here.  There were monsters here, literally and figuratively.  He thought of what Tony had told him yesterday.  “You can’t throw yourself on the wire all the time, you hear me?  No fucking heroics, not even for me.”  It was hard to recognize that, that here and now, in a prison filled with injustice and evil where the big and strong preyed on the weak and feeble, he needed to stay in his place.  It wasn’t that he was ever looking for a fight; he hadn’t been as a kid and he wasn’t now.  It was just that he couldn’t stand by and watch other people be hurt.  That wasn’t who he was, how he was raised.  Therefore, even though that gleeful smirk on the alien’s face meant only one thing, he just gritted his teeth and turned away.  They laughed at him, a deep, vulgar noise that rolled through the big guy and the few other guys behind him.  Steve held his axe tighter and went on his way in a tense plod.

As he crossed the cavern, it became obvious the place was absolutely massive.  It went up hundreds of feet.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as dark as he anticipated.  It took him a second of staring to realize why.  There were veins in the walls, thin and blue, and they glowed on their own, a pale, pretty, almost ethereal hue that washed everything in what he could only describe as a calming aura.  That was completely incongruous with the rest of Hell, with everything so dark and awful and filthy.  Metal scaffolds lined the walls of it, scaffolds that looked shoddy and dilapidated and probably about ready collapse.  There was a central pillar that Steve realized was some sort of elevator.  For a second he wondered if that could be a way out, a way to escape, but there were Kree with guns surrounding the lift.  Getting through that wasn’t going to be easy (or even possible).  There were Kree everywhere down here, even more than up in the prison itself.  He supposed this was the entire planet’s purpose, the Warlord’s bread and butter.  Making sure the miners mined was essential.  That meant escape was even less likely down here (where he was down even lower and everything was darker, too) than it was above.  Steve gritted his teeth against despair and kept walking on and looking around.

Around the elevator there were tracks, and on the tracks there were carts.  They were shunted by bigger aliens who pushed and pulled them via ropes around the cavern.  Inside the carts there were blue gems and black rocks, and the gems went one direction while the rocks went others.  There were workers around the pillar as well, and they were sorting through the loads of stones, probably pulling out the gems worth keeping.  Lifts raised the crates and carts of gems upward to the massive pipes and tubes at the top of the cavern, and those went back out, probably ferrying the jewels to the main area where they’d be sent upward to the surface.

Around the cavern, there were tunnels, too.  They were much smaller, even narrower than the ones they’d used to get here.  The serum made Steve’s eyes sharp, so he could see workers digging in them, hear the picks clanking and banging.  Vapor of some sort wafting from the tunnels, and every so often the cavern vibrated like something was being cut or ground up.  More carts of black rocks were being lugged from the tunnels, some by motorized tractors but most by the brute force of the inmates.  It was a giant production line.  The bigger brutes were being sent to plow the way and move the unwanted rock and stone free from the tunnels.  Smaller miners were atop the scaffolds, chipping the blue gems away from the deposits and sending them down to the ground below via buckets and pulleys.  Miners on the floor (probably the fortunate ones) were transporting the goods to the main elevator, sorting them, and sending them up and out.  It was pretty obvious which job of those was the safest.

That wasn’t where Steve was sent.  “Grubs to the new tunnel!” shouted a Kree who was filthy and very obviously the foreman.  Grubs?  Steve didn’t get it.  The foreman had a tablet that glowed a bloody red, and he was reading it with a very tense frown on his face.  “Get them down there now!  Fill the holes!”

There was no choice.  The prisoners behind him pushed him again, laughing loudly, and he was shoved toward where the foreman was gesturing.  Steve grimaced again at another loud grinding sound, this one directly ahead in the tunnel to which he was being driven.  The light from the blue gems and the overhead fixtures disappeared as he entered, and that calm aura all but disappeared.  There were Kree guards and overseers stationed through the dark, claustrophobic space, yelling and brandishing those stun batons and another shorter baton-like weapon.  Steve didn’t know what that did, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to find out, so he looked away.  However, in turning from that his gaze landed firmly on something even more horrible.

A couple more Kree were pushing past them, and they were dragging the body of a dead alien between them.  At least, Steve thought it was a dead alien.  The lump of flesh was so crushed and mangled that it was difficult to tell.  Basically the jumpsuit was the only sign that it had once been a prisoner.  And it was only the first.  More Kree guards and overseers followed with more corpses in tow.  Oh, God.  These bodies were hideous, blackened by dirt and soot, bloody and broken.

“Get in there!” barked the foreman, furiously gesturing toward the dark area from where the bodies were coming.  “Get in there now, you Grub!  Plug the line!”  He spat other words that the translator couldn’t handle, probably vulgarities, but Steve didn’t wait around to try and figure it out.  He hefted his pick axe and went forward, because in a choice between maybe dying doing whatever work lay ahead of him and being outright murdered where he stood for non-compliance, he’d take his chances with the mine.  The brutes behind him followed him into the shadows, though less cooperatively, shouting and struggling more with the guards.  Steve figured that was just as well.  If they distracted their captors, it’d give him a chance to get his bearings.

There wasn’t much to get, in all honesty.  The end of the tunnel was a tad wider, and miners lined the wall.  A couple large machines were close, too.  They were little more than giant drills with vicious teeth mounted on bits.  One of them was not too far to Steve’s right, and he could see that the bloody mess was coming from there.  The drill was humming unhappily as the Kree worked to pull the twisted, pulverized bodies from its path.  It seemed like it was an accident, that miners had become trapped between the drill head and the wall.

Hopefully it was an accident, Steve thought darkly as he was pushed and directed to the vacant spots in the line of prisoners.  The rocks before him were dark, almost black even in the light, and coarse with dirt.  He ran his weak hand over them, trying to feel what he was dealing with since even with his enhanced vision it wasn’t very easy to see.  Apparently that second or two of trying to figure things out wasn’t allowed (yet again).  “Work!” someone behind him bellowed, and Steve hardly had a chance to buck himself up before a goddamn stun baton jabbed into his lower back.  This was just a warning blow, not meant to incapacitate him, but it hurt enough to drive the air out of his lungs and a gasp from his lips.  The damn jolt hit nerves that made his left arm and hand totally numb for a second, and he ended up dropping his axe right on his foot.  Breathing heavily, he forced himself to pick it up and get moving before the guard hit him again.

He shuffled back to put some distance between him and the wall and started swinging.  The rock was soft and brittle enough that it surprisingly didn’t take too much force to break it, and his first blow shattered a sizeable area right in front of him.  The alien to his left looked impressed and alarmed.  Wet, tentacle-like appendages quivered as he stepped back and appraised Steve with too many eyes.  Steve couldn’t tell if he was angry or jealous or what.

The guy on his right, though…  It was the same bully from before, and he glared and growled loudly.  This time the translator picked up the curse words just fine.  “Fucking showoff,” the guy snarled, and he knelt to pick through the rocks Steve had knocked loose.  Steve did the same, not sure what he was looking for exactly but figuring he’d know it when he found it.  Suddenly the term before made sense.  Grubs.  He couldn’t help but wonder if that was the translator’s mistake or if the Kree actually referred to the miners this way, because it was something of an odd term.  Bucky’s mother had always used the word when she’d referred to what the poor people did on their street.  They’d scavenged and rummaged through garbage, through everything they could find, looking for anything of value.  He was doing the same here, and he found it.

The gems.  He spotted the blue inside some of the rocks.  Picking up the chunk, he smashed it onto the floor, and the pieces of jewel clattered out.  “Shards in the bucket!” growled the overseer behind him, and Steve glanced over his shoulder.  The vicious Kree was shoving a metal container at him, and Steve was yet again too slow.  The bully next to him snatched the gems before he even had a chance to, swiping them away like a jealous kid going after his fallen lunch money.  Steve was pushed aside, and, despite how frustrated as he was, he didn’t fight.  He just lifted up his axe and went back to it.

Very quickly he realized this was back-breaking work.  The serum made it easier for him to endure physical strain by eliminating the production of fatigue toxins from his muscles; even continuous strenuous effort like this didn’t exhaust him.  Still, he could feel how difficult this was.  He could feel his muscles exerting, and his wounded shoulder certainly wasn’t appreciating the continual abuse, swinging the axe and the impact of it against the rocks.  In comparison to those around him, though, he was fine.  They were really suffering, struggling with the weight of their axes, with the effort of digging at the wall, with getting enough oxygen into their panting bodies.  It was hard not to feel for them.  The conditions were deplorable.  Minutes wore on, marked by the strike of axes to the stone, and there was no respite.  No water.  Not even a moment to catch one’s breath.  The air was hot and thick with dust, making it difficult to breathe.  Steve quickly started to sweat through his clothes.  Perspiration grew thick in his hair, coating his face and stinging in his eyes.  Every time he paused to wipe it away, someone yelled at him.

“No stopping!”

“Work, Grub!”

“Keep up the pace!”

Disobedience was met with cruelty, so Steve sank into the steady rhythm of his axe against the wall, of the stones falling, of ducking to sift through the rocks to look for shards (that seemed to be what the gems were called).  Focusing on that, swinging, breaking, crouching, collecting, and then swinging again, made the work more tolerable and kept his mind from wandering.  Mostly.  Every time his thoughts escaped him, they invariably went to Tony.  Hours were disappearing as he cut through the wall, hours where he had no idea if Tony was okay.  If they were making him endure similar miserable conditions and rough treatment.  If they were hurting him.  He could only pray they weren’t, that Tony was fine, that whatever work they had him doing wasn’t as dangerous or arduous.  Watching the others languish on the line, presumably the normal folk without a serum to enhance them, made Steve worry about how Tony might be faring.  The funny thing was, though, he was really more concerned with Stark running his damn mouth off and pissing off their captors.  For all his complaining about Steve’s propensity to get himself into trouble, Tony was just as bad (though not in the same way).  Tony got mouthy and sarcastic and snide when he was upset.  It was damn scary, when he let himself consider it.  If something happened to Tony…  God, there were so many things that could.  Maybe he’d offend or upset the guards and they’d punish him.  Or maybe they wouldn’t even need a reason to take their aggressions out on him.  Maybe there could be an accident, just like the one that had claimed the lives of those miners.  Tony could get hurt or sick or simply become another victim of the brutality of this place.  Tony could die – could be dead already – and Steve would never know.

The mere thought left him chilled and horrified.

Another jolt to the ribs had him yelping.  Damn it!  The overseer abruptly shoved him into the wall, the stun baton across the back of Steve’s neck, not shocking him this time but very present and threatening.  “You’re new, and already you look like you’re going to be trouble.  Like someone who thinks resistance makes you stronger.  Do you know what happens to prisoners who think that?” hissed the Kree’s voice right in his ear.  Steve gritted his teeth and forced himself to be still.  He didn’t answer because it seemed pretty obvious, but the Kree felt the need to explain anyway.  “They die.  And it’s not starvation that kills them.  It’s not the other prisoners.  It’s not even the work.”  The face leaned close, right by Steve’s ear.  “It’s the lash.”  The hiss of that word was ominous, and Steve went stiff.  “Now get to it, Terran.”

He pushed Steve into the wall, and Steve bit down a growl.  He glared over his shoulder at the Kree, and the Kree glared back, that same awful hunger there in his eyes.  Defiance in this place was only an excuse to hit harder and be meaner.  Steve wasn’t one to lose his temper, but with worry for Tony thrumming inside him and his own patience dwindling, that urge to fight was getting stronger and stronger.  The Kree snarled at him, his voice deep with malice.  “Last warning, boy.”  He thumbed that other baton, and a long rope of energy burst out of its end.  The coil was red, an awful hue that spread like blood and dripped ruby sparks and hissed.  “Work.”

Steve glowered a moment longer, but there was nothing to be done other than complying.  He held the shaft of his axe tighter and settled back into breaking the wall.

More time disappeared.  He tried not to think as it did, focusing anew on the weight of the axe in his hands, on the feel of his muscles working, on the taste of sweat on his lips and the pace of his heart and lungs.  On the throbbing discomfort in his shoulder.  The serum helped him concentrate on his body, so that was something of a relief.  He kept his worries and anxieties at bay, driving his axe into the rocks, cracking them, hitting again and again until the stones came loose and the paltry number of shards fell to the ground.  Once or twice he hit rock that was too hard to break, even for him.  The other inmates didn’t even try, but he did, giving a swing or two hard enough that he felt the axe bend as it struck a surface that didn’t give.  The foreman demanded the large drill be brought over, and Steve stepped back with the others.  The guards and overseers crowded around them, weapons at the ready to keep them corralled and contained like livestock.  The drill was unbearably loud; Steve’s hearing was as advanced as his sight, so the vibrating thunder of the drill’s teeth biting through the wall was deafening.  He tried to keep the wince from his face as he suffered through it, unwilling to reveal weakness by covering his ears.  Not with the bullies still watching him.

He could take better stock of them during these short breaks.  There were four of them, and the smallest was his height and build.  The others, including the vampire-like guy from the mine’s entrance, all towered over him.  Every time the Kree halted work, they seemed to find their way to his side, looming and threatening and staring at him like he was a target and nothing more.  He wasn’t sure what had attracted them to him, if he’d angered them somehow (probably with his mere presence), but they were goddamn dauntless.  They didn’t dare directly attack him with the guards right there watching, even as the whole lot of them were put back to work.  Steve wasn’t sure if he should be grateful or worried about what would happen should the Kree look the other way because these bastards were very clearly biding their time.

And, like all bullies inevitably did, they found their opportunity.

Steve’s internal clock was incredibly accurate, so he knew when it was late in the day despite how there was no daylight.  Now, even with the serum, the labor was starting to get to him.  He’d watched the guy next to him with the freakish tentacles start to succumb to exhaustion as the hours had worn on, and he’d worked harder to try to take some of the burden from him.  The alien hadn’t seemed to notice much, but that was alright.  Steve certainly hadn’t expected recognition.  He could bear the brunt of the labor, so he did.

The gang was right next to him, practically on top of him they were so goddamn close.  They were pounding and pounding at the wall, the big guy to his left encroaching more and more on Steve’s space.  Steve tossed them harsh looks time and again, which always won him a laugh or a glare back.  Normally he tried to think the best of people, but these were a regular pack of assholes.  He’d assigned them names in his head.  Mook A, the vampire guy and very clearly the ringleader of their little merry band.  Mook B, a big bastard covered in muscles and thick, coarse hair who never spoke; he might have been mute for all Steve knew.  Mook C, who was reptilian in nature, his skin leathery and scaly and his yellow eyes cruel, snake-like, and calculating.  And Mook D, the smaller one who was the most human of them if not for oddly colored skin.  He laughed at everything Mook A did, and he looked at Steve and everyone else almost lasciviously (and that made Steve feel nothing but sick inside – it was occurring to him more and more than there were no women, or female aliens, in this place that he could tell).  The whole group of them stank of trouble (and stank literally – just the smell of Mook A was enough to make Steve’s stomach clench).  But Steve managed to keep to himself and ignore their taunting.

That was until the tentacle prisoner lost his balance.  He’d been drooping more and more, and Steve had whispered to him once or twice, trying to encourage him because watching someone collapse in fits and spurts wasn’t something he could stand by and idly do.  When the alien finally did go down, Steve moved fast, dropping his axe and snatching the toppling body beside him.  He planted his left hand against the wall for support, looping an arm around the other inmate.  Over the loud clanking of the gangs’ axes right beside him, Steve could hear the overseer barking, demanding that he let the prisoner fall and continue working.  Steve ignored him; he’d stand his ground to save someone else.  He damn well would.  This place was not going to dictate to him what compassion meant.  “He needs water!” he snapped, holding the other inmate up against the wall, staring at his listless, nearly lifeless eyes and limp tentacles where they grossly covered his right arm in slime.  Steve went on, not about to be cowed.  “You’re killing him!  He needs–”

Agony suddenly shot up his arm, and his voice cracked in a ragged cry.  He whirled in panic.  For a long moment, he didn’t quite process what had happened.  His eyes saw it, and he felt it, but it didn’t make sense, not the blood, not the sharp end of the pick axe that had gone entirely through his left hand.  Steve’s fingers were twitching spastically, thick crimson pouring from the back of his hand where the axe was embedded and where it exited from his palm.  The pain was even slower to register than the fact he had metal running through his hand, but once it did…  Steve could barely breathe, barely choke down another scream.

A rumble of a gleeful laugh pierced through the hum of blood rushing in his ears.  Before he could do so much as inhale again, Mook A yanked the axe back out of his hand.  Steve immediately drew the gushing limb to this chest.  Agony burned up and down his arm, and his fingers trembled as hot, sticky blood immediately washed over them.  His heart was pounding, and the sweat bathing him turned cold.  He looked at the bully.

And the bully just looked back and smiled that same goddamn cruel smile.  “Oops,” he hissed, fangs bared in the paltry light.

Steve gasped, shuddering and glancing down at his hand where it was balled against his chest.  It throbbed mercilessly, spilled blood in a torrent.  Still reeling with that, he hardly even noticed the guards come in and grab the alien he’d been trying to protect.  The guy had fallen when Steve’s hand had been impaled, and they yanked his limp form out from the line.  For a second Steve thought the guards might help the exhausted miner, that they might protect him.  But they did neither.  Steve watched with wide eyes, even more helpless and horrified, as the Kree simply snapped his neck and dragged the corpse away.

The foreman glared at him, clearly prepared to order the same be done to him if he couldn’t demonstrate he could still work.  “Plug the hole!” the alien shouted furiously.  “We need another Grub!  Right now!”

Another inmate was brought in, this one terrified and trembling, but he immediately went to work.  Steve watched a second more, frozen inside with how evil this place truly was.  “Work!” snapped the foreman.  It was just as much a warning as it was a command.  Steve lingered, too disgusted and frightened to think.  The guards came at him, threatening, and he scrambled back into the wall.  “Move!”

The gang laughed and gloated a moment before going back to pounding at the wall.  Mook A stared just a bit longer, so goddamn proud of himself for finally striking a lasting blow on his prey.  Steve couldn’t do much of anything with his hand like this, with both hands all messed up now, but there was no choice, no time.  Shaking with shock and panting, he unzipped the top of his jumpsuit a bit, just enough for him to tuck his wounded hand up against the filthy cloth Tony had used last night to bind his shoulder.  He practically jabbed his hand into his armpit, squeezing his arm down and using the pressure from his own bicep to hopefully slow the bleeding before he passed out.  Then he crouched and grabbed his axe with his less injured hand.  The cave spun nauseatingly, but he swallowed down his dizziness.  He couldn’t fall apart.  He couldn’t.  He needed to get back to Tony.

So he swung at the wall with the axe in his other hand, grimaced and swung and swung and swung, and tried again not to cry.  It was even harder this time. 


It was fortunate that the gang decided to put a pick axe through his hand toward the end of the day.  An hour later, Steve was so damn woozy that staying on his feet was exceedingly difficult.  He wasn’t making good progress mining anymore, but he found he didn’t care much (or at all).  Thankfully some ruckus further down the line had kept the foreman distracted and the overseers busy, so they’d laid off him.  The bullies also gave it a rest, mostly because they’d been assigned to work in a different section of the tunnel.  That was all well and good.  By the time that damn horn blew, Steve was feeling so sick that staggering out of the cavern and dropping the axe by the racks of tools was pretty much all he could manage.

The guards watched the lines of miners filter slowly from the cavern.  They were yet hundreds strong though fewer than that morning.  Steve wiped at his eyes as he wearily plodded back up the tunnels.  He kept his head down, his gaze fixated on his filthy boots as he took step after step.  He thought his hand was mildly better.  That might have just been wishful thinking, because it still hurt like hell.  Everything hurt like hell, but his hand was definitely the worst of it.  The bleeding had mostly stopped, though, for what that was worth.  Not much.  He couldn’t move his fingers, so he kept the whole of his arm tight against his chest, trying to protect it.  That, too, wasn’t much.  There was no way to protect anything down here.

Thankfully he made it back up and out of the mine unbothered.  When he dared to look up again, he realized he was back where the path had split before, where the miners had gone right and the engineers and everyone else had gone left.  Steve’s heart picked up rapidly, and he started glancing around for Tony.  The people coming down looked tired, though they weren’t limping and staggering nearly as much as the miners were.  Steve scanned the crowd for Tony.  Despite the huge array of different faces, some so far from human that it was striking, he couldn’t see Tony’s.  Dismay left him cold and shivering, and all those worries from before harshly returned.  What if he’s hurt?  What if they took him?  What if he’s dead?  God Almighty…  I can’t lose him.  His feet slowed of their own accord as he scanned and scanned, but no matter how he looked and hoped, Tony just wasn’t there.

It was more and more difficult to hold back the tears.  “Walk!” snapped the guy behind him, and Steve whirled, anticipating a blow to the back of his head or his shoulders or worse.  It wasn’t any of the Mooks, though, just another irate miner who was tired and bitter.  Steve didn’t want to press his luck, so he swallowed down his fear and picked up his pace.  He’d find Tony.  He forced himself to think that.  He’d make it back up to the dining hall or whatever the hell it was, and he’d find Tony at the spot they’d decided.  He’d find him, just like he promised he would.

Fear had him more alert now and more resilient to the pain, so he kept his head up and continued looking around despite the guards watching him.  Anxiety left him even more nauseous than what his empty belly and throbbing injuries caused.  It seemed to take forever for the line of prisoners to make it back to the main area.  They were being led a different way, shunted in a wider arc around and toward the mess hall and barracks again.  The miners were mingling with the engineers now, and the air of defeat immediately shifted to one of spite and contempt.  Now that he was aware of the division in the prisoners, Steve really noticed the disdain the laborers had for the more privileged folk, the ones who hadn’t worked in the mine.  The ones who’d gone left up to the central pillar like Tony had that morning.  And the anger went the other way, too.  The engineers and skilled workers looked down on the miners, on the Grubs.  He heard that term more and more and it was always spat or used as an insult or in some other derogatory way.  It felt the same to him as being called a “mick” or worse for being Irish.  He’d lived his youth poor, struggling on the lower rungs of society in the Depression, and back in their neighborhood there’d still been dislike for the Irish.  There’d also always been jealousy among the destitute for the few lucky folks who’d been wealthy.  Bucky’s family had fared a lot better than Steve’s when things had gotten tight; despite having more mouths to feed, they’d all been healthy and strong, and Buck’s father had had a secure job that paid well.  Not that the Barnes household had been swimming in money or anything like that, but to Steve who was having mayonnaise sandwiches and cabbage soup every day because meat was an impossibly expensive luxury, who was too poor to afford the medicine he needed and who used newspapers in his shoes to keep his feet warm and who labored for months just to buy his ma something a little extra for Christmas…  It was hard not to be envious that Bucky had more to eat and better clothes and just more (even when Bucky shared, which he always did).  Steve tried never to let it get to him, but he wasn’t perfect.  Emotions were emotions.

This wasn’t just envy, though.  This was hatred, and now that he was wise to why, he couldn’t deny that he felt a prickle of malcontent, too.  Society in Hell was more than just miners versus engineers, Grubs versus the better off.  It was slaves versus the more privileged class.  If this morning was any indication, engineers got extra water, extra rations, preferential treatment (which didn’t seem like much admittedly, but when you had nothing and were suffering, anything was something).  That made for a caste system, a harsh one.  The miners were at the bottom, it seemed, and everyone else was at varying levels above that, all the way up to the Kree prisoners who they’d seen pulling away from the crowd that morning, apparently excused from work.  There was an economy among these monsters, so the revelation that there were also the unsavory facets of life that came with one probably shouldn’t have been any surprise.  And it shouldn’t be any surprise that the same ugliness that could pervade society everywhere else manifested itself here, only it was amplified and far worse because the civility and goodness of people was absent and thus unable to counteract it.  Grubs were mindless, expendable manual labor.  Engineers were a rarer breed, and so they were treated as more valuable and afforded more.  Above everyone, of course, were the best criminals, the ones most able to manipulate the system and control others through fear and intimidation.  It really was Hell.  Animosity was sparking in the air, and were it not for the guards there with their rifles on the whole lot of them, there’d be another riot.

As Steve trudged along, beat to hell and bleeding and exhausted and scared out of his mind that Tony wasn’t with him, he simply decided that no matter how bad things got, he wasn’t going to let this place or anything in it break him.  Resistance.  It felt good to be determined, to know what he had to do.  Tony was alive, and he had to find him.  Protect him.  He wasn’t going to die down here.  He definitely wasn’t going to let Tony die, either.

Ahead everyone was filtering into the mess hall.  It was the same routine as it had been in the morning.  The crowd was divided into lines, and the lines slowly progressed through the scanners.  Steve tried not to be too obvious as he looked for Tony.  In the filthy mob emerging from the mine before, he felt safer for being part of the group.  Now the guards were walking up and down the aisles of inmates, and it was more difficult to be surreptitious.  There was no sign of Tony, anyway.  Steve gritted his teeth and held his hand tighter to his chest.  You’ll find him, he made himself think as he moved upward in line.  You’ll find him.  He’s here.  You’ll find him.

With any luck, Tony was at the spot where they’d agreed to meet, waiting for him.  Maybe…  Steve let himself think it, because he was so hurt and so tired.  Maybe Tony would even have a smile on his face, the soft one he had whenever the two of them managed to find a moment between them where they weren’t bickering or picking at each other (mostly Tony did the teasing and insulting, and mostly Steve did the rebutting and refusing to back down, but it didn’t matter – it just led to arguing).  Maybe.  If Tony had that, if he’d gotten through the day with enough strength and spirit to smile…

“Get in there!” one of the Kree demanded, grabbing Steve’s hurt arm and yanking him up to the scanner.  Steve grimaced, refusing to cry out though the pain was awful, angry at himself for yet another lapse.  It was so damn hard to concentrate like this, with his stomach twisted into desperate, hungry knots and his mind swimming in dizziness from fatigue and blood loss.  He had to find Tony, but he had to eat and drink first or he was going to collapse, and all of that required him getting beyond the security checkpoint.  God, he’d damn well earned his rations today, so the scanner had better recognize that.  Thankfully it did, and they let him through.

Then it was waiting for water again.  Apparently they were allotted more time in the fountain stall in the evening, which slowed everything up but was welcomed all the same.  When it was his turn, he forced himself not to guzzle the water even though his throat was as dry as a desert and he was positively desperate for it.  He took his time drinking, pausing now and again to try and deal with his hand.  The wound looked fairly well clotted at this point, and he knew better than to disrupt that.  Still, he gingerly washed the grime and blood away as much as possible without touching the wound itself.  He was lucky and he knew it.  There was no telling what sort of bacteria or microbes were in this hellhole, and he had a hole through his hand that was letting them all into his body (not to mention the hole in his shoulder and his large array of other wounds and grievances).  The serum would protect him.  At least, he hoped it would.  He highly doubted Doctor Erskine and Howard ever fathomed the serum would be going up against germs from outer space.  No sense in worrying about that, though.

He rinsed his face and his hair and drank more, as much as he could before his time was up.  At least he didn’t feel quite so much like he was wearing his own blood anymore.  Then it was off to the line at the food counter.  When Steve reached the dispensing machine, he noticed the same alien was there who’d worked the counter that morning, the small one with mottled blue skin and shrewd double-lidded eyes.  His gaze flicked over Steve, and an expression of admonishment passed over his face, like he could tell just from Steve’s sorry state that he’d caused trouble that day.  Steve ignored it and sniffled, putting his less hurt hand into the chute.  He was scanned, and sure enough, a lump of cake was deposited in his palm.  He closed his hand around it, pulled it close like a squirrel hoarding his nut, and got out of there as fast as possible.

He ate right away.  His empty stomach clenched in misery, suddenly panging so fiercely at the thought of food that he could hardly stand it.  It was going to hurt more, he knew.  This wasn’t enough to feed him, not by a longshot.  Sadly, Tony was right about one thing amidst all his pessimism; Steve was going to starve fast like this.  Thanks to his accelerated metabolism, he needed something on the order of 16,000 calories a day.  These little lumps of cake were not going to cut it.  The army had always kept him well fed, and with the Avengers, there was such an abundance of food everywhere that he’d never had to worry.  Because of that, he didn’t know how long it’d take for him to go down, but he couldn’t imagine he’d last more than a couple weeks.

He couldn’t think about that now.  We’ll get out of here before then.  They had to.

He’d devoured the cake before he even realized it, walking across the mess hall while trying not to seem directed or obvious.  Now he felt sick enough with worry that his belly was fit to rebel against him.  He wove his way through the crowds of inmates, some arguing, some trading items again, some deadened and apathetic.  He didn’t see Tony.  Not anywhere.  He has to be here.  Steve gritted his teeth and swallowed through a tight throat, trying not to panic.  He has to be here.  He has to.  He avoided a fight breaking out, side-stepping a fist that nearly hit him by mistake, and rushed to the corner with the stain on the floor.  He has to be here!

He wasn’t.  Steve touched the wall where they’d been that morning, where they’d agreed to meet, and struggled to breathe through his horror.  He was alone in the spot.  Tony’s not here.  That thought crashed through his skull, vicious and damning.  Tony’s not here!  He swallowed his pounding heart and forced himself to think above his panic.  Maybe Tony had already gone back to their cell.  That was their backup plan.  Or maybe Steve had simply arrived at their meeting spot first.  There was no reason to lose it completely.  Tony could be coming but not there just yet.  He had to be coming.  Steve had to wait.  He just had to–

The fight he’d barely avoided exploded into an all-out brawl, snatching Steve’s attention.  He peered through the mess of dirty jumpsuits and grimy bodies to get a view of the melee.  Another moment where the stronger were undoubtedly tormenting the weaker.  Violence was the biggest constant in Hell.  He almost looked away in anger and revulsion when he caught sight of a familiar head of mussed brown hair.

Tony.

“Oh, hell,” Steve whispered.

“Get the fuck off me!” Tony cried, scrambling away from the group surrounding him.  The inmates harassing him weren’t overly huge this time, though they were still bigger than Tony all save for a wiry little guy who seemed to be the leader of this gang.  He was standing off to the side, watching with narrowed eyes as the others grabbed Tony and drove his struggling body down to his knees.  Tony’s fingers were clenched around something – the shank – but he couldn’t get his arms free to make use of it.  “Let go of me!  I said no, you fucking assholes!  Get off!”

Steve didn’t waste another second, rushing across the room.  His hand hurt terribly, but he balled it into a fist and rammed it right into the guy holding Tony down.  The alien had some sort of protective plating like chitin.  When his punch landed, his hand positively exploded in agony, but he didn’t let up, following that strike with another blow from his other hand.  He pounded right through the chitin, cracking it and diving into some awfully slimy stuff beneath it.  Steve didn’t spare a second to be revolted, tossing the screaming monster away.

At this point the others in the gang were on him.  One jumped onto his back with a howl that would put most banshees to shame.  Steve winced at the sound, at the claws digging into his flanks.  The urge to fight that he’d kept at bay all day surged to the surface, and he didn’t hesitate, reaching behind him and snatching the screeching inmate by the back of his neck.  He threw him clear over his head, and the black, hairy body collided with other prisoners coming closer and probably itching to take advantage of the situation.  The next couple thugs came at him.  These guys were strong, stronger than the average human, stronger than Tony, but not stronger than Steve.  They also weren’t trained like Steve was, so even though they came at him with violence in their eyes and sneers on their lips, they weren’t much of a threat.  Steve lost himself in fighting, ignoring the pain in his hands, the pain in his stomach and shoulder and head, the pain everywhere.  His fists flew, his boots slamming into his attackers, his heart steady and his mind clear save for one thought: protect Tony.

He wasn’t going to let this place destroy them.

It was over in a matter of seconds.  The gang that had been manhandling Tony was spread around on the floor, moaning and groaning or knocked out cold, and Steve stood with his damaged hands raised defensively and Tony squarely behind him.  All around them prisoners were staring, surprised maybe that Steve had fought so quickly and so powerfully or surprised that he’d fought at all, that he’d gone in there to help someone else.  That he cared about someone else in a place that clearly considered empathy to be serious weakness.

The smaller, wiry alien stared at them both in a mixture of contempt and astonishment.  Steve backed up, pushing Tony with him.  He crouched, picking up the knife where it had been knocked from Tony’s hand during the struggle, and pointed its sharp end squarely at their adversary.  “You don’t touch him,” he hissed, narrowing his eyes.  “You hear me?  You don’t touch him.”

The other inmate actually stepped away.  He was still glaring, still furious, but he seemed to recognize that he was beat.  Steve reached behind himself and took Tony’s hand, took it and held tight.  He glared at everyone around them as he retreated further, pushing Tony back into the wall.  There was nothing else to do, nowhere here they could hide and no way he could fight the dozens of prisoners watching them.  So he yanked Tony close and ran.

The door to the main chamber was open now, and the prisoners were coming and going as they chose in this mockery of freedom.  Steve hardly paid them any heed, dragging Tony behind him in a sprint, glancing over his shoulder in fear to make sure they weren’t being followed.  It didn’t seem that way, but he didn’t slow down, not until they were well on their way up that slight hill toward the barracks, until they were near those dilapidated shacks lining the road, until they were practically where they’d hid yesterday.  All over again they were squeezing into that nook and clinging to each other.

Steve couldn’t catch his breath.  Tony couldn’t either, bent over and shaking.  He was still grasping Steve’s injured hand, squeezing so tightly the ragged, blunt ends of his nails were digging into Steve’s flesh.  It hurt, but Steve didn’t pull away, didn’t even let the pain bother him really.  Not with Tony right there.  He’s here.  He’s okay.  He’s okay.  He pulled Tony around suddenly, getting a better look at him, needing to be sure.  “Are you okay?” he gasped frantically.  “Are you?”

“Jesus, Steve,” Tony gasped, looking at the fresh blood all over their fingers.  “Your hand–”

“Are you okay?”

Tony swallowed.  He was pale and even filthier than before.  Streaks of sweat were like stripes in the grime on his face.  However, he looked alright, with no new, obvious injuries.  His brown eyes were huge, searching Steve’s.  All of the sudden he was shaking, tucking himself close, pulling Steve against him.  Steve sank into his embrace, dropping the knife to the ground and wrapping his arms around the smaller man, desperate for touch that didn’t equate to pain, desperate to know Tony was there.  That Tony was alive and warm and real in his arms.  All the fear he’d barely kept at bay all day rushed to the surface, and tears burned his eyes.  “I’m okay,” Tony breathed into his shoulder.  “God, I’m okay.”

Overwhelmed, Steve shivered, too.  They were together again.  They’d found each other.  And they were both okay.

A scream from outside their safe haven shattered the fleeting moment of peace and comfort.  Steve twisted around to look, but it was business as usual (and it was sad that this level of violence and depravity was so quickly becoming mundane).  Some other gang was attacking a miner, gutting him maybe for all the wailing going on, and Steve grimaced, leaning back.  Tony knelt to get the knife, but Steve stopped him from doing anything more by raising his hand.  “They’re not out there,” he murmured.  “The guys that were bothering you.”

That was a relief at least.  Tony deflated, letting loose a shivery breath.  He tucked the knife back in his boot.  “Thank fucking God.”

“What’d they want?”

“I don’t know!”  Tony shook his head, eyes wide and frantic.  He scrubbed a grimy hand through his hair.  “I don’t know.  They were all over me the whole day.  I think I showed them up, ’cause they had me fixing the power regulators for the elevator that lifts the shards to the surface and they noticed I was good.  I mean, it wasn’t like their system required much skill to fix anyway, but that one guy – Xeran, I think his name is – asked me to join in their group.  Or it’s a gang?  Anyway, I said no; I have no idea who the hell these guys are and I’m not about to sign onto serving them.  And they just kept at it, harassing me and harassing me all day long, pushing me and telling me there’s no choice and if I wanted to survive down here, I needed their protection.  I swear to God, Steve, it was like they were the fucking mafia or something.  Work for them and be protected or don’t and die, they said.”  Steve stiffened.  “They came after me the second the Kree let us go.  Jumped me.  I think…”  Tony shook his head.  His eyes clouded in terror.  “I think they were trying to take me with them.”

This was disconcerting.  “They were…  They were kidnapping you?” Steve questioned with a wince.

Tony offered up a pathetic nonchalant shrug that did nothing to hide how shaken he was.  “All these different factions…  Obviously if you’re in good with the guards, you’ve got power.  And they’re trying to control the engineers.”  That made sense, in a twisted way.  The engineers made this place function, got the shards the miners collected up to the surface.  They were valuable.  If this engineering mafia or whatever it was controlled what they fixed and when, that constituted incredible power.  But that only worked if they were all in league.

“Jesus,” Steve whimpered.  As if this place couldn’t get any worse.  If they were after Tony (and who wouldn’t be, considering how good an engineer Tony was), there was no way Steve could protect him.  He wasn’t there during the work day, so there was nothing he could do.  Nothing.  It made him sick just thinking about it.

Tony frowned at him, forgetting his own troubles for a moment to be positively horrified at Steve’s sad state.  “You look like hell,” he whispered.  “I think you’ve got more blood on you than in you.  What happened to your hand?”

Steve pulled his arm away, trying to hide the injury a little.  Now it was throbbing mercilessly again, and he was feeling pretty lousy.  Everything he’d been able to ignore was coming back with a vengeance, like knowing Tony was okay, having Tony with him, was enough to quiet his heart and body into accepting he was hurt.  “Gang,” he gasped.  “Got on their bad side.”

Tony’s eyes flashed with anger.  “Because we don’t have enough problems!  Goddamn it.  I told you not to–”

“Can’t do this right now, Tony,” Steve whispered, his voice suddenly failing him.  He was crashing.  He could feel it.  Days of little to no sleep and his injuries and his hunger were all compounding on each other, and the onslaught of that was catching up to him like an avalanche he couldn’t hope to outrun.  His vision blurred, and he slumped against the wall, blinking tears loose.  “Sorry.  I just can’t.”

He was aware enough to see that Tony’s stern expression immediately faded.  He pressed close again, sliding his arm around Steve’s midsection for comfort.  “I know,” he said, his own eyes glistening.  “I know.  Fuck, I’m scared, Steve.”

Steve grabbed him tight and held on.  “Me, too,” he admitted.  There was no reason not to.  No reason to be strong now.  “Thank God I found you.”  Tony might have sobbed.  He definitely choked on his breath, burying his face back into the side of Steve’s neck.  Again they lingered, stealing another moment while the awfulness of their new world went on outside and all around them.  Tony dug his fingers into Steve’s side, insistent and frantic, and Steve held him just as tightly, closing his eyes and praying someone somewhere somehow would save them.

No one’s coming for us.

“Need to go lie down.”  The words came out before he even thought to speak.  The world was getting grayer and darker when he chanced looking around again, and his legs were turning to jelly.  He was slouching more, and Tony lurched to grab him and keep him upright.

“Yeah.  Let’s get back…”  Tony didn’t finish.  Steve blinked away fresh tears and forced himself to focus over the mounting fog of unconsciousness growing in his brain.  Tony gave a tight smile.  “I was going to say home, but fuck that.  It’s not home.  Won’t ever be home.”  Steve offered a feeble smile of his own, wiping his cheeks.  Tony helped him get his arm around his neck.  Grasping Steve’s wrist to keep him steady, he wrapped his own arm around Steve’s back and tried to take as much as Steve’s weight as he could.  “You’re freaking heavy,” Tony remarked with a grunt.

“Sorry.”

“Stop apologizing.  I feel bad enough.”  Part of Steve wanted to tell him it was alright, that he shouldn’t feel bad.  Another part was so touched that Tony cared so much, and Steve sank down into memories from a few seconds before, of Tony’s hands on his arms and Tony’s face buried in the nape of his neck and Tony close.

“Stay with me, Cap.”  Tony gripped him firmer to prevent him from sliding as they inched out of their nook.  Steve hauled himself to a modicum of awareness.  He tried to stand straighter, but he was so damn woozy that everything was spinning.  Tony must have heard his distressed gasp or seen him turn green.  “Don’t puke.  Aside from not wanting to add that to the wonderful assortment of stains on my lovely jumpsuit, I don’t think you can spare the nutrients.”

Steve grunted a hoarse chuckle.  “Gross.”

“Drop in the bucket,” Tony grumbled.  “Let’s go.”

As they trudged up the hill toward the cell block, Steve drifted.  That fog in his head was growing thicker, denser, and his senses were settling behind it, blissfully detached from how much he hurt.  He was vaguely aware of Tony helping him through the scanner, of Tony arguing with the guards, of the guards insisting nastily that Steve do it himself.  He managed that, and Tony rushed through right after him, grabbing him to keep him steady and rushing him to the steps.  They went up, both staggering and huffing and sweating.  “Help me here,” Tony murmured breathlessly in Steve’s ear.  “Fifth level?”

Steve struggled to think.  “All the way in the back.  Turn.  Second cell on the right.”

“Right.”  Tony groaned from exertion.  “Pray no one swiped our five star accommodations.”

Thankfully no one had.  They stumbled through the curtain.  Tony immediately let Steve down onto the cold floor as gently as he could manage.  Steve was so spent he actually felt fairly numb, like his nerves were tortured beyond functioning so they just shut off.  That was fine with him.  He turned a little on his side.

“Hey, Steve.  Steve?”  There was some shuffling, the sound of cloth scraping over rock.  Fingers clasped his shoulder, shaking lightly.  “I’m gonna bind up your hand.”

Steve was too spent to do much more than slur, “Don’t gotta.  It’ll heal.  Just need a minute.”

Tony was close again, right beside him.  “Sure, you do.  You need sleep.”

“Be fine.”  Apparently his verbal skills were in the tank along with the rest of him.  “Be fine.  Need a minute.”

Tony scooted a little, lifting Steve’s upper body slightly until he practically had Steve’s head in his lap.  “No, you need sleep.  Sleep.”  He reached for Steve’s hurt hand, tender and gentle, and took a scrap of fabric from the jumpsuit they’d cut up last night.  He started wrapping the make-shift bandage around the oozing hole.

The horn began to blare, signaling the end of the day, and all the horrors from the outside would come into the cell block.  Images of how terrified Tony had been last night burst through the haze in Steve’s head.   “Tony,” he whispered.  “I can…  It’s–”

“Sleep,” Tony ordered again more insistently.

“What if they…  They tried to take you.”

Surely Tony was still afraid, even more so now than he had been last night, but he wasn’t letting it show.  Steve had had no idea he was such a good actor.  He tied the bandage tight and settled Steve’s hand across his belly.  “It’s alright.  I’ll kill anyone who comes near us.”

“T–Tony.”

“You can’t be the only one taking the hits.  I told you that yesterday.  We’re in this together.”  His eyes shone in the shadowy cell, deep and brown and filled with determination.  “I’m fine.  I got this.”

I’ve got you.

Steve couldn’t stay awake to argue anymore, not with Tony taking care of him, not with him right where he needed him.  It was too much, and he was too hurt and tired, so he slipped into the shadows of slumber.  He sank so quickly that he couldn’t be sure if the feel of Tony’s fingers slipping through his hair was real or just a dream.

Chapter Text

Day 9

That awful sensation of being watched prickled through Tony’s mind, dashing a restless sleep.  Before he was even fully awake, though, the whisper of it turned into a scream, a scream bubbling up his throat, a scream he couldn’t let loose because suddenly someone was laying on top of him and slapping a hand over his mouth.  “Don’t move,” hissed a voice, and Tony’s eyes went wide with terror.  In the darkness he could hardly see a thing, nothing more than a yellow glare right above him, but he could feel the hot, firmness of the prisoner holding him down, the swell of muscles and strength, the size of him.

And the knife to his neck.  That was pretty fucking noticeable.

“Don’t!”  The warning was a vicious hiss in Tony’s ear.  He hadn’t even thought to squirm but he’d been doing it all the same.  Now he went stock still.  He blinked rapidly, sucking air in through his nose as the hand pressed firmer over his lips.  A little muffled cry escaped him before he could stop it.  “Be quiet!”

A violent shake left him whimpering again but biting down on his tongue to quell it.  He tasted blood, tears flooding his eyes, and all he could think was this is it.  A week in Hell.  It felt like much longer, like an eternity of darkness and filth and suffering, like every day that he’d counted down had been endless, but now looking back…  Just a week.  That’s how long we made it.  And this is where we die.

Steve.

Steve had fallen asleep right beside him last night, but Tony didn’t dare turn to see if he was still there, if he was okay.  He heard other sounds in the room, others breathing.  His blood ran cold, and he wanted to fight or scream or get away, but the knife pricked the vulnerable flesh under his chin and the wound stung with the promise of much worse.  Oh, God!  Oh, God, please, don’t…

But the monster holding him down didn’t slit his throat.  The yellow eyes leaned closer, and Tony could see now the guy was covered in hair like a werewolf or something.  “Be quiet and listen.  This is a message from Xeran.”  The guttural hiss into his face made him tremble harder, that and the saliva that dripped onto his cheek from the exposed fangs that could probably rip his throat out just as well as the knife could cut it.  “He wants you to know that he’s not happy you haven’t accepted his offer.  He’s asked nicely, and you keep turning him down.”

Tony groaned.  He wanted to deny that, but it was true, and he highly doubted they would appreciate the argument.  He was trembling like crazy, and he wasn’t sure he could form the words even if he could speak.  The nasty bastard on top of him grabbed his hair cruelly and yanked his head around, turning him so that he was facing the side.  So that he could see Steve now.  Steve was still there.  He was little more than a pale body in the shadows, but he was still there.  Still breathing.

And sleeping through this.

Jesus Christ.  Steve’s white face was lax with slumber, his long body flat on the floor.  Filthy blond hair hung over his bruised forehead and the beginnings of a beard framed his jaw.  He was out soundly, not even so much as stirring despite the two – no, four! – aliens standing above them both.  Tony whimpered again because Steve was exposed and vulnerable and these assholes were big enough to pulverize them, to beat them to death or strangle them or worse.  One had a knife.  They looked like mobsters.  The fucking mafia.  He wanted to cry.

“Xeran wants you to know,” the alien atop him hissed again, and his attention snapped back with a cold rush of panic, “that your time to make the right decision is running out.  You think he can protect you?”  The alien’s gaze shifted to Steve, and Tony’s eyes welled with tears as he watched one of the other aliens, nothing more than a wraith in the darkness, crouch down over his friend.  There was so little light in their cell, but what there was still caught on the blade.  It was a wicked, twisted thing with a ragged tip.  It hovered barely above Steve’s stomach before drifting up, skirting right over the front of his jumpsuit, across his sternum to dance lightly over his heart in a vile, taunting caress.  Steve didn’t move.  He didn’t react at all.  Captain America, whose senses were honed and enhanced by the serum, who was a master of the martial arts and practically unstoppable on the battlefield, was completely unconscious and unaware. 

“You think he can keep you safe?  Huh?”  The alien viciously shook him again, and feebly Tony shook his head, unable to look away from the knife skirting Steve’s chest.  “He’s a fucking useless Grub.  He can’t protect anyone.  Not himself and definitely not you.”  Tony moaned brokenly, struggling now because this couldn’t happen.  He couldn’t let them kill Steve, so he curled his fingers into the rocks beneath him and around hand over his mouth.  He was absolutely terrified.  Wake up, Steve!  Wake up! 

Steve didn’t wake up.  He wasn’t going to.  The alien who was practically smothering Tony was right about one thing: Steve couldn’t protect them.  Not the way he was now.  This was a fucking demonstration of exactly that.  God, they were going to die.  That thought had been creeping about the back of Tony’s brain for days, a malicious whisper that was getting louder and louder, but seeing Steve unconscious with killers all around them…  This was it.  They were going to be murdered, right here and right now.  These bastards were going to stab them and leave them to bleed out and–

“Take Xeran’s offer,” snarled the prisoner.  Tony’s gaze shot back to him as he lifted the knife from Tony’s throat and pointed it right at his face.  It was their knife, the one he and Steve had gotten their first day here, the one Tony took with him every day to work and had clenched in his hand every night as he slept.  These bastards had stolen it.  Their only weapon, turned against them.  That was fucking symbolic as hell with what was happening with the serum.  Tony squeezed his eyes shut, rigid with panic anew, when the tip of the shank caressed his cheekbone in a stinging slide.  “Take the offer, you stupid Terran, or we’ll gut you both in your sleep.” 

The hand released his mouth.  The knife left his face.  The weight was gone from his chest.  There was a rustle, shadows running among shadows, and just like that, they were all gone.

Tony lay there in the black, holding his breath and trembling with his eyes closed.  He couldn’t move, frozen in place by invisible restraints, held still by the ghost of that bastard’s hands.  His heart was pounding wildly against his sternum, and he was dizzy with fear and adrenaline that was stubbornly refusing to fade.  When he finally found the courage to look again, all he saw was their cell shrouded in shadows.  No knife.  No yellow eyes.  No demons in the darkness, at least not real ones.  He blinked a couple times, not daring to believe that they were really alone, that their attackers had left them unharmed, that they were alright.

But miraculously they were.  Seconds slipped away, and it stayed quiet.  Tony heaved a choked sob, raising his filthy hands to cover his face.  He felt wet warmth and stinging pain from the slice on his cheek, and that was revolting enough to get him moving, to force him to roll to his side and scramble across the way to Steve.

Steve who was still sleeping.

Tony shivered uncontrollably, grasping Steve’s shoulder and frantically pulling him closer.  He was dead weight, goddamn lifeless for how deeply asleep he was, and Tony sobbed again.  He considered waking him (fuck, I need him!) but he was too upset to do it.  Too upset to consider having to explain what just happened, like if he just ignored it, it’d go away.  He curled his hand into Steve’s jumpsuit (which was so much looser now than it had been just a few days ago).  Even though he hadn’t seen the intruders hurt him, Tony checked anyway, rubbing his palms quickly over Steve’s chest because he couldn’t see as well as he could feel.  No heat and no wetness.  No blood.  Just the too prominent lines of his sternum and ribs.  Another sob burst out of him before he could stop it, this one more relieved than frightened, and he pressed up to Steve, as close as they normally slept.

In the distance, someone screamed.  Tony jerked, jolted, tucked his face into Steve’s shoulder.  He was trembling hard and he couldn’t stop.  He didn’t even try.  No, he just lost it completely like he hadn’t over the last week, like he hadn’t since their first night here.  He squeezed his eyes shut, panting through clenched teeth, piteously weeping in quick, ragged breaths and holding onto Steve as tightly as he could.  The minutes slipped away.  Being near Steve brought him comfort, just like it had since the beginning of this nightmare.  Even with Steve like this it did.  Steve was the only comfort, and that drove the sad fact of it all home.  He can’t protect me.  Tony shivered again.  They now had no weapons, no nothing, and they were alone and unprotected in the darkness.  They’ll gut us both.

What the hell am I going to do?

He didn’t know.  And he couldn’t be sure, but he thought there was still a few hours until that fucking horn went off.  A few more hours Steve could sleep, which he needed so desperately.  A few hours Tony could think.  So he stayed close, spooning Steve’s side, staring into the shadows by the entrance to their cell with his hand twined tightly in Steve’s jumpsuit.  He stayed close and listened to Steve breathe slowly and evenly.  The comfort of Steve’s breathing, of Steve’s heart beating, of Steve’s solid, warm body and strong arms.  That was usually enough to ease his fears and lull him to some semblance of peace.

But not now.  No matter what Tony did he couldn’t stop shaking.  And no matter what he couldn’t come up with a way to save them other than selling himself to the devil.


The coalition of engineers (or just “the mafia”, as Tony had taken to calling them) had its fingers in every corner of Hell.  It became obvious only a couple days into working here.  Tony watched it all from where he’d been stationed on the various upper levels of the main chamber to fix and maintain power converters and oxygen recyclers.  Their corruption was immeasurable.  Xeran was his biggest problem, but Xeran was just one thug – or captain, and every time Tony really thought about that, images from The Godfather forced their way into his head.  Capos and the like, only those mobsters in the movie actually held to some measure of loyalty and honor.  These people were cruel and greedy and they only served the higher-ups – the Kree prisoners he and Steve saw on their first night, who were collecting the skins from that first riot, who Tony was beginning to understand ran everything in this prison – out of fear.  Killing one another wasn’t all that uncommon; Tony had seen it happen twice already, once on his second day (that had been a sudden bloody mess, a knife jabbed into the gut during a fight in the workshop) and again just last night (he’d been constantly afraid of losing his balance on the steps and walkways that made up the higher levels and tumbling down into the pit, and after watching someone tumble down and land with an audible splat dozens of feet below?  Yeah, he was even more afraid now).  Up where the engineers worked brute strength wasn’t as much of an advantage as clout, as smarts and skill, as getting oneself assigned to particularly essential (and safer) jobs.  Power was just that: power, and everyone coveted it.  Those who fell out of line ended up dead.

Which made Tony’s position even more precarious.  From the get-go, Xeran had been all over him.  That very first day Tony had fixed a problem with the prison’s ramshackle (i.e., complete piece of shit) power grid like it was nothing (because to him it was nothing), and everyone had been in awe of (and furious with) him since.  Xeran was the quintessential case in point of how physical size and strength meant nothing in their realm.  The guy was ugly as hell, wiry and smaller than most the miners and kind of bug-like, but everyone deferred to him because he had some sort of relationship with one of the Kree prisoners named Kar (who seemed to be someone everyone feared.  The alien who’d gone over the railing and fallen to his death?  That was because of crossing Kar, or so Tony heard).  At any rate, right away Xeran wanted Tony to rig the power regulators to shunt more energy to particular sections of the prison.  Those weren’t Tony’s orders from the guards.  His orders were to fix the regulators, not sabotage some of them to presumably deprive the mafia’s enemies of electricity.  When Xeran had realized he wasn’t going to cooperate, that had escalated the situation significantly.  This last week had been a days and days of Xeran pressuring him, coaxing and enticing and threatening him in varying combinations but not daring to move against him.  It took Tony a bit to figure out why, considering Xeran and his guys had been all too ready to abduct him that first day and force him into servitude, but when he put it together, it was pretty obvious.

It was because of Steve.

They didn’t know anything about the two of them, not where they came from (other than they were human) and not who they were.  Not who their allies might have been in Hell.  They didn’t know the two lone humans had no friends.  All they saw was Steve defending Tony with great skill and fire in his eyes and all that strength and power in his body, strength and power that seemed boundless and to them was unexplainable.  That had been enough to give Xeran pause, to shake him up sufficiently to stay his hand and make him think twice about his normal methods of intimidation, coercion, and control.  And if Captain America was his normal self, they should be fucking terrified of him.

But Captain America was starving.

Steve was sick and weak, and he was getting sicker and weaker.  It was horrifying, watching it happen.  He was withering right in front of Tony’s eyes.  Just as they’d feared from the get-go, his super-powered metabolism wasn’t taking too well to the conditions here, the lack of water and especially the lack of food.  The amount of useful calories Steve was taking in a day was a miniscule fraction of what he needed to survive.  Tony himself was hungry constantly, continually dizzy and exhausted with his belly clenched tight in pain and aching for sustenance, so for Steve the misery was far worse.  He was bearing it, though, bearing it like the noble asshole he was and not complaining or making a big deal of the fact that his body was taking to metabolizing its own muscle mass to keep functioning.  Steve’s injuries were only compounding the horrible situation.  Since the extra nutrients the serum used to power its enhanced healing factor simply weren’t there, wounds that should have been simple issues were now serious problems.  The hole through his hand wasn’t getting better like it should, wrapped up in a filthy cloth that was barely protecting it.  His shoulder was a mess.  The array of cuts and bruises all over him looked tender and enflamed and basically as bad now as they had when they’d happened.  The lack of healing was one more sign that the serum was taxed beyond its limits, that Steve was running on empty.  The bottom line was this: Steve was getting thinner and thinner every day, all those swells of muscles on his chest and back and arms and legs all but disappearing.  As this went on, he became weaker and more ill and less capable of the manual labor required in the mines and definitely less capable of fighting.  It was almost like Captain America was vanishing.

So now the mafia realized Steve wasn’t going to be able to protect Tony much longer, not like this.  Those monsters in the night had proved their fucking point.  Steve could hardly protect himself.  He barely got through the work day.  He was continually limping, perpetually wincing, barely staggering into their cell every night, and usually passed out before Tony could even talk to him about how serious the situation was getting.  Steve slept like he was in a coma, Tony struggling every morning to wake him as his body desperately sought rest.  There was so little of anything else to sustain it.  And that left Tony facing this nightmare by himself for the most part.  They spent every day separated by their work, by their respective classes in Hell, and when they were together, Steve was so burdened by his ailing state that he was hardly anything more than a warm body to hold at night.  Tony knew he shouldn’t be angry, but he was.  Not at Steve (not rationally at Steve – this was not Steve’s fault).  He was fucking furious with the situation, though, and he was furious with himself.  There were so many bad angles to this.  It was sadly obvious that their incarceration wasn’t going to end any time soon.  No one was coming to rescue them, so that meant Tony needed to deal with their problems.  He needed to right now, since it was very obvious that Steve wasn’t going to be able to hold out much longer.

And therein was the biggest problem.  Steve was goddamn dying and Tony was helpless to stop it.  It was like this thing they didn’t talk about, like, again, if they ignored it, it’d go away.  It wasn’t going away.  Rather, it was becoming sadly inevitable unless something changed.  The serum, which made Steve so strong and resilient and powerful, which had kept him alive through unspeakable damage and unbelievable circumstances, was ending up being the very thing that would kill him.  That was all kinds of fucked up, and Tony’s frustration over the futility of it all was driving him insane.  Of course, tied to Steve’s rapid demise was a slew of other issues.  Like what Tony was going to do when he lost Steve.  Like who was going to watch over him if Steve was gone.  Like what Xeran (and everyone else) would do to him once Tony’s self-appointed guardian was dead.  Like what continuing to survive in Hell meant without Steve at his side.  Days and weeks.  Months or, God forbid, years.  He couldn’t even contemplate that, living that long here without a soul who cared about him or about whom he cared.  He felt like a selfish bastard for even thinking about his future when Steve was suffering and fading, but he couldn’t deny he was terrified.  He was terrified of losing Steve on so many levels.

Therefore, he was willing to do just about anything to save him.  Not that he’d come up with any ideas other than the obvious one, and the obvious one sucked fiercely.  But he’d do it to keep Steve alive.  Christ, he needed Steve so much.  Just in this last week that had become so miserably apparent to him.  Steve’s strength and Steve’s warmth and Steve’s courage and Steve’s calm voice and beautiful blue eyes that were always filled with light no matter how dark and awful this place was.  Tony couldn’t let him die.  Steve was an anchor, a shield, a pillar.  Hope.  That left one choice, and he’d make it if he had to.

They were well into the breakfast line before Steve questioned him.  Tony supposed it was inevitable, considering he’d been quiet and lost in grim thoughts all morning, but he was still somewhat surprised it took Steve so long.  Over the last week since unfortunately settling into this reality, the two of them had developed this weird relationship.  Handsy, for sure, because Tony was already so attached to feeling and knowing that Steve was with him (and Steve didn’t seem to mind that one bit, which, if this were any other place and time, that would definitely give Tony pause, but here and now it he couldn’t think of the future without dread, so reading into how Steve let him hug him and how Steve hugged back and how they were sleeping curled into each other every night?  Impossible).  Beyond physical contact, though, they were constantly rubbing each other wrong, Steve with his goddamn endless optimism (and blindingly adamant denial of just how fucked they were) and Tony with his snippy, sarcastic pragmatism.  Steve was so stubborn (not that Tony was blind to how stubborn he was himself, but Steve was worse), so the more Tony complained about how hopeless their situation really was, the harder Steve dug his heels in about maintaining their faith.  What the hell good did faith do?  Faith wasn’t going to put food in Steve’s belly or stop Xeran’s goons from murdering them in the night.

Which was why Tony needed to figure out a more substantive way out of this that didn’t involve stupidly hoping for something to give.  And this was also why he didn’t need Steve pushing him.  But push Steve did.  “What’s wrong?”

Tony was rattled enough to jolt a little as they waited in line for their rations.  “Nothing,” he answered sharply.  He kept his voice quiet.  He’d quickly learned in Hell there was little to no privacy, and one should never assume no one was listening.  “Nothing’s wrong.”

Steve regarded him with hazy blue eyes.  They’d been piercing just a few days ago, sharp and smart and strong, but now they were clouded with exhaustion.  It didn’t help that they were also ringed in lilac, that the dark beard growing on Steve’s face made him look gaunter and paler.  He pressed his chapped lips together in a tight line.  “Somethin’s botherin’ you.”

Tony wondered all over again why he didn’t just spill the beans on what happened.  The fact that Steve had slept through the attack and was none the wiser was the crux of the whole situation, though, and acknowledging it was hard, especially to Steve.  Truth be told, he didn’t want Steve to know just how scared he was, how bad things truly were.  He had enough to worry about down in the mines where he was still expected to work despite how weak and vulnerable he was, where that gang of bullies was still tormenting him and one slip could be the difference between life and death.  Tony couldn’t burden him more, couldn’t let him realize he was becoming a burden himself.  He couldn’t fucking do that.

“Tony?”

Tony’s eyes were burning with helpless tears he quickly blinked away.  “I said it was nothing.  Drop it, okay?”

Of course saying it like that had the complete opposite effect and only made Steve even more concerned.  “You look like you’re gonna cry.”

Out came the pessimism.  Steve used hope like a shield, and Tony did the same with anger and spite.  “Well, there isn’t exactly a reason to be happy, Steve, is there?” he snapped acidly.  “Happy first week in Hell!”  Steve frowned harder.  “And not all of us can sustain ourselves on a steady diet of empty faith and stupid delusions because that’s all there is to fucking eat down here.”

At that Steve winced like Tony had hit him.  Tony felt like a bastard, but he couldn’t deny his relief when Steve backed off.  They settled into a tense silence as they received the morning meal.  Two lumps of cake.  Tony wasn’t getting the preferential treatment so many of the engineers did, and he was certain that was Xeran’s doing.  It seriously sucked.  An extra cake wasn’t going to fix Steve’s problem, but anything was better than nothing.  Steve swallowed and closed his eyes after getting his breakfast, like he was struggling to hold onto his composure in the face of another day of agonizing hunger.  The alien behind the counter shook his head.  It was the same guy every time Steve and Tony came, with his short stature and beady eyes, and he watched Steve take his portion with deadened remorse.  Tony wanted to throttle him.  The food guy knew.  He had to see it.  All the access he had to food, and he was watching a man starve and doing nothing to stop it.

That was Hell, though.  Chaotic violence mashed together with cruel apathy.  It made him furious enough to scream.

They walked to their spot.  It was disturbing how quickly they were becoming accustomed to their world.  The sight of aliens fighting, tearing each other limb from limb, trading weapons or flesh with the tattooed prison identification mark (skins, as Tony had learned they were unimaginatively called), treating each other like animals or worse…  It was business as usual.  They kept to themselves, pressing close together, until they reached the far wall.  Then they sat.

Tony couldn’t stand to watch Steve eat anymore.  The way he did it made sense.  He took small bites, savoring the chalky substance of the cake like it was delicious and fulfilling.  Making it last.  It only heightened just how awful their situation was, though.  Tony’s own belly ached so miserably from hunger, but he tried to eat quickly so as not to make a big deal of it.  As he had every morning since that first morning, he broke his in half and offered it to Steve.

And as Steve had every morning since then, he shook his head and went back to nibbling at this own cake.  “You eat it.”

Tony didn’t have the emotional fortitude to deal with this, with Steve’s constant bullshit need to sacrifice himself and take every bad hit coming their way and lay down on the goddamn wire all the time.  “In case you haven’t noticed, Cap, you’re fucking starving.”  Despite the spite in his voice, it tremored as he said that, and Steve flinched again.  He cupped his cake closer to his mouth and continued taking his little measured bites like he could dismiss the truth.  That only pissed Tony off more.  “You need this more than I do, so eat it!”

“I don’t want it,” Steve snapped back, his eyes flashing suddenly with anger.

“Jesus fucking Christ!  What’s the matter with you?”

“Me?  What’s the hell’s the matter with you?  You look terrified!  You have since we got up.  What?  What happened?”  He reached out a grimy hand and grabbed Tony’s chin.  His thumb brushed over the slice on Tony’s cheek.  Even that little touch stung like hell.  “Who did this?”

Tony jerked away.  Against his will he started shivering anew, and he almost looked around the cavern for Xeran and his thugs.  Almost.  He stopped himself.  “Nobody did anything.  Nothing happened.”

Steve frowned tensely.  Hurt splayed across his face.  “You’re lyin’.”

“And you’re being a stubborn, stupid asshole,” Tony spat.

Steve grabbed Tony’s hand where he was still pushing the half of the cake at him.  He pushed it right back into Tony’s chest.  “No, I’m being realistic.  That tiny portion of food is a drop in the bucket for me, and you know it.  It’s not gonna make me better.  It’s not gonna stop me from getting weaker.  I’m not as smart as you, not even close, but even I can see that proportionally those calories are more meaningful to you, so you eat it, because you stand a much better chance of surviving this than I do.  And that’s the God’s honest truth, Tony.”  He shook his head, so damn calm and sensible that it made Tony want to scream.  “You’re always tellin’ me to think with my head and not my heart.  I do that way more than you ever give me credit for.”

“Fuck you,” Tony moaned.  Steve looked away, upset with that, and Tony hotly averted his eyes, too.  It hurt so badly hearing Steve say what he had, but Tony knew he was right.  Cold and logical and practical and right.  Tactical, coming from a master tactician.  Steve eating Tony’s food was a waste of resources, and they did not have resources to waste.  Still, accepting that was downright impossible because it killed him inside.  “So that’s it then.  You’re okay with starving to death?”

Steve sighed.  “Of course I’m not okay with it!  You think this doesn’t hurt?  You think I want to die here?”  Now it was Tony’s turn to flinch, and he did, hating Steve and himself and this whole fucked up situation.  “There’s nothing we can do about it.  We can’t get more food.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but Steve didn’t know that.  Steve didn’t know what Xeran wanted, nothing beyond that first kidnapping attempt.  Tony hadn’t told him about the mafia’s offer, about the stalemate, about Xeran promising him better treatment if he cooperated.  Just like the attack, he couldn’t bear to be honest, not with everything Steve was already facing.  More than that, though, he didn’t think he could stand what Steve’s response would be.  He could hear it already.  “Don’t compromise yourself for me, Tony.  Don’t give them what they want.”

God, there was no way out.

“So we gotta be smart with what we have,” Steve said on a heavy breath, like he was affirming that to himself anew.  “And that means I’m not eatin’ your food.”  Tony sagged with weariness, with the weight of it all, of the things Steve didn’t know.  The urge to scream was turning into a desire to cry in defeat.  “And it means tellin’ me the truth.  If we don’t trust each other, we have no chance.  And if we don’t take care of each other–”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony hissed.  “I know.”

“So what’s the matter?” Steve asked again.  His patience was waning.  So was his energy.  This was the angriest and most involved he’d been in a couple days.  Most of the time merely functioning was difficult enough for him, so keeping an eye out and trying to keep the monsters away and keeping on top of their situation was becoming impossible. 

Which, again, was the problem.  “Tony, what happened?”

“Don’t you get it?  The fact that you don’t know is what’s making me upset!” Tony finally admitted in a harsh, clenched murmur.

The color somehow drained further from Steve’s already pale face, and he looked down at the cake he was slowly consuming.  He seemed to understand what Tony didn’t say, that something bad had occurred during the night and he’d slept through it because he was so weak and tired.  Immediately that tempered his bravado.  He sagged into the wall, and even though he was probably famished, he stopped eating.  He was just staring at it, shoulders slumped with surrender, broken and battered and seemingly small.

Tony watched him, his eyes burning with frustrated and frightened tears.  He pushed himself closer.  “I can’t sit here and watch you starve.”  Steve raised wet eyes of his own.  “You hear me?  I can’t do that.  I can’t do nothing.  I need you.  I…”  He couldn’t make himself say what he wanted to, what was hot and desperate and screaming in his heart.  He bit his lip hard enough that he tasted blood and shoved the half of his cake into Steve’s other hand.  “So eat it.  I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense.  I don’t care if it’s a waste.  Just please.  Please.”

There was a shout ahead, another fight breaking out.  Steve jerked, frightened, so Tony put himself between him and the ruckus.  “Eat,” he implored again.  “There’s no time.”

Steve stared at him a moment more, thin and worn, and Tony tried to be encouraging.  Tried to smile.  It was probably pathetic and obviously fake.  This had never been a strong suit of his, supporting someone else, but Steve needed it.  Steve needed him, too.  So he sat even closer, his side flush to Steve’s, and set his hand on Steve’s knee.  “Eat.”

Steve ate, not with tiny bites but with larger yet no less uncertain ones.  Tony watched him and ate, too.  The cake was dust in his mouth.  His eyes burned with tears.  The bones of Steve’s knee were sharply prominent to his fingers.  The quiet between them was tense and miserable.  He tried not to notice any of that, and he tried not to wonder if he was strong enough to do what needed to be done.


At least it wasn’t hard to find Xeran.  The fucker was right there in the workshop on the sixth level, waiting like a predator for Tony to arrive.  “Stark,” he pleasantly greeted.

Tony reluctantly came closer.  He flat-out rued the day he’d been dumb enough to introduce himself to the other prisoners.  That had been before he’d realized just how corrupt and evil things up here were under a mask of better conditions and non-manual labor.  Now Xeran calling him by name only made everything worse.  It was so wrongly casual, like this guy was his friend or at least his coworker or something like that.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  “Xeran,” he said, fighting to keep his anger and fear in check.  “Another fine morning in paradise.”

“It is.  What’s it been for you now? A week?”

Tony swallowed through a dry throat, and a pang of pain from his stomach made him dizzy.  “Yep.”

“Congratulations.”  Tony could feel the condescending smile.  He wasn’t brave enough to look up to see it.  “Surviving this long is something.  Many new prisoners are dead within a couple of days.”

“Yay, merrily, yay.”  He set his toolbox down on one of the dirty, dented tables.  The workshop was pretty shitty, nothing more than a cement box with a few benches and tool racks.  Every day the workers filed in, collected their equipment, and headed out to do their assignments.  The Kree guards monitored everything, holding their guns at the ready like they did everywhere in Hell, but the difference in atmosphere between work on the higher levels and work down in the mine (presumably, from what Steve told him) was striking.  The engineers were still prisoners; there could be no doubt about that.  The guards still looked down on them like insects, like slaves rather than people, but they were far more restrained about their aggressions.  There was less punching, less manhandling, less yelling.  There was better lighting, cleaner conditions, healthier air quality.  It even smelled much nicer here.  Steve had begrudgingly described where he worked as a black pit, filled with dirt and blood and darkness, with violence and danger, with cruelty and sadism.  This gray, cold, compassionless place was heaven compared to that.

But Tony knew better.  There was no heaven in Hell.

Xeran wasted no time in coming closer, and Tony fought not to shudder.  Xeran came off fairly low-key and non-threatening, particularly since he was among the smaller of the aliens they’d seen so far, but he was sly and had a glint in his eyes that immediately set Tony on edge (well, more on edge).  Of course, how evil this guy was beneath his banal exterior was rather disturbing.  And he fucking wore that seemingly amiable mask really well.  He’d been here a while, years if gossip was to be believed (and God Almighty there was gossip up here in the higher levels.  Loads of it.  Tons of stories and tales of previous wars and riots and murders.  Some of them were probably embellished and exaggerated, but Tony had a feeling a lot of the more disturbing ones, like Xeran driving a laser blow torch through the eye of someone who’d crossed him a few months back, were true).  Xeran had a lot of power, with the guards, with the Kree prisoners like Kar who apparently really ran Hell, with everyone.

The goddamn engineering mafia.  If it hadn’t been so sad and terrifying, Tony would have laughed at the image of pencil-necked geeks and computer nerds and dorks with pocket protectors running an unimaginable crime syndicate.  As it was, he was too horrified to think much beyond the fact that he’d sent Steve off to work just minutes ago with him looking weak and feeble and devastated, and the whole goddamn day he knew he’d worry about him.  Drive himself crazy with it, just like he had yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.  That’s why you need to do this.  So he stayed put as Xeran pressed near and started getting his own tools ready.  He missed the security of the shank in his boot, felt naked without it.  It had been a piece of shit weapon, but it had been a weapon all the same.  Now he had nothing, and a mob boss for all intents and purposes was here to intimidate him.

It couldn’t matter.  You need to do this.

Xeran glanced at him out of the corner of his eye.  “Did you get my message last night?”

At least Tony wouldn’t have to bring the topic up himself.  Like there could be any doubt Xeran would want to force the issue.  Obviously he was anticipating that a little threat of murder during the night would inspire Tony to rethink his defiance.  Tony drew a deep breath, praying he could play this game and be cool and composed about it.  “I did.  Your delivery leaves a bit to be desired.”

Xeran smiled, his leathery face creasing with it.  His teeth were black and pointed.  “Are all you humans so flippant?”

Tony knew he shouldn’t push his luck with any attitude, but he couldn’t help himself.  “No.  It’s a rare and special trait, and I’ve been told that I’m a regular pain in the ass.  Sucks for you.”

The alien regarded him evenly, and he went right into the core of the matter.  “Your friend hardly seems the joking type.”

Because my friend’s body is eating itself.  “You gotta work at him a little,” Tony tautly replied, trying to hide how upset he was with forced bravado.  Trying not to seem like he cared.  “Sure, he seems like a stick in the mud, but he’s got a wicked sense of humor when you get him to open up.”  That was so true, and all the sudden his mind was slipping to better places and better times.  Steve’s sense of humor had surprised him, particularly after spending months (years, actually) convincing himself that Steve was too self-righteous, overly moral, and stupid to have the capacity to laugh.  But he did.  He was sassy, witty, dry and clever, much more so than the legend of Captain America and Tony’s preconceptions ever led him to believe.  Just the thought of that reminded him of nights at the Tower, when it was just the two of them after a meeting for the Avengers or something, joking without the mantle of Captain America or the weight of Howard’s legacy…  How much he and Steve really had in common, when it came down to it.  How much he enjoyed those simple moments, having a beer together like two friends.  How much he liked the sound of Steve’s laugh, the way he loosened up when he joked, the way his eyes sparkled when he did…

Nope, he definitely didn’t need to be thinking about this now.  Tony cleared his throat, slamming shut his case of tools and heading to the workshop’s exit.  The scanner was ready for him when he got there, the blue beam of light passing over his torso, registering his serial number via the tattoo, and letting him through with a chirp.  Xeran followed.  He was scanned, too, but on the other side, where Tony and most of the others were being handed worn-out tablet computers that had their days’ assignments on them, Xeran wasn’t.  He also didn’t have any tools.  There was no effort to hide the special treatment, either.  Tony gritted his teeth and took the pad the head Kree engineer shoved at him.  The guy glared today as he did every day, but he didn’t hit or yell.  He glared at Xeran, too, though this was more frustrated and resentful than anything else.  The air of tenuous peace up here – the stalemate between the Kree and the engineers they desperately needed – was really becoming alarming.

Tony tried not to let it bother him, though he did wonder about it.  He didn’t know a thing about the Kree beyond the fact that every single of them that he’d met so far was pissed off and cruel, but he was getting the distinct impression that they didn’t exactly want to be here, either.  Not that they were prisoners themselves per se, but it certainly didn’t seem like they were loving their jobs (other than loving the power and the rush they seemed to get from beating on everyone else).  That made him in turn wonder about the Kree Warlord, about whom no one ever spoke.  What was his deal?  If he needed people to fix this massive mine of his, why not hire more willing workers?  It made sense to use slaves and prisoners as miners, but relying on prisoners for fixing everything that went wrong here (and a lot of shit went wrong because everything in this massive underground city was rundown and on the verge of failure) seemed stupid.  That gave the engineers the control they had.  Were the Kree lousy at engineering?  A warrior race?  They all seemed to be the big and burly types, thugs rather than thinkers, so maybe that was true.  Or maybe this place was a shitty assignment, the sort given to the people who screwed up and needed a job that was equals parts punishment and unimportant so their mistakes wouldn’t matter.

Maybe that same logic applied all the way up to the top.  Maybe this Warlord guy just didn’t get along with the rest of his people, so he was out here (wherever here was), banished with few supplies and shoddy equipment and relying on his prisoners to keep his operation going.  Who the hell knew?  Whatever the reason, Tony didn’t feel good about it.  He supposed that was a dumb thing to even think about, considering the slew of actual problems they had.  But he couldn’t shut his brain off, especially when he was this tired and scared, and his brain always wanted to know everything, like who was at the top of Hell and why.  Who he and Steve would die for, if and when it happened.

Right.  Stay on target.  Tony glanced over his work for the day.  Power regulators again.  That was fine with him.  He started out onto the walkway, avoiding jets of steam billowing up from below.  Sweat immediately drenched him; it was always so goddamn hot up here, like a sauna.  Of course, the fact that Xeran was dogging his every step was making his discomfort so much worse.  That and what he needed to do.  As they walked to the first massive power junction where Tony would work today, Xeran stayed oddly quiet, clearly waiting for Tony to cave and accept his offer.  Fuck you, Tony thought.  He just needed to jump in.  He had been a fucking CEO for years for crying out loud, a successful one.  He could negotiate.  “Actually, I have been thinking about your offer.”

“Have you now.”  It wasn’t a question, and Xeran spoke with a hint of a warning.

Tony surged onward, again trying to drum up some cool, casual confidence.  “I have.  And I’d like to make you a counter-offer.”

They reached the power station, which was fed by the generators down below in another section of the pit.  As Tony understood it, the shards mined here were the major source of power in this section of the galaxy, like coal only significantly more potent.  Some sort of reaction pulled the energy from the shards, whatever it was that gave them their glow, and the reactors harnessed that energy and fed it to the power stations above.  The rest of what the miners mined was sold.  This was one of the main power stations, and it served the elevators that brought the shards up from the mine for shipping.  There were hundreds of regulators in a series that climbed dozens of feet into the air.  Close to the large pillar of them were the massive gears and pulleys used to control the lifts.   Multiple dilapidated catwalks encircling the machinery, stretching back and forth from one area to another.  Tony had realized right away in Hell that you had to get used to walking on and working with shit that looked like it would break and kill you at any moment.

He climbed the steps to the junction, Xeran following.  The alien didn’t say anything, waiting for Tony to get where he was going.  And Tony waited, too, using the walk to try and settle his nerves.  He’d dealt with bad guys before.  Loads of them.  The Ten Rings and Stane and Vanko and Loki and Killian.  Dozens of mad scientists and terrorists and war mongers since becoming an Avenger.  There was no reason to be so intimidated by this asshole.  He was still strong here, even though his knife had been stolen, even this far from home and without Iron Man and his tech and the rest of the team.  Even without Steve.  He had something Xeran wanted, and he could use that as leverage.

He had to, for Steve’s sake.

Finding the right section of relays, he set his tool case down again.  Xeran stood behind him.  “Well?” he asked impatiently.  “I’m waiting.”

Tony took a deep breath and turned around.  He stared down the other with a hard glare.  “My counter-offer is this.  I’ll work for you.  Join your ranks.  Fix whatever you need without complaint.  Whatever it is…”  He forced himself to continue, realizing he was signing a moral blank check with this.  “I’ll do it.”

Xeran grinned.  It was pretty hideous.  “Okay.”

“But I want extra food and water for someone else,” Tony firmly declared.  “In addition to what you’d give me.  I want protection for someone else, too.”

That ugly smile slipped.  Xeran’s dark eyes narrowed.  “That’s altruistic of you.”

Tony crouched and pawed through his case to find his drill.  “Take it or leave it.”

It was quiet a moment aside from the clanking of the other workers and the rumbling, humming, and hissing of the machinery around them.  Tony tried to stay composed, finding his drill and heading to the panel that needed to be removed.  He worked on autopilot, every sense keenly trained on Xeran as he loosened the bolts.  Everything rode on what happened next.  Their only hope.  “I assume this is for your friend, the one who’s been protecting you,” Xeran finally said.  “The Grub.”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Tony retorted, disgusted at the derogatory term.  He gripped the drill tighter as it vibrated and whirred.  “You want me to work for you, and I want him fed and protected.  And that’s it.”

“Why?”

Tony’s eyes flashed in irritation as he pulled the panel off.  “Why what?”

Xeran stepped even closer still.  “Why are you risking what you could have for him?  I offered you everything, real food, a safe place to sleep, as much comfort as you can have down here, as much freedom as there is, and you’re negotiating for more.  For some lowly Grub.”  Xeran grabbed Tony’s arm, pulling him from where he was trying to work.  His fingers pressed into Tony’s flesh roughly.  “You see what they are, don’t you?  Stupid sacks of meat.  Expendable muscle.  Insects, nothing more.  Made to burrow in the filth and the dirt and the shit. Made to be squished.”  His nails were darts of pain as he dug in and squeezed.  Tony winced.  “That’s all they’re good for.  You can’t care about them.  They’re below us, Stark, in every way imaginable.”

Racist asshole.  He’d never imagined that he’d find himself in a world where smarts were considered to be the thing that separated “lesser” beings from the upper class.  He’d lived a protected youth (well, protected from other kids at least), so he’d never faced much ridicule from his peers for his genius.  In his family, intelligence had been prized.  Still, he’d known it was there, the jealousy and the disdain that other kids like him had faced.  This was like the extreme opposite direction, and he felt dirty just being part of the privileged class.  He yanked his arm away.  “He’s my friend.”

“He’s nothing,” Xeran hissed, crowding him again.  “You want to survive here?  You look out for yourself and no one else.  Find your niche, fall in line, and do your job.  Stay in your place.  Take what you can and be happy for it.”

Tony couldn’t help himself.  He was upset, and when he was upset, he pushed buttons.  “What?  Like you?”  He set his drill down at his feet and reached into his case for a screwdriver.  “You seem like a real happy son of a bitch.”

Xeran cocked a hard ridge of flesh that seemed like his eyebrow.  “You’ve been here a week.  A week.  That’s pathetic, nothing really.  I’ve been here years.  How do you think I’ve become what I am?  I’m not just surviving.  I’m flourishing.  I’m living the high life.  And you have the smarts and expertise to do the same but not if you cling to some useless Grub.”

“Stop calling him that!” Tony snapped.  Xeran glowered at him, and he turned back to the exposed circuitry, afraid of the intensity of that scowl.  He swallowed and gathered himself.  “That’s my offer.  You take care of us both, and I’ll do what you want.  You don’t, and you’re out of luck.  Like I said, take it or leave it.”

Xeran’s lips twitched in fury.  “I could have had you killed last night.  I could have had my men slit your throat.  Carve up your precious Grub.  I could have destroyed you.”  Tony couldn’t help it, not the cold rush of terror washing over him or his breath hitching or his eyes widening.  He turned around despite his fear, and saw Xeran grinning like a gleeful demon again.  There was nothing other than cold, sadistic glee in his eyes.  “But I didn’t because you are a league above every other engineer in our ranks.  You’re a prize to be had.  I have been patient with you because of that, but my patience is spent.”

Desperation made Tony dizzy.  “Please.  If you won’t give two shares of food, fine.  Give my portion to him.  He needs to eat or he’s going to die.”

“I provide extra food to ensure my workers can work, that my stable is happy.  That means you.  It doesn’t benefit me at all to feed him.”

“Please!”

“No.”

Just like that, after days of watching Steve wither and suffer, after days of being harassed and threatened by this bastard, Tony lost his control.  Roughly he pushed Xeran back, gripping the screwdriver like a weapon.  “You’re a fucking asshole!  You think I’m ever gonna help you?  Huh?  Never!  Not like this!  Not with him dying!”

Then came the ruthlessness that seemed so incongruous with Xeran’s stature.  He was a little shorter than Tony but deceptively strong, and he wrenched Tony around and shoved him into the exposed circuity.  The electricity sparked and fizzed, jolting Tony when his cheek pressed near.  He yelped and squirmed, but Xeran held him there.  It burned, arcing into his skin and muscles and bones all down his body, not enough to electrocute him but definitely sufficient to cause a great deal of pain.  He whimpered, nerves flaring with agony.  He couldn’t close his eyes or move anymore, like his brain’s commands were interrupted getting to his muscles.  Oh, God.  Oh, God!

“You want to negotiate, Stark?” hissed Xeran’s voice in his ear, and his grip in Tony’s hair and his strength across his back was unyielding.  He let him back from the power regulators after only a moment or two, though, let him regain himself enough to listen, but he didn’t let him go, and the threat of more pain was sizzling and sparking right in front of him.  “Here’s my counter-offer to your counter-offer.  If he’s so important to you, if you need him, then how about this?  Shut your smart mouth.  Do what I say.  Work for me, and maybe I won’t kill him.”

Tony shivered, the smell of ozone and his own singed flesh making him dizzy.  The crackling circuits were barely an inch away from his face.  “Please don’t…”  He didn’t know for what he was begging, Steve’s life or his own.

It didn’t matter.  He had no control over anything.  Xeran’s yanked his hair, pulling his head back and exposing his throat.  “You think I can’t reach him down in the mine, human?  I can reach anyone.  I can strike him down like it’s nothing.  Maybe I’ll do it anyway just for the fun of it.  Remove the complication he’s creating.  Make an example of him just to show you that you have no power that I don’t give you.”

“No!  Please!”

“You don’t argue.  You don’t fight.  And you don’t negotiate with me.  Understand?”  Tony couldn’t make his brain work.  He trembled, helpless.  His mouth opened, but only a garbled whimper escaped him.  Xeran shook him roughly.  “Understand?”

“Ye-yes.  Yes!”

Xeran let him go.  Tony stood there, terrified beyond any sort of thought or movement, as the alien backed away.  Eventually the panic receded enough that he could turn around.  Xeran glared at him.  “Get it through your stupid head.  There’s no place for love down here.”

Tony’s mind was so addled with fear and pain that the word didn’t register for a moment.  When it did, his blood went cold again.  Sometimes the translators screwed up, misinterpreted meanings or substituted words that didn’t make sense.  That had to be it, because that wasn’t right, and even if it was, there was no way anyone could know, and he fucked up so bad and–

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered.  “I’m sorry!  Please!”

“You better hope that I’m feeling generous today,” Xeran snarled.

“No, please,” Tony whimpered, eyes stinging.  He couldn’t stop shaking.  He went down on his knees, begging.  “I’ll – I’ll do whatever you want.  Anything.  I’ll do anything!  Just please don’t hurt him.  Please don’t kill him!  Please!

Xeran said nothing more.  He simply walked away and left Tony sobbing and shaking and desperately hoping he hadn’t just signed Steve’s death warrant.

Chapter Text

Steve was fairly certain the other miners were trying to kill him.  Granted, this wasn’t exactly shocking or all that uncommon.  The Mooks, that gang of miners that had been after him since day one, were at the forefront of it.  They’d been terrorizing him constantly ever since they put that pick axe through his hand and he’d had the gall not to keel over in front of them.  They’d been harassing him and targeting him ever since, causing “accidents” that were blamed on him or getting their shots in when the guards weren’t watching (or weren’t caring, which seemed to be most of the time).  Steve was used to it, though the fact that he was getting weaker and weaker wasn’t helping one damn bit.  He couldn’t hide that he wasn’t capable of working like he used to, that he couldn’t swing his axe as fast or as hard, that he couldn’t lift like he’d been able to just a few days ago or endure the grueling conditions with any sort of ease.  He couldn’t hide that he was starving, and the Mooks knew it.

That had made the last few days even more of a living hell.  Heh.  A living hell in Hell.  He’d have to tell Tony that one later since Tony seemed to get a lot of wry joy from making jokes and puns about this place.  Kind of like how an insane man found his own antics amusing.  That was probably the only good thing down here, the endless entertainment Tony got from trying to make fun of it.  It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t like he was doing it because he actually found this funny (at least, Steve hoped not.  He was worrying more and more that Tony was slowly but surely falling off the deep end down here).  That was how Tony dealt with things, with spiteful sarcasm, and he was witty enough that more than once it brought a smile to both their faces.  They needed that as much as they needed food, particularly after whatever had happened last night that had Tony so upset.  It terrified Steve that he didn’t know, that Tony looked so fundamentally rattled and shaken and he had no context for why.  It terrified him that Tony was terrified.  Steve wasn’t stupid.  He meant what he’d told Tony at breakfast.  He was starving – dying – and there was no sense in wasting food on him when it was sadly obvious it was a lost cause.  The amount of food he needed might as well be an infinite banquet for how accessible it was; even two or five or ten times what he was eating now wasn’t going to be enough.  He knew he was doomed, and Tony knew it, too, for all he was trying to deny it.  Honestly, this morning was the first time they’d really faced it, even for a second.

Steve wasn’t feeling nearly as certain and strong as he’d acted.  That’d been a show for Tony’s sake.  The truth was, Steve was goddamn horrified of dying like this, agonizingly slowly, getting weaker and sicker and becoming more and more of a burden on Tony.  Forcing Tony to watch.  Tony didn’t do well with frustration or helplessness, so having no choice but to simply observe Steve fading away was cruel.  Steve didn’t want that for him.  He also didn’t want Tony to be left alone here with no one to protect him, no one to weather this nightmare with him, no one to care about him.  The mere idea of that was so utterly upsetting that he couldn’t even think about it.  And it hurt.  Not just dying like this, which was painful, really painful.  His injuries aside, feeling his body essentially cannibalize itself was a miserable experience.  The hunger was draining, a noose around his neck that was slowly but ruthlessly tightening it.  His body ached in a way he couldn’t describe.  It was relentless, like some sort of creeping, torturous disease for which there was no cure.  He was cold all the time, shaking all the time.  It was worse than being sick as a kid, worse than constantly dealing with influenza and pneumonia and bronchitis as he had.  Worse than anything he’d ever suffered.

But it wasn’t worse than the way Tony looked at him, practically vibrating with barely restrained panic and fear and desperation, with the need to help him.  It wasn’t worse than the ache inside every time he thought about leaving Tony to this hell alone.  It wasn’t worse than how he feared for Tony, how he hated that he was being reduced to this, how he couldn’t keep Tony safe now.  How his feelings for Tony were going to mean nothing in short order.  How he couldn’t even bring himself to be honest, and pretty soon it’d be too late.  Nothing was worse than that.

At any rate, the Mooks had been all over him like the bullies they were, bullies targeting convenient prey.  They knew he was weak, and they’d been absolutely delighting in taking advantage of it.  Still, despite all the crap they’d put him through, how much they’d tormented and humiliated him since that first day, today…  Yeah, today they were actually trying to murder him.

The mine cart careening toward him was a blur of a darker shadow amongst lighter shadows, and were it not for the fact that Steve’s eyes were functioning like normal, he wouldn’t have seen it coming.  Thankfully he did, and thankfully his reflexes were still decent, because he was able to dive out of the way before the cart smashed into the one in front of him.  He hit the ground hard, rolling to his side and wincing at both the pain and the thunderous rattle of the two carts colliding.  Rocks tumbled everywhere.  He swallowed down his pounding heart, knowing that if he’d been a split second slower, he’d have been crushed.

Up the tracks a bit, Mook A was laughing.  He was clearly the one who’d pushed that cart down the slope.  The other Mooks were pointing and making a show of how close Steve had come to being flattened.  “Get up!” yelled the foreman, grabbing Steve by the hair and hauling him off the filthy ground.  “Get the fuck on your feet!  Clean up this mess!”

Steve was so dizzy that for another moment he wavered.  His heart was pounding in his ears, and he couldn’t catch his breath.  It reminded him too much of the asthma attacks he used to get when he was a kid, the way his throat would close up and no matter how much he’d gasp and pant, there was never enough air in his lungs.  That was how this felt.  The irony was pretty damn disturbing, that he’d gone through all this, the serum and becoming Captain America and ending up seventy years in the future and now across the galaxy, only to die from pretty much the same terrible things he’d faced back home.  His body was completely betraying him.

“Now!” the foreman bellowed, hitting Steve hard.  The blow to the back of the head didn’t help matters, and Steve fell back to his knees, scrambling to pick up the rocks that had spilled from the carts.  He moved as fast as he could, clumsy because things didn’t always work right anymore, not his damaged hands and skinny arms and battered torso, and because he was still terrified.  That was fourth time something had almost crushed him or hit him or skewered him or worse so far today.  It couldn’t be a coincidence.  Something was going on.  He could feel it.  A lot of the other miners were keeping their distance from him, avoiding him like the plague.  That wasn’t all that weird; it wasn’t like people were friends down here (or even allies.  Steve didn’t think any of the other miners even cared to find out his name, and he sure as hell hadn’t shared it once it became obvious what sort of place this was).  Shortly after starting work this morning, though, he noticed everyone else was watching him strangely, like they knew who he was and that it meant something.  And that was weird, because some of them were staring with calculation, some with hunger, some with fear and sympathy, some with amusement.  But they were all staring at him.

How the hell did he get so special?  Whatever was going on, it was definitely nothing good.  That was for sure.

Steve managed to get control of his emotions and find his composure.  He stood with his armful of rocks and dumped them into the cart.  Dropping again, he caught a glimpse of the Mooks up the hill.  Mook A, the big one who was always leading the others in tormenting him, was glaring at him with sadistic glee.  Steve pushed down his shudder and scrambled to finish cleaning up.

Today’s fun and games involved moving the rubble they’d excavated yesterday from the new section of the mine.  He hadn’t told Tony about how a significant portion of the lower section of the cave they’d been digging had collapsed and killed dozens of workers yesterday.  The Kree foremen and guards weren’t exactly careful about their mining plans, and for a couple days prior Steve had had the feeling the new tunnel wasn’t stable.  He’d been damn lucky he hadn’t been down there when the walls and supports had finally succumbed.  He’d tried to say something to one of the foremen just before, that the rock down there was weaker and not capable of withstanding the stress of blasting and digging so haphazardly, but that had earned him a rough hand across the face and a bunch of vile insults spat at him.  He hated being right sometimes.

At the moment, work was composed of loading the carts with all the rocks that had fallen and lifting them up and out of the dark, claustrophobic new area.  The new section of the mine they were digging was significantly lower than the previous one.  They were down a good fifty feet here with a nearly vertical wall of rock between them and the higher sections.  A few scaffolds and ladders were the only ways in and out.  The first time Steve had been ordered down he’d been terrified the Kree would just take the ladders away, and all the Grubs would be left to die.  That hadn’t happened yet at least.  At the top of the incline, the carts they filled were being attached to chains and raised up to the higher area where their contents were sorted.  There weren’t too many shards embedded in the rock here, but no stone was left unchecked.  That seemed to be the better, safer task.  Working down here was hot and very dark, and more than once one of the other miners had pulled out a body part out of the rubble rather than just rock.  Thankfully Steve hadn’t experienced that joy yet, but considering how today was going, it was only a matter of time.

Dumping the last of the rocks that had spilled into the cart, he limped around to the front and hooked the chain to his belt.  It was a nice feature, getting to experience how livestock felt pulling equipment.  He threw everything he had into dragging it up the slope to where the Mooks were waiting.  The foreman spat something about how weak and useless he was now (no, really – he hadn’t goddamn noticed) and assigned another miner to help him.  It was grueling.  The carts were heavy iron, made to be moved mechanically rather than like this, and with the weight in them, pulling them felt impossible.  Steve gritted his teeth, ignoring the miserable pang from his belly and the aches of protest all over him, and dug in hard.  His boots slid; even with the help of the other guy pushing, the thing was too heavy, and he was too weak to handle something like this.  A week ago, it wouldn’t have been a problem.  He would have been able to shove it up there alone and without breaking a sweat gone back for more.  Now his muscles were so damn weak that he had to fight for every inch up the hill.

At the top, he gasped a heavy sob of relief.  He sagged against the metal of the cart for a second, unable to catch his breath.  He felt like he was simply going to collapse.  The cave was spinning, a smear of shadows and rock around him, and he spat the horrible taste from his mouth while he tried not to be sick.  He wasn’t sure he had anything to throw up.

“Keep going!”

The foreman’s shout jolted him, and he went around to push rather than pull.  He pressed up against the cart beside the alien, summoning some energy to get it the rest of the way to the Mooks.  It’d be nice if the Kree took care of their equipment every once in a while, like oiling the damn wheels.  With one last mighty push, Steve and the other miner propelled the cart to the rest where the Mooks were hooking them to the pulley system to lift them up and out.  The guy beside him tripped and went down hard, nearly smacking his face into the hard rock of the ground.  Steve rushed over to his side to help him up, but the alien shoved him back.  “Get off me,” he hissed, eyes flashing.  “Don’t touch me.”

Steve stared at him.  “Why?  What–”

“Stupid human!”  The alien was scrambling away as though mere association with Steve was poisonous.  Steve followed without thinking.  He was so damn confused.  “You stay away from me!  Don’t come any closer!”  That hurt.  He didn’t know why.  No one down here treated anyone with any respect or compassion, of course, but this felt like something else, something more.  “I mean it!  Get away!”

“Why?” Steve demanded.

The miner shook his head, eyes wide with horror and just a touch of sympathy.  “They marked you.”

Suddenly Steve felt like the mine was closing in on him.  Marked.  All the worries with which he’d been suffering that day…  Hearing they were really more than just paranoia, more than just a bad feeling, was shocking.  He stood there reeling with it, mouth open, eyes wide, mortified and stupefied and paralyzed with horror.  Who’s they?  He thought to ask, but the guy was already gone, and the Mooks were already shoving the next empty cart viciously toward him, and the foreman was screaming.  “Move faster or the lash is all you’ll get tonight!”

Steve jerked into motion, staggering back down to get the next load.  His mind was racing.  There’s a mark on me.  A target on me.  He couldn’t catch his breath, and it wasn’t just his failing body.  Who’s trying to have me killed?  Did something happen to Tony?  Christ, did they kill him?  Fear rushed over him, energizing his depleted muscles, and he had to fight hard against the urge to run.  He had no proof of anything, no knowledge beyond this horrific little path to and from the rubble he’d walked over and over for hours today, but somehow he was certain this had to do with whatever had Tony so upset that morning.  If they, whoever they were, wanted him dead to get to Tony, to influence Tony… 

There was nothing he could do about it down here.  Helplessness left him itchy and miserable, and it was nearly impossible to deal with it.  More than once he found himself glancing around as he continued working.  That sense that everyone was staring at him was so much worse.  The weight of it was crushing, like there was an actual target on his back that was dragging him down.  Six months ago or so Clint had gone through a real mobster flick phase during the team’s mostly weekly movie nights, and they’d ripped through The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas and Scarface.  Just thinking about that made all sorts of crazy stuff stampede through Steve’s head about these people.  Tony was trying to keep things from him, and he knew it, but he was aware that there were factions down here, factions that were corrupt and that dealt in coercion and intimidation and violence.  The group of engineers that had harassed Tony the first day were still trying to force him into serving them like a slave.  It hadn’t escaped Steve’s attention that Tony came back from work every evening as afraid of that as he was about Steve’s ailing health.  Tony kept calling the engineering faction the mafia, for crying out loud.  It always seemed like a joke but he said it with a particular glint in his eyes that suggested it wasn’t.  The engineering mafia, who were in power hungry and in cahoots with the guards.  It seemed ridiculous, only it was real.

And the mafia had put a goddamn hit out on him.  They’re trying to kill me.  He didn’t understand why.  Why now?  Why him?  Why?  There could only be one answer, though, when he thought about it.

If they killed him, there wouldn’t be anyone to protect Tony.

Functioning became that much harder but for entirely different reasons.  He couldn’t concentrate because he was constantly focusing his senses around him instead of on the task at hand.  Renewed vigor burst over him – I can’t let them hurt Tony – and suddenly he had more determination and more energy than he’d had in days.  It was like his first day of work again, when he’d known he needed to survive whatever peril came his way so he could get back to Tony.  Hypervigilant and uncomfortably anxious.  He was trying to hear every sound, keep an eye out for the next potential threat, anticipate whatever attack was coming next.  They’d been trying to kill him all day, and the day wasn’t done.  His learning about their attempts was completely incidental; nothing had really changed, not for them.  They’d try again.  He had to be ready for it.

When it finally happened, he wasn’t.

It was near the end of the day.  He’d gone unbothered for hours, long enough that he was starting to think that maybe he had been imagining it all, this grand conspiracy to have him murdered.  Maybe this was all some fabrication of his mind as he slipped more into paranoia, as he struggled with how he was withering physically and emotionally.  He couldn’t deny a bitter part of him had wondered if it’d be better to just get it over with and be killed rather than facing this slow process of starving to death.  Yeah, that was despicable, pessimistic garbage and not like him at all, but he couldn’t help but question his subconscious doubts.  Despite his beliefs otherwise, this place was changing him.

At any rate, the fact that he’d come this far without anyone really coming after him made him wonder if any of his fears were real.  The horn went off to signal the end of the day, and he actually thanked his lucky stars to have survived another.  He wasn’t the only one.  A collective sigh of relief went through the weary miners, and with the guards watching, they all began to head towards the ladders.  Steve pulled the last cart up to the wall.  He was shaking with fatigue at this point, and his entire midsection was pulsing with absolute misery.  It was like his belly was begging him for something to fill it, and the thought of another unsatisfying lump of cake made him simultaneously want to cry from despair and to cheer in relief.  He did neither, though, spending only a second to catch his breath after getting the cart into place.

“Last one,” one of the Mooks said, working to hook the cart up to the chains from above.  Steve wasn’t as speedy getting himself unhooked from it, hands clumsy and trembling.  “Come on!  Don’t you want to go up?”  Steve gritted his teeth.  Finally he got the chain unfastened from his belt.  “Get over here and help!”

“Move it!” bellowed the foreman to their left.  “Get that cart up there!”

“Help, you filthy Terran,” hissed another of the Mooks, and he threw a length of chain at Steve.  Steve barely caught it before it struck him in the face.  “Hook it up!”  There were four latches, one on each corner of the cart.  They were bent and battered, rusted to hell, and, like the wheels on so many of these things, in desperate need of repair.  Steve grasped the lever in front of him, trying to open the locking mechanism enough to feed the chain through the slot.  The damn thing was about as uncooperative as everything else down here.  The horn shook the cavern again.  “Hurry up!”

He wrenched it harder, a little concerned the lever would break before it opened anything.  The whole thing was coming right off the side of the cart, barely attached at this point, and one solid yank would probably rip it all free.  It didn’t, though.  His next pull finally got it open.  Heaving a sigh of relief, he fed maybe a foot of the chain through the mechanism and latched it onto the hook inside the cart for extra stability considering how broken the whole thing appeared. 

“All clear!” the first Mook shouted once the others had finished, too.  “Lift!”  Someone over near the controls for the pulley system pushed a crud-covered button, and the pulleys moaned loudly overhead as they started to hoist the last cart up.  Steve watched it start to ascend before turning around to join the flood of workers heading to the ladders.

He didn’t get far at all.  Something wrapped around his shoulders and yanked him back.  It was hard and furry.  Mook A’s arm.  And Mook A’s face was right above his shoulder.  “Thanks for making it so easy,” he hissed.  Steve’s blood turned to ice, and he jerked in horror, but he wasn’t going anywhere, not with the huge alien holding him in place.  “Let me help you get up top.”

Oh, no.

It happened so fast that even with his body and senses in their peak condition he would have had trouble moving in time.  As he was, there was nothing he could do as Mook A yanked something up and wrapped it twice around his neck.  Chain.  The evil bastard grinned an awful grin and clipped the chain to itself.  Steve had one horrified second to realize what he’d done, that he’d essentially made a noose, before the length of chain was drawn up right behind the cart going up.

And it took him up with it.

There was no way to scream, not with his own weight instantly strangling him.  The links of chain around his throat immediately compressed and squeezed, and the pain was unbearable.  The pulley system was fast and strong, violently yanking him higher, and it was a minor miracle the force of it didn’t break his neck outright.  That wasn’t exactly a mercy, though.  The links tightened more as he flailed and struggled, kicking against the wall, hands around the chain around his throat.  He dugs his boots in as much as he could, loosening dirt and rocks as he scrambled to get some purchase and to try and stop himself.  It wasn’t working.  His lungs burned, his throat tearing under the brutal strain, his fingers frantically digging underneath the noose to pull it away.  Everything felt like it was burning, the cave even more of a horrendous blur around him with tears flooding his eyes and panic distorting everything.  He tried harder and harder to dig his feet into something, but it was stupid to try because it only dragged him more, which choked him more, and his muscles were throbbing and his vision was darkening and seconds were slipping away and this was it – this was how he was going to die.

No!

He reached high, grabbed the chain above his head, pulled with everything he had left.  If he could take the weight of his body onto his arms, maybe he could get some slack in the chain to relieve the crushing pressure on his windpipe.  Christ, it was hard.  A few days ago he could have, but his body was so weak from starvation, his injuries, and now from mounting hypoxia that he just couldn’t do it.  He squirmed against the wall, trying to focus through the tears and sweat and blurriness in his eyes.  The pulley system had nearly lifted the cart to the top.  The top.  It wasn’t that far away, just a few feet.  If he could make it there, get his feet beneath him…

He couldn’t even suck in a breath.  The fingers of his one hand dug more and more into the chains around his neck to try and loosen them, and he pulled upward with his other hand in an attempt to get some slack.  Neither did anything, so all he could do was hold on.  Hang on.  Hang on.  Almost.  Almost.  His heart was thundering in his ears, booming and booming, and he could feel the life fading from his body.  He knew that awful sensation well, had suffered through it more than once in his youth, the indescribable sense of utter helplessness when his asthma had closed up his airways or pneumonia had made him cough so badly that breathing was utterly impossible.  This was like that, and the terror that was rushing over him in endless waves was just as awful as he remembered.  But he couldn’t succumb.  The serum let him hold his breath longer, survive against conditions like this, so if he could get to the top and get his feet beneath him…  Hang on.  Hang on.

You have to get back to Tony.

The cart stopped at the top.  Now nothing was lifting him any further, and he was dangling.  Dangling and asphyxiating, with the edge of the higher level just a few feet away.  With a ragged gasp and a burst of desperate energy, Steve kicked and kicked at the rock wall until his toes hit something, until he had the wherewithal and coordination to use that as leverage.  His muscles were as cooperative as limp noodles, and it was only sheer determination that kept him going.  It was a fiery desire to see Tony again, to live for Tony, because he at least needed to know that Tony was okay.  He wasn’t going to give up now.  He wasn’t going to let them kill him.

So he jumped up, letting go of the chain to get both his hands on the sharp edge of the rock.  The noose around his neck went lax almost instantly as the tension in the line disappeared, and he sucked in a desperate breath.  It was like a rush of relief, relief so strong that he nearly lost consciousness.  He couldn’t, though.  His arms shook with the strain, and he whimpered a weak, pathetic cry as he labored for air and to pull himself up in equal measure.  He managed both, chest heaving with shuddery breaths as he threw his leg over the top and rolled onto the sturdy ground of the higher level.  There he laid, quaking uncontrollably, gasping, praying it was over.

It wasn’t.

In the distance chains were ground together with noisy whines and clanks.  Machinery hissed anew and everything jerked back into motion.  The line between him and the cart went taut again as the pulley system hauled the vessel full of stone up further.  Steve’s eyes went wide as he felt the demanding tension again.  He had only a second, if that, before he was being violently dragged across the ground.

Shit.  This was worse.

Steve had managed to grab the chain around his neck before it returned to being impossibly tight, so there was a finger’s width of space for his trachea to work.  That was the only thing he had going for him – the only thing – because he was being viciously yanked across the unforgiving cave floor like a ragdoll.  Once again everything was an awful blur of shadow marred by streaks of indistinct light as he was wrenched around and around.  He scrambled thoughtlessly, reaching and kicking and twisting.  His free hand grasped things, mostly rocks he thought, but he couldn’t hold on as he was pulled.  Panic left him reeling almost as much as how terribly he was being whipped about.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear above the whoosh of blood in his ears and the sound of his body ripping across the ground, couldn’t breathe or think or feel anything other than the pain.  Pebbles and rocks tore at him, gouging his face and neck and hands, cutting every part of him.  The whole thing only lasted a matter of seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

Then the cart was being lifted even higher.  The transport system was gradually raising it to bring it further out of the lower areas and back up to the main cavern.  He was going to be lifted off the ground again in a matter of seconds, and there wasn’t going to be any way to get down this time.  He’d hang for sure.  No, no, no no no

Steve forced down his panic, forced himself to think.  It was hard to get his body under control as terrified as he was, but he did.  He needed to get his feet beneath him.  As the cart went higher and higher, he’d be able to.  And the chain – the goddamn chain – was hooked to one of those old, rusted, broken locking mechanisms on the side of the cart.  If he got his feet beneath him, got a chance to pull hard enough…  If he could pull at all…

He was only going to get one chance to do it.

And it came in a split second.  He sacrificed his hold on the links around his neck, let them pull even tauter and more constricting, let them choke him anew.  He had to, had to have both hands on the chain.  The pain in his throat was unbearable, an inferno of agony, and the meager breaths he’d been able to pull were gone in a flash as the cart was lifted and yanked the chain and him upward.  Steve let it.  He instinctively pulled with his arms to mitigate the strain as much as possible.  Once again he feared the force of it would just break his neck, but it didn’t.  He pulled back as much as he could, which wasn’t much, at least not until he was on his knees.  They were raggedly scraped across the floor as he was dragged, but he didn’t give in, didn’t succumb to the pain.  Didn’t quit.  When the cart went even higher, he pulled his feet forward, planted them on the ground, dug his boots in, and pulled hard.

It wasn’t giving.

His vision blackened.  His lungs seized in dying desperation.  His heart lurched in horror.  He twisted, letting himself be rammed into a boulder ahead.  The impact was brutal, jarring, but he’d been ready for it so he didn’t falter.  The rock stopped him from going further forward, and he braced his body against it and pulled again with everything he had left.  His hurt shoulder throbbed, and his injured hands bled and slipped and burned, but he couldn’t let go.  He couldn’t stop.  Don’t stop!

This time, with the extra leverage of the rock aiding him, he managed to break the locking mechanism right off.  The whole cart shook, dropping rocks left and right, and the chain slid free from it.  It fell down, and so did Steve, pitching backwards as the unbelievable tension in the chain suddenly went lax.  He landed hard on his back, and the paltry amount of air in his lungs was punched right out of him.  Shadows overtook him, and he was too spent and battered to fight it.

It was only a second that he passed out.  The feeling of air going into and out of his aching lungs, how goddamn wonderful that was, was what brought him back.  He blinked and blinked, tears rolling down his temples.  The blackness overhead turned from an amorphous blob to the jagged lines of rock.  The ringing in his ears quieted a bit, and he could hear over the whoosh of air moving in his nose and mouth.  Christ, he was alive.  I’m alive.

He wouldn’t be for long if he didn’t get up, though.  Bloody, trembling fingers fumbled to get the chain from around his neck.  It was harder than it should have been, but he gasped a sob and fought to free himself.  The second he did, he rolled onto his side and struggled not to vomit.  Bile burned in the back of his throat.  He could hardly swallow, and he was so damn dizzy that laying there on his side was all he could do.  Bloody, frothy saliva dribbled from his lips as he suffered.  Some part of his overwrought mind knew he couldn’t stay like this.  Get up.  Get up.  He needed to get up, get on his feet, act like he was okay, or they’d be on him again.  He’d lived, and they’d try to kill him again.

Get up!

He did.  Somehow he stood, coughed, spat more blood from his mouth where he’d apparently bitten his tongue.  Recoiling away from the chain, he staggered back and looked around.  They were all there.  Everyone.  Everyone was staring at him in shock, in anger, in sympathy and disgust and fear.  The whole thing had taken only a matter of minutes, and the entire mine seemed to be right there, watching him rise again.  Adrenaline was pulsing through him, and he was so lightheaded that he was almost high with it, with the oxygen rushing back to his cells, with the vitality it brought.  He felt oddly powerful, like this was the first time he’d ever cheated death.  That was hardly the case, but the moment felt monumental.  This place, these people…  He wanted to scream, to cheer, to run, to shout that they’d failed.

If he was going to die, it wasn’t going to be because they killed him.

But he didn’t do any of that.  No, he just slumped in pain and exhaustion and staggered back into line.


“Holy shit…  Jesus, Steve.”

Tony was already in their spot in the dining cavern by the time Steve limped in.  He’d clearly been pacing, anxious, nearly out of his mind with anxious energy, because the second he saw Steve, he was across the way, grabbing his shoulders.  That was just as well.  The walk up from the mine had nearly done Steve in, and he desperately needed the support.  He had no energy left, no resilience or fortitude, no nothing.  Each step had been absolute agony.  As the energy of the fight or flight response had faded, it had taken with it his strength and determination.  The fact that he’d gotten here at all was nothing short of a miracle.  He couldn’t quite remember the trudge.  Obviously he’d made it, but everything from the moment he’d nearly died to here and now was a blur.  Did he drink anything a few minutes ago?  Did he get a cake?  He couldn’t recall eating it if he had.  His hands were bloody and scraped but empty.  The whole of him was like that, covered in red and ripped and scraped and battered.  A sack of flesh around nothing, because he was hollowed out and starving.

He felt like the walking dead.  It probably wasn’t far from the truth.

Tony was absolutely horrified.  His eyes were wide, his wan face bathed in sweat.  There were reddened blisters down his cheek, not serious ones but definitely the sort to be painful.  He seemed okay otherwise but terrified to high heaven as he cupped Steve’s face and lifted his chin.  Steve’s neck was so torn and sore that even that little movement was excruciating.  “Oh, Jesus, fuck, fuck,” Tony moaned.  “God, what happened…”

Steve couldn’t speak.  His throat hurt too much.  His lips and tongue felt numb.  Any sense of triumph he’d felt before down in the mine was gone, leaving nothing but the realization that his neck had nearly been crushed and he’d nearly been strangled.  He tried to say something, but nothing came out other than a breathy whimper.  He shook his head jerkily.  Even if he could talk, he didn’t have it in him to explain it.

Tony seemed a blink away from crying, a breath away from complete panic.  He pulled Steve closer, guiding him back to the other wall.  He was looking all over, everywhere and at everyone, as he turned them so that Steve was hidden behind him.  As hidden as he could be, anyway.  It helped that Steve couldn’t straighten to his full height.  Tony held him there, torn between continuing his frenzied surveillance and trying to see how bad off Steve was.  His hands were shaking like crazy.  “We gotta get out of here,” he breathed.  “They’re trying to kill you.”

Steve couldn’t help a choked laugh.  It hurt like hell, but, lord, that was stupid.  Like he hadn’t noticed.  Tony read that all wrong, shivering through a miserable sigh.  “This is all my fault,” he whispered, crowding Steve more into the wall.  He reached up, lightly touched Steve’s cheek and fingered the gash there.  Steve cringed.  It was one of the many stinging places all over his body.  They were fairly well melding together into one constant, throbbing ache.  Tony sobbed, fury in his gaze.  “Jesus, I should have never – I fucked up.  I fucked up so bad.  I tried to work something out with them, tried to get you more food…  He’s a fucking monster.  He went after you because of me.  I should have known better.  I should have known!  All day I was terrified they’d…”  Tony stopped babbling.  He bit his lip hard, pulling his bloody fingers away to press his palm to his forehead.  “Goddamn it, Steve.  I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry!”

Steve was too deeply set into shock and pain to follow any of that.  They again.  The engineering mafia.  And Xeran.  Steve thought his name was that.  Xeran, the guy trying to force Tony to work for him.  He couldn’t think about it any further than that, though.  Tony sniffled, wiping at his eyes, smearing fresh blood and dirt on his face.  Again he was looking around.  “Fuck, all of them…  They’re all staring…”

They were.  Steve blinked the blurriness away and saw dozens of prisoners watching.  He had a hard time tracking the aliens around them, at least not beyond seeing yellow and blue and red and black eyes on them.  He was too damn tired to care, closing his own eyes and leaning into the wall.  Tony gasped a short, frustrated breath.  “God, I can’t deal with this.  I don’t know who’s working for them and who’s not.  Maybe they all are…  Like they need a reason to want to hurt us.”  Haven’t so far.  “Fucking put me out of my misery…”

That didn’t sound half bad.

“Can you run?”

Steve’s eyes popped open.  Run.  To where?  There wasn’t any place to hide down here, no place safe.  If Xeran or whoever wanted him dead, had guys everywhere trying to take him out…  He wasn’t any better off in their cell in the barracks or here or out in the main caverns or anywhere.  He was a marked man, and surviving what the Mooks had done to him was only prolonging the inevitable.

But logic didn’t factor in much, not with Tony staring at him with terrified, imploring eyes.  His eyes were always so beautiful, even like this, red-rimmed with exhaustion, wet with tears, steeped in pain and fear and fury.  Steve couldn’t do anything but stare for second, letting himself get lost in those brown depths.  There was so much intelligence there, awe-inspiring and sharp as a knife.  He’d been finding Tony’s eyes more and more consuming as their relationship had progressed from reluctant teammates to barely friends to this, whatever they were now.  Two lone souls trapped in Hell and clinging to each other.

You’re killing him.

“Steve, focus.  Come on.  Can you run?”  There was noise behind them, loud shouting in a language the translator wasn’t handling well.  The tension in the air was palpable, suffocating, and he felt like his throat was being crushed again.  He swallowed the taste of blood.  Tony shook him gently, trying to ground him.  “We gotta get out of here.  These assholes aren’t gonna stop.  We have to go!”

“Tony…” he whispered.  All the sudden a shadow was looming.  Steve couldn’t process it, couldn’t understand why Tony was pushing him along the wall, why yet again they were running for their very lives.  They were, though.

And Tony was yelling.  “Get the fuck away from us!  Get back!”  He was yelling and punching.  The inventor stood there, shoving back an alien who had what looked like broken wings.  Tony was balling his right hand into a fist and ramming it into the guy’s gullet.  He fell back with a gurgle, but there were more.  There were always more.  “Run, Steve!”

Run.  Steve tried.  He took one step and fell.  His leg just went numb, gave out completely, and more shadows were coming.  They were going to kill him.  He was down, and he was weak, and there was no way he could fight back.  Not anymore.

“Steve, get up!  Get up!”  Tony was there, arm around his back.  People were laughing cruelly, making comments about there hardly being any sport to this, that it wasn’t worth the effort.  Tony pulled at him.  “Come on, Steve.  Please.  Come on, come on, go…”  Get up.  Steve stumbled away from Tony’s arms, scrambling forward almost blindly, staggering for the exit.  Behind him, Tony was shouting more and more to a crowd around them, spitting fire and rage, his angry voice ringing in Steve’s ears as he lugged himself out of the dining area.  “You stay the fuck away!” Tony shouted.  “Every single fucking one you!  Stay away!  Tell Xeran no! You hear me?  No!  Never!  He doesn’t get me if he dies!  You fucking hear me?  He’s not hurting either of us!  He’s not killing either of us!”

Another voice snapped back, “Are you blind or stupid?  Look at him.  He’s dead already.”

Steve blinked more tears loose, slumping against the gate outside, falling roughly to his ass before crumpling.  He just laid there.  He couldn’t catch his breath.  He couldn’t move.  God, he was so hungry.  So thirsty.  So tired.  He’d faced those things before, famine and dehydration and fatigue, pain and suffering and long odds and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but not like this.  Not like this.  He’d always been able to find the strength to keep fighting, to keep going, but he couldn’t now.  His body was too broken, too burdened by the serum’s demands.  There was no coming back from this.  He knew it then and there as he listened to Tony yelling and fighting behind him while being completely unable to help.  I’m dead already.

If someone had wanted to kill him right then and there, right now, he wouldn’t have been able to stop it.  He almost wished someone would if only to spare Tony.

Tony.

“Steve, God, get up!”  Something was grabbing at his arm, insistently pulling, and Steve forced open his eyes.  There was a lighter shadow overhead with filthy brown hair and a brown beard growing around a goatee.  Blood covered his chin from a split lip.  Those eyes.  Brown, brown eyes.  “Steve, please.  We have to get out of here.  I can’t without you.  Do you hear me?  I can’t do it.  I can’t carry you!”  The voice sounded far away, but somehow Steve knew it wasn’t.  It was full of anger, full of panic and fear, cracking with it.  “Please…  Please get up…”

Tony needs you.

With great effort, Steve planted his hand into the filth on the ground and pushed himself up.  The pain was devastating, like a weight around his damaged throat dragging him back down, but Tony had his arm, and Tony was pulling and pulling.  “I got you,” Tony gasped, getting Steve’s arm around his shoulders and neck.  Steve’s shoulder burned, but it was a minor misery, just one more thing on the horrendous heap of miseries.  At least Tony was there, holding his wrist to keep him in place, his other arm around Steve’s waist.  Tony was holding him up, holding him closer, panting against him.  “I got you.  Hang onto me, Steve.  Just hang on.”

He did, and somehow they made it back up into the barracks.  Again Steve didn’t remember the journey.  His brain pretty fantastically checked out, leaving Tony to handle everything.  All he knew was sometime later Tony was easing him down onto the floor of their cell, murmuring to go slow and be careful.  Steve went down onto his side, shivering with a sudden chill that wouldn’t abate.  It was shock, and it was bad.

Tony was beside him, not quite touching him.  “Jesus, what should I do?” he asked.  His voice was full of fear.  Some part of Steve’s brain that was still mostly functioning didn’t think the question was rhetorical, but he couldn’t come up with an answer, let alone find the strength to speak.  He closed his eyes and focused on breathing.  His own wheezing was thunderous.  “God, your neck…  Holy fuck.  What do I do?”

Steve didn’t know.  He could hardly focus now.  The slow, strained thump thump thump of his own pulse was deafening.  Tony’s hands were on his chest, fumbling for the zipper of his jumpsuit.  In the haze in his head, Steve got lost, and he feebly pushed the hands away.  “Easy.  Let me, huh?  Please.”

He didn’t want that, didn’t want Tony wasting time and energy on him like this.  There wasn’t any point now.  Tony was stubborn, though, batting his hands away and pushing them down to his belly.  “Stop.  Let me.”

Steve groaned.  Just the vibration of his voice in his throat was torture.  “N-No.”  That was torture, too, and his voice was nothing, a pathetic whisper.

And Tony wasn’t listening anyway.  “Shut up.  Just don’t talk.”  Steve bristled, but he had to admit it felt a little better with the jumpsuit undone.  He could breathe a little easier.  A little.  And it felt good when Tony slowly poured and dribbled water into his mouth.  “Can you swallow?  Steve?”

It hurt like hell to try.  The water in his mouth went down though, went down like acid.  He swallowed, and agony shot through his head.  His ears throbbed with sudden pressure.  Such a simple thing caused so much pain.  Tears spilled from his eyes.  “Shhh.  Drink.”  Tony rubbed a hand over his forehead.  His fingers combed through Steve’s filthy hair, working through the snarls as he stroked and hushed and dribbled more water into his throat.  Steve shook his head feebly.  “What?”

Don’t.  He couldn’t say that.  Carefully Tony poured a little water over his neck, wiping with a piece of cloth from their stash.  Wasting water and cloth.  Steve jerked, gasped, choked on a scream and not just from the pain.  “Easy!” Tony admonished.  “Don’t move!”

“N-no!” he moaned.  He whipped his arm out, pushing Tony away.

“What?  What?”  Tony shook his head.  “What–”

“No,” Steve whispered.  “No.”

“Christ, you can’t see how bad your neck is!”

Steve grimaced, struggling to cover up his throat with his hand.  The skin there…  He could feel how raw and torn and bloody it was.  He could feel how badly hurt he was.  The slightest pressure of his fingers was excruciating.  He could hardly swallow, hardly breathe, barely speak.  He should be dead.  He probably would die without care and sustenance.  He fought for a breath and turned away.  It was a battle to keep speaking, but he had to.  He had to say it.  “Don’t.”

The silence between them was devastating.  He could feel Tony vibrating with desperation behind him.  “No,” the other man said after a seeming eternity of misery, after realizing what Steve wanted.  He sniffled and shook his head.  “No, no.  I’m not doing this.  I told you this morning.  I am not sitting here and watching you die, understand me?”  Steve closed his eyes, slumping back to the floor.  He turned away.  “Yeah, okay.  The great Captain America…  The man my father wouldn’t shut up about.  Yeah, he’s fucking giving up and rolling over and letting himself die.”  He winced, but he didn’t argue.  Tony was riling himself up more and more, practically seething behind him.  “Howard always told me what a hero you were, how perfect you were, how strong and brave you were.  How you never gave up the fight even when the odds were stacked against you.  Captain America.”  Tony practically spat it.  “What a bunch of bullshit.”

Please don’t…

“Well, I’m not fucking doing it.  You hear me, Rogers?  Refuse water.  Let yourself starve.  Quit if you want.  I don’t care.  I’m not letting you die.  Fuck that and fuck you.”  Tony’s voice was agitated, thick with anger and grief.  “You goddamn bastard.  Son of a bitch.  Nope.  Nuh-uh.  This isn’t happening.  I’m fixing this.  I’m going tomorrow, and I’m gonna make that asshole listen to me.  I’ll – I’ll make him help you.  Whatever it takes.  I’ll do what they want.  I’ll work for them.  I’ll save–”

It took the very last of his energy, of his will and strength and bravery, but Steve rolled over again and grabbed Tony’s wrist.  He pulled, digging the ragged, torn ends of his fingernails into Tony’s skin.  “No,” he gasped.  It was impossibly painful, but he forced himself to breathe, to talk.  “You can’t save me.”

Tony’s eyes flashed.  “Yes, I can!  I can!  Don’t you fucking tell me what I can do!  Don’t–”

“Can’t.”  Steve knew it in his heart, in his bones.  He was done.  Even if he survived this, even if no one made good on Xeran’s orders to kill him tomorrow, even if the Mooks let him be, he wouldn’t be able to work.  That meant he wouldn’t be able to eat.  The guards wouldn’t feed him or, worse, they’d punish him for his failure to comply.  And even, even, if he could handle all that, there were so many dangers down there.  Going back to the mine…  He’d die.

And no matter what else, he was starving.  Starving.  There wasn’t anything Tony could do.  Really it was in his best interests to leave Steve behind, to sever ties with him now before he got them both killed.  If he hadn’t been so sick and weak, maybe he could have said that, too.  He should have said it.  Tony had a chance, and he didn’t.  The end.  That wasn’t defeat or cowardice.  It wasn’t weakness of spirit or surrender.  It was simply the cold, logical truth.

Steve didn’t need to say any of it.  Tony knew it all.  His eyes filled with frustrated tears, and he bit his lip hard enough that Steve saw free blood on it.  “I can’t do this,” he whimpered, his beaten, blistered face crumpling in despair.  “Steve, fuck…  Please.  Don’t be such a self-righteous, self-sacrificing asshole.  For once, don’t!”

Steve didn’t know for what Tony was begging.  For him to hang on, to keep fighting against inevitability.  For his permission for Tony to sell himself to whatever demons ran this place in exchange for a fool’s hope.  For Steve to stay with him.

Steve couldn’t give him what he wanted, not any of it.  He swallowed blood and shook his head, his own tears slipping from his eyes.  “No,” he whispered again.  He forced himself through the pain, forced the shaking, soft words out.  “You don’t…  Don’t sacrifice yourself.  Not for me.  Not for anyone.  Don’t be…  Don’t be their slave.”

“What the hell difference does it make?” Tony whined.  He yanked his arm away in fury, recoiling from Steve like Steve was physically hurting him.  There was distance between them, and it hurt to see it.   Tony shook his head.  “If I’m a slave to them or to whoever owns this place?  What does it matter?”

“Matters,” Steve insisted.  “Don’t let them own you.  Can’t let them – let them change you.  Stay a good man.”

Tony stared at him through his tears, lips trembling and body tense.  Steve held his gaze a moment more, forcing all the certainty and faith he could into it.  Then he slumped.  That was it.  He had no energy left to fight.  He truly had nothing left to give.

That horn blared outside, signaling the end of another day.  Lights out was coming.  Steve shivered and closed his eyes again.  With great effort, he rolled onto his side and tried to keep breathing even and steady through the pain.  Tried to have some hope that he’d wake up again tomorrow.  Tried to believe that Tony would be okay.  Tried so hard to have some faith.

There wasn’t any to be had.  Steve fell asleep cold and frightened.  Tony didn’t come any closer.

Chapter Text

Day 10

Tony didn’t sleep that night.  He watched Steve sleep, and when watching wasn’t good enough, he held Steve.  He gently pulled Steve into his arms against the back of their cell and embraced him tightly with the younger man between his legs and leaning into his chest.  It was bullshit, the absolute least that could be done, but it was all he had.  He sat there for hours, holding Steve and miserably keeping watch.  Steve was like ice, completely unmoving save for the minute shivers constantly wracking his body.  He was barely breathing.  Tony only knew he was alive by the faint caress of air slowly but rhythmically brushing against his forearm where it was braced across the top of Steve’s rail-thin chest.  That, and the shallow, slow thrum of his pulse, that Tony sensed under his fingertips when he probed so carefully at Steve’s carotid artery.  Steve’s neck was so bloody, swollen, and torn that touching him there at all seemed like it should be torture, but he never reacted to the pain if he felt it.  At least keeping him upright like this seemed to improve the gasping rattle of air in his damaged throat.  Oh, yes, it improved from a desperate, reedy, uneven gurgle to a slightly less desperate, still reedy, somewhat steadier wheeze.

The best Tony could fucking do.  He was trying his damnedest not to break down and cry.  There were thoughts creeping about the back of his head.  They were the same awful thoughts that had been there for days, the same godawful facts.  Electrolyte imbalances.  Vitamin deficiency.  That was what was happening in Steve’s body.  Tony wasn’t a doctor, but he knew enough about starvation to know how it devoured and killed.  He’d had his brush with it in Afghanistan when the Ten Rings had tried to compel him to cooperate by denying him food.  He could feel it now in his own body, the way his stomach was so empty that it had actually stopped hurting, the way things were blurring so much from hunger that apathy had started to choke him the way it was choking Steve.  That was what starvation did.  All that and more.

And all of that would lead to death.  Steve’s death.  Organ failure.  Heart failure.  Cardiac arrest.  The serum was draining him ridiculously quickly, damning him, killing him much faster than he would have died without it.  Of course, that was a specious argument, since without the serum, Steve would have been dead from any one of his many medical ailments he’d had before Project: Rebirth.  Tony knew about them, the weak heart and defunct lungs and crooked spine.  The guards probably would have killed someone that small and fragile on the spot.  He’d never have been able to survive this long here.  And he wouldn’t even be here without the serum to begin with.  So the irony maybe wasn’t so ironic.  Nor was it overly ironic that Steve didn’t even need the injuries on top of it, but there they were, too, making everything worse.  Tony squeezed his eyes shut against the shadows, against the screams and shouts and sounds from the cell block around them, and held Steve even tighter.  Cardiac arrest.  He counted those fluttery beats, those shaking, inconsistent breaths, counted every fucking one of them and prayed the next one followed.  He’s not going to make it through the night.  That was what the voice inside kept whispering too him, that damnable voice of reason.  It couldn’t be called pessimism when things were this bad, this undeniable.  Steve’s body had wasted away to nothing, and he was cold and quaking with shock and covered in blood and goddamn dying in Tony’s arms.  There was no getting away from that, no ignoring it.  Tony’s eyes burned in exhaustion, in pain.  They stung with tears that leaked out the tightly shut lids to stream down his filthy face and into Steve’s matted hair.  He’s not going to make it.  He’s going to die just like this.

I can’t stop it.

A choked sob finally burst out of him, and he tried to clench down on it and stop it cold, but he couldn’t.  He was too weak, too beaten down and depressed.  If any one of those animals out there came tonight, if Xeran sent more of his bastard thugs to harass them or hurt them…  Doesn’t matter.  He gasped and sobbed again, moaning with it, giving up on trying to keep watch in the pitch black or trying to count Steve’s labored heartbeats or paltry breaths or even trying to hold himself together.  There was no point.  He’d been trying to hold himself together for the past ten days, and that had gotten him, gotten them, nothing.  What was the point of fighting everything, of trying to survive the work and the violence and the awful conditions, if there was no way to escape?  No way to fix it?  There’s no point.  He was too spent.  He couldn’t be expected to do be strong while Steve was fading away like this.  Not like this.  Not in his arms.

So he let himself go, let the anguish out like this poison inside him that he swallowed in lieu of food and water.  Let it spill from him in a veritable rush of tears and shaking sobs and shivering whimpers.  He tucked his face into Steve’s hair, the sounds of his crying filling their little corner of Hell.  With it came a whole slew of hopeless prayers.  “Please don’t do this,” he whispered.  “Please don’t die like this.  Please, Steve…  Please don’t leave me…  Please…

Steve didn’t answer, at least not beyond the next weak pump of his heart and the next strained suck of hair between his ripped, dried lips.  Tony gasped another sob, his heart shuddering and skipping in his chest, and tucked Steve closer.  “I need you.  I can’t do this without you.  I don’t want to.  I can’t.”  It got more desperate, more pathetic word vomit spilling from his trembling lips as if the floodgates were open so it was all coming out, all this stuff he hadn’t even let himself see much less accept.  “I can’t live without you.  You hear me?  If you die, I’ll die, too.  I know it.  I’m not half as strong or good as you, so I need you here to show me how to keep fighting.  You’re Captain America.  I used that against you before like an asshole, but I still meant it.  You don’t quit.  You always fight.  And I…  I never told you because I was a coward, but that means something to me.  It meant something to me when I was kid.  Howard built you up as this hero, and this legend, and I believed in it then, believed in you when I didn’t even know you.  And knowing you?  I fucking give you shit all the time, Steve, but I still believe it.  I believe every part of it.  I believe in you now.  I believe in you.  And if you die…  There’s nothing to believe in.  So you can’t die.  I need you!

There was still no response.  Tony lost more of his control, everything inside splintering and shattering at the thought of Steve slipping away in his embrace.  At the possibility of Steve’s heart giving out and his lungs failing and his body getting colder and colder.  That terrified Tony more than any threat beyond the shadows of their cell, more than anything Xeran could do to him now.  That terrified him more than the idea of his own death.  He ground his teeth together, squeezing Steve harder against him.  “You can’t quit,” he hissed.  “You can’t.  I’m not quitting, so you can’t.  I’m not quitting.  I’m not quitting–”  His voice failed him, breaking, and the promise died in his throat.  It was the same bullshit as it had been all night, for days on end.  What good could he do?  He couldn’t stop Steve from dying.  He was completely helpless.  These words still all meant nothing.

But he kept chanting him in a frenetic prayer, his whisper warped with sobs.  “I’m not quitting.  I’m not quitting, so neither are you.  You’re not quitting.  You hear me?  You’re not dying like this.  Not here, not tonight.  Not like this.  I’m not quitting, so neither are you.  Neither are you…  Not quitting…”

Time lost all meaning in the darkness, so it felt like he said it forever, murmuring the words over and over and over again like a mantra.  It was a prayer turning into some sort of affirmation, and that calmed him somehow.  The more he whispered it, the better he felt, and the hysteria and panic faded.  “I can’t quit, so you can’t, either.  I can’t quit, so you can’t quit.  Don’t quit.  Come on, Steve.  We stay together.  Breathe with me.”

Suddenly that was what he was doing.  Pressing his filthy palm right over Steve’s sternum so Steve’s back was flat to his chest, he inhaled deeply.  Slowly.  He filled his lungs in an exaggerated motion so that Steve could feel it.  Then he exhaled just as slowly.  Steve’s body rose and fell as Tony did it again, like he was guiding him, showing him how.  This was insane.  Steve was deeply asleep.  He couldn’t hear him, couldn’t feel any of this, and even if he could, there was no way he could follow along.  Like holding him, though, this felt like something Tony could do, something that could help.  Some way to fix this, to save Steve’s life.  “Keep breathing.  Breathe with me.  We’re not quitting.  We’re going to make it.  Keep breathing.”

Useless nonsense.  All of it.  And Tony fucking knew better.  The cruel voice kept whispering its dissension in the back of his head, that he was stupid and Steve was too far gone for him to do anything other than keep him warm and maybe offer some meager solace as he died, but he ignored it and kept going because those things inside he couldn’t see, much less accept, drove him on.  He wasn’t going to lose Steve.  He couldn’t ever lose Steve.

I can’t quit.

“Breathe with me,” he implored, and he kissed Steve’s filthy hair and prayed more, prayed to God, prayed to anyone and anything that could save them now.  “Breathe with me.  I’ve got you, and I’m not letting you.  I’m not quitting.  I’m going to save you.  I’ll find a way…  I will…  Breathe, Steve.”

It went on and on like this.  Tony breathed, and Steve’s chest moved as he did.  Tony counted, and he thanked God for every breath and heartbeat he felt.  Tony talked and begged and babbled and whispered comfort, and Steve hung on.  Steve was fighting.  He was fighting for every second.  He wasn’t giving up.  He wasn’t quitting.  When Tony realized that, he felt even better still, more in control, and he kept fighting, too.

Eventually his exhaustion got the better of him, though.  He himself was hardly in good enough shape to maintain a constant, stalwart vigil, not with his own body wounded and hurting and starving.  It was impossible to tell wakefulness from sleep anyway, with the darkness so heavy and delirium picking at him.  He didn’t even realize he was dozing, and the dream he was having was too nice to care.  A dream or a fantasy, he didn’t know which.  It was twisted up with a memory, and he didn’t know if it was because Xeran had asked him about Steve’s sense of humor that morning (a lifetime of hell ago) or if it was just a random flight of his mind.  At any case, he and Steve were sitting in the penthouse of the Tower after a meeting late one night.  They were having a beer.  Steve was wearing that blue, button-down shirt he had with the sleeves rolled up.  Tony didn’t know who bought him that shirt, but whoever did deserved a freaking medal.  The fabric clung in all the right places, accentuating Steve’s muscles, and the color brought out his eyes.  In the dim lights of the penthouse, they seemed even deeper, even bluer.  And his hair was a warm, golden hue, and it looked so soft as he sat there on one of the stools by the bar and drank his beer and laughed at Tony’s stupid jokes.  Tony had never expected Steve to laugh like that.  It sounded so good, pure and open and easy.  Tony could lose himself in it, in Steve’s laugh and Steve’s blue eyes and how close Steve was sitting next to him, close enough that he could feel the heat from his body, and if he leaned in just so…

He could kiss him.  And he did.  He leaned in, caught Steve’s face as he was setting his bottle down on the bar’s counter and turning to Tony again.  Tony kissed his lips, and they were as soft and as inviting as they always looked.  Steve’s voice was cut off, smothered, and whatever he wanted to say was too muffled to make out.  He went stiff, telegraphing his shock with every muscle in his body, and for a horrific second, Tony was afraid he’d made a terrible mistake.  God, he wanted this, and he was an impulsive bastard for just taking it.  Stealing it, for all intents and purposes.  Nothing with Steve ever went smoothly; the fact that they were here like this, sharing a beer like good friends instead of antagonizing each other like they always did, was so new and unusual that Tony was fucking drunk on that more than alcohol, and he was messing everything up.  He so enjoyed that delicious friction between them, delighted in it as much as it frustrated him, but he’d gone too far, read it all wrong, made a move that wasn’t welcomed and ruined this because he wanted Steve’s respect and friendship most of all

Only Steve relaxed a second later, the tension that was tight in his muscles just falling away like water sluicing down his body, and he grabbed Tony’s hair gently and kissed him back.

There was a part of the fantasy he had after this, the section of the dream that wasn’t clear.  It was more a series of sensations.  Steve’s warm, smooth skin.  The heat of his naked body.  The strength of his arms, the muscles of his chest and back and thighs, the way they rippled and twisted under Tony’s hands.  The salty tang of clean sweat.  Steve’s breath hitching and twisting into pleasured gasps.  The way he kissed, giving his all even if it was plain as day that he didn’t know what he was doing.  Steve giving everything.  Tony couldn’t imagine what it’d be like, but he knew in the core of him, where he hid secrets and forbidden desires like these, that he hungered for this, for having Steve beneath him, above him, behind him, inside him.  He wanted to be inside Steve.  He wanted every part of him, those blue eyes hazy with love and adoration and staring right at him like there was nothing else and no one else in this world.  He wanted that in a way he’d never wanted anything with anyone, not even with Pepper when things between them were at their best.  The dream felt new yet familiar, something intrinsic to who he was but something, too, that he just discovered.  They could get out of here.  They could have this.

Then there were shadows, but these didn’t threaten.  These weren’t frightening.  They were just shadows, the familiar ones of his bedroom.  He could see Steve asleep in his bed, draped in red sheets that complimented the paleness of his skin, miles and miles of it alluring along the contours of his naked back.  He could see how he breathed, the musculature of his torso moving in perfect waves.  Every breath was deep, peaceful, his mouth parted against the pillows with his lips kiss-swollen and a healthy, soft pink.  Steve was healthy and whole, unblemished and untouched by this nightmare.  His eyes were closed, long lashes pressed lightly to his cheeks, and there were no lines of pain about his face.  Tony stared at him, let this pervasive sense of safety and wellbeing fill his body.  He was calm and satiated and free.  Far, far away from where they were.

He could taste it.

Home.

The windows of his bedroom.  The night spread out over New York City, millions of lights twinkling peacefully right before his eyes.  It was amazing, stunning.  Beautiful.  He stood there naked, staring out, feeling blissful and content.  He wasn’t scared.  There was nothing to be afraid of now.  Steve was there.  They were together, and they were home.

“Tony?”

Tony turned around at the sleepy call and saw Steve leaning up from the pillows, blinking blearily.  His hair was mussed, gaze muddied with drowsiness, but his lips lifted into a smile.  Clumsily he lifted the sheets next to him in a clear invitation.  “Tony, love, come back to bed.”

Love.  That was what this was.  Love and peace.

He went back to bed, curled his toes into the expensive carpet as he walked, breathed the familiar scents of the Tower, the recycled air and the faint and fading musk of sex.  The sheets were cool and like silk sliding over his skin as he sidled up close to Steve and pushed his arm under Steve’s shoulder.  Steve hummed appreciatively, burrowing his face into Tony’s neck.  His lips pressed there to Tony’s pulse.  “Don’t let me go,” he murmured.  “Don’t leave again.”

“Never,” Tony promised.  He closed his eyes and tightened his grip around Steve.  As long as Steve was there, he was safe and everything was alright.  “Never.”

I need you.

The horn blared.

The lights blasted on.

The comfort of home vanished, revealing itself to be nothing but the dream Tony knew he was having, and reality rushed back with a blast of harshness.  Nothing stayed, not the bed nor the silk sheets nor the smells, not the stars nor the city skyline.  Nothing.

Nothing but Steve.  Steve was still in his arms, but he wasn’t okay.  He wasn’t healthy or whole or unblemished.  God.  Was he even still breathing?

Tony gasped a desperate cry, leaning forward from where he’d fallen asleep against the wall of their cell.  Pain ripped along his back, but he ignored it, instead twisting so that he could see Steve’s face.  It was gray beneath the blood and ugly, purple bruising.  His eyes were closed.  He looked dead.

Dizzy with hysteria, Tony tipped Steve’s chin back, and with trembling fingers he tried to feel Steve’s pulse.  He couldn’t.  “Steve?  Steve!”  The bloody, awful mess of his neck was exposed more as Tony scrambled around and laid him flat on the floor.  The horn blasted again, shaking their cell, and Tony blinked frantically through his tears.  No, no, no…  “Steve…  Steve, Jesus…  Come on.  Please, please, please…”  He felt more around Steve’s lacerated neck, but he couldn’t find his pulse.  He couldn’t find it at his wrist either, but his fingers were numb and shaking so bad that maybe that was why.  This was his fault, his fucking fault.  He fell asleep, stopped whispering, stopped counting, gave up…  Panic barely held at bay, he dropped his head down and rested his ear on Steve’s chest, right over his breast.  His own heart was booming in his ears so loud he could barely hear anything else.  Come on.  Please, please, please!

For a second, there was nothing.  Then Tony heard it, the shallow, slow thump-thump.  Steve was still alive.  Overwhelmed, Tony’s head shot toward Steve’s mouth and nose, desperate to feel a brush of air there.  He did, right against his cheek.  Steve was still breathing.  Steve was still alive.

“Oh, God,” Tony moaned, weak with how relieved he was.  He grabbed Steve’s limp hand, pulled it up to his face.  He didn’t care at all that it was covered in grime and dried blood, that there was absolutely no strength in those fingers.  He kissed Steve’s knuckles.  “God…”  Steve had made it through the night.  By some miracle, somehow, Steve was still alive.

But there was no time to feel good about that.  The horn wailed again.  The damn morning reveille.  The signal to get up and get out.  Go to work.

“Fuck,” Tony whispered.  Icy panic came back, and he could have screamed his frustration.  “Steve, you gotta…”  This was insane.  There was no way Steve could do anything, let alone go down to that hellhole and do manual labor.  Tony choked on a frantic, frustrated sob.  It was beyond insane.  It was fucking delusional.

There was no choice, though.  One thing at a time.  The guards were coming.  Tony could hear them shouting at the other inmates, brutally rousing and rounding up the prisoners for another day in Hell.  He shivered helplessly and leaned over Steve face.  “You have to get up.  You have to right now!  Come on, Steve!  Wake up!”  Steve didn’t.  He didn’t move at all, not even as Tony shook him desperately.  The noise outside was getting closer and closer and more and more disgruntled and violent.  Tony’s terror was becoming crippling, and he tried even more frantically to wake Steve.  “You have to wake up!  Wake up!  If I leave you…”  They’ll kill you.  Tony choked on his breath and gritted his teeth in fury.  He barely held himself together.  “I can’t leave you, so get the fuck up!  Right now, Steve!  Right now!”

And just like that, like he’d heard how much Tony needed him, Steve’s eyelids fluttered.  Steve’s hand tightened in his own.  Tony’s heart lurched against his sternum, and he nearly felt sick with the sudden onslaught of hope.  “Steve!  Steve!” he cried, latching onto that shred of faith and refusing to let go.  He shook Steve again, shook him harder.  “Come on!  Open your eyes!  You have to get up.  You have to!”  Steve groaned.  It was the first sound he’d made in hours, since he’d lost consciousness last night.  It was thin and weak, but it was something.  Tony pushed his arm under Steve’s shoulders and pulled him up against him again.  “Come on!  They can’t see you like this, so get up!  On your feet!”

By some miracle (a miracle in Hell – Tony could hardly believe it), Steve groaned again and turned just a bit to his side, enough to lean upward.  It was so clumsy and uncoordinated that for a second Tony couldn’t tell what he was doing.  Then Steve blindly fumbled with his other hand, planting it onto the floor and pushing.  He was trying to do what Tony was begging him to do.  He was trying to stand.

Holy fuck.  It felt akin to watching a dying man be tortured.  That probably wasn’t far from the truth.  Steve sucked in a pained, wheezy breath and struggled to get his knees beneath him.  His face, empty and lax for hours, was suddenly twisted into an agonized grimace that made Tony hate this place and himself all the more.  Christ, it’d be more humane, more fucking merciful, to let Steve just die.  If Tony walked away, the guards would find him, and he’d be unconscious when they killed him.  Maybe he wouldn’t have even felt it.  A small blessing.  And he was taking that from Steve, demanding he stand and keep going, keep fighting.  No quitting.  What sort of selfish bastard was he?

He didn’t know, and he didn’t care.  What he did know was that Steve would fight if he could.  He was sure of that now.  And were their roles reversed, Steve would do the same as him.  Steve would carry his broken body through hell and back if he had to.  Steve would insist he struggle against this place with his last breath.  Steve did insist that last night.  So Steve wouldn’t quit if the starvation hadn’t beaten him down into apathy and sucked him so dry.   Tony knew that, so he’d carry him if he had to.

He was going to have to.  “Come on,” he gasped.  He got Steve’s arm around his shoulders, wrapped his free arm around Steve’s waist, and pulled him up.  Steve was hardly doing anything to support himself, eyes closed, head drooped down, muscles lax, and legs like noodles beneath him.  There was no way he could walk, not like this.  It was even more sickening because Steve had lost so much weight that Tony actually could carry him like this, which he’d never been able to do before.  Of course, on the flip side he himself was so damn weak and worn that just getting them both standing was like climbing Mount Everest.  The cell spun in dizzying circles as he struggled to steady them and catch his breath.  “Come on, Steve.  Come on.  On your feet.”

“Move!” bellowed one of the guards from down the hall.  Tony could hear the telltale zap of their stun batons, the ones they used like cattle prods.  “Move!”

They had to go right now.  “On your feet, soldier!” Tony ground out, getting an even firmer grip on Steve.  He tried for a step, but Steve didn’t move with him, and they both nearly went down.  Tony gave a pathetic whine of pain and effort.  He absolutely refused to buckle, forcing them to stay upright.  “Steve, please…  Please walk…”  It was nothing more than a plaintive whisper.  If they didn’t get out of their cell, out into the line…  If Steve couldn’t show he was capable of working…

Tony wasn’t sure if Steve could hear him, if he was realizing again how dire the situation really was and some instinctive urge not to be a burden was driving him or if it was just some manner of dumb luck, but whatever it was, Steve actually got his feet beneath him and took some of his own weight.  Tony could have wept his relief was so strong.  “Alright, alright, we got this.  I’ve got you.  Come on…”

With Steve standing and walking (although that was a pretty generous term), the two of them shuffled out of the cell.  Tony blinked away sweat and tears and struggled to take stock of their surroundings.  The guards were still down the corridor a bit – thank fucking God – so they had a chance to slip out without being seen.  This was still absolutely crazy.  He didn’t know how he was going to get Steve down to the main area.  And, even if they got through that, Tony couldn’t do a damn thing to help Steve once work started.  There was no way he could survive another day in that pit.

So, again, what the fuck was the point of even trying?  So selfish.  Tony’s thoughts circled back, making things even more dizzying and nauseating, and he swallowed hard and clenched his jaw to keep the burn of bile from climbing any higher in this throat.  Go.  He grabbed Steve’s arm around his shoulders even tighter about the wrist and held him firmer around the waist and led them out of the cell block toward the steps.  He stopped there at the top.  The long trip down was horrifying.  He couldn’t consider them tripping or falling.  Christ, he got Steve up here last night, so he could get him back down.

Right?  He needed a better plan than this.  He needed something, a way to get Steve somewhere safe.  There had to be somewhere safe.

“Fucking move!” shouted one of the other prisoners behind them, giving Tony a rather vicious shove that almost sent both him and Steve tumbling.

Tony barely got his balance back.  He didn’t even bother looking behind him, instead securing his grip on Steve anew.  “Come on,” he whispered again, voice strained with panic and terror.  “Let’s get you down.  Get you some food, some water…  You’re going to eat all my food today.  You have to.  No arguing.”  Right now Tony would be absolutely thrilled to hear Steve argue his stubborn ass off.  He’d pay anything, give anything, to have him debate and bicker and lecture and do all those things he normally found so aggravating.  But Steve was silent.  Tony could barely speak he was so breathless, and his words were all slurred and they were all bullshit.  He kept talking, though.  “You’ll be better after that.  We’ll get you better.  You’ll eat and drink and everything’ll be okay.  You’ll perk right up.”  That was even more insane.  A little bit of water and some bites of food weren’t going to be enough to revive Steve, let alone save him.  Tony was dragging a corpse.  The image stampeded through his head as they stumbled down the stairs, and all it did was make him feel even sicker.  Tony forced a smile onto his sweaty, burned, battered face all the same.  “Another day in Hell, eh, Cap?  Just another day.”

Steve moaned weakly when his foot snagged on one of the steps right before the landing, and Tony barely caught him before he went down.  Somebody help me, he thought.  Once Steve was steadier, he paused for a moment because he had to.  He had to rest, to catch his breath, and when he looked around he only saw more suffering, starving faces, more angry prisoners and even angrier guards.  God, please, somebody…

Nobody was going to help them.  He didn’t know why he bothered to hope, bothered to pray.  Nobody, not even God if He existed at all, was going to save them.

Angry at that, Tony rearranged Steve back to how they were before, with Steve at his side and Tony guiding him.  They continued.  Thankfully they made it the rest of the way down without either or both of them falling to their deaths.  Not that being here in the main cavern was any better.  The crowd of prisoners was shoving and staggering and pushing its way down the way toward the dining hall.  Pressed as close as they were to the other inmates, Tony could only pray no one noticed how seriously hurt Steve was.  Every brush against him made him go rigid with fear.  His skin was crawling more right now than ever before, like he could imagine the hands ripping and groping and pulling Steve away from him.  It went on and on, and it took forever, it seemed, to get from the cell block to breakfast.  Tony was almost relieved when the Kree guards started separating them for the lines to the watering stalls.

That was until he realized that he couldn’t hold Steve up if they were separated.  “Shit,” he whimpered, watching with horrified eyes as the guards shoved and pushed and yanked to divide up the flow of prisoners into the lines.  It was the same thing every morning.  He didn’t know what he was thinking.  He wasn’t going to be able to support Steve any further, so if Steve couldn’t support himself, all of this would mean nothing.  The guards would haul him from the line and take him to be killed.  Tony bit his lip until it hurt, wracking his brain and glancing around frantically, but there was nothing he could do.  “Steve, you have to walk by yourself.”

Steve said nothing.  He was standing but just barely.  His eyes were half-lidded, and when Tony risked turning him to grasp his face and look into them, he saw nothing there.  Nothing but pain and the shadow of death.  God…  It wasn’t obvious that Steve was aware enough to recognize what was happening, where they were, to recognize Tony himself.  Tony’s heart shivered inside him, but he didn’t let himself fall apart.  “Look at me,” he implored instead, forcing himself to be steady and strong and to stare into those deadened blue eyes.  Steve blinked hazily.  Gently Tony jostled him to try and get him to focus.  They only had a second or two before they’d be separated.  “You need to walk.  Stay on your feet.  Don’t fall.  If you fall, they’ll kill you.”

Steve blinked more.  Tears gathered at the corner of his eyes, all his dehydrated and destroyed body could spare.  There was a glint of understanding.  Maybe.  His bloody lips moved, but Tony couldn’t hear what he said.  He thought it might have been his name.  Maybe.  Battling tears himself, he held Steve’s face tighter.  “Walk.  Don’t fall.  Okay?  I’m right behind you.  Just get to the other side.”

Like the other side meant anything.  It didn’t.  It wasn’t any better, any safer, anything other than more of this.  There was no time to say anything more, though.  They were at the front of the crowd, and one of the Kree bastards snatched Steve’s arm and bodily threw him into the lines forming ahead.  Tony kept as close as he could, slipping under a grabbing hand and following Steve.  He bumped into his rear, slipping his arms around Steve’s back and holding him up as best he could.  Thankfully the guards didn’t notice (or didn’t care), because they let them be.  “Eyes forward!  No talking!”

Tony let go of Steve once he was fairly certain he was steady.  It was like backing away from a house of cards, and he watched intently, unable to breathe for fear that Steve would just crumple without him.  By another dumb miracle, he didn’t.  Still, Tony stayed as close as he could behind Steve without touching him, too worried about attracting attention to chance a comforting hand on Steve’s back or anything else.  Steve shuffled forward, head still drooped, shaking like mad.  Every step felt to be his last, but he stayed standing, stayed walking, and yet again Tony silently took back everything awful he said last night about Captain America and quitting.  Maybe, just maybe, if he drank, if he ate…

Christ, there was no way Steve could do either of those things with his throat so damaged.  The second the machine scanned his tattoo and let him inside the watering stall, Tony knew that these hopes of his were stupid beyond the pale.  Steve didn’t drink.  He stood in the filthy, grungy stall unmoving, just stood there shivering and staring at the fountain in front of him.  He was too lost in a stupor, too trapped in a haze between unconsciousness and awareness, between fucking life and death, to do anything.  Tony watched him with horror turning his stomach.

The Kree guarding their line scowled and stalked closer to the stall.  “Drink!” he snapped, reaching in and fisting Steve’s hair before shoving his face into the water.  Steve was too weak to struggle as the alien practically drowned him in the fountain.  Tony couldn’t watch.  It wasn’t going to last long at least.  Just a minute.  Sixty seconds, which normally felt like no time at all with a throat as dry as the Sahara and a body so deprived of water that toeing the line of utter dehydration was the new normal.  Now every one of those seconds dragged by like an eternity, and Tony felt like an asshole for just standing there and letting this Kree bastard essentially waterboard Steve (in a way, though the circumstances weren’t quite the same.  Tony knew because hearing Steve choke and sputter and struggle brought him right back to a cave in Afghanistan and a plank he’d been tied to with the sack over his head and water poured on his face and – fuck fuck fuck).  He heaved another sob, struggling to hold himself together, praying this that just ended.

The lights on the stalls turned red, and Steve was pushed out.  He was coughing, soaking wet, barely crawling away.  Tony couldn’t think, rushing past the Kree guard and attempting to bypass the stall entirely.  The bastard snatched his collar and hauled him back.  “Drink,” he ordered again.

“I don’t need to,” he said, desperate to get to Steve.  The guard was forced Tony to look at him, but out of the corner of his eye Tony saw Steve trying to get up.  Trying and failing.  “I’m fine.  I don’t need water.  I’m–”

“You’re an engineer,” the Kree hissed, “so you drink.  Or I’ll make you.”

Goddamn it!  Frightened tears burned Tony’s eyes, but there wasn’t anything he could do but comply.  The system buzzed and beeped and the water came on, and he made himself swallow the knot in his throat so that he could get some water down.  He watched Steve as much as he could, gulping and then looking up only to fear retaliation and then going back to the spigot again.  Steve was still on the ground, still trying to stand.  Christ.  The other inmates would go for him if he didn’t get up.  Come on.  Again those sixty short seconds felt like an infinite stretch of misery.  Tony could only pray they left Steve alone even though he was vulnerable on the floor.  Fat fucking chance.  Come on come on come on!

The light turned red, and he was free to go.  He rushed out, skidding to his knees at Steve’s side.  He grabbed Steve’s shoulders, frantically pulling and nudging and doing anything he could to get Steve moving.  “Come on,” he gasped quietly.  “Come on, Steve.  Up.  Come on…”  He could feel the eyes of the others on them, as sharp as spears prodding at him.  “Come on!”

Steve coughed a mess of water and blood to the floor.  Blindly he reached for Tony, and Tony took his hand, wrapping his arm around Steve’s back again and pulling hard.  It’s yet another small miracle that they were able to stand once more, that they staggered away before any of the other prisoners took advantage or any of the guards decided Steve was too ill to be worth it anymore.  Tony’s heart was racing, breath coming in short, hectic pants as they limped toward the food area.  They got into the line with the machine that would scan them and give them their cake.

After that, Tony had no idea what they’d do.  Steve couldn’t swallow anything.  Tony would have to find a way to feed him, to get that dry, unpalatable lump wet somehow so Steve could get it down (and it’d hurt like hell, but he’d have to).  What’s the fucking point?  That angry voice in his head came back, and it was even louder and more impossible to ignore.  He can’t work.  Nothing Tony could do would fix that.  Steve had no chance of being any use in that mine.  He can’t work!  It didn’t matter.  In no time at all, they’d be separated, and if Steve went down into the pit…  You’re sending him to suffer and die.

No.  “Come on,” Tony whispered, pulling Steve toward the food counter.  “Come on, Steve.  We’ll get breakfast.  Gotta start the day off right.  Breakfast.  Gonna be delicious.”  He was babbling like a fucking moron, but if his voice got through to Steve, helped ground him in the here and now, offered any touch of comfort at all, he’d talk forever.  “Breakfast of champions.  Who needs eggs or bacon or pancakes when you have this tasty shit?  Huh?”  Just mentioning eggs and bacon – fluffy, buttermilk pancakes with butter and maple syrup, thick and viscous and sweet and dripping down the sides – made his stomach pang with misery.  And his brain went right to other things, the minty taste of toothpaste and the spicy scent of shampoo and the feel of rich cotton towels and coffee with smooth creamer and sitting with the team in the Tower for breakfast.  God, the fantasy was so intense he could almost feel it.  And Steve would be right there beside him, shoveling in food like there was a limitless supply of it (because there was) and drinking milk and orange juice and laughing at something Thor said and Clint would add a snarky comment and Natasha would roll her eyes and Bruce would delve deeper into the paper with a smile on his lips…  Tony could imagine them attacking, fighting their way down here, coming to their rescue.  Watching the Hulk and Thor tear this place apart would bring such sweet joy and relief.

But, then, the team didn’t know where they were.  The team didn’t even know if they were alive.  They were back on earth, worried and angry and upset probably, and maybe looking for them but likely giving up hope.  He’d give up hope, were their roles reversed. 

“Your friend isn’t well.”

Tony jerked.  The image of the Avengers laying waste to this hellhole vanished like the mirage it was, and he was met instead with big, silvery eyes staring at him.  They were so large that in the light they looked animal-like, similar to a cat or something.  Tapetum lucidum.  His brain randomly supplied that, the biological name for the odd, shining quality of the eyes.  He just stared a second, not processing that those eyes belonged to the alien who manned the counter every day.  Food Guy, as Tony had taken to calling him in his head.  This little creature with the dark dots all over his body and four-fingered hands and the thick mane of ropey black hair and the freaky bug eyes.  The prisoner who dished out the cake.  He watched Tony expectantly, his face apathetic.  “Your friend.”

“What?”  Tony blinked blearily.  Christ, he was punchy.  Apparently, they’d made it over to the counter.  It was his turn next to get scanned and receive his cake, so he had let go of Steve and left him right next to him, leaning against the counter.

Food Guy cocked his head, frowning.  “He’s going down.”

Tony snapped.  “No shit, he’s going down!  You think I don’t fucking see that?”

“No.  Right now.”

Tony whirled.  Just like that, Steve’s eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.  He fell hard, his legs simply crumpling from beneath him, and he hit the ground roughly on his side.  He didn’t move, long limbs splayed out haphazardly from his body like a rag doll tossed aside by a child.  He didn’t move.

Tony did, though.  He jolted from the machine that dispensed the cake, stumbling over his feet and going down hard on his knees beside him.  Panic didn’t begin to describe what he was feeling.  “Steve?  Steve!”  He pressed his ear right down to Steve’s mouth.  He was still breathing, though it seemed even wetter and more ragged than before.  That was a small mercy, a really small one, because this time everyone had seen him fall.  Christ, he was on the floor in the middle of the food line.

He was food in the middle of the fucking food line.

“Oh, fuck,” Tony whimpered.  All at once the inmates around them came closer and not one of them to help.  The guards weren’t close enough to protect them, although they probably wouldn’t.  Hell, if the other inmates killed Steve, that’d be one less sorry bastard for them to deal with, right?  And these monsters would kill Steve.  Tony could see the hunger in their eyes, like Steve was fresh meat there for the taking.  Not that there was much meat on him, but something told Tony they weren’t going to care.

Definitely not.

“Steve, get up!  Please get up!”  He shook Steve frantically, grabbing his bony shoulders and practically yanking him off the ground.  Steve was completely limp, absolutely unresponsive.  Lifeless.  His face was waxy gray again, his eyes tightly sealed shut.  Whatever mysterious energy that had inexplicably gotten him this far was obviously spent.  Tony sobbed hoarsely.  “Get up!  Please!  Come on, come on, come on…  Get up!”

Then there was a growl to their left.  “Get back!” Tony screamed, scrambling back to his feet and planting himself right between Steve and the aliens coming at him.  This was a goddamn repeat of yesterday.  With the sleepless night, he’d almost forgotten the fucking hit Xeran had put out on Steve yesterday.  Not that that mattered.  Not that these assholes needed a reason more than the lure of a freshly dead body to tear apart, clothes to steal and boots to take and the tattoo on Steve’s chest.  God.  Images from the first day, where they’d seen prisoners cutting the tattoo off the dead (and the not quite dead), flashed across Tony’s mind.  And the body they’d found in their cell that had been taken during the night.  And the dozens of times since then that Tony had seen the skins traded and sold and used like currency.  This was Hell, and the dead were resources for the living.

He couldn’t let that happen to Steve.  Not to Steve.

Tony grabbed Steve’s body and pulled.  Even as thin as Steve was, he was too heavy for Tony’s own suffering muscles and weakened body, so he hardly managed more than a few inches across the ground and closer to the counter.  They weren’t going anywhere.  Besides, there was nowhere to go.  Back to the watering stalls, where the guards were?  Let them kill Steve and probably punish Tony for causing a disruption?  Or forward to the huge cavern where they ate every morning, a holding pen full of monsters and murderers?  There was nowhere to go!  Tears burned Tony’s eyes, helplessness and terror leaving him dizzy.  The room was spinning around him, a smear of shadows and rock and awful eyes and cruel sneers.  Blurs of hulking bodies looming closer.  And he could almost hear Steve’s voice in his head, his calm tone that he used in battle.  Captain America’s voice.  “Leave me, Tony.”

He screamed at inmates coming closer.  “Get away!  Get the fuck away from us!”

“You can’t save me.”  Steve’s voice in his head was saying the exact same words from last night.  The same goddamn truths.  “Tony, you can’t save me.”

The urge to deny, to rail against futility and inevitability, burned its way over him until he was hot and sweaty and shaking apart.  He pushed Steve more behind him before stationing his beaten, small, meagerly human body between these maniacs and their prize.  “I’ll kill anyone who touches him!  I mean it!”  That was a bunch of utter nonsense.  He couldn’t fight, and it didn’t matter if he was Xeran’s golden boy or prized asset.  These monsters would just as soon kill him, too.  An engineer’s tattoo was worth far more than a mere Grub’s.  Sweat poured into his eyes as he stood there, wild and defiant and pretty much out of his goddamn mind.  He needed to run.  Steve was right.  He couldn’t save him now, so he needed to run.

But he didn’t.  A huge hairy beast to his left swiped at him, and Tony ducked with surprising alacrity.  He shoved back at the guy, shoved with all his waning strength, and the monster actually moved away.  The whole group of them did, pretty clearly surprised that Tony was standing his ground like this.  Not that that would matter.  He was needlessly endangering himself, needlessly sacrificing himself, and he fucking well knew it.  He could still hear Steve’s voice in his head, getting angrier and angrier.  “Run now, Stark!  That’s an order!”

Yeah, well, he hardly ever listened to Steve normally, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to start.  “Get away from us!  Get back!”  His voice cut over the din, loud and clear.  He stood right in front of Steve like he was as tall and muscular and strong and intimidating as them.  Like he was every bit as violent and vicious.  He would be, if they went for Steve now.  He’d fucking fight them all if he had to.  And if he died here, he died here.  He wasn’t letting them hurt Steve.  He glared them down as they came closer, fists raised and fire and fury in his eyes.  “No one touches him!  No one!”

There was a bang behind him, and he whirled and saw someone touching Steve.  Someone’s hands on Steve.  Gray hands with four fingers, flesh covered in black dots, small spindly arms pulling with deceptive strength.  Those freaky silver eyes.  “Come with me!”

Tony made to attack, but then he stopped.  Absolutely flummoxed, he lowered his arms.  “Huh?”

“Come on!”

Tony didn’t need to be told twice.  Food Guy had opened a little door under the counter top, and he had Steve’s arms.  He pulled him through the tiny portal.  Tony scrambled after just as the other inmates charged, barely escaping when they grabbed for him.  He pushed Steve’s legs into the gap, but before he could crawl through, a hand snatched his ankle.  Terror pounded through him, and he struggled in a frenzy, kicking with all his strength, slamming his boot into the bastard as hard as he could.  Something sharp dug into his calf, ripping and gouging, and he couldn’t choke down his scream.  Thankfully one of the other prisoners took advantage of the fact that the one clawing him was distracted and attacked, and the grip on his leg immediately went lax.  Tony didn’t even register the pain, yanking free and scrambling through the little door.  He slammed it shut behind him.

Food Guy was right there, looming over Steve, hands on his throat.  “Get away from him!” Tony shouted, fumbling to get to Steve in a blind panic.  He pushed Food Guy away – another fucking murderer.  The asshole only got them out of there to kill Steve himself!  Tony threw himself over Steve’s body.  “You don’t touch him!”

Food Guy stumbled back, silver eyes narrowed.  “You’re a fool.”

There was more shouting on the other side of the counter.  Another brawl was breaking out, and even though there was the relative safety of the metal structure between the fight and them, they couldn’t stay where they were.  However, Food Guy almost casually strolled to a panel alongside the big machine responsible for making the cake and pressed a grimy red button.  A low buzz filled the space behind the counter, and Tony watched with wide eyes as a thick and probably impenetrable barrier descended and sealed tightly against the counter, effectively closing them off from the ruckus.  Tony had had no idea this sort of security existed for this alien (and whoever else worked back here).  Hit a button and be segregated and protected!  It was so damn appalling that for a second he forgot he was being protected, too.

But he was.  They were.  The second that metal barrier clanked shut, the roar of the fight was muffled and the bloody sight of it was hidden and this feeling came over Tony that he’d forgotten in the ten days since they were brought to this place.  He was safe.  They were safe.  He gasped, momentarily overwhelmed by the sensation.  There was a wall between them and the rest of Hell.

“Hurry.”  Food Guy’s soft voice was suddenly thunderous because it was quiet.  Tony was still reeling so badly that like an idiot he just stayed where he was, practically crushing Steve into the floor.  “The guards can override the window controls, so we need to move now.”  He rushed over.  His legs were weird, like they had extra joints or something, so his gait was odd, too.  Of course, Tony never noticed before considering he’d never seen the lower half of him until right then.  He was still watching him the alien blankly, totally at a loss, when Food Guy glowered at him.  “Your friend is dying, isn’t he?  Do you want to save him?”

“You’re…”  This didn’t seem possible.  Tony was dying back in the cavern somewhere, hallucinating this weird twist of reality, or dreaming back in their cell.  He had to be, because this couldn’t be real.  It couldn’t be.  “You’re helping us?”

“Yes,” hissed Food Guy, “but I’ll rethink my generosity very quickly if you don’t start helping yourself!  We need to move him!”

Tony was still too shocked to think, but thankfully his body had more common sense than his brain.  He took Steve’s feet and Food Guy grabbed his shoulders under his armpits, and together the two of them lifted him.  They shuffled back into the area further.  It struck Tony more fully that Food Guy was surprisingly strong considering how little he was; he was bearing most of Steve’s weight by the time they made it to a little alcove behind the huge, dark, stinky machinery.  Something was venting gas that reeked, and stepping through the plume of it that was coming up through the grated floor was decidedly unpleasant, but after that they were at a set of doors.  Food Guy let Steve down for a second so that the machine there could scan him, and then the locked doors opened.

Now they were in what Tony could only describe as a pantry.  And there was food there.  Real food.  Greens.  Dried meat.  What looked like grains of some sort.  Packages and crates and boxes.  A veritable feast.  After more than a week of living in grays and browns, in grime and filth, and eating chalky crap that was nothing more than dust in his mouth…  “Holy shit,” he whispered.

“Come on!” Food Guy snapped, and they hauled Steve over to a counter space in there attached to the far wall.  They lifted him atop it.

Tony gathered Steve’s arms and folded them over his concave belly.  He spent a second staring at his bloody, gaunt face.  “Steve?” he murmured, pressing his palm to Steve’s cheek.  “Steve, can you hear me?”  Steve didn’t respond.  Tony fumbled for his wrist again, desperate to try and feel for his pulse.  This time he was more successful in finding it.  “His heart’s still beating.”  Food Guy said nothing to that, standing back as Tony pressed his face close to Steve’s mouth.  “And he’s still breathing.”

“He’s alive?”

“He’s not going to be for long unless he gets more to eat,” Tony gasped.  Suddenly he was talking like a crazy man, like having someone treating him with even this tiny bit of care and concern was reason enough to be honest and open.  “There’s something in his blood – a serum – that makes him stronger, but he needs more food.  He needs significantly more food.  Four or five times what I’m eating.  More even.  He needs that bare minimum.”  Food Guy grimaced and immediately shook his head.  “I know it’s a lot.  I know.  But he needs to eat or he’s going to die.  Please help him!”  Tony stared at the little alien, eyes shining with tears he didn’t have the care or strength to hide.  He’d beg if he had to.  This place – the last twenty-four hours – had stripped his pride quickly.  “Please.  You have food.  Please.

Food Guy’s freaky eyes flicked to Steve.  “It’s a waste.  He’s too severely injured.  He won’t survive.”

“No.  No, if we can get something into him, the serum’ll heal him.  It will.  I promise, he’ll be okay if we can just get him some food!”

“I can’t feed him more than anyone else,” Food Guy hissed.  “That’s not how it works.”

Tony raged in frustration.  “Then why the fuck did you bring us here?”

 The other prisoner frowned.  They stared at each other, Tony’s furious cry echoing in the metal room.  Once more the alien looked to Steve, and this time his gaze lingered.  “I watched him save you,” he finally said in a soft voice.  Tony’s heart was pounding, and he felt lightheaded with hope.  “Days ago.  He was wounded, but without a moment’s hesitation he fought for you.  And last night…”  Those weird eyes narrowed.  When they did, the alien’s gaze was seemingly piercing.  “You did the same for him, even though it was clear his fate was sealed.”  Tony wanted to argue that Steve’s fate wasn’t fucking sealed, but he couldn’t find it within himself to speak.  “And still you fight for him.  You two protect each other.  That…”  He shook his head.  “That’s something I don’t see here.  Not in anyone, and I see every prisoner that passes through.”  He frowns.  “Altruism is not wise.  I told you not to be foolish.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony grumbled irately, not sure if he was being insulted or not, “we humans are beset by stupidity and foolishness.  Look, if you’re not going to help me, then thanks for pulling us out and fuck off.”

Food Guy frowned harder.  “I didn’t say I wouldn’t help you.”

Tony couldn’t make heads or tails of this guy, and he was too damn tired and terrified to try.  “Then help!  Look at him!  He’s starving.  He needs food.  You have food!”  Tony looked around again.  God, he could just steal it.  Attack this person, knock him out, take what they needed…  The horrible thought clung to him like a sickness he couldn’t shake.  He grimaced and wiped at his eyes, trying to hide the tears filling them.  “Please.  He’s…  He’s all I’ve got.  I’ll do anything you want.  I’m an engineer.  I can fix anything you want, get supplies from the main cavern, work for you…  Just please.

Food Guy stared at him a moment more, and Tony had to keep his body tense to stand there under the unwavering scrutiny.  The desperation coursing over him was nearly uncontrollable.  He’d never felt anything quite like it.  He’d killed before; in their line of work, it was inevitable, but it was always in the name of protecting innocents and preventing evil.  This?  This man had what he needed in a place where murder equated to survival.  The dark desire to live by whatever means necessary scared the hell out of him, and he stayed still, grinding his teeth and wanting to cry.  If Food Guy said no…

“Alright.”  Food Guy went to the shelves.  Tony watched in stupefaction, wondering again if he was hallucinating.  “Can he swallow at all?”

Tony lurched closer to the counter.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know!”

“Then get him awake so we can find out.”

Tony nodded.  He heard Food Guy shuffling around behind them, and for a second he wondered if turning his back to him was smart, but he couldn’t care with hope pounding through him the way it was.  He cupped Steve’s face, turning him gently so that he was facing Tony.  “Steve?  Steve, come on.”  He patted Steve’s cheek firmly.  “Come on.  You need to wake up.”  Yet again Steve didn’t respond.  Tony knuckled his sternum, knuckled it hard, hoping the pain might rouse him.  Nothing.  “Come on!  You woke up before.  Do it again.”  He stared intently at Steve’s face for any sign of consciousness.  Nothing.  Tony choked on another sob, frustrated beyond the pale.  He felt so damn brittle, scraped and pared down to his bones.  His voice was nothing more than a whisper, and he tucked his face close to Steve’s, struggling to breathe evenly.  “Please.  There’s food.  I got you food.  I got us help.  Please don’t quit on me now.”

“Here.”  Food Guy was back and he was carrying a bowl, the contents of which he was mixing vigorously.

Something pungent assaulted Tony’s nose, and he wrinkled it, leaning away from Steve.  “What is it?”

Food Guy regarded him icily.  “It should hardly matter to you,” he said.  He lifted the spoon, though, and thick, blue liquid dripped down.  It looked like syrup.  He said a word that the translator didn’t handle, some sort of guttural thing.  “It’s a Kree delicacy.”

“Okay?”

He took the bowl to the counter beside Steve’s legs.  “It’s full of sugar and protein, and it’s also incredibly sweet.  Or so I’ve been told.  It doesn’t taste like anything to my kind.”

Tony couldn’t help but ask.  “And what kind is that?”

Food Guy glanced at him with a guarded scowl.  “Irrelevant.  Lift him up.”

Tony moved, climbing up to sit at Steve’s head on the counter.  The metal structure wasn’t terribly clean, but at least it was sturdy as he lifted himself onto it.  He slipped his arms under Steve and lifted his torso, bracing Steve’s upper body against his chest like he had the night before.  Steve’s head lolled back onto his shoulder.  His lips were parted, and Tony grasped his chin to steady his face.  He still wasn’t awake.  Food Guy looked dubious.  “Perhaps a little of this will help rouse him.  It’s thin enough that I imagine he’ll be able to get it down.”

Tony pushed Steve’s lips apart wider.  Food Guy scooped a little of the blue substance onto the spoon and dribbled it into Steve’s mouth.  It wasn’t enough to choke him, not nearly, but maybe Food Guy was right.  Maybe the taste would be enough to help bring Steve around.  Maybe there was a shred of consciousness there, enough awareness to realize he needed to swallow.  Enough strength to do it.  If Steve didn’t come around…  Christ, there weren’t any options.  Forcing food down his throat was too dangerous, even liquid.  Perhaps if they could locate some tubing, Tony could maybe get it down Steve’s esophagus to his stomach.  Again, though, it was extremely risky.  He knew enough about anatomy to realize the chances of accidentally slipping the tube into his trachea and down into his lungs were high without proper tools and imaging.  If Steve aspirated food, it’d kill him.  So Steve had to wake up.  He had to.

The room went silent as the two of them watched Steve’s face.  Tony couldn’t make himself breathe.  He rubbed Steve’s chest vigorously, intently studying his eyes, his lips, his lax expression.  “Come on,” he whispered after seconds went by with no change.  “Come on, Steve.  Come on.  Don’t quit now.  We’ve got a chance for the first time since we got here.  You can taste it.  Come on.”  Tony squinted through the blurry burn in his eyes, squinted and prayed.  He wanted to yell, to scream out of panic and fear, but he couldn’t.  And he couldn’t stop himself, cradling Steve in his arms, brushing the back of hand across Steve’s cheek, leaning close again.  “Please don’t leave me here alone.  Please, Steve.  I haven’t quit, so you can’t!”

Against his cheek there was a soft brush of air.  A deeper breath.  A meager cough.  Shocked, Tony leaned back and found hazy blue eyes staring right at him.  Relief pounded through him, even sharper and more consuming than before.  For the first time in what felt like an eternity of torture, their gazes met, and Steve was there.  Steve saw him.  Steve knew him.  “There you are,” Tony whispered.  “Hey.  Yeah, it’s me.  I’ve got food.  You have to swallow.  Can you do that?”

Steve’s eyes glazed, and for a horrific second, Tony was terrified he was slipping away again.  But his lips moved around a word Tony couldn’t understand, and he grimaced and nodded.  Food Guy came closer with the bowl and the spoon, and Tony lifted Steve higher again.  “Here you go.  Okay?  Nice and easy.”  The spoon was slipped between Steve’s lips.  Again, there wasn’t much on it, wouldn’t be much until Steve demonstrated he could swallow with his throat as screwed up as it was.  Food Guy pulled the spoon back gently, and it was empty.  The blue syrupy glop was in Steve’s mouth.  “Come on,” Tony coaxed, trying to be more patient than he was feeling.  He lifted Steve more.  Maybe it was dumb as hell to think gravity would help get it down, but he was willing to try anything at this point.  The grimace on Steve’s face, even as weak as it was, was speaking volumes of how much pain he was in.  “Come on.  Swallow.  You can do it.  I know it hurts, but you have to.”

An excruciatingly long second passed.  Steve was trying.  Tony watched the damage muscles of his throat work, as swollen, ripped, and battered as they were.  Tears filled Steve’s eyes and bled from the sides of them as he squeezed them shut.  He gurgled, coughed a little, shook weakly in Tony’s arms.  But he did it.  Tony could see it happen.  Then Steve gave a little gasp and slumped against Tony, like doing that very simple, intrinsic action had sucked him dry of strength.

It certainly sucked Tony dry of it.  But he laughed softly, hoarsely, and held Steve tighter.  “Oh, thank God.  Jesus.”  Food Guy came back with the spoon again, this time with a bit more of the blue stuff on it.  “Here’s another.”  Steve whimpered.  “Come on.  Should taste good.  I know you have a hell of a sweet tooth.  You’re the one who eats all the ice cream and leaves the empty containers in the freezer.  I know it’s you.”

Steve actually smiled.  It was hardly anything, his dried lips curling just the slightest bit, but the mere sight of it made Tony’s heart fly.  Food Guy slid the spoon in his mouth again, and down went more of the blue stuff.  It was easier this time, or at least Steve didn’t react as much to the pain.  Tony smiled.  “Fantastic.  You got it now.”  He ate the next spoonful and the one after that and the one after that.  A few minutes went by with Food Guy silently and slowly feeding him and Tony holding him while softly and gently encouraging.  Idly he supposed he should have been embarrassed, but he couldn’t bring himself to care in the slightest.  Steve was eating.  Steve was eating.

After a while, Steve started to fall asleep again.  Tony prodded and coaxed another couple of spoons, but that was it.  Steve went down again.  Food Guy set the bowl to the counter, shaking his head.  The bowl was still mostly full.  “It’s a start,” Tony snapped before the alien could say anything about how futile this was.

Food Guy appraised him evenly.  It was hard to read his mood from those huge, empty eyes and his equally empty face.  Tony couldn’t stand it, not the silence nor how the other was seemingly judging him.  Then the alien shuffled away.  “I can’t stay.  They’ll be looking for me.”

“But–”

“You’re safe here for now.”  He headed to the door.  “Keep quiet.  Don’t leave.  And don’t eat anything else.  I don’t know your species’ particular diet, and some of the things in here could be poisonous to you.”

Tony nodded blankly.  For now.  He didn’t know if that was a threat or a statement of fact.  Exhausted emotionally and physically, he looked down at Steve in his arms.  He didn’t look much better, still so pale and pasty under the blood and dirt all over him, eyes sunken and cheeks so emaciated.  It’d take more than a few spoons of food to restore him, far more.  Tony had to keep at it, keep drawing Steve to consciousness to feed him as many times as he could.  And he had to keep vigilant.  He couldn’t rest, not for a second.  Were they really okay here?  This place felt safe, tiny nook of a haven with actual walls and doors, with physical protection and separation from Hell.  But was it?

His weary, aching eyes closed.  It’s a start, he made himself think again.  It’s a start.

Something brushed against his injured leg.  The flare of pain was unexpected, shooting up and down his calf.  His eyes popped open, and he gasped fearfully.

But it was just Food Guy wrapping a swath of clean cloth around his wound.  Apparently he’d come back.  Tony winced as he watched him tend to the laceration.  There was blood all over the leg of his jumpsuit and boot, and it was dripping onto the table and floor.  With all his panic and focus on Steve, he forgot that he’d nearly had his leg flayed.  Food Guy tied the makeshift bandage tight, and Tony grunted with the sudden pressure.  He blinked back tears and regarded the strange creature.  “Thanks,” he murmured.

Food Guy nodded grimly.  Then he set a jug of water down beside the counter, along with a few more clean cloths.  It was like a gift, like a veritable bounty after days of having nothing.  The alien spent a second more staring at them, but after that he went to leave anew.  Everything felt wrong, inadequate, because he was the absolute first person since Steve and Tony had arrived in Hell who’d treated them with anything other than complete cruelty and malice.  This was something, a sign of hope, that not everyone here was twisted and reduced down to violence and insanity.  Tony turned around as much as he could.  “He’s Steve.  I’m Tony.”

“I know who you are,” came the resigned response, “and I know who’s after you and why.”

Tony’s blood went cold.  That could mean anything.  Maybe the two of them were putting their would-be ally in danger.  If Xeran found out they were here, that Food Guy was helping them and harboring them…  It certainly seemed like this person had some privilege and power, with his job and this place and the ability to get away from the rest of the prison.  Was that position independent of Xeran’s hold on the engineers or part of it?  Or, on the other side of things, if this guy was aware of how badly Xeran wanted Tony, he could certainly hand them over.  Kill Steve and get whatever reward there was for that.  Sell Tony and arrange that deal to his own advantage.  They could have blundered into something worse than where they had been before.  The thought was bone-chilling.  Tony shivered.  “Please–”

“I’m Tavin,” the guy said.  Then he shut the door behind him and locked it with a heavy clank, leaving Tony and Steve alone.

Chapter Text

The blue stuff really did taste sweet.  A couple hours into their sudden stay in Hell’s kitchen (Tony was slap-happy enough to actually find that funny), he caved into his own desperate hunger and tried it.  It was disgustingly syrupy, and it had a strange tang to it that wasn’t entirely pleasant.  He couldn’t decide if he liked it.  Of course, that could have been the fact that he hadn’t tasted anything but sweat, tears, stale water, blood, and cake for ten days.  Anything with a different flavor would be overpowering to his dulled, deprived taste buds.  Needless to say, the flavor was overwhelming.

Tony ate it all the same.  He sat next to Steve as he slept and slowly, carefully consumed a couple spoonfuls.  He drew the whole thing out, made it last, uncertain if there’d be more food even if they were surrounded by a veritable treasure trove of it.  He couldn’t be sure of anything, and he wouldn’t take anything from Steve.

The silence and isolation felt more like a cell than the actual cell they were locked in.  Tony had been investigating their surroundings, looking around at the shelves more, picking through their contents off and on.  He found exactly what it had looked like before: a plethora of dried meats, containers chocked full of some sort of grains that seemed like oatmeal and wheat, exotic fruits colored with hues impossible on earth, weird vegetables with huge, green fronds and big bulbs and fleshy globes.  He couldn’t help but wonder who got to eat all this stuff.  Experimentally he’d sniffed a few things, but nothing smelled familiar (or looked familiar, for that matter). He didn’t dare taste anything.  There was another room off to the side that Tony hadn’t noticed when he’d been so panicked before.  He examined the controls next to the door and realized right away what it was.  A refrigerator.  Said door hadn’t been locked, so he’d ventured through it, unable to stifle his curiosity.  Inside, there was even more: jugs full of some light gray liquid that vaguely resembled milk, fresh meat, boxes packed with long, frozen tentacles, hunks of some crumbly substance (cheese?), trays overflowing with things he couldn’t begin to identify.  It was incredible, and he’d stood there, absolutely flummoxed and shivering in the cold air, and wondered if this was some sort of alternate reality.  There was enough food in here to feed a small army or at least a large number of starving prisoners for a day or two.

What had Food Guy – Tavin – called the blue crap?  A Kree delicacy.  Tony couldn’t wrap his head around the obvious, even as he closed the fridge and went back to Steve’s side.  This was a very amply stocked storeroom for the guards’ food, which implied all sorts of crazy ideas he hadn’t considered before.  Someone had to cook this stuff.  A Kree delicacy.  Someone skilled had to cook this stuff.  In the last week, Tony had never seen the guards eat or picked up on where they might be living.  He always assumed they were up there, out of the pit and on the levels above where he worked.  He knew there were residential areas higher in Hell, actual barracks, but he’d never seen them.  There were probably mess halls that went with that, but if that was the case, what the hell was the food doing all the way down here?

There was no way for him to figure that out, no one to ask, and no point in wondering.  Tony had to focus on what he could do, and that was keeping Steve alive now that they actually had a chance.  He went back to Steve’s side and resumed trying to coax him awake to feed him.  Right after Tavin left, Tony had succeeded in rousing Steve enough to get him to eat a little more and drink.  Calling Steve’s status as conscious seemed something of an exaggeration, but he was aware enough to swallow, to whisper Tony’s name once or twice, to recognize Tony with relief in his hazy, pained blue eyes.  These small moments between them, where he had Steve in his arms and was carefully pouring water into his mouth and spooning the blue syrup onto his tongue, where Steve was watching him with such naked relief…  Those were the moments where Tony let himself have some hope.

However, reality always set in.  Yeah, this seemed better, and Tavin, whoever he really was, seemed interested in helping them for some reason, but there was no way to be sure.  Appearances could be deceiving.  Sure, he’d gotten them away from that fight and gotten Steve some food and water, but Tony couldn’t shake the creeping realization he had that it could all be for some ulterior motive.  Tavin knew who Tony was, knew Xeran was gunning for Steve and wanted Tony for his stable of engineers and mechanics, so who was to say he wasn’t kidnapping them for his own benefit?  Who was to say he wouldn’t come back with the mafia or some other awful faction down here or the goddamn guards and trade the two lone humans in for some sort of reward?

Who was to say he’d come back at all?  Maybe he was as much of a sick fuck as everyone else here and he’d leave Steve and Tony locked in here (although that didn’t make much sense, to leave them to die in a room full of food.  Tony was paranoid enough to worry about it anyway).  Tony had of course checked the main door right after Tavin had left, and sure enough it was locked.  There was no way to reach the locking mechanism from the inside.  He’d searched for other ways out as much as his sore, aching body and exhausted mind allowed him to, and there was nothing aside from that refrigerator.  There were air intake vents, but they were molded into the metallic walls.  There was no way he could pry them loose without tools and strength, of which he had neither.  And there were no weapons that he could find, not really, not unless he wanted to bludgeon someone to death with the equivalent of a turnip or a frozen hunk of meat.  Or gouge someone with the blunted end of that spoon.

Yeah, no weapons.

So they were trapped and helpless.  In the grand scheme of things, Tony supposed that was hardly anything new.  They’d been trapped and helpless, prisoners, the second they’d been kidnapped from Earth.  At least here he didn’t have to worry about someone coming to stab them in the night or that Steve would get crushed in the mine or that Xeran would pick today to be the day he finally got sick of this cat and mouse bullshit and just flat out force him into submission.  It was quiet here, so completely quiet that it was almost unbearable after days of constant banging and screaming and unending chaos.  He could think and hear it, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing because all he was doing was worrying.  What would happen when Tavin came back?  What would happen if he didn’t?  How the hell he was going to protect Steve so battered and weary?  How he was going to feed Steve when they ran out of the blue stuff?  What was poison and what wasn’t and how in the world would he figure that out?  Was any of this going to be enough to save Steve?

He couldn’t think about that.  He couldn’t sit here and tear himself apart like this.  It was fucking pointless.  So he decided to take this for what it was – a momentary reprieve – and eat a little of the blue glop because his belly was throbbing and his head was spinning and Steve wouldn’t wake up to have any more.  Then he crawled back up on the counter and put his back to the wall behind them.  He pulled Steve’s dead weight up against him and tried to rest.  He fought sleep at first of course; banishing his thoughts was never very easy, and every tiny noise had his heart pounding and his breath coming fast in panic.  He knew he should keep watch, too.  That’d be the smart thing, the thing that Steve would do for them both.  Eventually, though, exhaustion won out over hypervigilance, and Tony settled.

Sometime later, a low, muted hum woke him from a deep and dreamless sleep.  It took Tony a second to recall where they were and what had happened, and it took another few for him to figure out what that noise was.  The horn.  The work day was over.  They’d spent the entire day here in the storeroom.  Or a day and a night.  It could be the start of the next day, he supposed.  Trapped in this room, there was no way to determine how much time had passed.

Tony sat up with a wince, his back and neck screaming in malcontent at this latest helping of abuse.  He held Steve tighter, helpless horror working its way over him in a sickening wave while the horn rumbled again.  Just ten days in Hell, and already he’d been conditioned to hate and fear that damn sound, the transition it meant and the danger that came with it.  “Steve?” he whispered (though he didn’t know why he was whispering – that was stupid).  “Steve?”

Steve didn’t move.  He was breathing, but other than that he was as motionless as a corpse.  In the dim lights, Tony could see his face remained as white as a sheet under the blood and dirt.  Tony had tried to clean him up a little with the water (again, sparingly – he had no idea how long they might be in here), but the grime was so caked onto Steve’s skin that he didn’t look much better.  His throat was still covered in awful lacerations and crushed.  His hands were limp at his sides.  The one was still bloody with the hole through it that was hardly healed.  His shoulder was still a godawful mess.  Nothing was healing.  Tony didn’t know what he’d been thinking.  He’d been fucking stupid to consider even for a second that a bowl of blue glop and a little sleep would be enough to revive Steve.  Irrational and illogical didn’t begin to describe that sort of faith.  No, Steve needed real medical treatment in a hospital.  He needed an IV full of saline and nutrients continuously being pumped into him to even have a chance of being restored.  The serum was amazing, but it wasn’t that amazing, not so much as to heal him with a few extra calories and over the course of a few hours.  Before he’d insisted so adamantly that this was a start.  That was absolutely ludicrous, and he was deluding himself.

But he had to keep the faith.  If he didn’t, they were as good as dead.

Clumsily he slid out from under Steve’s upper body.  “Shit,” he groaned.  “Ugh.  Fuck.”  His legs had fallen asleep – how long was I out? – so it took a few seconds of shaking them to get the blood flowing again.  Then he took stock of their surroundings anew and found them unsurprisingly completely unchanged.  Falling asleep had been dangerous and foolhardy, but it didn’t seem like anyone had come in while he’d been selfishly taking a nap.  Not that he’d have been able to do anything if someone had.  He still had no weapons and one very unconscious super soldier who required his care.

To that end, he felt for Steve’s pulse and found it about as weak and unsteady as before.  His breathing didn’t seem better either, although it maybe it was a tad less wheezy when Tony really paid attention to it.  Of course, that could just be senseless hope springing eternal.  Steve’s stupid optimism was wearing off on him.

Tony sighed, rubbing at Steve’s chest.  “Steve?  Wake up.  You need to eat more.”  Steve didn’t respond.  Again, Tony didn’t know why he’d bothered to hope.  At least this had happened so many times now that the panic it typically caused didn’t come on so quick or biting anymore.  “Steve, come on.  You need to wake up.  Wake up!”

A few more minutes of seemingly useless prodding and rubbing and shaking and less than gentle patting to the less injured side of Steve’s face did the trick.  Steve’s eyelids fluttered, and Tony took up his hand and leaned over him.  “Hey.  Can you see me?  Know who I am?”

Steve blinked and blinked, swallowing and then wincing.  “…nee.”

“Close enough.  You need to eat more.”  He grabbed the bowl.  There wasn’t too much of the blue glop left, so if Tavin didn’t get back here in short order, Tony was going to have to go find the jar of it to make more.  Scooping some onto the spoon, he set the bowl to the counter beside them and worked his arm under Steve’s shoulders to prop him up a bit.  “You ready?”  There was a glint in Steve’s eye, something close to realization.  He winced more, harder, and made an aborted shake of his head.  “Sorry,” Tony said, trying to be nonchalant even with sympathy and shame pulsing through him.  “Here.  Open.”

“To…  Tony…”

“You’re already more with it than you were before,” Tony commented, trying not to seem too thrilled with that.  A smile made it to his sore lips anyway.  “Yay for progress.”

“Tony…”  Steve raised his hand feebly.

“Right here,” Tony swore.  “Open up.”  He prodded at Steve’s lips with the spoon.  Steve closed his eyes again and sagged more against Tony, but he did as he was told and opened his mouth enough to get the spoon in.  Tony made sure the syrup ended up on Steve’s tongue, hopefully far enough back that he wouldn’t have to work hard to swallow.

The misery on Steve’s face wasn’t any less terrible despite that.  Tony frowned, trying not to let it get to him.  “You’re alright,” he softly swore, rubbing the bony joint of Steve’s shoulder through the material of his jumpsuit.  “Just get it down.  You’re going to be fine.”  Desperate to ease the pain, he did what he always did: acted totally inappropriately.  “Open wide!  Here comes the airplane!”  He went back with the spoon, making a stupid engine sound.

Steve’s hand moved with surprisingly precision and alacrity, snatching his wrist.  His grip had a shadow of its normal strength.  “Tony,” he whispered.  “Don’t…  Leave me.”

Tony could hardly stand to swallow himself because his throat was so constricted with emotion.  “Not sure if you’re telling me to leave you or not with that one, Cap.  I’m gonna go with the latter, because we’ve been over the former a few times now and you should know better than to hit me with this bullshit again.”  He sighed, the breath shivery.  “I’m not leaving you.”

Steve squeezed his eyes shut.  “Done…  D-done for…”

Christ.  Of course the only somewhat lucid conversation Steve was able to have in twenty-four hours would concern this crap again.  “Yeah, shut the fuck up.”

“Don’t – don’t–”

“Don’t what?”  Tony lost his patience, and his voice outright cracked as he gestured around them wildly.  Not that Steve could see or probably make sense of it.  “If you haven’t realized, we have a real chance here to get some help.  This guy’s on our side, and I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”  He leaned closer, pulling Steve’s hand away from his arm and holding it instead.  “There’s food here, Steve.  Tons of food.  Enough for you and me both.  I can’t let that go.  They want me, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure you get everything you need.”

And Steve, being the stubborn asshole he always was and always would be, shook his head.  “Not for me,” he whispered.

“Yes, for you,” Tony corrected, “because… because we’re going to go home together.  You and me.”  All the stupid bullshit he didn’t want to say, in which he didn’t want to believe, came pouring out of him in a frantic flood.  It was as if because he’d started, he couldn’t stop.  Furthermore, the more he said it, the more it felt right and strong and pure.  Like last night’s mantra.  Like how Steve always said everything.  Like that dream he’d had, back in the Tower, Steve warm and safe in his bed and calling him back…  “We’re going to get out of this together.  We stay together.  That’s what you told me, what you made me put my faith in, so I have to do whatever it takes.  I’m not letting you die.  We’re both going to survive this.”

Tears bled from Steve’s eyes.  “Tony…”

“I’m not quitting, so you can’t quit, either.  And I’m doing whatever I have to.  I’m–”

The door suddenly opened, and Tony whirled in horror, instinctively putting himself between Steve and whoever’d finally come.  It was only Tavin, and he was staring at them with those weird eyes of his.  His arms were covered in thin white dust, likely from mixing and dispensing cake to the dinner line.  He seemed surprised, like he hadn’t anticipated them being there.  No.  His eyes settled on Steve, narrowed and unhappy.  He hadn’t anticipated Steve still being alive.  “You need to get out,” he said tersely, “now.”

So much for hope.  Anger and fear left Tony reeling.  “What?  Why?  Why?

“Your enemies are looking for you,” Tavin replied.  “They can’t find you here.”

He had said as much this morning, that he knew Xeran was after them and had a kill order out on Steve, so it didn’t make sense that he’d change his tune now.  Not without provocation.  “What happened?” Tony demanded, not leaving Steve’s side for a second.  “What?”

Thankfully the little alien wasn’t reticent about explaining why he’d been spooked.  “He’s ordered the guards to search for you.  You and your friend.  Believe me, the guards will do as he says.”  Tavin came closer, darting across the room.  “I knew you were in a mess with Xeran, but I had no idea he’d go to such lengths to find you.  I don’t need this sort of trouble.”

“Jesus, what the hell did you expect?  The guy wants me bad!”

He glared daggers at Tony.  “I’m half tempted to let him have you!  There’s an order to things down here, a system that works because it’s all there is.  You keep to your place.  The miners work until they die.  The rest of us serve whoever sits above us if we want to survive.  You don’t cross those with power!”

“On Earth, we call that slavery,” Tony snarled.  “And we abolished it.”

“This isn’t Earth,” Tavin snapped back.  “This is what it is.”

Tony couldn’t control his temper.  “You’re the one who told me that you were impressed with our so-called altruism!  You’re the one who made it sound like it was something important, something special!  A rare thing down here, right?  So appreciate it, goddamn it!  Help us!  You said you would!”

“I can’t,” the alien hissed.  “I have worked too hard, obeyed too long, to get where I am now.  I will not jeopardize that!”

Denial and disbelief left Tony shaking in anger.  They had help right here, a veritable stockpile of it all around them, and it was slipping away.  No, not slipping.  It was being yanked right out of his grasping fingers, no matter how hard he was clutching at it.  “If you turn us out now, he’ll die,” he said, his voice shaking.  He wasn’t going to let this guy off the hook so easily.  If Tavin found some value in loyalty and friendship, then Tony was going to use that against him, guilt and shame him if he had to, do whatever he had to.  “You understand that?  You’ll be condemning him!”

Tavin winced.  It was brief, hardly anything, but Tony saw it.  “That is not my concern.  He’s a miner.  Miners die every day down here.  That’s their lot, to labor and die.  My lot is to serve food.  Yours is to fix what’s broken.  That’s the way of things.  If you were smart, and clearly you must be for Xeran to go to such lengths to own you, you’d realize that and stop trying to save him.  Be thankful he perishes from this rather from something more painful and degrading.”

Tony’s control just snapped.  “You’re a real piece of work.  You dole out your advice, act like you’re above all this awful shit around us, sit there and watch it all go down, but you’re the same as the rest of them.  Yeah, this isn’t Earth.  On Earth, if you stand there and do nothing while someone’s suffering, if you let someone die, it’s no better than killing him yourself.”  That was a stretch.  Humanity was hardly that noble, and Tony knew it better than anyone.  Sure, people could be noble, but they could also be cruel and ruthless, just as selfish and violent as the prisoners were here.  When push came to shove, everyone was looking out for his own, protecting himself first and foremost, putting his own interests above all else and leaving the rest to the whims of fate and nature.  Survival of the fittest.  Everyone was chained to Darwin’s theories on some level.

Everyone, that was, except Steve.  Steve was one of the few truly giving, self-sacrificing people Tony had ever met.  Doing the right thing was innate for him, wired into his mind and body and heart like an instinct rather than something that had be contemplated, debated, and weighed for its benefits.  Steve would do anything just to do the right thing, to protect people, to save someone.

And Steve deserved no less in return.  Tony wouldn’t stop fighting for him.  “Just because you hide behind your counter and have this safe job where all you have to do is hand out the cake and watch the system grind everyone down doesn’t make you better.  It doesn’t lift you above it!  If you let him die, you’re no better.”

Now the wince was extremely noticeable.  Tavin made no effort to hide it.  He glanced from Tony to Steve, Steve who was shifting restlessly and weakly reaching for Tony’s hand.  Tony turned around and took his shaking fingers.  “It’s alright,” he promised.  He’d keep fucking promising that, even if it wasn’t true and never would be again.  “It’s alright.”

Steve settled a bit, eyes closed and comforted by Tony’s nearness, by his hand squeezing his fingers.  Tony brushed the matted hair away from Steve’s forehead, rubbed his thumb gently over a fading bruise on Steve’s temple.  He drew a shivery breath, sliding his palm down Steve’s cheek, through the beard growing in and the dirt caked there, and along his jaw.  He cradled Steve’s face, biting his own lip hard enough to taste blood.  “I’ll do whatever you want.  If that’s what you need from me to make this worth your while…  I’ll work for you, fix stuff here, steal supplies, whatever you want.  I’m – I can design weapons–”

“Tony, no,” Steve whimpered.  Apparently he wasn’t as out of it as he seemed, and apparently he was stubborn and stupid enough to argue.  He tugged at Tony’s hand, shaking his head free of Tony’s grasp.  That was about all he could do, that and gurgle out more nonsense.  “Can’t…  Don’t…  Don’t–”

“Shut up, Steve,” Tony hissed.  It wasn’t quite nonsense.  This thought had been sticking in the back of his head for days.  He hadn’t been letting himself consider it because it was awful, but he had to now.  He was pretty sure Xeran didn’t know who he was; how could anyone here?  Iron Man – Tony Stark – meant nothing this far from Earth and down this deep in the pit.  All Xeran knew Tony was capable of figuring stuff out, building and repairing things much faster than the average engineer.  He wasn’t aware of what Tony could truly do.  I can build weapons.  Far more than the knives, shanks, and clubs that got passed around.  He could make real weapons that could tip the scales, allow the prisoners to revolt or the factions among them to battle it out for dominance.  He could build them from the shards with the parts available.  With the tools he had.  He knew he could do it.

And Steve knew it, too.  He was terrified that Tony had let the cat out of the bag.  Tony couldn’t – shouldn’t – be mad.  Steve was trying to protect him, even like this.  And he was trying to protect Steve.  A fine pair of fucking stupid morons.  “Don’t say anything, okay?” Tony begged softly.  “I’m taking care of it.”

Steve sobbed in submission, giving up on his weak struggles.  Tony pushed him down, hushed him with surprising tenderness considering how bleak the situation was and how threadbare his patience was.  He had to.  He had to keep a cool head.  Without Captain America’s strength, without Steve, all they had were Tony’s wits and Tony’s skills.  Those were only worth something if he stayed calm.

And as long as they were worth something, he’d sell them both.  Tony brushed Steve’s hair back again, smoothed it until Steve was sleepy and quiet, until he himself felt more centered.  He closed his aching eyes, swallowed through his throat was still so dry, that never felt any less parched no matter how much he drank.  He ignored a body that never felt any less exhausted no matter how he slept.  He wasn’t going to let Steve go, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take this chance to save him away.

So he turned and faced Tavin anew, taking as deep a breath as he could to bolster himself.  He met the alien’s strange eyes firmly.  “On Earth, I made weapons.  I did it for years.  I can fix anything, build anything.  I’m smart and I learn fast.  And I’ll do it if I have to.  All I care about is saving him.”  Tavin frowned almost in confusion, looking at Steve again.  He said nothing.  Tony sighed, wondering why the hell he needed to spell this out.  “If Xeran wants me this bad, bad enough to put a hit out on my friend and bad enough to get the guards to hunt me, then you have a chance to use that.  Sell me to him if you want.  Or take me for yourself.  I don’t care.  Do whatever you need to make saving him worth your trouble.  Please.  I’ll do anything.  Just please feed him.  Don’t let him die!”

Tavin continued to stare.  Tony stared right back.  He stood protectively in between the alien and Steve, reaching behind him to hold Steve’s hand again.  The silence dragged on, uncomfortable, frightening really, and Tony could hardly stand it.  Finally, finally, Tavin sighed.  “I can’t help you,” he said softly.  A geyser of frustration and rage burst up inside Tony, but before he could vent it, the alien was continuing.  “What you’re asking for…  It’s not just feeding him.  You want me to change the system.  You want me to allot him a larger amount of food permanently.  You want preferential treatment for a miner.  That’s not something I can do.  I don’t have the authority.”  His face further loosened from its tense frown.  “However, I can arrange an audience with someone who does.”

Tony’s heart skipped a beat.  “You can?”

Those weird eyes seemed to bore into his soul.  “Yes.  If he’s in a charitable mood, you might be able to convince him, although I doubt making weapons will interest him much so I hope you have something else up your sleeve.”

That was shocking.  This was a prison.  A prison.  Tony was willing to bet he and Steve weren’t the only two poor souls who’d been kidnapped or sold into slavery and brought here against their will.  And it wasn’t as if criminals were typically all that compliant about serving their sentences, either.  And it wasn’t as if this place was anything remotely close to pleasant or even humane.  This was Hell.  Didn’t anyone want to escape?  The prisoners (well, the ones capable of fighting) all seemed more interested in fighting each other.  The guards looked as miserable as the prisoners and seemed more interested in letting the inmates destroy each other rather than keep order.  Tony hadn’t seen anyone, not Xeran and his thugs, not any of the miners, not the other prisoners, not anyone raise a hand to the guards.  Granted, they’d only been trapped here for little more than a week, but it seemed utterly insane that this rowdy, violent, vicious group wasn’t uniting even a little against a common enemy.

All sorts of awful implications followed those thoughts.  Maybe something else was keeping everyone content, so to speak.  Maybe those in power had no interest in escape.  And maybe that was because escape was impossible.  That was why no one was even trying.  Getting past the guards, through the scanners that tracked their movements everywhere, up from the pit and into the levels above, and finally into that landing bay where they’d first been brought…  Perhaps that really was as impossible as it seemed.  And getting to the bay wasn’t even the end of the trouble.  How the hell would you get off the planet?  Anyone lucky enough to get that far would need to steal a ship or find a way to ride those huge elevators up to wherever they went.  Tony assumed there was a station or something at the top, something to receive the shards that clearly went all the way from the pit, up those massive pillars, and into the sky.  Getting there seemed impossible.

Frankly, Tony would settle for just getting to the surface.  There had to be something out there in that wasteland.  Something to save them.  Escaping the pit, getting out into that desert and feeling the sun…  Freedom.

Regardless, no one seemed compelled to try to fight or escape, and the more Tony thought about that, the more disturbing it was.  “I’ll…  I’ll find something else he wants.”  He heard himself mumble that, but he didn’t know what he could offer.

Tavin seemed about as confident as Tony felt.  “And should he deny your request, I need your word that you will let it go.  I cannot cross them to help you.  I cannot.  So if he refuses you, you must stop.”

Stop.  Let it go.  It wasn’t clear what Tony should stop, what he should let go, but he could only hear it one way.  Stop trying to save Steve.  Let Steve go.  Let Steve die.  Do the smart thing and protect himself.  Abandon this nonsense and look after his own interests down here because if he fell in line he had a chance to survive.  Steve didn’t.  This was Steve’s only chance, and if it didn’t pan out, Tony had to stop fighting for him.

Fuck that.

“Okay,” he murmured all the same because there was no choice.  He needed Tavin to help.  He didn’t know what he’d do if this didn’t work, but he’d figure something else out.  He would.  “Okay.”

Tavin seemed to be scrutinizing him again, and Tony made himself stay calm and still while he did.  Eventually he was satisfied, sighing and coming over to the counter to take the bowl.  “We’ll leave after lights out,” he declared.

Tony shook his head.  “After lights out?”  Wasn’t everyone stuffed into the cellblock then, trembling in the pitch blackness?  Who the hell would he be seeing after lights out?

“Don’t ask so many questions,” hissed the other irately.  He was refilling the bowl with more of the blue syrup.  “They’ll get you killed.  You need to be smarter than that if you want to impress Kar.”

Kar.  Tony’s blood went cold.  Of course.  He didn’t know why he hadn’t put two and two together until now.  There was a hierarchy in Hell, just as Tavin said.  The weak and victimized.  The Grubs, the expendable labor.  The engineers and mechanics, the prized prisoners.  Thugs like Xeran, who ran their own little factions and fiefdoms.  The protected class like Tavin, who through fate or who knew what had special treatment.  The guards, who seemed beholden to those with the most power.  This was a whole caste system of sorts, a society.

And everyone answered to Kar.

“If you want to save your friend, you’ll need to convince him that it’s worth his time.  Since you seem to have a problem with controlling your mouth, I suggest you concentrate on some restraint.  He doesn’t take kindly to being insulted.”

All the awful stories Tony had heard about this seemingly larger-than-life figure rushed through his head.  This was bad.  If negotiating with Xeran had ended up with burns on his face and Steve having a target painted on his back, this could go so much worse.

Nothing’s worse than Steve dying.

“And you’ll have to leave him here.”

Tony jerked from his terrified thoughts.  Frantically he shook his head.  “I can’t do that!  He could die!  Or get scared or–”

“There is no way we can bring him with us, not if you want him to live long enough for you to broker your deal,” Tavin snapped.  He brought the bowl over.  The silence was deafening.  Tavin’s expression softened again at seeing Tony’s very obvious dismay.  “No one can reach him here.  He will be safe.  Now let’s try to get him to eat.”

Tony blinked back frightened tears.  “He’s…”  Steve had lost consciousness again.  His eyes were shut and sunken, his face so pale, his breath a weak rattled between his lips.  Getting him to eat more right now was impossible.  And that made the pain of this so much sharper.  Those few mouthfuls of food, the water he’d helped Steve drink…  A start.  A drop in the bucket.  It was hardly that.  He had to find a way to get more and now just for right now.  More for the rest of the time they spent here.

“Then you eat,” Tavin said, handing Tony the bowl.  “Take care of yourself.  It won’t be long.”

“Won’t be long until what?” Tony grumbled bitterly.  “Until we go?  Or until he dies?”

Tavin’s face was stern but otherwise impassive.  “Eat.”

Tony gritted his teeth in fury.  The thought of all of this, of leaving Steve here alone and Tony having to somehow convince an alien mob boss about the value of human life and the fact that everyone in Hell was so fucking vile and evil and selfish…  He wanted to slap that bowl right out of Tavin’s hands in defiance.

But he didn’t.  He took it and he ate.  No choice.


The horn blared and blared.  The lights went out. Normally this was such an awful and terrifying time, the time that always brought nightmares from Afghanistan and the fear of falling from the sky above New York.  Right now Tony was terrified for entirely different reasons.  He clung to Steve’s hands, holding them over Steve’s chest gently, trying not to think for one second that this could be it.  That Kar and Xeran and whatever other monsters lay in wait outside could catch him and keep him from coming back.  That Steve could pass away while he was gone.  That he’d return to find Steve cold and lifeless.  This was much worse than any other time he and Steve had been separated down here, worse than every morning that he’d gone up to the higher levels and Steve had gone down into the mine.  This had a finality to it that scared the shit out of him.

He wasn’t going to admit it, though.  He wasn’t.  “Steve?”  He pulled Steve’s hands to his chest and squeezed hard.  “Steve, can you hear me?”

Behind him, Tavin was impatient.  “He can’t.  We need to go.”

Tony ignored him.  He wasn’t going to just walk away.  “Steve, it’s Tony.  I’m…”  He felt sick, but he knew he had to say this.  Had to do it.  “I’m going to get help.  I’m coming right back.  Alright?”  This was fucking insane.  Tavin was right; Steve couldn’t hear him.  He was deeply unconscious again, back to barely breathing, to barely seeming alive at all.

Which was why Tony had to go.  “I’m coming right back,” he swore again.  “Just hang on.  Hang on.”  He wanted to say more, do more, but he didn’t dare.  Not with Tavin there.  Not with the unspoken things in his heart and this awful nightmare so intent on using those things against him.  He pressed a desperate kiss to Steve’s limp, filthy fingers before laying them over his belly.

Then he followed Tavin out of the storeroom.  He didn’t let himself look back.  He couldn’t afford to lose his nerve.  It was dark and empty outside in the kitchen, the clunky equipment hulking and idle.  “Come on,” Tavin beckoned, and Tony went after him.  The alien was quick and light on his feet, his weird gait somehow fleet as he directed them deeper into this place.  With the poor lighting and steam venting from pipes and through the metal grating of the floor, Tony couldn’t see where they were going at first.

But they exited the little labyrinth and ended up out in the main cavern not far from where he and Steve had first been dumped into Hell after they’d been processed.  It was darker than normal with the lights dimmed, but Tony recognized the wide, sloping walk up to the cellblock.  So they were going there?  That didn’t really make much sense.

As they went up, though, where they were headed became shockingly clearer.  Those dark, ugly buildings and hovels and scaffolds that they passed every morning and every night…  Holy shit.  All of it looked like a city.  There were lights on, filling the little huts and lining the stairs up into the higher sections that were built into the cavern walls.  People were talking.  Tony could smell food.  The stink of smoke.  He could hear the sound of enjoyment.  There were the equivalent of clubs and restaurants and bars and who the fuck else knew what.  Alcohol and actual music.  It sounded weird, screechy, and unpleasant, made with instruments he’d never heard before, but it was unmistakably music.

Tony slowed to a stop, too utterly surprised to really process what he was seeing.  “Fucking unbelievable,” he whispered.  He was looking at nightlife in Hell.  Nightlife in Hell.  He supposed that was something of a misnomer given that night and day were fabricated down here.  Still, this was how the privileged class lived when the prisoners bedded down.  It was another whole layer to this place, one he hadn’t known existed until now.  It was astonishing and infuriating and so damn disgusting that he couldn’t do anything but stare for what felt to be forever.

“Come on,” growled Tavin irately, and he grabbed Tony’s arm and hauled him toward one of the bigger huts built into the wall of the cavern.  They passed other inmates, a fairly motley assortment of species all dressed in the bland prison garb, though Tony noticed right away that quite a few of them were Kree.  He supposed that shouldn’t have been surprising.  Whatever section of the galaxy they were in, the Kree seemed to be powerful.  He supposed that didn’t bode well for anyone ever shutting this place down and taking control of the shard mines, which was probably another reason the prisoners seemed truly hopeless.  Rescue wasn’t coming.

But that was neither here nor there right now. Right now he had to focus.  Outside the large hut, there were two massive guards, not prison guards but prisoners who were guarding the entrance to the building.  They towered over both Tony and Tavin, and they looked about as friendly as bouncers typically were.  “He’s not seeing anyone tonight,” one of them growled, glaring viciously at Tony as if Tony had no right to be there.  Tony was pretty sure that sort of condemnation and dismissal was far better than the alternative, which would be these assholes recognizing who he was and hauling him off as a captive rather than a guest or whatever.

For being such a short, unassuming guy, Tavin had a presence to him.  He was bold too, glaring right back like he was every bit as powerful as these brutes.  Maybe he was.  “He owes me a favor.  I’m using it.”

The two guards shared an irritated look.  Tavin stood his ground, even as they returned to glowering at him.  Then the one who spoke sneered.  “So be it.”

As they moved out of the way to allow Tavin and his unlikely ally through the entrance, Tony couldn’t help a little rush of excitement over how easy that seemed.  He knew that was premature, but, damn, it felt good to have something in this nightmare go their way.  He stuck close to Tavin as they ventured into the hut.  It wasn’t large, not by Tony’s standards, but compared to the tiny, cramped alcove of their cell, this seemed palatial.  It went much further back into the rock than he imagined.  There was cloth – actual fabric that wasn’t entirely filthy or gray – draped inside, partitioning the hut into different rooms and sections.  They passed by a few, and Tony saw people in them.  There were flasks and cups being passed around, filled with red liquid that only reminded Tony of blood.  He figured it had to be booze, but what the hell did he know?  The prisoners were sharing it, many of them having a good time, but the second he passed by, everything went quiet and cold.  He wasn’t welcome here.  That was pretty fucking obvious.

Thankfully they didn’t have to go far.  The space opened wider after Tony ducked through a grimy metal door.  This room was quite a bit bigger, filled with aliens drinking, smoking, and chatting.  Tony recognized a couple of them as the group of Kree thugs who’d been taking the skins that first day.  And he saw the bastard who’d had a knife to his throat just two nights ago, threatening to slit it if he didn’t bow to Xeran’s demands.  There were others, too, familiar faces that seemed strangely out of place having a good time here rather than tormenting everyone else out there.

Once again the conversation died at Tony’s entrance, and the crowd parted to allow him through.  Everyone was watching him, and he didn’t really understand why until he spotted Xeran himself.  The alien was near the head of the room, speaking lowly to a few others Tony didn’t recognize.  The second their eyes met, Xeran’s filled with frustrated contempt.  Unbridled malice.  Tony hesitated.  He was walking right into the hands of his would-be owner, and by now everyone realized it.

Including Kar.  He sat in the back of the room, in the center on a chair that was elevated a foot or so on a dais.  Like a throne.  That immediately made this into a scene out of Game of Thrones or something like that, some sort of fantasy bullshit with the hero slowly, seriously approaching the very seat of evil.  That was pretty grandiose, but it certainly felt that way with Kar slouched in his chair and staring at him.  He was Kree, but his similarity with the others of the warrior race ended with the blue skin and his clear love of power.  The creature before them was overweight.  Overweight in Hell.  That didn’t seem possible, but this guy had rolls and flab and multiple chins and the pudginess was spilling out of his clothes (something that looked soft and almost silky like a robe, not at all like the coarse jumpsuits everyone else was wearing).  Kar was pierced in his nose and ears, bald, his blue skin tattooed and thick-seeming like he’d known far more pampering down here than suffering, starvation, and hard labor.  Clearly he had.  He was the picture of sloth, of decadent arrogance, sucking as he was on a straw fitted to some sort of device at his feet.  It was feeding him some sort of liquid, probably the equivalent of a thousand-dollar bottle of champagne.  That made the image of greedy wastefulness and corruption to be complete.  Like all the resources of Hell were being suckled away, filling this bastard’s belly even though it was huge already.  He was like a ridiculous alien mob boss, a blue Jabba the Hutt lazing in his lair, a king plump and round and laughing at his unfortunate subjects starving in the streets.

The image was really goddamn disturbing.

Tony sucked in a deep breath.  He didn’t know what he’d expected, but this hadn’t been it.  This hidden party, this secret elite class in its elite world.  He supposed this explained some things, like where the people in power lived and slept in Hell, why they seemed untouchable and untroubled by the deplorable conditions down here.  The conditions weren’t much better in this place, with the darkness and the smell and the filth, but compared to the cellblock or what Steve had told him of the mine, this was heaven.  That thought process led him to a different analogy about Kar.  Not so much a mob boss ruling his organization or a king oppressing his subjects.

A god controlling the universe, so long as the universe didn’t exist beyond the confines of Hell.  For everyone here, Tony included, it didn’t.

Yeah, that didn’t sit well.  It made Tony angry, which was good, because anger was better than fear.  He made himself bite his tongue, though, and be patient.  As gross and heinous as this whole damn thing was, he needed to do as Tavin suggested and not piss this guy off.

Kar seemed pretty content to stare them down in amusement for a few excruciatingly long seconds before his plump lips pulled into a grin.  “Strange company you keep these days, Tavin,” he said.  His voice was that same guttural baritone as the other Kree, a deep rumbling that never seemed natural to Tony’s ears.  “You’re picking strays up now?”

Tavin remained cool, but Tony thought he seemed less confident than before.  He was scared of this alien, far more so than he was of Xeran.  “Considering the interest some of us seem to have in this Terran, I thought it might be prudent to bring him to you.”

Tony felt more than saw everyone else pressing closer around him, and for a couple awful seconds, he was fucking sure he’d been played for a fool.  He’d made a terrible, terrible mistake coming here, by trusting any of these monsters, and now it was too late.

But it wasn’t.  Tavin glanced at him once, steely but not without a hint of compassion.  “He informed me that he has something to offer to you, should you be inclined to listen.”

Kar grinned, revealing black teeth.  “He does, huh?”  He turned to appraise Tony, and Tony felt utterly tiny in comparison to this fat asshole.  Even slouched and slovenly, the Kree was still significantly taller (and wider) than he was.  “And what might that be, human?”

Before Tony could even begin to muster the courage to speak, Xeran was at his side.  He was utterly enraged, but he was trying to hide it.  “This doesn’t concern you,” he said to Kar.  Kar’s eyes flashed, and even Xeran ducked his gaze.  “With respect.  This human works in my stable.  He has yet to learn his place, hence overstepping his bounds and coming here.”  The glare Xeran gave Tony was cutting.  “I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“I’m not in your stable,” Tony snapped, “or whatever the fuck you call it.  That’s why I’m here.”

Kar turned back to Xeran after another suck from his straw.  “Are you having trouble controlling your flock?”

Xeran ducked his head again.  He was practically trembling, though Tony didn’t know if it was from fear or shock or anger.  Probably it was a mixture of all three.  “No.  Not at all, save for this one.  This one refuses to cooperate.  He seems to think he deserves more than our system provides.”  He said that like the system was at all fair or balanced, like Tony was being greedy.

He didn’t care if he was at this point.  He was surrounded by his enemies, by the cruel and evil who’d just as soon murder him for his impertinence than listen to him.  If he didn’t act like he knew what he was doing, he was fucked.  “Xeran is the one who won’t cooperate.  He wants what I have to offer, but he won’t listen to what I have to say!  He’s the one you should blame for this disturbance, not me.”

Kar looked amused again.  “Oh?”

Tony gritted his teeth and refused to be cowed.  “Yes, oh.  And I apologize for the disruption to your fine evening here, but there wasn’t much choice but to come straight to you, because all of this is a huge misunderstanding and my buddy here–”  Tavin looked like he wanted to melt into the dirt on the floor with that.  “–suggested I take my case higher up the food chain.  All the way to the top, as it were.  You know, to someone smart and wise and, uh, giving.  Someone who has the power and the clout to make things happen.”  The amused expression was slipping from that fat face.  Tony stammered to keep going, to butter this bastard up as much as possible.  Steve’s life depended on it.  Both their lives did.  “And – and someone who is intelligent enough to see a good deal when it’s right in front of his nose, unlike some others around here.”  He glared hard at Xeran.  “Someone willing to work with me to make sure both our needs are met.  Someone whose reputation as a leader precedes him.”  God, he was so punchy and scared he was babbling.  Babbling like a goddamn moron.  “Someone whose, uh, size and strength is awe-inspiring.  And that would be you!  Oh, illustrious one.  Oh, amazing one.  Your high exaltedness.  Lord Jabba.”  Christ.  That just slipped out.

Kar’s face broke into a glower.  “What did you call me?”

“Um…  Uh!  It’s, um, a term of reverence.  From…”  Lord.  “From a galaxy far, far away.”

Kar seemed to relax a bit at that, though he was wary still, scrutinizing Tony for what felt like forever.  Keep it together, Tony thought.  Keep it together keep it together keep it together–

“Speak then,” the Kree finally demanded.

Tony knew he had to be careful here.  He couldn’t appeal to this bastard’s morality and compassion; he obviously had neither, and trying to go at this from that angle would only make Tony appear desperate and weak.  He also couldn’t willy-nilly reveal information about the serum.  He shouldn’t have even told Tavin about it earlier.  If these guys knew Steve was worth more than a mere laborer, Tony didn’t know what they’d do about it.  Nothing good probably.  Chances were they’d let him live though, so maybe he’d put that card in his back pocket.

No, the best thing would be to put this in terms of what he could do, to woo Kar with his wares before offering up his fee.  “I’m an engineer.  A really good one, probably the best on Earth.  I can fix anything, design anything, build anything.  In the ten days I’ve been here, I’ve already showed up Xeran’s stable of mechanics.”  Xeran bristled.  “I’m easily worth ten of them.  Easily.  I can do things faster and better.  And I can do anything: repair power systems, work with computers, fix tools, build weapons…”  He threw that in there, even though Tavin had told him it didn’t matter and even though Steve would probably throttle him for doing it if he wasn’t dying.  Tony’s stomach clenched, both because it felt wrong to offer to help evil this way and because his offer hadn’t elicited any response.  Kar looked patently unimpressed.  “I can do anything.  Whatever you want, whatever you need, I can make it.  And I’m willing to do that.  I’m willing to work my fingers to the bone for you without complaint as long as my terms are met.”

Still, the other looked disinterested and increasingly aggravated.  “This doesn’t concern me,” he declared.  “Negotiate with someone who cares.”

“I can’t,” Tony snapped in frustration, “because this asshole won’t listen to me.”  Again Tony glared, and again Xeran bristled, and Tony knew he shouldn’t be insulting him like this, but he was too desperate to control himself.  “I’m not asking for much.  My advanced skills and obedience in return for a permanent increase in rations and a vocational reassignment for someone else.”

Kar coolly cocked an eyebrow.  “For someone else?”

The fact that loyalty and compassion were such a red flag down here was getting to be maddening.  “Yes.  And let’s just get this out of the way.  It’s for a miner.  A disgusting, useless, expendable Grub.  But who I want it for shouldn’t matter.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” Kar answered.  “They’re not your resources you’re spending.  They’re mine.”

That was a heaping pile of bullshit, a bunch of narcissistic, privileged nonsense to think the hard work of others belonged to anyone but those doing said work and suffering for it.  Tony knew it was a useless point to argue though, so he didn’t bother.  “I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass here, but, again, what does it matter?  You get what you want, I get what I want, and everyone’s happy.”  This was practically the same conversation he’d had with Xeran, only now it was on a larger, more theatrical scale.

The outcome wasn’t going to be any different.  “You say this like your happiness matters to me, or as if you have a choice in the matter.”  Kar laughed.

Tony ground his teeth together.  Fuck this whole place.  “You think I’ll ever do what you want?  I get it.  We humans are stupid and small and weak down here.  You think we’re easy to use, easy to destroy.  Well, let me let you in on something: I will never do what you want if you don’t do what I want.  It’s fucking simple, follow?  You take care of my friend and me, and I’ll serve you like a content, little robot.  I’ll give you exactly what you need.”

Kar’s patience was clearly wearing.  “What makes you think you have anything I need?”  Tony supposed he should have expected that response, but it still made his heart stop and his blood go cold.  “Even if you’re as good as you say, is saving this disgusting, useless, expendable Grub and you worth getting things fixed faster?  Or better?”  Kar leaned forward, spilling some of his beverage as he did.  He didn’t even seem to notice.  “Do I look like I have a need for faster or better?”

Shit.  The room went totally silent.  Tony realized then and there that he’d never had a chance.  He truly had no power here, no hope of controlling a thing.  He could feel the others pressing closer again, Xeran in particular, practically slavering with the chance to put him in his place.  And Tavin was backing away.  Christ.  Hands grabbed him.  He panicked.  This battle he’d foolishly decided to fight was going to end right here and right now with him in chains and Steve dead.

Steve was going to die.

“I can figure out the tattoos!”

The cry burst from Tony’s lips, coming from nowhere it seemed, and the hands on him stilled.  Tony stood very still too, frozen with terror and panic and desperation, someone gripping his sleeve and someone else with a knife near his throat and a dozen more gathered around him just itching to have a piece of him.  Now they were all waiting and watching, waiting to see if Kar would listen to more.

Kar just stared at him, still slouched in his throne, back to slurping through his straw like he was enjoying some sort of entertainment spectacle.  He swallowed loudly and leaned back a bit.  Tony didn’t know if that was an invitation to continue.  He’d been desperately hunting for another avenue, something else of worth.  It had to lie in the tattoos.  The tattoos were currency, which meant they had value.  And he didn’t know what the hell he was offering.  He just kept offering it.  “If – if you want to escape, I can help!  I can figure out the scanners, get you up out of the pit and onto the higher levels.  If I can hack them–”

“Can you decode the tattoos?” Kar asked.  He was watching Tony warily now, eyes narrowed.   “Can you?”  Tony didn’t understand.  His mouth hung limply open, his head shaking minutely.  What was this guy asking exactly?  If he could…  The silence wore on a second or two, and Kar got impatient, leaning forward and skewering Tony with a demanding stare.  “Can you, Terran?”

“Are you asking if I can figure out how to change a tattoo into something else?  Into another type of tattoo?”

“Yes,” Kar responded.  “Rewrite them.  Recreate them.  If you can do that, we have something to talk about.”

Tony’s chest suddenly felt like it was burning where he’d been stamped days ago when he and Steve had been brought here.  Despite the tattoo being responsible for practically everything down here from entry into work areas and the cellblock to eating and drinking to tracking prisoner whereabouts, he’d sort of forgotten it was there.  It had become this awful thing he didn’t think about, a symbol of this place and all the evil in it.

And he didn’t really think about it now.  The meaning of what Kar was asking was floating around the back of his head – he wants me to change the tattoos and make it so they can go anywhere and get anything and turn a miner into a mechanic and vice versa and control Hell at its fundamental level and fuck fuck fuck – but he didn’t let himself see it.  He also didn’t really consider that maybe this was impossible.  If the unbridled interest and glimmer of hope in the alien’s eyes were any indication, this was maybe something he’d been after a while: the capacity to defeat the tattoos and changes one’s designation down here.  That probably meant they hadn’t had much success in gaming the system.  And that probably meant it was outrageously difficult to do it.

Plus morally reprehensible.  Jesus.

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “Yeah, I can do that.  I can.”  A hushed murmur went over the crowd, and Tony poured more bravado into his voice.  He shrugged away from Xeran and his thugs.  “I’ve done more than my fair share of biochemistry.  Mastered it really.”  Not really.  He’d figured out Extremis, so that was something (and, to his credit, he’d been mostly drunk at the time).  He knew way more than the average person about biology and chemistry and genetics, but on the other hand, he was hardly an expert.  He knew that from spending hours working alongside Bruce.  He was well aware of how limited his skills really were when compared to a true genius in those fields.

Going all in was the only option, though.  He stared Kar straight in the eye.  “Sure, I can handle it.  Not a problem.”  The alien grinned an oily grin.  “But not unless you take care of me and my friend.”  And now Tony really went all in.  Boldly he took a step forward.  “I want us out of the cellblock.  I want to be living somewhere safe.  I want him given as much food and water as he needs.  Both of us, but him especially.  I want medical supplies.  And I want him out of the mine.”

That grin faltered slightly, though Tony didn’t know if it was from his terms themselves or his audacity.  A torturously slow moment crawled by filled with nothing but the two of them looking at each other.  A silent battle of wills, and Tony refused to lose it.  Kar growled softly.  “You’re asking a lot.  Your terms–”

“Are a drop in the bucket to you,” Tony said, thinking of all that food in that one storeroom and realizing now that it wasn’t for the guards at all.  “Don’t bullshit me.  You and I both know it.  Saving his life means nothing, and I’ll give you everything in return.”

Well, he was right about one thing.  Kar had a shrewder sense of business than Xeran.  He was watching Tony carefully instead of just retaliating.  He wasn’t much more trusting, though.  “If you lie to me…”

“Then you’ll kill me.”  Big fucking deal.

“No.”  Kar’s eyes hardened.  “I’ll destroy you.”  In reality it was hardly different than the threats he’d faced already, but for some reason it felt realer, heavier.  “You think you’re smarter than me?  So good at what you do?  So smart?  I ponder things, too.  I’ve often wondered: how many lashes does it take to whip someone to death?”  Kar’s lips twisted in another sneer, this one downright sadistic.  “You can help me figure that out.  I’ll make you count every one of them.”

Tony swallowed through a dry throat.  “I’m good at counting,” he said with forced levity.

Kar grinned.  “I should hope so.  I do love learning something new.”

Jesus.  In the silence that followed, the threat hung in the air.  It was exactly what Tony would face if he failed in this, and everyone knew it.  “Deal?” Tony finally asked, trying not to seem as terrified as he was.

Kar considered a moment more, back to silently judging him, before he nodded.  Then he flicked his eyes to someone to the side, a reedy alien Tony didn’t recognize, and the creature came closer and bent down to Kar.  Kar whispered in his ear for a couple seconds, after which the alien scattered to do as his boss bid.  Kar turned back to Tony, smiling wickedly.  “If there’s nothing else?”

Tony bit down on his lower lip and clenched every muscle in his body to keep it from quaking.  “Nope.  I’m good.”

Whatever affable air there might have been disappeared.  “Then get out.”

Tony had all but forgotten about Tavin, so he jerked in surprise when the alien grabbed his arm.  Tavin muttered thanks, bowing slightly and backing away, tugging Tony with him.  Tony followed.  They quickly walked out, Tavin refusing to turn his back to the others.  Tony was fighting to stay calm.  Everything around him was a blur of shadows and filth.  Everything inside him was a haze of utter shock.

Thankfully, Tony managed to hold himself together until they were outside.  It felt infinitely better, more freeing and safer, to be back in the main cavern again and walking away from the hut.  Other prisoners were still watching them, but Tony couldn’t care.  He was shaking, reeling with what had just happened. 

With what he’d just promised.  A deal with the devil.  “You’re a fool,” Tavin hissed again in both disgust and sympathy as they walked away.

Tony couldn’t argue with that.


Steve was still alive when they got back to him.  Tony was so shocked and alarmed that he’d actually managed to get what they needed that he’d forgotten to be worried about Steve dying while they’d been gone.  He felt a little shitty about that as he raced to Steve side.  Grabbing Steve’s shoulder and leaning close, suddenly it was all he could do not to cry.  “I did it, Steve,” he whispered, blinking away tears, “I got us help!  I got you help.”  He searched Steve’s gray face for signs of recognition.  Of validation.  There weren’t any, of course.  Steve was unconscious.  Tony kept talking anyway.  “You’re going to be okay!  It’s okay now!  It’s going to be okay…”

Steve didn’t answer.  Tony kissed his forehead and let go of a long, deep sigh of relief.

Getting Steve out of the storeroom was a challenge.  Tony was so sore and exhausted that any strenuous activity was too much.  Even with Tavin there, Steve was ungainly and heavy, and the two of them silently struggled to move him.  Tavin’s willingness to offer aid wasn’t questioned again, though Tony wondered how far his generosity could be stretched the second they finally exited the kitchen and were met with a gang of Kree in the cavern.

It was the same Kree thug who’d harvested the skins that first day.  He grinned cruelly at Tony before shifting his gaze to Tavin.  “Kar wishes to inform you that, as payment for you bringing the human’s troubles to his attention, your quarters will be used as housing for them.”

Tavin frowned deeply, and Tony winced.  The Kree laughed as they struggled with their burden before ambling back toward the hut.  The two of them watched them leave, Steve limp between them.  Tony felt like an absolute asshole.  Eventually Tavin sighed.  “Let’s go.”

Thankfully it wasn’t too much further.  Getting Steve up the rickety steps that barely seemed attached to the cavern wall was both terrifying and tricky, but after a few minutes of struggle they succeeded.  Tony noticed now that what looked like dark cracks from below were actually narrow corridors, and they slipped inside one.  A few feet in, a thick gray curtain separated where they were from whatever was beyond.  Tavin led him through it.  Again, there was a largish space divided into smaller sections with more curtains.  It was significantly bigger than their cell and somewhat lit by a few dim bulbs.  There were things everywhere, too.  Spare boots.  Clothes.  Food and flasks that had to have water in them.  Supplies.  An actual bed.  Tony could hardly believe it when his wide eyes discovered that.  It was little more than a shabby pallet on the cold stone floor, but there were blankets and something that passed for a pillow.  He didn’t know whether to be furious or grateful.

Grateful won out as Tavin helped him take Steve there.  Together they laid him atop the rumpled nest of cloth.  Tony lingered there, pulling the ratty blankets up and over Steve’s body.  It was striking to him how quickly he had forgotten the feel of anything other than hard stone, and he compulsively rubbed the blanket in an almost childlike need for comfort.  His brain was effectively shutting down with fatigue and relief, so much so that at first he didn’t notice Tavin bring a couple gray plastic cases closer.  Tony had seen them right outside the entrance.  The way the alien was handling them suggested he didn’t know what they were.  Tony took them from him when he returned and opened them.  “Oh, fuck me,” he breathed.

Medical supplies.  Obviously Kar had fulfilled one part of their agreement already and left these here.  They looked like the alien equivalent of EMT kits.  Some of the things Tony didn’t recognize, but there were bandages, syringe-like items loaded with medicines, splints and gauze and shears.  A needle and some tubing.  Christ.  An IV.  There were bags of liquid beside it, one clear and one milky.  “Can you read that?” Tony demanded, not daring to hope as he pointed at the pouches.

Tavin nodded.  “It is a liquidized nutrient solution.”

Again Tony could have cried.  “Thank God,” he whispered.  “Help me get him undressed.”  Together they unzipped Steve’s jump suit and worked his arms out of the sleeves and the fabric down to his waist.  God.  Seeing Steve’s chest naked was awful.  He hadn’t really since the night they’d gotten here, and the amount of damage these last ten days had wrought was sickening.  The bruises and dried blood and dirt.  The fact that Tony could count Steve’s ribs, could trace every bone in his torso because there was no fat or muscle between them and Steve’s filthy, gray skin.  Both Tavin and Tony spent a second just staring at the damage, and even Tavin looked ill.

Tony swallowed down the burn of bile.  His hands shook as he pulled the first aid materials out of the case and quickly took inventory of what they had.  Three bags of what looked like saline.  Three bags of liquid nutrition.  That was enough to get started.  Maybe he should have been worried about dumping large quantities of some unknown liquids into Steve’s body, but he couldn’t be.  He just went about getting the IV inserted, his hands shaking in exhaustion.

Tavin watched silently as Tony tried to find a vein in Steve’s right arm.  It was difficult to feel them given how dehydrated and weak Steve was.  “Do you know what you are doing?” Tavin eventually asked after a few silent minutes were spent with Tony probing and trying in vain to insert the needle (which was far bigger than the ones on Earth).  He sounded more worried than irate.

Tony sighed.  “More or less.”

The weight of Tavin’s stare felt monumental.  “In much the same way you know how to engineer the tattoos, I wager.”

“I had to promise him something he wanted,” Tony breathlessly argued.  “Like you said.”  Finally, after stabbing Steve’s arm repeatedly, he got the needle in and the IV in place.  There was no tape but rather some sort of weird, rubbery glob.  When Tony spread that over the oddly shaped port, it immediately dried and turned sticky, effectively gluing the whole thing down.  “There.”  Tavin looked impressed.  Tony felt him watching as he attached the tube to the port.  “Hold this?”

The alien took the tube as Tony fumbled with a connector to split the line into a Y shape.  Then he examined the bags.  He was tired enough that he didn’t see the obvious place to insert the tubes right away, but once he did and got them in, the fluids began running from the bags, dripping down and mixing at the connector before rolling lower into Steve’s body.  Tony watched.  He didn’t think there’d ever been something so beautiful.

As he lifted the bags higher to get gravity working in their favor, Tavin shuffled off.  He came back with a hook, and he slipped that into a hole in the wall not far from the bed.  It took a little doing to move the pallet with Steve on it while keeping the IV bags aloft and their tubes untangled, but they managed.  In a few short minutes, the bags were suspended on the hook above Steve and draining slowly but steadily into him.

Thank God.  Tony closed his eyes and sank wearily to his knees.  Thank God.

“He will make good on his promise.”  That warning cut through his well-earned moment of reprieve, and he pried his eyes open to look at Tavin.  The alien was watching him sadly.  He nodded.  “He will.  You are playing a very dangerous game.”

Tony sighed.  “I know.”  He reached down to grasp Steve’s hand.  “But at the very least I bought us some time.”

“Time to what?  Escape?”  Tavin scowled weakly.  It was without the harsh condemnation of before.  “It’s not possible.”

“No.  I don’t know.”  Tony swallowed through a painful throat.  “I don’t know.  We’re surviving.  For now…  That’s enough.”  He gave a small smile.  “It’s a start, right?”

Tavin actually smiled back.  It wasn’t much, but it felt friendly.  Knowing.  A precursor to something perhaps, to a real connection with someone else down here.  Someone who had gone out on a limb to help them – to save Steve – with no promise of reward.  Someone who cared enough to risk his own security for their sake.  That was something.

“Thank you,” Tony said.  It didn’t seem like much, but it was all he had.  “For everything.”

Tavin’s face went impassive again, but Tony felt like his sentiment was appreciated.  “Sleep,” the alien ordered.  Then he moved away to one of the other rooms in his little, dingy home that felt as grand and perfect as a mansion.

The place went darker and quiet.  Tony sighed slowly.  It felt like the pain and fear was exiting him on that long breath, flowing out with the air.  The incredible events of the day seemed too big to think about right now, and he was too damn tired anyway.  He didn’t have it within himself to wonder about the danger he’d put himself in, to think about how he was going to hold up his end of this bargain.  He couldn’t think about the fact that he was selling his smarts, his skills, the things that he’d used to make himself a good man.  The things that had made him into Iron Man.

He was doing exactly what Steve didn’t want him to do.  What Steve had begged him not to do.

So, no, he wasn’t going to think at all.  Instead, before he even realized what he was doing, he was pushing their supplies away and laying down on the narrow pallet right next to Steve.  He was pulling the ratty blankets over them both.  “It’s going to be okay now,” he promised again, wrapping an arm around Steve’s naked middle.  He didn’t care what he had to do, what he’d already done.  He rubbed Steve’s cold belly gently with his palm, rubbed and refused to dread the price of keeping it full.  Not now.

No, now everything was okay.  He promised that again and again.  He’d earned the right to do that.  “You’re okay, Steve.  We’re both okay.  This is okay…”

He fell asleep murmuring this like another mantra, and for the first time since being imprisoned, he slept well.

Chapter Text

Day 27

Steve dreamed of Tony.

This was hardly the first time.  He had in the past.  It was an occasional fantasy, something that came without warning or any seeming provocation but always left him lying in his bed in the Tower, usually warm and tingly and sometimes turned on as hell in the dream’s wake.  It probably should have disturbed him when it happened because he’d never been attracted to another man before (never much considered it in fact), but it didn’t.  It felt too good for that, felt right and exciting, like a little secret he had for himself, and the whisper in the back of his mind that he should be disgusted was easy to banish.  Steve’s subconscious mind went where his conscious one wouldn’t, acknowledged what his conscious one refused to.  He dreamed of Tony with him, beside him, inside him, wondered what that would feel like.  Wondered what it would feel like to be inside Tony.  What Tony would look like when they were together.  Tony was already so damn beautiful (Steve could admit that in his dreams, admit it and appreciate it fully, and he did).  Beautiful and so alive and energetic and powerful.  He dreamed about Tony’s hands, so strong and sure and capable, on his body, in his hair and down his stomach and on his hips and thighs.  He dreamed of what it would be like to touch back, to put his hands on that lean chest, to weave his fingers in thick, dark hair.  What it would be like to kiss Tony’s skin.  His mouth.  What that would taste like.  It was always delicious and delirious and a little devastating all at once.

But these dreams he was having now weren’t that exactly.  These were weird, feverish, a stream of disturbing images and fear and so much pain.  Waking nightmares.  That was an apt term, since he was pretty sure he was awake for some of it.  There were parts where he was moving, where there was a lot of noise, where he thought he tasted water and something outrageously sweet.  He couldn’t ever hold onto those moments, and they ebbed and flowed and got tangled up in everything else.  Memories from being sick as a kid.  Memories from the war.  Memories from being an Avenger, from being trapped somewhere with Tony.  Memories of a dark and dirty pit.  Pain and fever and delirium.  Blood and screaming.  It was all somewhat distant, though, like there was this hazy fog between him and hell.  It was there, but it couldn’t touch him, couldn’t hurt him.

Some part of him knew that was because he was already hurt.  He was dying.

It was easy to ignore that, though, and drift.  Tony.   Steve dreamt he was there.  Always there.  They were lying someplace soft, and Tony had his arms around him and his face pressed close.  He was murmuring quietly.  Most of the time Steve couldn’t make out the words, but there was no need to.  The tone of his voice was low and comforting.  Like a soothing balm.  Nothing could hurt him here because Tony had him.  Tony was there.

He'd be okay.  They’d be okay.

“Don’t say anything, okay?  I’m taking care of it.”  That was just as well with him.  He didn’t think he could talk.  His throat hurt.  “I’ll do whatever you want.  If that’s what you need from me to make this worth your while…  I’ll work for you, fix stuff here, steal supplies, whatever you want.  I’m – I can design weapons…”  No.  That wasn’t…  No.  He needed to stop that.  He had to say something.  He had to…  “Steve, it’s Tony.  I’m…  I’m going to get help.”  Help.  “I’m coming right back.  Alright? I’m coming right back.  Just hang on.  Hang on.”  No.  Don’t leave me.  Don’t do this.  “It’s going to be okay now.  You’re okay, Steve.  We’re both okay.  This is okay…”

It’s not okay.

But he couldn’t stop it, and having Tony with him was too nice, whatever the price.  So he tried to ignore the pain and the hints of things he knew weren’t dreams.  It was hard.  As lost as he was, he couldn’t escape this vague sense that something serious had happened, that things were different.  That Tony had done something to make them different.  He couldn’t get through that wall between him and the rest of the world.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.  He was safe here, safe because Tony had made it safe even though Tony’s body was shivering beside him.  It wasn’t from the cold.  And Tony’s voice was soft with what sounded like weeping.  And Tony was clutching at him, fingertips pressing hard into his arms and chest, holding on.  Tony was talking to him.  Begging sometimes.  And talking to himself.  “What am I going to do?  Christ, what the fuck do I do now…”

Don’t let me go.

It was too much, so he drifted again, drifted to those sweet, pleasant dreams.  The self-indulgent fantasies he permitted himself.  It was the only place he could go, the only place where there was comfort and safety and security.  Tony with him, all around him, kneeling between his legs and leaning over him and smiling that Cheshire-cat grin of his, brown eyes so full of sharp intelligence and wit, lips turned upward in a sly grin.  “Did you think I’d let you leave me, Cap?” he said.  He leaned down, skin to skin.  “Nope.  Not a chance.  We’re in this together, you and me.  You don’t get to leave me.  Need you too much for that.”  Tony’s lips slotted over his, soft and warm and just demanding enough to make his pulse speed in excitement and euphoria.  “I love you, Steve.”

But that didn’t last.  Eventually the world settled into quiet darkness, and he stopped dreaming.

When Steve woke up, he did to a small, gray room.  He blinked the blurriness of a really deep sleep away.  His senses were pretty muddied, like they had been when he’d awoken from the ice in the recovery room in New York, but just like then he recognized right away that something was really off.  Memories were scattered, disjointed, but Tony had been with him.  He was with Tony.  They were trapped in Hell.

Steve looked around.  Tony wasn’t there.

And this wasn’t the cell blocks.  He noticed that instantly.  This room was… well, nice was too strong a term.  It was definitely bigger than their cell, more spacious, and it had things in it.  Supplies.  Clothes.  God, he had a blanket on him.  He was laying on some sort of pallet, hardly more than a few layers of cloth on a flat section of the floor, but the mere fact there was cloth at all was pretty damn remarkable.  And his jumpsuit was gone.  He grasped his chest, noticing the loose brown shirt and pants.  They were certainly rough-spun, and holes dotted the fabric here and there, but they were clean.  He was clean.  The dirt, sweat, and blood that had covered him for what felt like forever had been washed away.  He wasn’t completely spotless; he could see there was still grime under his fingernails, and his skin looked like there was yet a layer of dirt engrained into it (maybe permanently, considering how utterly filthy he remembered being), but his state now was a far cry from how he had been.

I should be dead.

Steve gasped at that thought, at the memories finally coming into clearer focus.  The attempt on his life in mine.  The gang down there almost strangling him and tearing his throat up in the process.  Tony’s desperate struggle to keep him on his feet, to keep him awake.  To keep him alive.  Steve touched his throat and felt nothing but tender skin, nothing at all compared to the damage that had been there before.  His eyes went wide as he checked his fingers for blood.  There wasn’t any, not from his destroyed neck or the wound in his palm where he’d been impaled or from anywhere else, for that matter.  His shoulder and the million and one lacerations and slashes and contusions he’d had.  And – God – he could see that he wasn’t starving anymore.  He could feel it.  That heavy yoke of pain and fatigue was gone.  He ran the flats of his palms down his chest and felt muscle again, not the amount there had been but so much more than before he’d collapsed.  There was muscle on his arms, too, and muscle in his thighs.  The serum was healing him.  Somehow, the serum was working.  He should have been dead, but he wasn’t.

And the reason behind that became strikingly apparent as he raised his arm.  There in the flesh of his forearm was what must pass for an IV in this place.  It was feeding him an almost constant supply of liquid, which was running from a bag hanging on a hook in the rock wall and through a length of tubing.  “Holy mother of…” he whispered, shocked beyond the pale.  With shaking fingers, he grasped the place where the tube entered his body, feeling the adhesive around it pull on his skin.  Braver, he tugged harder, and the whole thing came free with a bit of blood and a spurt of sticky fluid.  Steve grimaced, dropping the red needle to the side and pressing his hand over the hole.  Gracelessly he clambered to his feet, and when he wiped errant tears from his face…  He had a beard.  A significant one.  How much time has it been?  His heart started to pound, and he looked around more frantically, dizzy and nauseous and trembling in physical and emotional shock.  The hazy impressions became sharper, the one where Tony had been with him, that Tony saved his life and somehow brought him here.  Those hints he’d thought were dreams…  That was real.  Tony was taking care of him. 

But where was Tony?

Panicked, Steve staggered across the little space.  His legs felt like rubber, so infirm they were bending and buckling, and he grasped some sort of hanging curtain that divided this section of the place from the others.  The curtain ripped and came away from the ceiling, and he nearly went down.  He didn’t, though, fighting against the weakness and vertigo.  Stumbling, he made it through the curtain that passed for a door to the tiny room.  He limped rapidly down a narrow hall toward bleary lights beyond.  At the end of the little passage, he just stopped and stared.  He had to be dreaming.  He had to be.  “Holy hell…”

Before him there was a veritable city.  Lights twinkled through the maze of huts and structures built into the cavern walls and down onto the floor.  Some of it extended into areas to which they hadn’t had access before, the buildings spilling into smaller, adjacent caverns and continuing into the walls of rock themselves.  For a second or two, Steve thought this couldn’t possibly be the same place they’d been.  Of course, in his heart he knew they hadn’t escaped the labor colony.  This was still the pit, still Hell.  But it was striking how different things were when there was light and sound and activity.  Music, even.  The smell of food.  His stomach growled at the spicy, pungent aroma wafting up from some of the huts below.  There were dozens of prisoners down there; he noticed them moving from shack to shack, and they were enjoying themselves.  Doing business, yes, but eating and talking and even laughing.  Confused, Steve looked to the right, and from his vantage he could clearly see the massive cell block.  It was dark with lights out.  The prisoners were sleeping.  That was where he should have been, where they should have been, but he was standing here, looking down over what appeared to be the privileged class in Hell having a decent evening.  “God, Tony, what did you do?” he whispered, shaking his head.

“Move,” came a growl behind him, and Steve barely jumped to the side in time to avoid a group of fairly massive Kree coming his way.  He pressed himself to the wall, the slimy rocks cold to his skin, and turned to catch the lead alien’s eye.  Steve recognized his face.  It was the guy who’d been collecting the tattoos from the dead and dying the day they’d first come.  That realization had Steve going cold with terror and automatically preparing for a fight, but the Kree did nothing to accost or hurt him.  They simply walked by and headed toward some rickety metal stairs that descended into the sea of shacks below.  Steve stared after them, alarmed and feeling increasingly positive that something really bad was up.  Then he swallowed through a tight throat before gingerly following them down.

In the labyrinth of shacks, the smells he’d detected above were much stronger.  They weren’t bad exactly, at least nothing like the unpleasant aromas he’d quickly come to associate with Hell, but they were strong and off-putting.  Foreign.  He saw from where they were coming in short order.  There were barrels over which prisoners were roasting meats.  Vendors – honest to God vendors – were selling other foods on dented metal plates, in cups, and on skewers.  Prisoners everywhere were eating, drinking, and smoking.  It was like a street fair, like the boardwalk at Coney Island where he and Bucky had spent the occasional summer afternoon.  Like Rockaway Beach in Queens with stands full of popcorn and soda pop and other treats.  That was what this was, he realized as he picked his way through the crowds.  This was the Hell equivalent of a good time.

What in the world had happened that they were here?

He collided with something.  He’d been wandering, too shocked to think much less process the reality around him, so he hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going.  He ended up falling on his ass, staring up at a massive, multi-armed thing that would have probably put the Hulk to shame in size and temperament.  “Watch it!” the beast growled, and for a second, Steve figured he was dead, that the brute would crush him just for the fun of it.  That was what would have happened in the mine or in the dining cavern or cell blocks or basically anywhere else.

Not here though.  The alien glared at him a moment more before lumbering off with his companions, and that was that.

Breathing heavily and reeling, Steve stayed on the filthy ground for a second.  What the hell?  He swallowed down his thundering heart and scrambled clumsily to his feet, looking around with wide eyes.  No one paid him any heed.  Not really.  Not as a convenient target who was weak and easy pickings or as a useful kill to garner reward from someone else.  A couple annoyed glances were shot his way, but beyond that, no one gave him the time of day.  He’d gone from having a bullseye on his back to apparently being a member of this crowd.  And he was recovering.  He should have died, but he was alive and well and seemingly in a much better position than the one in which he’d been.  That wouldn’t have come freely, which lead back to the question that was burning more and more inside him: Tony, what did you do?  Where are you?

The answer to that came not long after.  Steve wandered aimlessly for a bit more, not sure what to do and becoming increasingly afraid that he couldn’t find Tony, when he heard Tony’s familiar voice.  Given the hum of conversation and the loud peels of laughter and the brawl breaking out in one of the shacks down the way and the ridiculous music (if that was what it could be called) coming from the building to his right, someone without the serum would have missed it.

But he didn’t.  He turned around, heart booming in his ears again, and peered through the layers of shadows and dark bodies.  There in the back of this street (Steve guessed it could be called a street) there was a smaller, dingier hut than the others.  He spotted just a wink of pale skin through the window, messy, dark hair and the familiar line of a bearded jaw.  The flash of Tony’s profile.  Then it was gone because some sort scaly monster was slamming him into the side of the hut.

Steve ran.  His body still wasn’t working quite right, reinvigorated muscles shaking and graceless, but he managed to surge across the way, managed to side-step the prisoners in his path, managed to get to the shack and burst inside.  The lizard-like inmate had Tony pinned against the rusty, ramshackle sheet of metal that passed for the wall.  Fury pulsed through Steve, and he grabbed the guy’s shoulders and yanked him back.  With a surprised wail the inmate fell.  He whipped his tail around, and Steve barely jumped back to avoid the swipe.  Balling his right hand into a fist, he punched hard, throwing his weight into the strike, and the prisoner went down again.

“No!  No!  Steve, stop!”  Tony grabbed Steve’s arm and dragged him away a few steps.  “Stop!”

Steve staggered.  “Tony?”

The lizard-man rolled to his side and got to his feet.  His face was locked in a grimace, revealing sharp teeth and black blood.  “You’ll get nothing, Stark,” he hissed.  He glanced at Steve.  “Nothing!  And you’re not the only one with power around here!”  With a final glower, he rushed out of the hut, more pissed off and humiliated than anything else.

Steve slumped into the wall and fought to catch his breath.  He shook his head as he turned to Tony, confused to hell and back but at the same time so damn relieved to see him.  He grasped Tony’s arm, and it felt good to touch him, to feel solid bones and warm skin.  “Tony, I–”

“Damn it, Steve!”  Tony recoiled, shaking his head in outright aggravation.  He looked healthy at least, his face less haggard under the unruly beard that had now completely overrun his goatee.  Yellow splotches were visible on his cheeks.  They were from healed bruises and cuts.  Tony frowned, eyes hardening.  “What the hell are you doing here?” He was stuffing something back into the pockets of his jacket.  He, too, had changed out of his jumpsuit into different clothes, his not unlike Steve’s, a rough spun black tunic of sorts under a red coat and dirty brown pants.  “You should be sleeping!”

Steve shook his head.  “Tony?  What’s going on?  Are you–”

“And what the fuck?  Do you have any idea how long it took me to set that meeting up?”  Tony darted past Steve to the door of the shack, clearly looking around for any sign of danger (and probably making sure he’d lost his chance to do whatever it was he’d been trying to do).  No one was there.  Frustration settled deep in his sharp eyes.  “Goddamn it.  Now what?”

Steve was utterly lost and undeniably hurt.  Christ, Tony was acting like he’d screwed something up, and he had no idea what the hell was going on or who that was or what this supposed meeting was about.  “I don’t…  He was attacking you!”

“In case you forgot, that’s pretty much the standard method of communication down here,” Tony groused.  “I had it under control!”

Steve floundered, shaking his head and feeling even worse, more confused and more upset.  “What’s happening?  Where are we?  How–”

Tony didn’t answer him, abruptly turning around and grabbing Steve’s hand.  His touch was affirming, and Steve shivered.  “Come on.  We need to get you out of here.”

“Tony?”

“You know in Star Wars, where Obi-Wan takes Luke Skywalker to Mos Eisley and says you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy?”  Steve remembered the scene, but he was still too muddled and overwhelmed to follow along.  “Yeah, this place makes that place look like the Vatican.”

“Then what are you–”

“Just stay close.  Don’t talk to anyone.  And for fuck’s sake, don’t start anything with anyone.”  Steve bristled, all the warmth in his chest turning to ice.  Tony led him back out of the shack, and Steve followed along feeling like he used to when his mother chastised him.  As soon as they were back in the throng of other prisoners, Tony let go of his hand, like he was afraid someone would see.   Steve kept on his back regardless, too uncertain and rattled to do anything else.  Despite his enhanced senses, he felt lost and trapped in the claustrophobic and filthy maze of people and huts.  Some of the buildings were bigger, dark and dilapidated still but sizeable enough to serve as landmarks.  It seemed like Tony was using them to navigate.  It probably shouldn’t have been such a comfort that he was unfamiliar enough with this place to need to find his way around, but at least that suggested he hadn’t been down here long or often.

Maybe.  Steve had no idea what was going on, but, again, he was increasingly certain it was bad.

That was too pressing.  They’d made it back to the stairs that led to the scaffolds along the cavern wall.  Tony exhaled heavily as they departed the crowds, but he didn’t get a chance even to plant his foot on the lowest step before Steve was pulling him back.  “Tony, wait!  Stop!  Talk to me.  What’s happened?  What…”

Tony hurriedly glanced around like he was trying to ascertain if anyone was watching.  Then he pulled Steve into a dark alcove near the bottom of the steps.  “Thank God,” he whispered once they were more hidden.  The spot reeked of something foul, like rotting refuse.  Maybe garbage had been dumped here, and maybe Tony still wasn’t answering his questions, but Steve couldn’t care too much, because Tony was hugging him hard.  “Thank God!”

Steve’s body was slow to catch up with his brain.  He wrapped his arms around the smaller man, closing his eyes for a second, and just breathed.  Tony was alright.  Tony was with him.

He wasn’t dead.

“You scared the shit out of me,” Tony mumbled into Steve’s shoulder.  His breath hitched.  “God, I thought…  I thought you were going to die.”

Steve squeezed his eyes shut.  He’d been feeling a bit detached from it all, the attempts on his life, the pain and starvation, the close brush he’d had with death…  As his memories became clearer, he recalled making his peace with it.  The night after his throat had been crushed, he’d been prepared to die.  He’d been so sick, so weak, so injured.  He hadn’t seen any hope of stopping it.

Clearly Tony had found a way, and right now, the relief came crashing over Steve felt like a tidal wave.  He was drowning in it.  He choked a little, his eyes burning behind their closed lids, and held Tony tighter, so very glad to feel him in his arms, to know he was there, that they were both okay.  That they were together.

Eventually they parted, and Tony leaned back.  Steve saw more now.  Tony was exhausted, eyes steeped in fear and weariness, in so much stress.  He wasn’t as drawn and pale as he had been.  Obviously they had access to food and supplies now.  Even with that, though, he looked run down.  Burdened.  Steve’s heart ached at seeing it.  No matter what happened to him, he’d never wanted Tony to suffer on his account.  And he had so many questions that he didn’t even know where to start.  “What…  I mean, how did you…  How…”  He winced at his stammering.  “How long?”

“Since you collapsed?”  Tony’s voice was low, like he was worried about someone overhearing them.  He sighed softly.  “I guess about two weeks.  Maybe more.  It’s hard to keep track of time down here.”

Two weeks.  In the grand scheme of things, maybe that was nothing.  Right then and there, though, it seemed like it was an eternity, one Tony had spent alone, for all intents and purposes.  Struggling to survive with Steve as nothing more than dead weight.  Those sobering thoughts must have shown on his face because Tony offered a crooked smile that belied a great deal of hidden pain.  “It wasn’t so bad.  You know, once we got you past the ‘every breath might be your last’ stage.  Your body didn’t take too well to whatever super juice was in those IV bags at first.  It was pretty touch and go for a few days, even after your throat started to heal.”

Steve fingered the tender flesh of his neck, and those flashes of dreams – Tony holding him and leaning over him and begging him not to quit, not to die – came back harshly.  He swallowed, and it hurt, though that was probably a phantom echo of what he’d endured than reality.  “Sorry,” he whispered, horrified at what he’d put Tony through.

“Not your fault,” Tony said.  “Your system got used to it, and after that, you Cap-napped, I guess?”  He smiled at his own lame attempt at a joke.  Again it did nothing to hide just how much this had scarred him.  “Hibernated like a bear or something.  I couldn’t wake you up, and you seemed like you were getting better, healing and putting on some weight again, so I just let you sleep.  I figured you’d come out of it when you were ready.”

“Jesus, Tony,” Steve whispered.  “I’m so sorry.”

Now Tony’s expression hardened anew.  Steve couldn’t make sense of it.  “I already said it’s not your fault,” he said, his tone more clipped.  “And we’re here, so it doesn’t matter.  What’s done is done.”

Steve didn’t like the sound of that or the finality in it.  “Are you okay?”

It took a second, but Tony managed a smile once more.  It felt nothing but forced.  “Still alive,” he answered.  It didn’t feel like much consolation.  “Which is something, I guess.”  He eyed Steve critically, almost with detachment, and that…  It hurt.  Steve could almost feel the ghost of Tony’s lips sliding over his, the weight of his body.  He could hear Tony whispering against his ear, against his cheek and mouth.  “I love you, Steve.”

He knew that had been a dream, but he’d hoped…  No.  “Are you okay?” Tony asked.

Steve had to gather himself to answer.  “Yeah, I think so.  Feel weird.  Kinda like…”  He offered a small, crooked smile.  “After I woke up from the ice.  Gotta say finding myself here is worse than seventy years in the future.  I dreamed I…  That we…”  Steve didn’t finish.  Couldn’t finish.  Couldn’t tell Tony anything.  Couldn’t want anything.  Tony seemed to sense his distress, even if he couldn’t possibly know why, and that cold front fell as he grasped Steve’s shoulder.  Steve hadn’t realized he was shaking and wavering on his feet.  “Sorry.”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t be out of bed,” Tony said again, though this time it wasn’t meant to admonish.  “Let’s get you back up there.”

“Tony, you didn’t…  You have to tell me–”

“I will.  I’ll explain in bit,” Tony promised, grasping Steve’s arm firmer.  The look in his eyes was guarded again.  He did drop his hand down to hold Steve’s, weaving their fingers together. “Come on.”

Steve let Tony lead him back to the rickety, narrow steps in a daze.  He felt shaken to his core, and he supposed that was only natural given what he’d endured and what had apparently transpired without his knowledge or control.  And maybe those reasons were at the base of his feelings, but they weren’t what was troubling him most.  No, that was this image of Tony now, burdened and harried and very clearly distant and hiding something juxtaposed with the Tony of his dreams, the one who’d held him and protected him from the pain and whispered comfort in his ear.  The one from his fantasies, the fantasies he used to idly enjoy but not think much of.  Now it was all he could think about, and that was selfish and wrong and completely inappropriate given where they were and everything that had happened, but Steve couldn’t stop.  It was as if he’d been hollowed out and altered fundamentally, and nothing felt right or simple anymore.  This new world was different from the old one for so many reasons.

They hardly made it up the first flight of steps before Tony was stopping.  Steve was so lost in himself that he didn’t notice, plowing into Tony’s back.  “So here he is,” came a voice Steve didn’t recognize.  “The man who’s worth the world.”

Steve forced himself to focus.  They were on one of the metallic landings, and Tony was not so subtly edging himself more in front of Steve and pushing him back into the railing.  The mood had immediately shifted from weary to completely tense and defensive.  There were three aliens before them, two larger guys he didn’t recognize and a third one who was smaller.  Steve didn’t know him either, but he looked a bit like the guy who he’d fought in the shack before.  A bit lizard-like with leathery green skin and black pointed teeth and thick, rubbery-looking stalks of hair sparsely positioned atop his head.  Shrewd, cruel eyes.  He was cruel.  That much was obvious.  It was also obvious he was in charge of the other two.

And that he knew Tony.  “Didn’t think you’d let your precious treasure out of hiding, Stark,” the alien sneered.  There was some serious anger laced into those words.  Anger and hatred, maybe even jealousy.  “Pretty bold of you.”

It took Steve’s beleaguered brain a second to put together the fact that this alien was referring to him.  Tony was stiff, coiled tight like a spring, and his voice was dripping in false bravado.  “Nice to know you don’t approve, Xeran.  And it’s always nice to run into you.”

Xeran.  Steve finally had a face to put to the name, finally had this unknown threat standing right in front him, and now that he did, he did recognize him from their very first work day.  This was the guy who’d been in charge of the thugs trying to kidnap Tony in the dining cavern.  This was the guy who’d put a goddamn hit out on Steve.  The one who wanted Tony for himself.  Xeran wasn’t nearly so imposing, just another face in a sea of alien faces down here, and not even one of the more frightening ones.

At least until he settled his vicious glower on Steve.  Steve inched backwards despite himself, and all the sudden he could feel the chain around his neck again, tearing his throat and crushing his windpipe.  His breath felt locked in his chest with the touch of the flashback.  Xeran appraised him sternly.  “He doesn’t look worth much.  Just another Grub.”

Steve winced.  “To each his own,” Tony seethed.  “Get out of our way.”

Xeran’s glare shifted back to Tony, and for a second Steve was sure the guy would have his thugs kill them both.  Or he’d do it himself.  He didn’t seem the sort to be violent, given his small stature, but looks could be deceiving.  There was obviously a great deal of bad blood between him and Tony.  Steve watched them stare each other down, feeling increasingly unsettled.  Xeran was the one who backed down, though doing so clearly aggravated the hell out of him.  It didn’t make sense why, since Steve and Tony were (as they usually were) outnumbered and outmuscled.

But then Steve thought of the other guy, the one with whom Tony had been bargaining.  “You’re not the only one with power around here.”  Tony had somehow gotten them protection.  Xeran wasn’t attacking them because of it.  God.  “You’ll get what’s yours,” the alien hissed at Tony.  “I’ll have you on your knees in front of me again, Stark.”

“Yeah, well, get in line,” Tony tiredly snapped, and he moved to push past them.

Xeran jabbed a claw into his shoulder, stopping him.  “You think you’ve saved him?  Think you’ve saved yourself?  You haven’t saved anyone.  You’ll be on your knees just like you were, watching us torture him, begging me to kill him because that’s the only mercy for him there’ll be.  And then you’ll be begging for the chance to kill yourself.”

Steve’s blood went cold.  Even though he’d known his life had been wielded against Tony like a weapon, actually hearing it happen was horrifying.  For his own part, Tony just stared back.  There was a touch of fear in his otherwise steely eyes.  Steve could see it, even if it was well-guarded and briefly shown.  Xeran saw it, too.  “You’re mine, Stark,” he snarled.  “Mine.”

“You wish,” Tony said calmly.  “Now get the fuck out of our way.”

Steve thought Xeran wouldn’t.  It certainly seemed like he wanted a fight, to hurt them at the very least and assert his dominance.  He didn’t, however.  With a final baleful glower, he headed toward the stairs, though not before leaning toward Steve and snapping, “We’ll flay the skin from your back, Grub.

“Fuck off!” Tony warned, getting in between Xeran and Steve and firmly shoving the alien back.

Xeran did this time, snarling once more before starting down the steps.  Steve stood still, shaken beyond what he cared to admit, and watched him go.  He was breathing heavily, heart booming in his ears, quivering with more than just shock.  Tony’s back was still to his chest.  He was watching them descend, too, and when they were lost to the darkness and crowds below, he sighed.  “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told I’m going to be tortured and killed or watch you be tortured and killed, I’d be rich.”  He gave a rueful smile.  “Well, richer.”  Steve didn’t know what to say, shaking his head with his mouth limply open.  Tenderly Tony took his arm.  “Come on.”

That comment didn’t sit well with Steve.  In fact, none of this sat well with him.  He didn’t say anything, though, still too overwhelmed to think.  He mutely trailed Tony as they went up the rest of the steps and then back down that narrow crack in the side of the cavern.  A couple minutes later, they were back where he had started.

Only someone was there this time.  In all honesty, he’d probably been there before, and Steve had simply been too distraught and consumed by panic to notice.  Steve recognized him much more quickly than he had Xeran, though who it was made even less sense.  This was the little, odd alien from behind the food counter, and he seemed worried, ceasing his pacing the second the two humans entered the room.  The alien’s pinched expression loosened in relief.  “Oh, you found him.” Steve didn’t know if he was speaking to him or Tony, but it didn’t matter.  “I’m relieved.”

“Relieved?  You were supposed to watch him,” Tony chastised, though not terribly harshly.  He strolled right into the small room and took off that red jacket to hang it on a peg buried into the wall.  Like he lived here.  Like this place was more than just somewhere they were hiding.

The alien frowned.  “Hardly.”  He turned his piercing gaze to Steve, scrutinizing, and Steve had no idea what the hell was going on.  He stiffened helplessly.

Tony noticed, though he seemed to be pretty busy with taking things out of his jacket pockets.  “Oh.  Steve, this is Tavin.  Tavin, Steve.  Tavin’s the only reason we both aren’t dead right now.”

Oh.  Flashes of those freaky eyes and another voice Steve hadn’t recognized at the time ripped through his mind.  Someone else had been there while he’d been sick.  Steve still didn’t understand how or why, but he didn’t need to.  “Nice to meet you.”  He stuck out his right hand.

Tavin glanced between Steve’s outstretched hand and his face.  He made no move to take his hand, and the moment quickly turned awkward.  Tony sighed and walked between them on his way to the other side of the room, pushing Steve’s hand down.  “Yeah, he doesn’t roll like that, Cap.”

Flushing with embarrassment and mounting frustration, Steve stuffed his useless hands into the pockets of his pants.  “Sorry to be so much trouble,” he said, and he meant it.  He didn’t need to know what had happened to understand that this guy – Tavin – was sacrificing an awful lot for their sake.  There was a reason life in Hell didn’t work this way.  “And I…  Thanks.  Thanks for saving my life and for helping Tony.  Can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”

Tavin stared at him like he was crazy, but all he said was, “You’re welcome.”

The awkwardness wasn’t going away.  Steve felt like he was the only one out of the loop (which was true), which meant he wasn’t seeing something that was obvious to everyone else.  Tony still didn’t bother to explain, hands full of the things he’d procured and heading deeper into the cave-like abode.  He disappeared behind a ratty curtain.  Steve stood there and stared uncomfortably at Tavin, feeling even more like a jackass, before finally following Tony with halting steps.  He pushed the curtain aside and made his way into the room beyond.

It was hardly bigger than a closet.  Two people could fit in the space but barely.  The lights were brighter here, a few additional fixtures providing increased visibility.  There was a rickety, metal counter and a few shelves above that, and they were loaded with tools.  Steve couldn’t name most of them, though a few resembled things on Earth.  They were scattered over the workspace, cluttered because there was so little room, but Steve knew from seeing Tony’s messes back in the Tower in New York that there was a method to his madness.  He kept his workshop organized in a way that made sense to him.

His workshop.  God, while he’d been unconscious, Tony had made himself a workshop.  Steve couldn’t help his amazement.  And his concern.  And his utter confusion.  “What the hell…”

“You know, I don’t have JARVIS here to be my guard dog,” Tony said, dropping his arm full to the desk, “so I’d appreciate it if you’d knock or something.”  Whatever joy and relief Tony had felt before seemed to have vanished into thin air.  Now he just sounded defensive.  “Can you wait for me outside?  Please?”

That made Steve more curious and more concerned.  He came closer, crossing the tiny distance with a single step.  His eyes were wide, and he shook his head.  Now that he had a better look at it, he could see Tony had been carrying some tools.  Parts.  In fact, the whole desk was covered with broken items.  Wires and pieces of metal and rubber and damaged circuit boards.  “Why…  I mean, what’re you…”

“I’m working.  That’s what one typically does with a workshop, even one as craptastic as this.”

“But working on what?” Steve asked.  “Tony, what the hell happened?  Come on!  You said you’d explain!”

“I saved your life, okay?” Tony retorted.  “I did what I had to do, and what I had to do involved promising services to some very influential people in this shithole.  More influential than Xeran.  It’s like the goddamn underworld down here, Steve.  Literally.  And I made an offer to the guy at the top.  You know, an offer he couldn’t refuse.”  Tony gave a weak, twisted chuckle.  “Because I’m awesome like that.”  Steve didn’t like the sound of that one bit, nor did he think any of this was awesome.  “Now outside.  Go.”

No chance that was happening.  Not until he had answers.  “Who?  And what offer?”

“To engineer things.  That’s my job.  Engineering things.  So it’s fine.  It’s all good.  Like I said, I have it under control.”

Steve wasn’t really listening as Tony tried to placate him.  There was a metal box on the other side of the desk, and Steve was reaching for it before he thought better of himself.  He got a hand on the lid and started lifting it.

Tony’s hand shot out and slammed down on the top of it, pinching Steve’s fingers.  “Stop!”

That move was fast but not fast enough.  Steve had caught the sheen of silver on something brown and leathery, the odd cartouches that all too clearly resembled the ones on his own chest.  He wrenched his smarting fingers away from the box to touch his shoulder where his tattoo was.  His eyes went wider, a cold wave of horror nearly bowling him over.  “Is that…”  He couldn’t even fathom it, wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it.  “You have…”

Tony grimaced in a mixture of shame and pain.  He pushed the container away, out of Steve’s reach and to the back of the desk and tucked it under some cloth there (like out of sight, out of mind could actually work).  “It’s nothing,” he said curtly.

It was most definitely not nothing.  “Where the hell did you get it?” Steve snapped, too riled to accept this.

Tony’s eyes flashed.  His hands shook as he scrambled to start working, but it was clear he was too flustered to do much more than just move his stuff around.  “I didn’t go cut it off someone, if that’s what you’re inferring.”

Jesus.  That wasn’t what Steve was inferring.  Hell, he hadn’t even fathomed it, hadn’t truly put together that someone had died in order for Tony to have that piece of dried skin in that box.  Someone’s flesh.  Someone’s tattoo.  Steve swallowed down his nausea.  “That doesn’t change where that came from.  You’ve seen where it came from!”

“You think I don’t fucking realize that?” Tony hissed.  There was a lot of pain and fear rushing to the surface.  “You think it doesn’t scare the shit out of me?”

“How did you get it?” Steve asked again, trying to stay calm.  He looked at the huge array of broken items.  Dawning realization left him chilled again.  “You bought it.  You’re fixing things and using what you fix to buy skins.”

“Give the man a cookie.”  Steve was aghast.  Tony tried to seem calmer than he was.  “What?  Don’t have any other way to get them,” he said, his voice falsely calm.  “Not like I have access to my bank accounts all the way out here.  And I don’t think sexual favors amount to much with all the anatomical incompatibilities.”  Steve blanched.  That was a joke.  He thought.  Then again, the way Tony said it implied he’d at least considered it.  “Deal with the hand you’ve been dealt and all that.”

Steve shook his head.  “Was that what you were trying to do back there?  Buy skins off that guy?”

“No.  No, no.  That guy?”  Tony sighed shakily.  “That guy is a janitor.  He has access to one of the higher levels, to some of the guards’ barracks.  I was hoping he’d get me in touch with one of the guards who works down in prisoner intake and processing.  Word is this Kree dude is disenfranchised and willing to talk in return for…”  He winced.  “Weapons.  I think I can fashion some using some of the shards and a laser torch another guy can get me.”

“God, Tony,” Steve moaned.  “What are you doing?  What did you do?”

“What I had to,” Tony answered again, this time more sharply.  “I couldn’t let you die.  I couldn’t.  So I whined and pleaded and demanded my way into seeing someone who had the power to stop that, and I gave the guy what he wanted.  That’s what I’ve been doing.  Giving people what they want.”

“You sold yourself.”  Tony flinched at Steve’s words, and that was about all the confirmation Steve needed.  Steve felt so goddamn sick, so angry and upset.  He didn’t remember much of what had happened yet, not much of his dreams or the reality beyond them, but he was pretty damn sure he’d begged Tony not to do that.  “I told you to leave me!”

“I couldn’t do that!” Tony hissed.  “For fuck’s sake, Steve, did you honestly think I’d just let you die?  That I’d just let you go?  The moral and emotional implications aside, there’s no way I’d survive down here with you!  The serum was the only thing keeping us alive until it started killing you!”

Now Steve was the one who flinched.  The anger was acidic in his throat.  “If you had to sell yourself, I’d rather you have done it for yourself.

“Oh, come off it, Rogers.”  Tony’s eyes flashed.  “Like you would have done any differently.”  Steve stepped back a little at the sheer strength of Tony’s pain.  It was like a blast of poison.  “Like you wouldn’t have done whatever you had to in order to save me.  What are you really getting at?  What did you really expect?  I’m Tony Stark, the selfish, arrogant billionaire who doesn’t know what it means to be a hero, so I should of course make a deal to benefit myself.”

That hurt.  “I don’t think that,” Steve hissed, “and you know it.”

“I don’t know anything,” Tony snapped back.  “Other than the fact that our situation now is a thousand times better than it was before.  For both of us.  You’re not dead, not starving, not wearing more blood than you’re using.  We’re out of the fucking cell block where we spent every night scared shitless we were gonna be shanked or gutted or eaten.  You’re out of the mine.”  Steve winced, shaking his head.  “You’re away from those assholes who were gunning for you, and Xeran can’t touch me.  We have all the food and water we need, and we’re somewhere that’s, okay, not safe, but infinitely safer than where we were.  We have an actual chance to survive now, Steve.  And a chance to survive can become a chance to escape.  So you know what?”  Tony jabbed a dirty finger into Steve’s chest.  “Yes.  Yes, I sold myself, and I’m fucking glad I did it.”

Steve was appalled.  “Tony, that’s not right.  It’s not fair.  I don’t deserve that!  And I don’t deserve better treatment than anyone else down in that mine.”

Tony seemed appalled, too, and then utterly disgusted.  “Fucking hell.  Don’t even.  Don’t even.  You would have died down there.  You were dying down there every day, and no one lifted a finger to help you.  And let’s not forget that they put a fucking pick axe through your hand.  They fucking tried to kill you!”

“Not all of them did.  Some of them were just prisoners like you and me.”

“I don’t know if you’re just as stupid as you look or you actually believe all that bullshit you stand for.”  Steve bristled and stepped back into Tony’s space, balling his newly healed hands into fists.  “This world?  It has nothing to do with what you deserve.  It’s dog eat dog.  I keep fucking telling you.  I told you the first day.  There’s no place for heroics down here, Cap!”

“Oh, that’s damn ironic,” Steve seethed.  “You sell yourself to the devil for my sake and then have the gall to lecture me about the stupidity of heroics?”

“No.  I just bought into the system.  And you may think it’s immoral that I’m getting skins so I can do the job I agreed to do.  You may think it’s not fair that you’re getting preferential treatment and other Grubs are dying down in that pit left and right.  You may think this place is wrong to its core.  And you’d be right, but it doesn’t fucking matter.”  Tony got right up in his face.  “I did what I had to do to save you.  To save us both.  And I’d appreciate you not making me feel bad about it.”  He looked away, his eyes darting to that box.  “I feel awful enough as it is.”

“Don’t,” Steve groaned.  Everything hurt, throbbed, and he felt so goddamn helpless.

“Don’t what?  Feel awful?”  Tony glared wetly.  “Then stop making me feel that way!”

“I’m not trying to!  Jesus, Tony, I don’t know what else to say!  I don’t know what to do!  I can’t be happy about this.  I can’t be okay with it!  And I’m so sorry.  Sorry you got saddled with this.  Sorry you had to deal with it!  I never wanted that!  That’s why I told you to leave me!  My life is not more important than yours, goddamn it!  Nowhere near it!”  Steve’s voice broke, and the other things he wanted to say – I don’t want you hurting like this I don’t want you to sell your soul I don’t want you in danger not for me why didn’t you let me die? – didn’t come out.  Tony averted his gaze again.  It was a moot point, water under the bridge.  It was done.

The pain seemed to echo, though, and Steve wiped at his eyes, struggling to hold himself together.  He spoke more softly.  “I’m grateful you saved me.  I’m so damn grateful that I can’t…  It’s killing me inside.  The cost to you…  There’s nothing I can do to repay you for what you’ve done.  Nothing I can do to thank you.  Nothing.  Thank you, Tony.  Thank you.”

Tony stood still a second.  Time seemed still right alongside him, uncertain.  Finally he exhaled.  “You’re welcome.”

The little room went quiet.  The implications of everything that had happened, of where they were now and what was before them, were circling them like vultures honing in on carrion.  Steve breathed through clenched teeth, forcing each time he inhaled to be longer, deeper.  Eventually he calmed down.  He glanced to where that box was hidden away and closed his eyes.  “So they have you reverse engineering the tattoos?  That was the deal?  Figure it out in exchange for my life.”

Tony sighed.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Yeah.  Pretty much.”

“You…  You realize the power that comes with that.  What you’d be giving them.”

Tony winced.  “Yeah.”

“Can you do it?”

“I…  I don’t know.  It doesn’t look too promising right now.”

“But you told them you could.”

Tony didn’t answer.  Steve shook his head, biting his lip until he tasted blood.  This whole thing was a rotten arrangement.  Yes, it might have saved them in the short-term, but if Tony had sworn an oath to do something he couldn’t do, they’d end up right back in hot water.  Tony would end up right back in hot water.  The moral grayness aside, that seemed to be the most pressing risk here.  Tony had to deliver what he’d offered.  “What happens if you can’t?”

Tony gave a gruff laugh.  “Nothing good.  Ironically you’ll probably be better off cutting ties with me now.  I’m the one who’s got a goddamn timer counting down above my head.”

There was no way in hell Steve would leave Tony to face this alone.  “How long?”

“Until Kar makes good on his threat to destroy me?  He didn’t give specifics, Steve.  It wasn’t like I signed a contract with well-defined terms and conditions and a detailed delivery clause.”  Steve glowered out of frustration.  Tony heaved a shivery sigh, rubbing his forehead.  “I don’t know.  When he runs out of patience, I guess.”

“And how does the other guy factor in?” Steve asked, trying to think.  His head still felt stuffed with cotton, even worse now that he was upset.

“Who?  Tavin?”  Steve nodded.  “Trapped in the middle of all this.  Probably regretting ever sticking his neck out for us, that’s for sure.”  Tony pushed some of his tools to the side on the desk.  “He’s decent.  I’ve been watching him for two weeks, and I really don’t think he’s mixed up in this shit anything beyond being at the wrong place at the wrong time.  He’s generally been a helpful if not a cold son of a bitch, but I wouldn’t put it past him to throw us out to save his own ass.  Like I said, it’s–”

“Everyone for himself,” Steve finished.  “Yeah, I’m not as stupid as I look.”

Tony winced.  “Sorry.  I didn’t mean what I said.”

“I’m sorry, too.”  Steve wanted to say more, to apologize over and over again, even more than he had, but the words wouldn’t come and they wouldn’t help even if they did.

The silence came back.  Steve still felt rotten, lower than low, wrong and selfish and helpless all at once.  Tony was staring at his new workbench, millions of miles from home, trapped in this dirty, awful nightmare.  Steve closed his eyes.  “What can I do to help you?”  He heard himself ask that, but his own voice sounded weak and distant, like he was actually hearing himself through a vacuum.  There was a faint hint of certainty and purpose, though.  He lingered in that a moment more before opening his eyes anew and seeing that Tony hadn’t moved a muscle.  “Tony?”

Tony sniffed and wiped at his face.  He was turned away, so Steve couldn’t really see, but it seemed like he was crying.  The engineer clamped down on that hard and fast so when he finally looked at Steve, there were only hints of wetness on his face.  The hard, irritated scowl was back.  “I don’t need you to do anything.  Just…  Just don’t give me shit about anything.  Okay?  I don’t need that.  Yeah, I’m doing something really wrong, working with stuff I know came out of murder and maiming and whatever else.  But I don’t need to hear that I’m going to hell for it because, guess what!  We’re already there.  So just don’t bother.”  That hurt so terribly, so much so that Steve couldn’t think of anything to say.  Tony stared at him a moment, probably realizing he was being an ass.  He heaved a huge sigh, softening his voice.  “And don’t get in my way, okay?  These people…  They don’t follow your code of ethics.  They don’t care about honor.  That was true out with all the other prisoners, but it’s worse here, because these guys are evil and smart.  So just… don’t screw things up.”  That hurt, too, pain piled on top of pain.  “And don’t get yourself in trouble.”  Now Tony quirked a rueful smile.  “Don’t have anything else to sell now.”

It was silent.  The room spun.  Steve felt nauseous, dizzy, reeling with agony.  “This isn’t right.”  That was what he finally whispered, and it was desperate and hurt and so damn terrified.

“Yeah, well, it’s not wrong either,” Tony said.  “And it was all I could do.  So do me a favor, huh?  Let me do it.”  He gave another weak smile.  “Go get something to eat and sleep some more.  Knowing how much of an ass Xeran is, he’s probably telling your new boss you’re up and running, so I doubt I’ll be able to keep you from work for much longer.  You better get more of your strength back.”

Helplessly, Steve shook his head.  “Tony…”

“Go on, Cap.  Go.”  And with that, Tony was pushing him out of the would-be workshop and closing the curtain behind him.


Steve was still too shocked to think.  Somehow he made his way back out to the main area of the little cave, acutely feeling the weight of all his newly healed wounds.  His tender shoulder and weak hands and damaged throat.  Despite being awake for a bit now, he still didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like himself.  The sense of illness, the touch of death…  It was lingering.

And knowing what Tony was doing for them – for him – was making all that worse.  He felt impotent, wrong, like the serum hadn’t revitalized him at all.  He’d had more than his fair share of near death experiences, even before becoming Captain America.  How he was now, with this weird sense of detachment plaguing him, with the world looking fuzzy around the edges, with his body not quite his own…  It reminded him so much of waking up after being sick as a kid.  After a devastatingly high fever, the sort he’d been lucky to survive, his first days of recovery had always felt like this.  Surreal.  Not real.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe he was still dreaming, still dying.  Maybe he’d never woken up at all.

He didn’t think he’d dream up this weird, bug-eyed alien offering him a bowl of what looked like stew, though.  “Sit,” ordered Tavin.  “Eat.”

Steve glanced between the other’s freakish eyes and the bowl.  Then he limped closer, his belly aching for the food.  The pang of hunger was so sudden and so intense that he feared he’d pass out, and before he knew it, he was sitting at a little, dented table only big enough for one in what passed for this hovel’s kitchen.  Tavin set the bowl down in front of him, along with a decrepit but clean metal spoon.  “There’s more than enough, so eat as much as you can,” he commented before wiping his hands on a ratty cloth and going back to his pots.  There were a few old cabinets above a hot plate, where he had a pot heated.  Steve blinked blearily, his brain still lagging behind in trying to figure everything out.  This guy was some sort of chef, maybe?  At least more than just a drone handing out cakes.  “Stark told me you’re stronger and haler than most your kind but that you must be kept well fed.”

Shame burned through Steve.  It wasn’t rational.  The serum’s needs weren’t his fault.  “Yeah.”

“So eat.”

Steve turned to the bowl in front of him.  It didn’t smell like stew, even if it was brown and gloppy with chunks of things in it.  Despite the painful wave of hunger assailing him, he felt nauseous and disinterested.  Still, he dipped the spoon in and brought some to his mouth.  It tasted weird, unexpectedly bitter with a bunch more flavors that were novel and difficult to describe.  And it felt weird, too.  God, they’d only been trapped here for a month or so, but it seemed like forever since he’d sat at a table and eaten properly with a spoon, since he’d tasted anything aside from blood and cake.  He vaguely recalled something very sweet, but that memory had no context so he didn’t know what it was (or if he’d dreamed that, too).  It didn’t matter.  He knew better than to ever turn down food during times of poverty, so dutifully he chewed and swallowed.  “Thank you.”

Tavin watched him a moment, clearly making sure he was actually eating, before returning to his work.  “And what shall I call you?  Stark introduced you as ‘Steve’, and he calls you that quite often, but I believe that must be your common name, and we hardly have the familiarity to refer to each other casually.”  Weird.  But, then, who knew what the societal customs and norms were of the species of this guy, whatever it was.  “I have also heard him refer to you as ‘Cap’.  Is that your family name?”

Steve couldn’t help a chuckle.  “No, no.  Steve’s fine, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that, my family name is Rogers.”

“Rogers.”  Tavin said that slowly, like he was trying it out.  Who knew how the translator was handling it.  He nodded after a moment, pleased.  “Alright.”

“And Tavin?  It’s okay for me to call you that?”

“I would not have introduced myself to Stark that way if it was not,” the other said coolly, and Steve nodded and went back to his meal.  It wouldn’t do them well to anger this creature.  He definitely was what Tony had described: cold.  Furthermore, if Tony was right, he was helping them out of the goodness of his heart, and Steve figured those sorts of sentiments were an endangered species around here.  “I don’t know if Stark explained to you the arrangement.”

Steve chewed and swallowed.  “Not particularly.”

“You are free to use my dwelling as yours for now,” Tavin declared.  He seemed to speak curtly all the time, but right now he sounded even more sharp.  Unhappy.  “You are free to come and go during non-work hours.  And you are free to eat and drink as you need.  Kar has permitted me to meet your high nutritional requirements.”

Steve still didn’t have a clue as to who Kar was, but whoever he was, he obviously ran the roost.  “Okay.  Thank you.”

“My private quarters are through there.”  Tavin pointed down the short hallway that led back to where Steve had awoken before but the other side of area.  A curtain hung there, one that was thicker and maybe slightly more imposing than all the others.  “Stay out.”

That was a warning.  “Of course.”

“And whatever problems you encounter out there…”  Now Tavin pointed toward the front entry of the little cave.  “Leave them outside.  I won’t be party to your squabbles with the other inmates.  And I won’t help Stark on his fool’s quest.”

Nice of you.  Yeah, this guy was an unwilling ally at best.  Like Tony had said, he’d been saddled with the two lone humans, caught up in their drama.  Helping, but only just.  “That’s fine,” Steve said.  He ate more, swallowing it down even though the taste was bothering him more and more.  He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.  “I’m sorry for the trouble we’ve…  I’ve caused.”

Tavin stared at him.  His weird eyes were extremely unsettling.  It was difficult to glean what he was thinking or feeling.  When he spoke again, though, his tone was softer.  “You are strong, stronger than most here.  You were when I first saw you.  These rules and threats I’ve just made…  They’re meaningless.  If you wanted, I’ve no doubt you could kill me.”

Steve set his spoon down and looked up.  “I would never.”

“I know,” Tavin replied.  “I told Stark the sort of morality with which you two seem beset is more a weakness than anything else here, yet you cling to it.  I find that intriguing at the very least.  Perhaps worth protecting, if only for its rarity.  You two care deeply for each other, hence the fact both of you have survived as long as you have.  As a miner, you would have been killed.  He stopped that from happening, forced the entire system down here to change to accommodate it.  He cares for you.”

I love you, Steve.  The sound of Tony’s voice inexplicably filled Steve’s head again, whispering words about which Steve could only dream.  The soured his mood further, and he went back to his bowl, forcing the rest of the stew down.  Now he could only taste its bitterness.  “Yeah, well, Tony’s Tony.  He does whatever he wants.  Never stops to think that maybe it’s not the only answer or the best one.”

“He’s right,” Tavin offered, stirring his pot.  “What he said to you before.  He’s right.”

Steve stopped with his spoon halfway to his mouth.  “What?”

“You would not have let him die, were your roles reversed.”  Obviously Tavin had heard everything they’d said before in Tony’s workshop.  Steve didn’t know if it was because this space was too small to expect privacy or if the other had some enhanced senses.  It was a moot point.  “Your roles have been reversed, and you protected him.  You care for him as much as he cares for you, so why would you expect him to do any different?”  Tavin shook his head ruefully.  “I cannot agree with his methods, but I do not fault him for his efforts.  He moved heaven and Earth to save you.”

Steve didn’t know if that was an actual colloquialism on Tavin’s planet (which was doubtful) or if the translator somehow chose such an appropriate English saying, but whatever the reason, that struck home.  Tavin sighed.  “I didn’t think he could do it, but I was wrong.  I…  I like being wrong about that, wrong about the immutability of this place.  It gives me hope.  Perhaps it is a fool’s hope, but it’s hope nonetheless.”

“But at what cost?  He’s tangled up in… in…”  Steve thought about the skin in the box.  About what Tony was doing.  Reverse engineering the tattoos.  God, if this Kar guy was able to get that sort of power…  And that was the least of their concerns.  He sold himself.  Steve shook his head, angrily pushing his bowl away.  “I told him not to compromise himself for them.  Not to be their slave.  I told him to stay a good man.”

“What sort of good man would he have been if he let you die?”  Steve’s eyes welled with angry tears.  He looked away to hide them.  “You cannot make this a simple situation.  Survival is never simple.  Those of us sane enough to know right from wrong…  We have all done things we abhor in order to survive.”

“I can’t,” Steve said, harshly blinking back the stinging.  “I can’t be party to other people suffering for my own betterment.  I just can’t.  It’s not right.  I can’t turn a blind eye.  I can’t… use other people to get ahead.  And I won’t hurt anyone else so I can be safe.  That’s not who I am.”

Tavin looked at him sadly, very clearly pitying him.  “Then perhaps it’s best you two stay together, since neither of you can survive without the other.  You and your strength.  Stark and his pragmatism.”  Steve cringed, and what Tony said before came rushing back.  You’re as dumb as you look.  Dumb and strong.  Brute physical power.  That was what a miner was, wasn’t it?  A stupid, useless Grub?  Only now he was a Grub who, by benefit of his friendship with probably the smartest, most talented, most highly sought-after engineer here, had it much better than anyone else.  And Tony was participating in the black market, experimenting on other people’s flesh, selling the proceeds to a gangster for all intents and purposes, all so Steve could survive.

Steve felt sick.

Tavin came over and took the bowl.  The movement seemed abrupt to Steve’s dulled senses, and he jerked.  “Go and sleep,” the alien said.  “You must recover more if you are to hold your own.”

Steve didn’t care to argue, didn’t even care enough to ask what he would be doing or where.  He just stood from the little table and shuffled off to the front room.

The pallet was there where he’d left it with its ratty blankets barely passable bedding.  Steve stared at it, feeling utterly pathetic.  Who the hell was he to judge what Tony had done?  He’d always thought that doing what was right was more important than anything, far more important than his own needs and wants.  Being a good man was the best he could do, what he should do.  Fighting when the fight needed to be fought, standing up for justice when the world pushed him down, never doing anything less than what needed to be done.  He’d lived his whole life so certain of that.

Until now.  Until here.  Maybe Tony was correct that what he’d done wasn’t wrong.  It wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong, either.  It just was, because it had to be.  And maybe Steve was stupid to think the principles he held dear should be respected by others.  Maybe that was naïve, childish, so goddamn foolish that acting on those values was an invitation to be slaughtered.  The things he stood for, the ideals in which he believed…  Maybe Tony was right to call it bullshit.  Here and now, Steve was a detriment to their survival, not because the serum had proved to be more a curse than a blessing thus far, but because he couldn’t get with the program.

No heroics, not even for me.

Weak and defeated, he finally willed himself to walk to the pallet and lay down.  He pulled the blankets up and over himself before settling down.  It wasn’t so bad.  Lumpy, but the ground didn’t feel so hard or cold.  And it wasn’t pitch black.  The noises around them weren’t screams and cries and whispered pleas for salvation but music and gruff laughter and the sounds of the privileged life in Hell.  Steve was what Tony had said: safe, as safe as he could be in this nightmare.  That was because of Tony.  Tony had saved his life.  He had no place to question how he’d done that.

And he had to do whatever he could to help him now.

Feeling a tad more resolved, he fell asleep.  He didn’t dream at first.  There was a formless, meaningless void, and for what felt like forever, he wandered in it.

But it wasn’t forever.  In fact, he was pretty sure hardly any time had passed at all when things changed.  A warm body slid beside him.  Tony.  Tony was with him again.  Steve could feel him breathing, feel him shiver.  He wasn’t dreaming, was he?

“You awake?”

Was he?  He didn’t know and couldn’t make himself speak, anyway.

“So cold.”  The body shifted closer.  Arms wrapped around him, holding tight, and it felt so good.  A face buried into his back.  “I…  I’m scared.  So goddamn scared.”

Me too.

“I have to figure it out.  I have to.  This is what I have to do to keep you safe.  Don’t you get it?  I thought I was going to lose you.  I couldn’t let that happen.  I had to do this, Steve.  I had to.  You don’t understand.  I don’t know what to say to make you understand.  I need you to understand.”

I understand.  I’m so sorry.  So sorry.  Please forgive me.

“God, I need you.  Nothing matters more than saving you.  I need you.  I need you so much!  I – I can’t even tell you.  I can’t tell you how I feel.  I couldn’t let you go!  I couldn’t do it.”

I can’t either.  I love you, Tony.

Once again Steve sank so quickly that he couldn’t be sure if he said that or just thought it.  He didn’t know if any of this was real or just a dream.

No, he…  He was dreaming.  That was it.  Dreaming.

He had to be.

Chapter Text

Day 28

Unsurprisingly, Steve started work again the next day.  Tavin woke Steve and Tony when the horns wailed.  Within the tiny room inside the rock walls of the cavern, the obnoxious noise of the morning call-to-work was muffled, so they could have theoretically slept through it.  Even Steve was so weary that he might have ignored it completely.  They were warm, snuggled up together, Tony spooning Steve and cuddled beneath the threadbare blanket.  Steve could have laid forever like this, comfortable and peaceful and content.

But no.  Tavin was there, shaking his shoulder and glaring with his weird eyes.  “It’s time to work,” he said, firmly but not entirely unkindly.  “Get up.”

Steve sat up and blinked the haziness from his eyes.  The room looked as it had before, dark and small and a tad claustrophobic.  It still threw him for a loop that there was no visible indication of day and night in this place.  Normally the serum kept his awareness of time passing very sharp, but being sick and practically comatose from starvation had produced a rather massive and perplexing gap in his memories and thus muddied his sense of when this was.  A month in, maybe?  Something like that.  Another day in Hell.

Tavin shuffled off once he was satisfied Steve was awake.  Steve sighed and turned around.  Tony was still sleeping.  He looked troubled even in slumber, with tight lines around his closed eyes and about the corners of his mouth.  His lips were downturned, clenched in a frown.  He wasn’t peaceful, but he wasn’t entirely distressed either, so Steve stayed his hand.  He decided to let him sleep for as long as he could, even if it was just a couple more minutes.  Tony deserved that.

So Steve pulled the ratty blanket up over the other man and he climbed to his feet.  He was clumsy and aching and still not feeling completely like himself.  Sleeping on the pallet was infinitely better than the cold rocks of their place back in the cell block, but it still was far from comfortable.  A step or two had the blood flowing again, and he was able to walk without much of a limp from the still tender places on his body in short order.

Tavin was right there in the kitchen.  He looked up from a pot he was stirring just as he had the night before.  “I have prepared a meal for you,” he declared, “which you can eat here.  You can also dine with the rest of the privileged down below.”

Privileged.  Steve winced at the term, winced at the thought of the dining cavern with prisoners being prodded like cattle into those awful watering stalls, into the food line, and then into the hellish dome beyond where you either scarfed your food down or were murdered for taking your time.  Once again it didn’t sit right with him, didn’t seem fair at all that he was here and all the other miners and prisoners were suffering through that daily demeaning and vicious experience.  But his stomach panged and knotted, and hunger came on strong, and he couldn’t deny that he wanted to eat and he wanted to eat in safety.  “Here’s fine.”  He sat down.  “Thank you.”

As usual, Tavin was seemed pretty uncaring about his gratitude.  He set a bowl of reddish glop in front of Steve and another at the spot beside him for Tony.  “There is a small alcove behind here.  Use it to clean up if you wish, but do not waste water.”  He sighed wearily.  “I must go.  Being tardy for work carries punishment.  That applies to you, too.”

Steve dug into the bowl with the same dented spoon from the day before.  The oatmeal-like substance tasted unpleasantly spicy, but he forced himself to chew and swallow.  “What work?  Where do I go?  When do I go there?”

“As soon as you can,” the little alien replied, rushing to finish up his cleaning up his food and supplies.  Everything had its proper place, Steve noted.  The little creature was extremely conscientious and very organized.  “Follow Stark to the main elevators.  Go up to the top level.”  After saying that, Tavin dug a surprising set of fangs Steve hadn’t seen before into some sort of fruit that vaguely resembled an orange only it was much larger.  Tavin sucked loudly and hard and fast until nothing was left but an emaciated, collapsed rind.  Steve grimaced as he tossed the remains into a little bin by the counter.  Tavin smacked his lips twice before turning to Steve again.  “Your skin will get you through the checkpoints.”

“My…  Oh.”  Steve looked down at his chest where his clothes were covering the tattoo.  Apparently his privileged status was encoded into his identity now.  He rubbed a hand over it, and as if mentally remembering it carried some sort of physical connection, the place started to itch.

Tavin seemed to notice his displeasure.  “Kar can persuade the guards to alter a prisoner’s designation.  It’s the closest he can come to controlling the system, and it is likely too close for comfort.  Yours has been changed from a mere miner to a loader.”

“A loader?”  Prisoners down in the mine had loaded carts and crates full of shards and debris.  He’d done it from time to time, too.  He couldn’t help the fear in his voice.  “I’m going back to the mine?”

Tavin looked irritated.  “No.  The whole purpose of Stark’s deal was to get you out of there.”

Steve knew that, but his brain was still sluggishly trying to process all this.  “Sorry.  Then where–”

“Loaders are still considered Grubs, but they are certainly higher class than those trapped in the pit.  Their job is moderately safer, I would say.  No less difficult, though.  Only the strongest of laborers can succeed.  Positions on the load teams are given as rewards to miners who are particularly productive or–”

“Privileged.  Yeah,” Steve grumbled, dropping his palm from his chest and digging angrily back into his breakfast.  “I get it.”  He needed to get over it, too.  I can’t.

Tavin glared.  “You need to keep your wits about you up there.  Don’t act as you are now.  There are far fewer prisoners present, so weakness is obvious and not tolerated.  Be eager and work hard, else they will cut you down.  The competition to win a position on a load team is fierce, and there are rarely open spots.”

“Then how did I…”  Steve’s blood went cold.  Goddamn it.  Kar had had another loader terminated or otherwise removed from his place so Steve could take it.  Steve sighed, struggling not to let this get to him, too.  It was ridiculously difficult, and he felt stupid and naïve just as he had last night.  A burden, rather than someone who could help Tony do what needed to be done.  He pushed his bowl away, suddenly not hungry.

Tavin’s eyes flashed, and he grabbed Steve’s wrist.  His grip was remarkably strong for being so small.  “Do not be petulant, and do not waste my food!  If I am to feed you, you will eat it!”

Steve huffed a sigh, trying to control his emotions.  “I’m sorry.”

After scowling a second more, the little alien released him.  He pushed Steve’s bowl back.  Despite his hurry, he took a moment to study Steve more, and his expression softened.  “I realize arrangements have been made that you find difficult to accept.  It’s like I told you last night.  Down here, there are rarely choices that are fair, let alone ones we like.  If you want to help your friend, do your work and stay out of trouble.”

Steve couldn’t completely keep his own scowl from his face.  It was the same cruel advice over and over again, like he was useless.  Like he had nothing to contribute, no control.  None.  Still, he nodded and went back to shoveling the food into his mouth.  It tasted like he was chewing and swallowing fire.

“Now I must leave.  Don’t be late.”  With that, Tavin exited the kitchen and then his hovel.

Right away there was a rustle behind him.  “I thought I told you not to piss him off,” Tony said as he limped to the other chair.  He was bleary-eyed, exhausted, hair unwashed and stiff with dirt.  Steve noticed now things he hadn’t seen so much last night.  The faded bruises on Tony’s face.  The cuts on his knuckles.  How much he was favoring his right side.  He sat with a wince, and Steve wondered not for the first time how beaten up he was and how difficult sleeping like this must be and how much he must hurt.  He didn’t have the serum to protect him.  Steve did have that, now that the serum was back to helping him rather than killing him, and this place still hurt like he couldn’t believe.

Tony sniffled, tucking his bowl close.  “Well, maybe I didn’t specifically say that.  Still, it was implied.”  He scooped some of the red stuff on his spoon and swallowed it.  “Ugh, this shit is awful.  Tastes like burning.”

“Tony…”

“What?”  Tony looked up at him, eyes surprisingly open and sincere.  Expectant.  When Steve couldn’t think of what to say (or how to express how worried he was and how much all this bothered him without demeaning Tony’s choices), Tony’s eyes narrowed a little.  “What, Cap?  I’m not in the mood for another lecture here.”

That was what Tony called his opinions all the time.  Lectures.  It was really obnoxious and mean-spirited, like his thoughts meant so little to Tony that they could just be written off as boring and unimportant.  Steve was caught between being really hurt, really angry, and just plain old sorry about everything.  “I’m not lecturing you, for God’s sake.  I just…”  He heaved a sigh.  “I want to help.”

Tony groaned and set his spoon into his bowl.  “Not this again.  Look, I told you last night that I’ve got it under control.”

“And I’m telling you I can’t go about my day just doing nothing to make this easier on you.  You’re in this situation because of me.”

“No,” Tony corrected firmly, “I’m in this situation because of us.  Both of us.  We need to survive down here.  You and me together.”  Steve frowned.  “I appreciate the sentiment.  I really do.  And, yeah, if you were an expert in biochemistry and genetics – fuck, alien biochemistry and genetics – maybe you could help me reverse engineer the tattoos.  Or if you could fix stuff, maybe you could help me do that so I could work the market more quickly and sell stuff to the people who can get me skins and supplies.  Or if you could sneak around and get info, but that’s not exactly your cup of tea either, is it?  Or maybe you could think up another way out of this mess, because I can’t.”  Tony shook his head against his mounting frustration and went back to eating, now with more fervor like he was too pissed off to draw this out.  “Believe me, Steve,” he said around a mouthful of food, “if I could have you kick the shit out of Xeran or Kar or whoever the fuck is pulling their strings and steal the golden key to this hellhole, I would.  But it’s not that simple.”

Steve knew Tony didn’t particularly mean this to be insulting, but it was.  People back home called him a master tactician and marveled over the battles he’d coordinated and won both during World War II and as an Avenger.  He was really smart.  He knew he was.  And, yeah, maybe he wasn’t particularly mechanically inclined (at least not like Tony was although he could find his way around an engine and he’d mastered twenty-first century technology without too much trouble) and he didn’t know a damn thing about genetics or biochemistry or any of that, but he was a fast-learner, and he worked hard.  “I can help,” he insisted again. 

Tony closed his exhausted eyes.  “Maybe.  At some point.”  His voice shook, and that betrayed more than anything that he really did want Steve’s help.  He wanted it badly.  “But, and I’ll say it again, I got it covered for now.  I’m going to fix a freaking garbage port up in the officer barracks today.  Talk about a shit job.  Anyway, while I’m up there I want to poke around, see if I can find a way to hack into the security computers that control the scanners.  Maybe figuring out how they work will get me around actually having to deal with the skins, since I have had zero luck so far in even getting whatever chemical that makes up the tattoo erased from the dermis.  Or whatever you call whichever alien skin I have at the moment.  Anyway, I have no fucking clue what the tattoos are made of, that’s for sure, and figuring that out is a key obstacle to overcome in designing my own.  The lack of proper tools and equipment isn’t making this easier, either.  Got any idea how we can build a mass spectrometer or an electron microscope out of the crud-covered shit around here?”  Steve frowned again, more at the helpless aggravation in Tony’s voice than the continued implication he was useless.  Tony grunted.  “Yeah, didn’t think so.”  Grumpily he went back to eating.  “Anyway, that’s my plan.”

It didn’t seem like a very good plan to Steve, but he didn’t say anything.  His own frustration was too sharp.  Instead he got up, bearing his empty bowl and spoon to the counter.  There wasn’t a sink of course, nothing so fancy as that, but there was a bucket which Tavin clearly used to wash cooking paraphernalia.  It was fill with water and something that looked like soap but was greasier (although Steve didn’t know if that was the soapy substance itself or actual grease from dirty dishes).  He rinsed his bowl quickly and dried his hands on a rag beside the bucket.  Then he turned to go use the little washroom Tavin had mentioned.

“Hurry,” Tony cautioned as Steve stepped out of the kitchen.  “We usually only have about a half hour or so after the wake-up alarm before we need to join Hell’s morning commute.”

That was how long it had been before?  His memories of standing in the food line, hurt and starving and terrified of the day ahead of him, were so blurry now.  It felt like an eternity of torture, but he was sure at one point he’d been more aware of the exact duration of time.  It didn’t matter.  He left without saying anything and headed to the little wash area.

It was no bigger than a closet.  He could barely fit in it.  There was another ratty curtain that barely provided some privacy and a hole in the ground, just like the ones that were in the cell block.  Steve wrinkled his nose at the smell but didn’t let it deter him now as he hadn’t then.  Not like there was a choice.

After relieving himself, he turned and found another two pails, one with of clean water and another that was less full and dirtier.  There were a couple holey, ragged washcloths neatly folded on a little shelf right next to the buckets.  Their tidy appearance was laughable, like the nice care of the worn items diminished their awful state.  Honestly, as Steve pulled his shirt over his head, unfolded one of the cloths, and dunked it into the water, it somewhat did.  A touch of care and pride in this hellhole.

Quickly he set to washing himself.  This was the first time he’d really seen his own chest since getting so sick.  It wasn’t quite what it had been, his ribs a bit more visible than they should be, his skin a little gaunt over his stomach and pecs so that his collarbones showed too much and his shoulders seemed bony, but the healing and rebuilding his body had undergone was still remarkable.  Plus the awful wounds he’d suffered were just about gone, reduced to scabs, tender blotches, and aged bruises.  Typically when he was badly hurt, his senses lagged a little behind his body, so he felt pain that wasn’t really there.  It happened now when he washed over the spot in his shoulder where he’d been stabbed and lightly scrubbed the skin on his neck where he’d been strangled, when he touched the welts that had once been all over his ribcage.  It was always a little disconcerting at first, but then the pain vanished and he was nothing but grateful to be alive.

A minute or two later he felt moderately better.  There was no getting absolutely clean; the dirt seemed ingrained into his skin and caked around his nails and thick in his hair despite lightly rinsing it.  But he’d taken a layer off.  His eyes went to the tattoo in his skin, the silvery writing branded right below his collarbone.  Grimacing, he rubbed his thumb over it.  Again it felt a little itchy.  Scratching it for a second didn’t do much to make it better, so he sighed.  Then he toweled his hair dry and wiped his face, and he grimaced at the feel of the unruly beard he was sporting.  That was itchy, too.  Though he’d never much cared for shaving, he cared for looking this unkempt even less.  Like a damn caveman, he thought, scratching at the bushiness.  And maybe it was stupid to be concerned with his appearance in Hell, but when he found something that resembled a little pair of scissors on the shelf next to some other small supplies and started cutting, he felt even more relieved to be getting at least some of it off.

When he was almost through and had trimmed the beard back to something fairly reasonable (he hoped – without a mirror, it was hard to tell), Tony’s voice behind him called behind him.  “We need to go, Cap.”  Steve startled, setting the scissors back down and cleaning up the mess, but not before Tony caught sight of him where the curtain didn’t quite meet the wall.

Steve got a glimpse of his wide eyes.  Quickly he grabbed for his shirt and turned around.  “Sorry,” he said, wincing as he realized it was inside out.  “I was…”

“Is it okay if I…”  But Tony was already coming in, pushing the ratty cloth aside.  Steve turned, still shirtless and even more flustered.  He could feel the blush burning its way down from his face to his chest.  He’d always been so fair-skinned and so prone to going ridiculously red whenever he was embarrassed.

The look on Tony’s face, however, the gleam in his eyes…  All his irritation from minutes before was simply gone like it hadn’t been there at all.  It was dizzying, how fast he’d seemed to change his mood.  Steve swallowed stiffly, and the heat in his cheeks and chest turned to something else entirely.  The hazy remnants of those dreams he’d had when he’d been ill came right back to him, a surge of shaky, uncertain desire going straight to places it shouldn’t, because Tony couldn’t be looking at him like that.  With so much relief and admiration and no small amount of hunger in his gaze.  He couldn’t be, not here, not in this cramped closet made of rock where they could hardly fit and that reeked of swill and worse…  It couldn’t be.  Not in Hell.

Tony was, though.  And he had before, when they’d been hosed down during the intake process.  And a couple times since.  Steve hadn’t paid attention before, but now it seemed relevant and undeniable.  From the way Tony’s Adam’s apple bobbed, he was swallowing just as uncomfortably as Steve had.

Then Tony sighed slowly, blinking a couple times like he was shaking himself free.  “You look…  Shit, Steve.  You look so much better.”

Steve couldn’t deny the awkward stab of pain inside.  “Uh… thanks.”

Tony got even more flustered.  God, Steve couldn’t fathom the Tony Stark, billionaire playboy, being flustered, but there he was.  “You, um…  Yeah, you didn’t need to clean up.”

Steve rubbed at his beard, somehow even more self-conscious.  “Did I mess it up?  No mirror.”  That seemed like a good way to hide his awkwardness that was teetering on disappointment and shame.  Mask it with embarrassment.  And maybe it wasn’t that far off.  Maybe he’d trimmed his face all lopsided and patchy and Tony was horrified on his behalf.

But Tony shook his head.  “Nah, it’s perfect.  Well, I mean, uh, fuck.  No.”  He actually blushed.  Steve couldn’t wrap his head around that.  Seemingly against his will, Tony’s eyes drifted lower from Steve’s face to his chest and stomach and even lower, and then his gaze shot back up like he’d realized what he’d done.  Steve couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t have imagined that.  It had been barely a second, a rushed moment surrounded by Hell, but–

Tony cleared his throat.  “No, it’s good.  You look good.”

Steve fought to get his mouth wet enough to speak.  He suddenly felt incredibly exposed, so he finished stuffing his arms into his rough-spun shirt.  He pulled it over his damp hair and covered himself.  Then he managed a touch of a smile just because this felt intimate and so right but it had to be wrong because this wasn’t the time or the place and Tony couldn’t know how he felt because even he didn’t know how he felt so–

“Steve?  You alright?”

“Yeah!”  Embarrassed even further, Steve yanked himself from his thoughts.  He straightened out his shirt to hide how uncomfortable he was.  “Yeah, I’m fine.  Just… first day on the job, right?”  He tried for a disarming grin, shaken and saddened.  “Gotta look good.  Impress my boss and all that.”

Tony actually laughed.  Steve couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Tony laugh at all, let alone like this, genuine and honest.  It would be just for a second, he knew, because this small moment of camaraderie and companionship between them was a meager candle that could only be snuffed out but the oppressive air of this place.  Still, it dissolved the pain and tension between them and made this all seem strangely worth it.  Tony smiled and laughed, and it was from something Steve had said.

Even after his chuckles died, Tony was still smiling.  “That was ridiculous.  You’re something, Rogers.”

Steve grinned.  “So are you, Stark.”

Things became quiet then.  Smiles slipped, and the mood turned tenser.  They were close, so close that Steve could touch Tony, his face or his shoulders or his chest, just by raising his arms.  Tony could do the same to him.  It seemed he wanted to for a second, fingers curling and then uncurling restlessly at his sides, his sharp, brown eyes that seemed fathomless to Steve warm and wanting once more.  Steve stared back, his hands aching and yearning too, and this sudden, tentative thing between them seemed to stretch on forever.

Then Tony looked away, shattering everything.  “We should get going.  Being late…  Uh, it won’t reflect well.  Ruin that first impression and all that.”  He gave an awkward smile that seemed nothing but troubled again.  “Don’t want to get anyone else pissed at us.”  He cleared his throat and gestured to the tiny spot.  “Now out so I can pee.”

Disappointed, Steve got out of Tony’s way.  Tony stepped past him, and their chests brushed in the narrow space.  It was electrifying despite all the times they’d touched since being kidnapped.  Steve gasped softly, and Tony steadied him, and for a moment, it almost seemed like they would kiss.

They didn’t, of course.  Tony pushed right by him and then watched him awkwardly, clearly waiting for him to move.  Steve swallowed through a dry throat and got out of Tony’s way, and Tony shut the curtain the second he was gone.

Damn it.  Steve stood there, aching and wondering and wishing.  His heart had been soaring a few seconds prior, but now it was plummeting again to see Tony literally shut him out with nothing but worry and fear on his face.  Steve sighed and closed his eyes, trying to memorize that beautiful smile.  A touch of light in all this darkness.  God, if he couldn’t do anything to help their situation, if Tony wouldn’t let him help…  He’d at least keep finding ways to make him smile, if only for a second.


It was pretty surreal, being able to go up the elevators to the higher levels of Hell.  Every day before Steve had collapsed, he and Tony had always been separated here, with Tony heading up to where the engineers worked and Steve being forced down into the mine.  Today, when Steve stepped through the scanner that segregated Hell’s workforce and divided the privileged workers from the Grubs, he was sent left, not right.  Left.

Despite the sympathy pulsing through him for the filthy, mangled masses heading down into the depths, Steve couldn’t deny that he was hugely relieved.  He was better-fed, relatively clean, and in decent shape, all things considering.  That sense of gratitude for his better situation still sat so hot and hard in his throat, painful and unpleasant like gristle he’d chewed and couldn’t make himself swallow.  It is what it is.  That was true down here, wasn’t it?  Be grateful, and don’t go out of your way for the less fortunate.

He still couldn’t believe that.

As he followed Tony through the gates, which were manned as always by violent and angry Kree who were slightly less violent and angry toward the engineers than the Grubs, Steve caught sight of unfortunately familiar faces.  Red skin and black hair and a yellow glare.  A hairy visage with black eyes.  A reptilian sort with a sneer that was cruel and almost serpentine.  A strangely human-like countenance, with a lascivious smirk constantly twisting lips in a laugh.  The Mooks.  The lead-guy caught Steve’s eyes and glowered so violently that Steve felt a shiver dart up his spine before he even fully realized who it was who’d seen him.  Terrified, he looked away.

“You alright?” Tony asked from beside him.

One the Kree guards saw them talking and probably would have tased them for it days ago, but now he only clutched his rifle tighter and growled.  Steve swallowed through a dry throat, still too panicked to do much more than idly notice the preferential treatment.  “It’s them,” he managed to whisper.

“Who?”  Tony turned around, and that definitely would have merited punishment before, but not much more than a harsh glance was thrown their way.  After a second Steve spent fearing pretty much everything, Tony turned back.  “Those guys?”

“They’re the ones who tried to kill me.”  Multiple times.  The chain around his neck that had nearly ripped open his trachea had only been their most successful attempt.  He scratched at his itchy shoulder again.  It was starting to feel like a nervous tic.

Tony frowned.  He probably didn’t recognize the Mooks from any of the other hundreds of huge, hulking brutes heading down toward the mine.  Why would he?  Steve had never pointed them out before, never specifically described them.  Tony very boldly took his arm and tugged him closer, and, God, if this didn’t get them zapped or beaten up or worse, Steve didn’t know what would.

But it didn’t.  “They can’t hurt you up here,” Tony promised.  “Come on.”

They reached the central elevator.  Kree workers were managing the huge lift, blocking the long line of prisoners from the doors until it descended again.  Steve looked up as they slowly shuffled closer.  He hadn’t seen this since that first day when they’d been taken down and into prisoner intake and processing.  Everything was dark above them, the many concentric levels of the prison that wrapped around the massive central pillar illuminated only by sporadic lights and the blue glow of the shards.  The gems were being raised in separate cars that were coming from the mine below.  Despite how traumatic everything was, it was interesting to see what happened to the shards after they’d been extracted from the depths.  And it wasn’t at all a surprise what that was.

They went way up into the shadows beyond what Steve could see.

It didn’t take long for the elevator to return.  It was their turn to board.  Steve stayed close to Tony as they were herded onto the lift.  Space was at a premium given their group of workers was so large, so they were nearly on top of each other as the elevator rumbled and rattled its way upward.  Through the metal grating around the sides, pipes spewed out smoke and mist.  The lights were a streak.  Steve had completely forgotten the vastness of this place, just how huge this hole in the ground was.  A whole upper, second city piled on top of the first, this one filled with Kree and their slaves.

Although, to be honest, Steve was starting to wonder if it was the other way around somehow.

“Stop doing that.”

Steve turned at Tony’s hissed command.  “What?”

Despite how cramped they were, Tony grabbed his right hand where he was scratching at his collar again through his shirt.  Steve frowned.  Why the hell was that spot so itchy?  He pulled at the top of his loosely drawn tunic and looked inside.  The fabric wasn’t exactly all that soft, but it didn’t particularly itch anywhere else.  It was weird.

The lift came to an abrupt, jarring stop that made him startle in fear.  Tony stayed calm, helping him with his balance with a hand to his arm, and then starting pushing his way to the front of the crowd.  Panicked, Steve grabbed his hand.  “Think you’re going up higher,” Tony said, pausing a second despite the guards pushing everyone off.  His eyes were filled with concern and frustration.  “I get off here.  Just…  Stay safe, okay?  I think I should be able to come up to you in a few hours.  If not, I’ll meet you back at Tavin’s at dinner.”

Steve shook his head.  It was irrational, and he felt almost stupid and childish, but Tony was leaving him.  “Tony, I don’t–”

“You’ll be alright,” Tony promised.  “See you soon, okay?”

He was gone before Steve was ready, pulled out of the lift and onto the metallic platform beyond.  Steve tried to follow him, but the Kree shut the gate in his face, and they were continuing upward with a rumble and quake that nearly dropped Steve to the floor considering there wasn’t anyone near him now to keep him steady.  He swallowed his pounding heart and prayed someone would take pity on him and show him what the hell to do.  He prayed even harder that Tony would be alright.  Please, God, keep him safe.

The elevator stopped a few more times, and more and more prisoners got off.  Steve realized right away that this load couldn’t all be engineers.  Some of these creatures seemed like… cleaning staff?  Cooks?  They were dressed in different outfits that reminded Steve more of uniforms.  He supposed it made sense.  Tavin was definitely a chef of some sort.  And this was absolutely a city of Kree.  Such a place would need more than mechanics to keep it running.  He wondered what other jobs and classes there were and if any of them were treated like prizes to be won.  He supposed anything other than suffering and working until you die down in the mine was a reward down here, even if it meant scrubbing toilets or worse.

It took another couple minutes of the lift rumbling upward before it finally stopped.  Steve glanced down.  Damn.  There were hundreds and hundreds of feet higher, so high that even with his sharp eyes he couldn’t see the bottom anymore.  He swallowed nervously and barely stopped himself from scratching more at his collarbone.

“Everyone out!” bellowed the Kree guard controlling the lift.  The doors opened with the hiss of hydraulics followed by a rattle and bang.  Steve finally thought to look around at who was left around him.  These were big guys, most of them larger than him.  They were bulky and brawny and obviously laborers, but unlike the miners, they were cleaner and in far better physical shape.  There was also no air of violence and desperation about them.  Their clothes were in nicer condition, their faces not drawn (that Steve could tell – there were still so many different aliens down here that he couldn’t make heads or tails of what he saw sometimes), their eyes not so… animalisticLoaders.  Inmates who’d earned a better position somehow or other.

His new kind.

He followed them out.  There was a scanner awaiting them immediately, and for a second Steve feared this was all a dream or a mistake or something, that he’d been thrown back on the elevator and taken down to Hell.  Nope.  The machine admitted him just as just as it admitted everyone else.

Now they were in a surprisingly open and airy area with multiple caverns and walkways fanning out from this central location.  The pillar continued upward into the rock overhead, but the elevator didn’t.  At least, not the one that moved people.  The crates of shards twinkled as they continued higher toward whatever was above them on their own cables and tracks.  Was this the top of Hell?

Steve glanced around, still disoriented until he saw a sad and familiar sight.  A group of inmates was being marched from one of the adjacent areas towards the elevators.  Steve could tell they were new arrivals.  They were all dressed differently, all chained together, and some were struggling.  Most were terrified, and that helpless, panicked look plastered all over their faces was all too familiar even if it already felt like a lifetime ago.  New prisoners.  That meant that down that way was the loading dock where he and Tony had been brought in via that prison transport ship.  The transport that had flown down from the outside.

God, this was the top of Hell.  The highest point of it.  The very apex.  That meant he was right below the surface of this moon.  A rush of shock struck him, making his gooseflesh stand on end, and on its tails came an almost uncomfortably sweet burst of hope.  Renewed energy and faith.  He was all the way up here.

And maybe up here there was a way out.

There was no time to really process that fleeting thought.  “Fall in!” shouted a Kree ahead, and Steve snapped to it, scrambling to get in line with the other loaders.  The Kree appraised each of them in turn.  He seemed older, face more wrinkled and his hair streaked with white.  He was still a huge creature for certain, a good foot or foot and a half taller than Steve, but as imposing as he was, he didn’t seem quite as viciously angry as his brethren.  Steve didn’t know why he thought that.  Just because they were near the surface didn’t mean suddenly things were brighter and sunnier.  They were as dark and dank and hot and miserable as ever.

Still, as they were made to walk into another cavern, this one huge and filled to the brim with boxes and crates and supplies that other workers were already sorting and moving by hand or by machine, Steve couldn’t help but feel much better.  That little tickle of hope was getting stronger, more certain.  He glanced around, trying not to seem stupidly wide-eyed or overly interested as he took it in.  This was obviously where the mine’s supplies arrived.  Floodlights were everywhere, making this place also one of the best illuminated locations he’d seen so far in Hell.  Trucks and loaders rumbled about, bearing stacks of boxes and other equipment to various areas.  All of the stuff here was probably going to be catalogued and sent downward to where it was needed.  Laborers, prisoners and Kree alike, were everywhere, lifting and hauling and moving inventory like a well-oiled machine.  They were working together with surprisingly little tension or friction. 

At least until it came to where the supplies themselves were coming into Hell.  Massive platforms were raised to the rocky ceiling, and only Kree stood there at what were most definitely airlocks above them.  Airlocks that had to go to ships bringing goods and supplies from outside.  God.  The Kree workers were unloading crates and cases and taking inventory before sending their loads down by lowering their platforms.  More Kree were at the base of each to oversee unloading each delivery.  Along with them there were a few guards, and there were scanners situated around every platform in a circle.  These were equipped with what looked like automatic gun turrets, and they were scanning everyone around them if the almost constantly flickering lights were any indication.  Steve watched the scanners flash over all those present, including the guards.  The Kree had tattoos as well?  Maybe Tony had said something about that, and Steve supposed that made sense, that that was how one system could differentiate between prisoner and guard.  Also, there were guard towers of sorts strategically placed throughout the vast space, and more Kree were up there, walking and watching over the area suspiciously with their rifles at the ready.  There was simply no way any prisoner was getting close to those airlocks.

Steve’s particular Kree overseer walked through another scanner near the entrance.  After him, each of the loaders was made to go through.  It took Steve a beat as he stood in line to realize they were being given assignments.  He was a little daunted; being the new guy was never pleasant back on Earth, and here it had the threat of punishment or worse if he messed up.  But Tavin had basically advised him to act like he knew what he was doing, so he just lifted his chin and went through when it was his turn.  Tony was so much better at seeming confident down here than he was.

The Kree foreman eyed him critically once the machine scanned him and chirped its affirmation.  He looked down at his tablet.  “You’re the new one,” he commented.  “Special assignment.”

The tone of his voice was so even that Steve couldn’t glean a damn thing about how he felt about that.  That pretty much matched how Steve himself felt.  “Yes,” he answered.  Then he decided to go for it.  “Sir.”

The other cocked a silvery eyebrow.  “You don’t seem like much,” he declared.  He looked Steve over again head to toe.  “Not like what they normally send me.  I asked for strength and I get a Terran.”

What had humanity done to anger everyone out here?  Who the hell was human out here to begin with?  “I’m stronger than I look,” Steve declared without a second thought, because if they sent him away before he’d even gotten his foot through the door, he was pretty sure that’d be the end of him.  If he went back down to the mine, to the Mooks, he’d die, more food or no.  “And I work hard.  I learn fast.”

The overseer still didn’t seem convinced.  He looked over the assignments on his tablet a moment more, and Steve waited stiffly, knowing full well that right here and now, this guy had his life in his hands.  “Alright, Terran.  What do they call you?”

The mere fact he was being asked his name was pretty remarkable.  Like this guy cared.  Like he actually deserved to have name.  “Rogers,” Steve said.

The tablet chirped a couple times as the Kree tapped it.  Then he frowned.  “You’re on my team today.  Platform Six.  If you can’t keep up, you’re gone.  I don’t care what that asshole down there says.  Understood?”

Steve had no doubt he’d make good on that threat.  “Yes, sir.”

The Kree didn’t introduce himself or say anything further, simply turning and heading through the throng of activity.  Steve followed.  He could see instantly that Tavin was correct: the ratio of prisoners to Kree up here was far different than it was down in the pit.  There were a great number of Kree and not just guards.  They ran machines and shouted orders and helped check crates and boxes.  They weren’t doing the heavy work, of course.  The Grubs were there for that, even though most of the Kree were bigger, fitter, and probably stronger.  Steve could see right away that he was among the smallest of the loaders.  That never boded well.

Still, he could also sense instantly that the atmosphere up here was incredibly different.  Like the increased illumination truly was symbolic, this place was less crowded and foul and menacing.  The air was fresher, free of the stink of sweat and blood and refuse, and the rough air of perpetual violence and cruelty was far diminished.  This was still slave labor, and there was threat of retribution for failure to comply of course, but the other hellish misery of being hurt just because wasn’t looming.  The sound of whips cracking and laughing and the gleeful anticipation of blood and pain was gone.  If there was such a thing as heaven in Hell, this might be as close as he could come.

The fact that it was here, at the very top of the pit, was probably not a coincidence.

They reached platform six.  It wasn’t much different than any of the other platforms (Steve counted a dozen in all) except for the fact it was near the far right corner of the room.  There were more guards there, walking the perimeter of the area with especially tight scowls.  Steve didn’t understand why at first.

But he figured it out in short order when he saw daylight.

It took all his effort not to stare and betray just how damn shocked he was.  The light was hardly anything, just a small square in a heavy, thick, gray door, but it was unmistakably real and not some sort of artificial illumination.  Just that small spot of it was glorious and beautiful.  The ground above must have sloped downward or dropped off – Steve couldn’t tell which.  Either way, right beyond that huge, heavy, and well-protected door…

Freedom.

“Move it, Rogers!” the Kree foreman barked angrily, and Steve jerked and quickened his pace.  He practically scurried over to the platform, putting the door and the sunlight out of his mind.  It was so goddamn hard to do that, but if he didn’t, if he lost his place here, what he’d discovered would be moot.  This was an opportunity, no doubt about it, and they couldn’t afford for him to lose it.

The Kree foreman glared at him.  Steve tried to stand taller and seem more powerful than he felt.  “Sorry, sir,” he lamely offered.

The only retribution forthcoming was a growl of irritation and more of the same baleful glower.  “Get moving,” the foreman said.  “Shipment’s coming in.”

Steve nodded, dropping his gaze respectfully (and not exactly without fear) as he got in line with the team of five other loaders (all decidedly higher in the pecking order than he was).  He kept his eyes on his boots.  The foreman grunted at his workers before stalking to the lowered platform.  Another Kree was there, and they conversed for a moment, comparing data on their grunge-covered tablet computers.  Steve caught a little bit of the conversation.  It was mostly complaining, griping about some people called the Sovereign (Steve had no idea who or what they were).  The second Kree called the first one Zet, which was nice and easy to say and understand considering the translator couldn’t begin to handle what the other guy’s name was.  They went on maybe a minute more, and Steve caught a few snippets.  Something about a skirmish near the border of a place called Xandar?  They were pretty angry about that, spitting curses about the Nova Corps or some such, and similarly cursing someone else called Quill and his crew.  Who the hell was that?  That was an odd name for out here.

But it wasn’t like Steve could ask or that it mattered at all.  Zet the foreman came back a couple seconds later at any rate.  “Listen up!  We need a fast turnaround on this one.  Pilot’s already making trouble.  Get it done and get it done now.”

There was a rumble of assent from the loaders.  Steve dared to look down the line again.  God, they were huge, aliens of all sorts of different species and appearances with nothing in common aside from their massive physiques.  Steve’s stomach was twisted up in knots, nerves jittery with worry about holding his own here.  The stakes were even higher now than they had been moments ago, and back then they’d been pretty damn high.  He couldn’t let Tony down by getting himself in trouble or kicked out.  And if there was even the slightest chance he could do something to help them or find a way to escape…

A low alarm hummed.  The platform began to rise.  “Docking cycle is running,” Zet announced.  “Airlock opens in ten seconds.  Go, go, go!”

Steve didn’t know what the hell he was supposed to do, so he just followed the others as they sprang into action.  A particularly big guy, who looked mostly humanoid despite dark gray skin and the crimson swirls adorning it all over, grabbed a massive cart and hauled it to the platform.  The rest of the team followed.  A hiss came from above, and the klaxon beeping switched to a longer tone as the circular airlock doors slid open.  A pallet of crates came down through the entrance, and the Kree at the top disengaged the ship’s lift mechanism so the pallet was free.  Then the platform descended again.  Steve tried not to stare at the opening to the ship, tried not to peer inside, but it was impossible not to.  He could hardly see anything aside from sleek metal and bright lights.  That ship…  He didn’t know a single thing about it, and he didn’t need to.  He knew what it stood for.  Freedom.  Escape.  It could go anywhere.  Fly them from here.  Take them home.

And all that stood between him and that was a slew of scanners, guns, and guards.

“Move it!” bellowed Zet, and Steve jumped into action.  The pallet was on the floor now, and the load team was clambering to unfasten straps and free the crates.  There were nearly a dozen boxes, huge and gray and labeled in writing Steve of course couldn’t read.  He fumbled with the coarse fabric of a strap, struggling with the buckle.  It wouldn’t give, no matter how he pulled at the latch.  The damn thing was busted, and his heart pounded harder as he sensed the others getting their sections loose.  Shit!  Already he was messing this up!

A growl in his ear had him whirling, and panic nearly dropped to his knees as he saw the gray-skinned guy come up behind him with a knife in his hand.  Steve scrambled back, terrified and preparing for a fight, but the loader just slashed at the strap instead.  The fabric fell away.  Steve gulped.  “Slow us down and we’ll kill you,” the gray guy hissed, eyes narrowed and lips pulled back in an intimidating snarl.  Then he flipped the small knife so the handle was pointing to Steve and offered it to him.

Steve swallowed again, his throat as dry as a desert.  Despite being shocked to hell and back, he took the knife.  “Thanks,” he murmured.

The guy glowered, grunted, and walked away.  Steve exhaled slowly, feeling the weight of the blade in his hand.  It wasn’t finely made, the metal worn and weathered, but the handle was strong and the blade looked sharp enough.  Better than anything down in the pit.  And he had a weapon now.  Just like that.  Just by virtue of being up here.  Holy hell.

“Move it!” Zet yelled again, this time directly at Steve.  Steve took the knife and started sawing at the last of the straps, getting them off in short order.  The others were already moving the crates, and he clumsily slid the blade into his boot before scrambling to do the same.

This stuff, whatever it was, was heavy as hell.  He could feel just how ill he’d been, just how weak and exhausted he still was, the second he tried to lift one of the huge boxes.  It must have easily weighed three or four hundred pounds, and he ended up setting it back to the pallet after raising it just a couple inches.  The other loaders were hefting them with relative ease, shifting them from the pallet to the cart.  Steve tried again, throwing more of his strength to it, and this time he was successful.  With a gasp of effort, he carried the crate over to the cart and set it beside the slowly growing pile.

“Not there,” Zet said coldly.  “There.”  He pointed to a second cart to the left that Steve hadn’t noticed before, which was also in the process of being loaded.  For a second he angrily thought the guy was being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole, but then he noticed the writing on the front of the crates was different between the two carts.  Grunting, he went to it again.  He struggled and sweated but had the crate moved in a matter of seconds.  He turned just in time to catch Zet’s satisfied nod.  It wasn’t much, and it was so stupid, but he felt like he was a kid again, basking in the approval of his teacher.

It was just hard work after that.  The load team finished with this ship (quickly enough that their foreman was ambivalent rather than furious), but before they could even take much of a breath, another delivery was incoming.  It was like that, one after another after another.  Crates and supplies came down from the airlocks.  The loaders took them off the pallets and platforms and loaded them onto carts in an endless stream.  Some they carried directly to where they were meant to go.  It was pretty striking just how smoothly this place operated.  It was as far from the miserable chaos of the mine as possible.  A dozen load teams labored across the bay, and the Kree assured synchrony and compliance.  There were so many shipments, so many supplies, which made sense given the thousands of souls living underground in this place.  The sense of order and purpose made the work infinitely more dignified.

That made it easier for Steve to fall into it.  He knew his body wasn’t ready for this sort of strenuous labor.  His muscles burned and his bones ached and his heart pounded.  He felt a tad dizzy, and he was drenched in sweat.  However, there wasn’t much choice other than to keep going.  What was strange about it was the fact that Zet seemed aware of how weak he still was.  He didn’t push much beyond yelling occasionally.  He didn’t hit or hurt, though Steve noticed he had a stun baton hanging from his belt.  He didn’t bully at all.  In fact, he seemed to be taking it easier on Steve.  Steve was ordered to handle the lighter loads.  He got more breaks (for God’s sake, they had breaks up here), more chances to drink and eat a little (there was a station off to the side that had food and water, and Zet had someone surreptitiously bringing Steve refreshments about every hour), more freedom to work at his own pace (freedom – that was utterly insane).  It was all within reason, of course, and probably all part of whatever agreement Kar had put in place in return for Tony’s service.  This place seemed so far from down there in every way imaginable, so Steve had no idea what reach, what power, Kar could possibly have to broker special treatment for a lowly Grub.  Steve wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, though.

Lunch came later in the afternoon.  The schedule was staggered so that most of the load teams were working at all times.  Steve’s team was one of the last to go, and even with the fairly constant supply of food and water, he was famished when it finally came to be their turn to eat.  The rest of the team ignored him as they gathered back by the rear of the bay.  There weren’t tables, of course, or anything that formal, but a few dirty boxes served to separate the area and provide a touch of privacy (as much as one could have with the Kree guards constantly watching them).  A couple of crates were open, one with a tub of water that was being dispensed into a series of dented, metal cups (which had obviously been used by all the other load teams – ridiculously unhealthy and unhygienic, but par for the course in Hell).  The other had rations, not cake but some sort of dried, meaty lump that wasn’t all that much more appealing.  Steve wolfed it down regardless, chewing the rubbery substance and drinking until it was moist and soft enough that he could make himself swallow.

The rest of the loaders kept their distance.  Steve felt them staring at him where he sat on the floor cross-legged next to one of the bigger boxes.  He made a conscious effort not to eat so quickly and frantically, but it was damn hard with his stomach feeling like a bottomless pit inside him.  It was stupid to hope they hadn’t noticed the preferential treatment (even now the Kree in charge of dishing out the rations had afforded him a larger portion, and it was painfully obvious).  He didn’t know if the others were studying him out of curiosity or spite, but whatever it was, it made him seriously uncomfortable.  As nice as things seemed up here, it was still survival of the fittest.  Dog eat dog.  Given the chance, he had no doubt these guys would kill him to take what he was getting.

But they weren’t brave enough to try, not with Zet standing to the side, eating and drinking himself and watching over him like some grouchy, reluctant guardian angel.  Steve was simultaneously grateful for the protection and irritated to be treated like a kid.  It was awkward as hell.  Thankfully, their lunch break was short-lived, and before long they were getting ready to go back to work.

Before they could, though, an alarm rung behind them.  Sore and exhausted, Steve braced his back to the crate and pushed himself to his feet, figuring this was some sort of signal to get back to it.  He scratched at his collarbone again, looking around the crate.  Then he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw a few Kree heading to the gate.  The alarm was some sort of warning bell, not a summons to work, and that thick, metal door was opening.  Steve’s eyes went wide, and his heart leapt into his throat.  He backed up to hide behind the crate, peeking around the edge. 

The door was opening.

Daylight.

After nearly a month in darkness, it was so bright.  Harsh and blinding, overwhelmingly so.  Even a few yards away, Steve found himself squinting at the intensity.  Despite that, he peered into the light spilling inside.  The gate rattled and rumbled more, only lifting tall enough to allow a couple Kree to walk through.  The other guards greeted them with nods, and the door began to descend again the second they were inside.  Watching that happen – the gate closing and blocking out the light and the world beyond, closing on any chance for escape – was surprisingly difficult and distressing, and it took all Steve’s willpower for him to stay put behind the crate.

But then he saw the pair of guards was carrying something between them.  They were dragging it really, hauling it inside and then dumping it on the floor.  And it wasn’t a something.

It was a someone.

Suddenly Steve couldn’t breathe.  He inched closer behind the cover of the crate so he could get a better look.  For a second he’d doubted what he’d seen, particularly since the guards’ legs were obscuring his view of the lumpy, shadowy thing on the floor.  The Kree moved, though, and sure enough…

“Sweet Jesus,” he whispered, shaking his head.  That was definitely a body.  Or it had been.  Steve recognized arms, a torso, legs, boots and scraps of cloth around the figure that clearly had once been the jumpsuit the prisoners wore.  Even more horrifying was the skull.  It was devoid of eyes, of ears, of lips, of flesh in general.  It looked like…  Like the Red Skull, in a way.  It looked like…

This poor soul looked like something had sucked him dry.  Exsanguinated him.  Like all the vital fluids of life had been drained from his body.  The little bit of skin left was sunken, lumpy, wet only in a few spots that had somehow been spared.  It was almost as if… 

God, it was as if something had eaten him.

Bile burned the back of Steve’s throat.  It was easily the most gruesome thing he had ever seen, and he’d seen quite a few ridiculously gruesome things in the last month.  A cold sweat prickled over his skin, and his stomach roiled and clenched.  One of the Kree guards was grumbling.  “Another one?  This the one who ran out yesterday?”

“Does it matter?” the other answered.  He kicked the disgusting heap at his feet.

“How far did this one get?”

“Not far.  They never do.  Night stops them every time.”

“Stupid.  Get it out of here!  Why did you bring it back in the first place?”

The guards started to haul the carcass away.  As they passed, Steve caught the predatory gleam in one of the Kree’s eyes.  “Hopefully they left the skin.  This one was a mechanic.  The bastards in the pit will pay anything for that.”  The other growled his agreement.

Steve’s blood turned to ice, and he twisted back behind the safety of the crate, struggling to breathe and think.  The fact that even the guards were hacking tattoos off corpses and engaging in the sale and trade of them was pretty upsetting but not nearly as much as what had killed that poor guy in the first place.  Christ Almighty, this is why.  This is why no one escapes, why no one even tries.  Even if you get out of Hell, you can’t get across the desert.  Can’t get through the mountains.  There’s something out there.  Something that kills you.  And what does that mean about night?  What happens at night?

The answer came to him as he asked himself the question.  It was sadly obvious.  Whatever kills you comes out at night.

Steve closed his eyes.  It was stupid to feel defeated at all, but he did.  It wasn’t like going out that door had been an option before and a chance for escape had suddenly been wrenched from his grasping fingers.  There were dozens of security checkpoints between the pit and here, not to mention all the guards, the elevator, the watch towers here in the bay, the gun turrets…  Plus who knew what other obstacles there could be of which he wasn’t aware.  It was impossible.

And even if you could get this far, sneak all the way up here, find your way to the very top of Hell with the power to get that door open…  Going out through it?  It was very obviously a death wish.

 Goddamn it.

“Rogers!”

Steve snapped from his thoughts and scrambled away from the crate.  The load team was reassembling, and they were all eyeing him in irritation for being absent.  He was too overwhelmed by what he’d just seen even to notice the tension and disdain.  His mind was racing without traction, his fingers scratching absently at the itchy spot on his chest again.  I have to tell Tony.

Tony.

Tony hadn’t come up like he’d promised.

Steve’s heart stopped with that terrifying realization.  Zet was talking, relaying orders to the team about the next incoming shipment, but he wasn’t listening.  Tony said he’d come up in a couple hours.  God, that was hours ago.  He never came.  For a seeming eternity, Steve couldn’t think.  But then his memories returned.  Back on the elevator, Tony had said he’d try to come, so maybe he’d simply been unable to make it.  That wasn’t much comfort – nothing in Hell was ever that simple – but it was enough to calm the immediate rush of panic.  He got caught up.  That’s all.  He just couldn’t make it.  He’s okay.  He’s okay.  He’s–

Zet was in his face, snarling.  “Don’t make me regret agreeing to do this,” he hissed, and Steve startled, banishing his worries.  “Are you listening?  Are you?  I’ll send you back down into the damn mine so fast you won’t even have time to beg me not to!”

“Sorry, sir,” Steve gasped, cursing himself for his lapse and jumping into action.

Zet glared a second more to make sure his warning was clear.  It was.  Get it together, Steve thought, trying to swallow through a dry throat and get control of his head.  He had to do better than this.  Tony was fine.  He had to be.  The work day would be over soon enough, and Steve would go back down into the pit, back to Tavin’s place, and Tony would meet him there.  Then Steve could tell him about what he’d seen up here, about how close his new job placed him to the surface and about whatever threat lay beyond the mining colony that kept the prisoners from escaping.  They’d figure out what to do together.  If there was something they could do, and there had to be, and Tony would help him come up with a plan and–

“Move it!”

Zet’s irate shout had him rushing faster.  He realized as he ran to grab the next load of crates that he’d been scratching at his itchy shoulder again, and he pulled his hand free from beneath his shirt to heft the box.  Reinvigorated, he threw his back into the work, quickly lifting and carrying the crate where he was told.  He could do this.  There was hope.  He knew it.  He just had to work.

He set the box down on a newly empty cart, and when he leaned back, he noticed a small, reddish, silvery smudge where his hand had been.  Confused, he leaned closer to inspect it.  “What the hell?” he whispered, raising his hand to touch it.  Then he saw his fingers were already wet with the substance.  The fingers he’d been using to scratch his chest.

His ragged nails were coated in the same reddish, silvery stuff.  Blood.  His blood mixed with…

He looked down at his collarbone where his tattoo was.  More of the silvery substance was lightly smeared there on his exposed skin.  Smeared, like he was bleeding silver.  Seeping it.

The serum…  The dawning realization left him shaking.  The serum was working.  He wasn’t so hurt anymore.  He wasn’t starving anymore.  The serum had the energy to heal him now.

And it was healing his tattoo.

Oh, God.

“Rogers,” Zet yelled, “I swear if you don’t get going–”

“Sorry.  Sorry!”  Horrified, Steve pulled his tunic shut tighter before wiping his hand on his pants and getting back to work.  It was all he could do not to panic.

Chapter Text

Steve was probably worried sick about him.

That was just as well, Tony supposed, because he was worried sick about Steve.  He had been all damn day.  Of course, these last couple weeks when Steve had been unconscious and recovering, Tony ha worried about him constantly.  Leaving him alone in Tavin’s hovel those first couple days had been torture.  No one had been able to stay with him, not Tavin or Tony himself, so Steve had been utterly alone and completely vulnerable while they’d worked.  Every day (but those first days especially) Tony had spent anxiously counting down the seconds until he could go back, distracted through each and every task and damn well terrified.  And every day he’d gone back to find Steve right where he left him, sleeping in Tavin’s home, safe and sound.  Kar’s influence was amazing.  The Kree mob boss been able to scare criminals and murderers off from slaughtering someone who was for all intents and purposes free game, who was helpless and the very definition of easy pickings.  It was disturbing, too, because each time Tony had come back to find Steve slumbering, recovering slowly but steadily with the IV in his arm, peaceful and protected and completely untouched…  Well, it pretty fantastically reinforced just how powerful Kar was, and that was all kinds of frightening since Tony was rather firmly in bed with him now.

Regardless, at least back then he’d known where Steve was and what he’d been doing.  Now with Steve back to work, Tony’s mind was running rampant with horrors again.  It had been all damn day.  Steve pointing out those bastards who’d nearly garroted him (which had only been the last of a long string of brutalities) had reminded Tony of just how fucking awful this place had been to him.  Steve had borne the brunt of the violence, damage, and physical abuse, and not only because he was a goddamn self-sacrificing asshole who still insisted on putting himself between Tony and every fist coming his way.  Nearly dying hadn’t done much to change Steve’s annoyingly noble outlook, not that Tony had expected it would; there was a reason Steve was Captain America, and that reason was only partially due to the serum.  It was the same thing with Steve insisting he could help now, and it wasn’t that Tony didn’t want his help.  That wasn’t true at all.

He just didn’t want Steve getting hurt again.  Steve’s unerring ability to think the best of terrible things and terrible people was going to get them both killed.  As weird as it was, Tony wanted to protect that as much as he wanted to protect Steve himself.  It almost felt like if Steve lost his faith in what was good and right, then they would be well and truly lost.  Tony had berated Steve for his naïve mindset and all the damn problems it had caused them, but that was mostly his fear and worry talking.  He didn’t want Steve to wise up to just how dark and twisted things were down here.  If Steve changed because of this place…  God, that terrified him.  And the danger Tony was in terrified him.  And he didn’t want Steve involved, not if he could avoid it.  He knew he’d been an utter dick to Steve this morning, brushing off his attempts to help and pretty much insulting his intelligence to his face.  Tony knew it and hated it and felt so bad, but he couldn’t help it.  His mouth always ran harshly and fast when he was scared and upset, but moreover, if being mean kept Steve emotionally divested from Tony and the mess he was in, he’d do it.  It was probably impossible, Tony would shoulder the burden of everything to stop Steve from ever being hurt again.

Only now Captain America the hero was up and running again and probably getting himself into all sorts of new trouble.  It had been easier to function before today, knowing that Kar was shielding Steve and that Steve was too weak and sick to do much.  With Steve on his own again, working up above, these anxieties were assailing Tony like crazy.  Tony didn’t know for sure what Steve’s new job entailed, but Tavin had informed him days ago that Kar had arranged with the Kree guards to alter Steve’s designation in the prisoner registry from a miner to a loader.  Tony hadn’t really considered that there was such a thing as a registry, but of course there had to be.  Somewhere in Hell there had to be a massive database that logged and tracked every prisoner and their work assignment.  That was what had gotten Tony thinking more that maybe the answers to his dilemma lie not in reverse engineering the tattoos but in gaining access to that computer system.

Hence why he was knee deep in literal shit, trying to fix this damaged garbage port.  And hence why he was driving himself crazy with concern because he hadn’t had a chance to check on Steve (which Tavin had told him he could do, thanks to Kar – the breadth of the Kree’s generosity was starting to really freak out Tony).  He should have ventured up above hours ago to make sure Steve was alright and to see what was up there.  Until now, he hadn’t had access to anything beyond the top levels of the Kree barracks and living areas, which he’d taken to calling Purgatory in his head in keeping with the Dante’s Inferno theme.  Not quite as awful as Hell, but certainly not as nice as freedom.  The vast Kree city of Purgatory, only slightly less dark, less dangerous, and less atrocious as the pit.  Somehow Tony sincerely doubted there was such a thing as Paradiso anywhere on this moon.

Though that was neither here nor there, he supposed.  He hadn’t gone up to Steve because after tip-toeing around this shithole all morning and afternoon, he’d finally gotten a peak at what he was after.  Fixing the garbage chute hadn’t even been on his task list that day, but he’d bribed another engineer with a penchant for smoking something (an alien version of marijuana, maybe?  Tony didn’t have any idea where he was getting it) with a lighter he’d managed to build from the parts of a blowtorch’s spark.  This engineer wasn’t very highly ranked, more maintenance than anything, which was why it was his unfortunate job to handle the sanitation services to the Kree barracks.  The guy hadn’t thought anything of swapping jobs today, probably glad to be free of the stench of this place (and holy fuck did it stink).  Tony had been struggling to handle the smell all morning as he’d dragged his feet through fixing the problem with the chute’s doors.  And he’d had to take his time, because the issue with the door mechanism that dropped the load of refuse down what Tony assumed was a pretty endless hole wasn’t all that difficult to fix.  Once the weight of the trash exceeded a predefined amount, which sensors in the doors underneath the garbage measured, the chute was supposed to open and send the refuse down to wherever its final destination was.  The sensors were old and covered in crud and worse.  They just needed to be replaced, a chore that would have taken him all of an hour to complete.

But he’d been here all day, faking like he was working.  He’d been taking panels off and fiddling with the wires inside and putting them back only to take them off again.  He’d been making a production out of calibrating his ammeter (or the alien equivalent of one) and organizing his tools and studying how the new sensor worked like it was the universe’s grandest puzzle (and like he hadn’t figured it out in all of thirty seconds).  All of this seemed like crappy cover and so goddamn obviously false, but so far the Kree walking the dark corridors of the barracks hadn’t noticed he was wasting time on purpose.  That he was wasting time right here for a reason.

And that reason was fucking frustrating the hell out of him.  He’d spent most of last week while Steve had been unconscious and recovering trying to sleuth around up here, which had been none too easy.  Naturally the Kree were all over this place, this massive labyrinth of intertwining levels and corridors and shafts that all wound around the central pillar of Hell.  Purgatory really was a maze, a city that had been constructed with no rhyme or reason behind its design.  Each level was just a random slew of alcoves, barracks, eating halls, maintenance rooms, and armories, all monitored by scanners.  Because everything was such a hodge-podge of living arrangements and functional spaces, it was a fucking mess from a systems aspect, too.  One of the reasons the Kree were so damn dependent on the engineers and mechanic was due to this mess.  If they’d taken more care in designing this place, streamlining and accommodating growth and future needs, things wouldn’t be so dire.

As it was, after a month of trying to make sure this city and the mine below it kept running, Tony had started to learn where things were.  Finding this place, though?  The path that had led him here was winding, aggravating, and filled with him bribing and coercing and sometimes whining his way into information.  Surprisingly, the lower caste engineers like the guy who’d wanted the lighter were more willing to comply.  Maybe they were too dumb to have more ambitions beyond working where they worked (which was infinitely better than the labor any of the Grubs faced), or maybe they were simply complacent and thus disinterested in the drama going on around them.  It didn’t matter.  Tony had followed snippets of information and clues and rumors and had finally ended up here.

Right down the hall from where the computer cores were.

About fifteen feet away, to be exact, and those fifteen feet might as well be fifteen light years for how accessible the data rooms were.  They were at the end of the hall, the last set of doors in this winding, dark corridor tucked in the far corner of level fifteen (level fifteen of twenty-eight levels between the pit and the top level).  This was nearly exactly halfway between Hell and whatever was above, hidden in the very heart of Purgatory.  That felt more and more apropos.  At any rate, those double doors were huge, immovable, and of course impossible to see through.  The Kree came in and out, always the same set of five or six (it was getting easier to tell them apart now after being amongst them for so many days).  It seemed like one or two of them were delivering tablet computers to the room, which Tony supposed were updated prisoner manifests from new inmate deliveries.  It’d make more sense for the information to be sent electronically, but this place had the most weakly constructed computer system Tony had ever seen.  The scanner system seemed pretty secure (at least, it was with the guards constantly protecting it), but everything else was held together with spit and baling wire.  Given enough time (months or even years), he was pretty sure he’d eventually find a way to hack into the prisoner registry and decode the tattoos.

However, he didn’t have time, which was why the hours he’d spent here trying to get a glimpse of inside the room felt like such a goddamn waste.  He didn’t know why he’d been expecting that he’d just be able to see.  It wasn’t like Hell had windows or glass partitions like the Tower did or even open, airy spaces.  His surveillance of the server room was pretty much limited to surreptitiously taken glances whenever that door opened and closed.  Fucking glimpses that barely lasted a second if he was lucky.  He’d spent all day fake-fixing this trash chute, and all he had to show for it was that, a glimpse of what he so desperately needed.

As he stood in the heaping mound of garbage and tried not to puke from the stench, he had to acknowledge it hadn’t been a total waste of time.  He’d been able to confirm this was the spot, so that was something.  Once or twice he’d seen inside the room for long enough to take note of the computer consoles and workstations.  There were many, and they all seemed to be monitoring the hundreds of scanners throughout Hell from the very depths of the pit to the tops of the pillar.  The room was also surprisingly clean and in much nicer condition.  It was also fortified like crazy.  There were scanners and guards both inside and outside, and Tony was carefully staying out of range and sight of the security measures on the exterior.  The place was practically inaccessible, with just this one way in and out, and there was no chance of slipping in or forcing his way through.  He supposed that all made sense, because if the prison registry went down or was compromised, the scanners would fail, and if the scanners failed…

A riot wouldn’t begin to describe what the Kree would have on their hands.  It’d be a bloodbath, a slaughter.  Up here, the Kree outnumbered the prisoners, but down below they most certainly did not.  The Kree were relying on the godawful conditions, prisoner-against-prisoner violence, starvation, and utter hopelessness to keep the inmates in line in the pit.  Given the chance for an uprising, there sure as shit would be one.  Kar had the power to make it happen if he got the chance.  That was the whole point of what he was asking Tony to do, after all.  Control the tracking system by controlling the tattoos.

Sadly, though, this wasn’t going to be how he accomplished it.  “No fucking way,” he muttered to himself yet again as he peered at the door.  It was opening for the latest Kree passing inside, and when it did it revealed the same utterly unreachable computer terminals, the same impassable security measures.  It couldn’t be either that he was the first prisoner in the history of Hell to think of this, to want to try and access the registry.  Not too many got this far probably given the sheer number of Grubs versus the more privileged classes, but it stood to reason that this had been investigated (or even attempted) before.  The registry was like the Holy Grail, mythical and alluring but so unobtainable.

If Tony had his armor, the Avengers, even Steve with him…  Maybe an attack would work.  Maybe.  The corridor was long and narrow, though, and there was no cover, so any attempt to storm the doors would be seen and countered long before the assault reached the guards.  It was a long-shot with equipment and help.  By himself?  Impossible, and all he’d done was verify that.

What a waste.

Well, not totally.  He’d verified one other thing, and this was pretty relevant to his current dilemma. He’d hardly gotten a glance at the computer screens, but it had been enough for him to notice the writing.  It matched the harsh, angular symbols he’d seen on other things over the last month or so.  It was all over this place: on the tools, on the circuity, on signs and crates and the paltry excuses for maps and directions.  Of course Tony couldn’t read it, but he was pretty sure that it was the written language of the Kree.

However, it didn’t match the symbols on the tattoos.  That he was certain of after studying the few skins he’d acquired over the last couple weeks (and his own tattoo, which he’d examined in great detail ever since he’d “volunteered” for this project).   Everything he’d seen today confirmed that the tattoos were written in something else, possibly a proprietary syntax of symbols and glyphs.  That made sense, but it would make decoding them extremely difficult.  Any system of symbols would need to be sufficiently varied and complex to create the number of combinations necessary to track thousands of prisoners (potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands over however long Hell had been in business).  It’d be extremely difficult if not impossible to crack the code without a primer or decryption algorithm, and he highly doubted any of the ones he knew from Earth would be in use out here.  Plus the lack of JARVIS or a computer was a serious problem.  His brain was sharp and fast but not that sharp and fast.  Even back on Earth, even with JARVIS and the super-computing cluster he had installed at the Tower, it could still take weeks, months even, to break a code like this.

So that was shit.  He was also increasingly sure the tattoos didn’t contain a prisoner’s designation.  The evidence for that was substantial.  The existence of a prison registry at all suggested the code on their chests was linked to a computer that made the call as to what prisoners were and where they could go and what privileges they had.  That was even further supported by the fact that Kar had been able to broker a deal to switch Steve’s position, but Steve’s tattoo still looked the same as it had.  Plus both the skins he’d been able to examine thus far had supposedly come from miners (or so he’d been told), and there was nothing similar about them. 

Sadly, all that meant that studying the tattoos alone wasn’t going to be enough.  Without significantly more skins and a pretty powerful computer or access to the treasure trove of information in that forbidden server room, figuring anything out was practically impossible.  And Kar hadn’t exactly been explicit about what he wanted to reverse engineer the tattoos for, but again it was pretty damn obvious.  He had the clout to turn a prisoner from one class to another, but he couldn’t do it without the Kree, and therefore he couldn’t emulate a Kree tattoo.

And without that, no one was getting out.

The door shut, and that was that until another Kree came.  Tony sighed.  It wasn’t worth the effort to hang around and get another cursory look.  What the hell more could he learn?  Nothing.  This was just God or fate or whatever the fuck had landed them in this misery mocking him further by dangling the answer right in front of his face.  So he should just fix this damn sensor and get moving.  The day was nearly done, and he wanted to see Steve.  He had to make sure Steve was okay after his first day back to work.

Tony turned around to reach for his toolkit, and he walked right into something that was tall and hard and very blue.  Oh, fuck.  He winced and stiffened and tried to keep his gaze lowered, but there was no choice.  He had to look up.

The Kree guard glaring down at him was monstrous.  It took Tony’s fear-stricken brain a moment to recognize him as one of the guards periodically walking the halls.  Obviously Tony hadn’t been as successful with his acting as he’d hoped.  “It’s taken you all day to repair this one garbage port,” the guard remarked coldly.

Immediately Tony dropped his eyes anew.  It wouldn’t do at all to act cocky or defiant now, and honestly he didn’t have it in him.  Acting scared shitless wasn’t hard at all because he was.  He stammered for some explanation.  “It’s, um…  The sensor’s not…”

“You’re also not the one who’s usually working around here,” the alien snarled.  It drove Tony crazy with how goddamn unpredictable things were sometimes.  So many of the Kree treated the prisoners like slaves, like they were all one and the same, just insects to be tormented and crushed.  Yet others, like this fucker, paid more attention.  That was more common up in Purgatory, Tony had noticed, but it was still impossible to anticipate which of the guards were going to notice things and which of them were just blindly cruel.

This guy was clearly one of the former.  “You’re slow, even compared to him.”

Tony gulped through a dry throat.  “He couldn’t – I mean, I was reassigned,” he explained in a meek voice.  Christ, Steve was always so calm in situations like these.  So calm and cool and confident.  Captain freaking America.  Tony’s nerves were fucking shot.  “This morning they reassigned me.”  He didn’t even know who they were.  If he didn’t sound sure, how was he going to convince this guy?  It was among the shittiest lies he’d ever told.

From the Kree’s sharp gaze, it was impossible to tell if he actually saw through it, though.  Why couldn’t one of the stupid guards have cornered him?  “Fix it,” the guard hissed after a beat, “and then go down and work on the ports in the pit.”

Given the number of broken garbage ports he knew were down there, Tony grimaced and argued before he thought better of it.  “That’s not my–”

The Kree was on him in a second, pinning him against the door to the chute.  An arm was thrust across his throat, one that was about as breakable as steel, and Tony yelped as his face was turned into the grime on the frame.  The horrific stink hardly registered because was he was too afraid to breathe.  There was a soft whir, and Tony knew he was being scanned.  A lot of the Kree up here had hand scanners.  Down in the pit, it wasn’t all that important to keep track of individual inmates aside from ascertaining whether or not they worked.  Up here?  Where there was access to more sensitive places?  Like right where they stood?

Fuck.

His day spent investigating was going to cost far more than it was worth.

The scanner beeped after a second.  The guard read the output, and Tony waited, terrified.  Then he pushed Tony harder into the wall, and that was all it took for Tony to realize the jig was up.  The guy knew who he was.

The retribution he expected didn’t come, though.  “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have power up here,” the Kree hissed.  “That fat bastard you work for…  He might say you’re something special because of your skills, but to us?  You’re just another sack of meat.  You die, and another one comes along to take your place.”  Tony squeezed his eyes shut.  “You’re not the first to try.  You won’t be the last.  So don’t test us.”

“N-no,” Tony whispered.  “I’m not!  I–”

Every port malfunctioning down in the pit fixed.  Every one of them.”

“Y-yes!”

“Now finish this one.  And if we find you again up here, taking your time…”

The threat was left unfinished.  The Kree grabbed Tony’s arm, twisted him, and shoved him into the chute.  Tony stumbled over the mounds of trash before slamming into the opposite wall, and the metal clanged as he struck.  The doors beneath his feet vibrated, quaked, and for a horrible second he thought they’d open and he’d fall.

But they held.  Tony didn’t dare move for what felt like an eternity.  When he finally found the courage to look over his shoulder, he saw the Kree was gone.  He sucked in a tremulous breath.  “Jesus,” he whispered, leaning more into the sludge covered wall.  He forced down a sob, quieting his panic.  He was still alive.  Still alive.  No matter how many narrow escapes they faced down here, that always came as such a fucking surprise.  “Oh, God…”

After he managed to gather himself enough to function, he raced through replacing the sensor.  It took just a few minutes (though he’d had to dig through the garbage to get to the mechanism, which would have been more horrific if he hadn’t been so desperate to get out of there).  Once he finished, he climbed out of the chute with his tools, smelling godawful and still shaken to his core.  After closing the exterior door, he jabbed a shaking thumb into the controls, and the port clanked and rumbled but eventually worked.  The red light on the panel turned green, and when Tony opened the door again, the chute was empty.

It wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but it felt monumental given the altercation moments before.  Tony tried to force himself to breathe easier as he gathered up his tools.  He didn’t know how this particular guard would ensure that he did the task to which he’d been assigned; it seemed unlikely that the Kree would come down to check.  However, he didn’t want to risk it.  If the guards really found out why he was snooping, that he was trying to decode the tattoo system…

God, what am I doing?

Tony sniffled as he fled this level of Purgatory and raced back to the central pillar and its elevators.  The walk was thankfully uneventful.  He was stopped at the lift’s entrance by the guards protecting the pillar, and he couldn’t meet their gazes.  He was too riled, too afraid of the enormity of the problem before him.  The scanners let him into the elevator, and the Kree guard operating it openly glared at him but silently took him down all the same.  It was near the end of the work day, and probably the thought of having to take one lone inmate all the way to the bottom of the pit only to have to come back up for the “commute” rankled him.

That, and the fact that Tony stank.  Tony didn’t care one bit.  He stared at the crud covering his boots and breathed shallowly.  Fixing all the ports down there, in the cell block and in the dining center and in the maze of huts…  It’d take days.  He knew from the maintenance reports he’d seen over the last couple weeks that there were dozens of issues, hence one of the reasons why the pit was such a filthy, disgusting mess.  He didn’t have time to do this.  He needed every second he had to work on the tattoos, to build and repair stuff he could sell or barter so he could acquire new skins and continue his analysis.  He couldn’t afford the delay.  As much as today had been a waste of time, this was so much worse.

He slumped.  He wanted to cry.  Instead he blinked back tears, pushed down the driving sense of despair and depression.  There’s a way out.  That was what Steve would tell him.  And Steve wanted to help him.  Maybe it’d be alright if he did, if Steve helped with this.  It shouldn’t cause too much trouble, arouse too much suspicion or anything.  And two sets of hands and two heads were better than one.  Steve wouldn’t be able to aid him during the day of course, but maybe together they could work on the ports at night.  Maybe…  Tony sighed and gathered himself.  Steve promised him he wasn’t alone, so he wasn’t.  Just thinking of that, of Steve himself, was enough to hearten him.  Give him hope.

The elevator rumbled to a stop at the bottom.  Apparently Tony just standing there and not moving, filthy and stinking and miserable and defeated, was enough to piss the Kree off more, because he grabbed Tony by the collar of his shirt and hurled him out of the lift once the gates were open.  Tony hadn’t been expecting that at all, and he hit the ground hard, smacking his chin into the dirt.  His tools loudly scattered everywhere around him.  A couple other prisoners working down at the base of the elevator laughed at the sight.  Tony groaned, mouth filling with blood from where his teeth had cut into his tongue.  He spat the revolting taste out, rubbing at his newly sore jaw with a slime-covered hand.

Yeah, today was shit.

“Clean this mess up!” bellowed another voice.  It was undoubtedly one of the guards screaming at him.  He didn’t bother to look, crawling rather pathetically to his fallen toolbox and gathering up the fallen tools as quickly as he could.  He threw them all back into his box and scrambled to his feet.  Then he walked briskly away from the central pillar, trudging back up to Hell, toward the dining cavern and the City of the Damned (seems like an appropriate name, he bitterly thought).  Three of the garbage ports against the right wall of the cavern weren’t working right, if his memory served.  As he ventured closer to the closest, the odor became unbearable.  In typical Hell fashion, the prisoners (and guards) hadn’t cared the port wasn’t functioning and had stuffed it to the brim and piled up even more outside.  Containers and ripped cloth and damaged items and who knew what else.  There was a ridiculous ton of trash.

And he had to climb through it to make it to the broken chute.

Tony stared for a moment, grimacing and exhausted.  He needed to get going.  Assuming there wasn’t anything catastrophically wrong with this port, he should be able to fix it before the day’s work was over.  Then he could go back to Tavin’s.  Steve would be there.  Steve would be.  Just seeing him would make Tony feel better.  Safer.  Remind him of why he was doing this, why he’d put himself in so much danger.

Why he’d sold himself.

Sighing, he set his toolbox down and started digging through the trash.  More than once, as his hands slipped through sludge and undoubtedly sewage of some sort, he almost threw up.  He hadn’t had lunch because he’d been so intently watching the server room, so his stomach was painfully empty.  He had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep himself from heaving.  Shifting the mess released new and stronger smells, and he could hardly stand it.  Breathing through his mouth wasn’t helping because he could fucking taste it.  “Fuck this place,” he whispered, knee deep in garbage again.  “Fuck Kar.  Fuck the Kree.  Fuck all of them.”

Something wet flew into the back of his head, splattering into his hair, and he nearly toppled in shock.  He turned around, and the slimy rag that had hit him landed in the garbage at his feet with a sopping sound.  The prisoner who’d flung it, some rat-like bastard, chortled and sneered and walked away.  “Yeah, fuck you, too,” Tony snapped, and he kicked the lumpy cloth away.  He swallowed down a frustrated sob – Christ, why the hell am I falling apart like this? – and went back to digging.  Eventually, after moving garbage for what felt like forever, he found the port.

The opening in the rock wall was sealed by a metal hatch.  It was smaller down here, not the full-sized door in the higher levels.  Still, it was definitely big enough that he could crawl through it if he had to.  He really hoped he wouldn’t.  It was so dark here, so the thought of being in that small space, with that stink and the walls tight around him and the shadows…  God, no.

Thankfully he could tell right away that he wouldn’t have to.  It was obvious the mechanism that opened the doors was just jammed.  The area of the frame had obviously been struck once or twice (or countless times), and it was dented.  Tony went back to get his tools and returned with a mallet that resembled a hammer that he could hopefully use to bang the frame back into shape once he pried it off.  Using another tool with a long, thin end that resembled a big flat-head screwdriver, he got the frame away from the rocks, poking and prying and pulling.  It was hard work; the damn thing was so covered in crap that it was effectively glued in place.  Tony grunted and sweated and struggled, but finally he freed the side of the frame.

Wiping his wrist over his damp brow, he caught his breath and examined the dented section.  Then he took the hammer again.  It was surprisingly easy to pound it back into the proper shape.  Personally, he’d have replaced the entire thing; it was misshapen in numerous places and would probably fail again considering the abuse it took.  Something told him that wasn’t an option though, so he made it work and put it back.

Once he had it in place, he set the hammer aside and he pressed the controls for the door.  The button was about as battered and damaged as everything else, but it worked, and the chute opened.  A blast of hot, foul air practically bowled him over.  Tony turned away, coughing and covering his mouth and nose.  “Ugh, what the hell…”  Once he got control of his gag reflex, he leaned closer and peered through the shadows inside the chute.  It was too damn dark to see much of anything other than a small ledge right outside the door.  The ledge wasn’t much bigger than a foot.  When he leaned over it, a wall of heat blew right up into his face.  Obviously the trash went down further than the pit (which meant the pit went further down, which was pretty damn terrifying a concept).  And obviously the Kree burned it somewhere down there.  He couldn’t see where the garbage ended up or where it was burned, but it made sense.  Unless the center of Hell was a ball of garbage, it was probable that all the chutes emptied together down here, and everything was incinerated.

Lovely.

Tony turned away, waiting until he was back in the cooler, danker, and slightly less malodorous air of Hell to take a breath again.  He coughed, eyes watering, skin aching with how hot that had been.  Another wonderful amenity in Hell.  He pressed his hand to the button, and the door slid shut.  Well, mostly.  The damn thing jammed again, so there was tiny gap in the seal between it and the frame.  Tony stared at it like it was taunting him.  The perfectionist in him bristled, but the angry, tired, bitter slave?  That part of him didn’t give a fuck.  “Good enough,” he grumbled.  He gathered his hammer and his other tools, stuffed them back into his box, and went off.  One done.  The work day would be over soon.  And then back to Tavin’s little shithole of a place, where there was some water to wash with and food to eat and something that passed for a bed and Steve.  Steve will be there.  Steve would sleep right next to him tonight, maybe even hold him.  Steve, big and warm and strong and safe.  Steve.  He just needed to get there himself.

But he couldn’t.  He didn’t get very far at all.

“You smell like shit, Stark.”

Oh, please.  Not today.  Tony slowed to a stop, closing his eyes for a moment and tipping his head back.  Please not today.  Steeling himself, he turned around to see Xeran emerge from one of the huts around the garbage port he’d just fixed.  The little bastard immediately came closer, glowering like he was always glowering.  He was scowling too hard to even manage a sneer to go with his taunting.  “But I suppose that is what happens to someone who spends the day cleaning up shit.”

“What the hell do you want, Xeran?” Tony said in exasperation.  “Just get to it because I am not in the mood for games.  I–”

The fist colliding with his jaw took him completely by surprise.  Pain exploded across his face, and the next thing he knew he was on his back on the filthy ground, staring up at the darkness overhead and the dilapidated tops of the huts around him.  Everything was spinning.  He tasted blood again.  Slowly he blinked the tears from his eyes, and in the few seemingly infinite seconds it took him to do that, Xeran came to loom over him.  His reptilian face was blurry and hideous, locked still in that scowl, and he grabbed Tony’s clothes and yanked him up.  “You found your way to the registry,” he hissed.

Tony’s brain felt too pulverized to process that at first.  He staggered as Xeran hauled him closer until their faces were less than an inch apart.  Now the stench bombarding him was the alien’s breath.  “What?” he mumbled dazedly.  “What’re you–”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Xeran snarled.  “You were up there all day, watching the room.  Trying to figure it out.  Trying to get in.”

Tony’s blood went cold.  “I didn’t–”

Xeran backhanded him.  The strike split Tony’s lower lip, aggravating older injuries and sore places that had barely begun to heal.  He was sent sprawling into the filth again, but he didn’t slump or fall, instead scrambling to get his feet beneath him.  Scrambling to run.

But there was nowhere to go here.  He stumbled into a huge, towering bastard who emerged from one of the huts right in front of him.  Tony backpedaled the second he struck the hard, immovable, red chest, but it was too late.  A massive, meaty paw closed around his throat, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe.  Yellow eyes glinted with a lust for blood, and fangs peeked out from ropey lips in a twisted, feral smile.  Oh, God!

It was the guy Steve had pointed out that morning.  The one from the mine.  The one who’d tormented Steve, who’d battered him, who’d put a fucking pick axe through his hand.  The one who’d tried to kill him.

Tony whimpered, grabbing at the fingers crushing his windpipe, kicking futilely as the brute lifted him clear off the ground.  His lungs burned; he didn’t get a full breath before he’d been grabbed, and his body was aching for air, burning with adrenaline and panic.  He dug his nails into the alien’s hand, but his skin was so thick he had no chance of breaking it or breaking his hold.

Xeran watched with nothing but hatred in his gaze.  “You’ve humiliated me,” he said lowly.  “You and your fucking Grub.  I could stand that maybe, maybe, in order to keep my good standing with Kar.  But now you’re encroaching on something I’ve been after since I realized what power was in this place.”

Tony shook his head.  His limbs went infirm like jelly, and all he could do was squirm.  Blackness pushed in on the edges of his vision, but he could still see Xeran coming closer.  Malevolently standing there and watching him choke.  “You think you’re special?” the alien hissed.  “Huh?  Think getting into his good graces means you can take my place?”

“N-no.  No!”

“This is why I wanted you.”  Xeran’s eyes were glowing with malice and jealousy.  “I wanted you working for me.  I wanted you to figure that out for me!  With you, I could have done it!”

“Please…”

“But just like that, you bargained your way into something better.  Even after I told you not to.”  He was utterly furious because all the rage from the last couple weeks of Tony gaining power was finally boiling over.  “You’ll never touch the registry.  I’m going to figure out how to access it, and when I do, Kar will be begging me to offer him a merciful death.  I won’t give him one.”  His eyes flashed.  “I won’t give you one, either.”

Tony’s oxygen-deprived brain was barely functioning at this point.  The fleeting thought still crossed it all the same.  Pledge your allegiance to him.  Just like Xeran had wanted before, when Tony had argued and objected and struggled and denied him.  It was pretty obvious now that Xeran’s pride had killed his desire to have Tony in his stable.  He wasn’t asking.

And Tony wasn’t giving.  This asshole had ordered Steve be killed.  He wasn’t giving a damn inch.  “Fuck you,” he gasped with all the air he had left.

Xeran gave a ragged cry of utter frustration.  The bastard holding Tony threw him into the hut behind them.  The sensation of flying, of weightlessness, was so incredible for that brief second.  It ripped him away, out of his mind.  Out of this place.  Like an escape.  Like he was safe in Iron Man, soaring through the sky, powerful and free.  They couldn’t touch him.  Nothing could touch him.  And Captain America was fighting below him, just as powerful and free, and the rest of the team was there, and they were going to win this fight, and–

He slammed into the ground on his back.  His lungs seized, demanding oxygen, but his muscles wouldn’t work.  It took an eternity spent sprawled and struggling to suck in a single gulp of air.  Tony rolled over once he did, scrambling to get up, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

The other three assholes who’d hurt Steve so badly were there, too.  Surrounding him.  Glaring.  Threatening.  Hating.  Tony’s eyes swept over them one at a time.  He was too terrified, too hurt, too shocked, to think much beyond a solitary command: run.

Staggering to his feet, he whirled and raced to the hut’s door, but the red-skinned guy was there, blocking his exit.  Xeran was right behind him.  Ice settled in Tony’s stomach.  He was trapped.  Cornered.  There was no way out.  No escape.

Xeran stepped around the hulking brute.  He shoved Tony back, and Tony stumbled into one of the other aliens behind him.  He twisted, tripped, and ended up on his knees.  The circle of monsters closed in.  “You think you’re smarter than me?  Stronger?  You’re not.  I’m going to kill you.  And no one’s going to save you this time.  Not Kar.  Not your precious Grub.  No one,” Xeran sneered.  “Time for you to beg, Stark.”

He wasn’t going to.  Instinct had him standing, dodging a hand grabbing for him, returning a punch of his own that met nothing.  Panicked, he threw another blow, and this one landed, driving the smallest of the gang back.  Tony side-stepped the big bastard, and for a brief instant, there was a space between the guy’s back and the door.  With a cry, he lunged for it.

But the guy behind him latched onto his left wrist, twisted it, and yanked him back.  Tony screamed as he felt his arm being wrenched, as he felt his shoulder separate from it.  Agony jolted down his arm and side, sharp and paralyzing, and he could hardly do anything other than cry as the alien hauled him back.  They crowded around him, fists raised and lips locked in awful smiles and eyes filled with hunger.  No, no, no!

There was nothing he could do.  They grabbed him, held him up practically spread-eagle and vulnerable.  He was outnumbered, weak compared to these guys.  Only a man among monsters.  Barely Tony braced himself for the pain when the first punch struck the side of his head.  The next hit the soft flesh of his stomach, and he doubled over as the meager amount of air he’d managed to inhale rushed out of him.  The next strike was a kick to his shin, sending fiery pain up his leg.  Another punch to his chest.  And another.  His ribs felt like they were bending under the strength of the blows.  He squirmed, struggled, but the aliens’ grips were unbreakable, and all he could do was ride the waves of pain.

Eventually, a slap snapped his head to the side and his mind out of the daze.  He coughed out blood in his throat, turning back with all the strength he had left and forcing himself to focus.  Xeran was right there, right in front of him, so satisfied.  Fuck.  Tony dropped his head in defeat so that it was hanging between his shoulders as he labored for air.

Xeran smirked.  “Such a waste, turning that brain into mush.”  He flicked Tony’s temple.  “But I warned you what would happen if you crossed me.”

A heavy hand gripped his heaving throat.  Tony gagged, choking again.  “Let me break his neck,” hissed the big guy holding him.  He said that with so much anticipation and frustration, and the image of Steve with his throat nearly torn out flashed through Tony’s mind.  “Let me!”

“No,” Xeran hissed.  “Nothing that quick and merciful.  Stark wants to work in the garbage?”  He grinned maliciously.  “I can make that happen.”  The bastard balled his claw into a fist, and that came careening into Tony’s face.  The world went dark.


Tony drifted.  In his mind, he was flying again, only he was flying higher, rocketing through the pearly clouds, through the brilliant blue sky.  A sky as beautiful and endless as Steve’s blue eyes.  He was blasting upward, and Iron Man was humming around him, strong and resilient and teeming with power.  He went higher and higher, cutting through the puffy white, through the azure spread of the heavens as they grew darker.  Sapphire and then navy.  Higher and higher and higher, until he was high above the Earth, aloft and looking down on the peaceful globe covered in the blue of the ocean and the green and brown of land and the sleek white of clouds.  It was quiet, unbreakably so, and from here, he could see everything.  Know everything.  From here, the world was safe and peaceful.  Home, just as he’d left it.

Only he couldn’t go back.  He’d gone too high, too far, and all around him…  There was only the emptiness of space.  The mournful stars.  Silence.  Emptiness.  Solitude for eternity.  He was alone.  Despair had him sobbing into his helmet, and time stretched infinitely as he cried.  The Earth dimmed below him, behind him.  The planet was growing darker and darker, fading, and he belatedly realized it was because he was still going, still flying, shooting through the abyss of space.  He couldn’t stop.  It was like something was pulling him, dragging him away from the oceans and the land and the clouds.  From that sky as deep and incredible as Steve’s beautiful blue eyes.

From Steve himself.

They were taking him away!

The thought came stabbing like a knife, jolting him from unconsciousness.  Even knowing that, though, Tony wasn’t strong enough to stop it.  Sensation struck him, sharp and disjointed.  Flashes of dim light.  The ground was scratching at his back and snagging at his clothes and skin.  Pain.  So much fucking pain.  Sound was stretched low and long.  His eyelids fluttered.  There were shadows looming overhead.  Hands gripping his ankles and dragging him along.  His own fingers flexed, scraped uselessly in the filth on the ground, but he couldn’t stop it.  He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could hardly think.  Couldn’t stop them.

Eventually the jarring motion stilled.  His legs fell, his heels hitting the ground hard.  Tony groaned weakly.  Everything throbbed.  His arm.  His chest and stomach.  His head.  That was pounding, pulsing in misery, and all he could taste was blood.  And all he could smell was…

Garbage.

He blinked away tears and sweat that were trapped in his eyes and turned his head so that his cheek was resting on the ground.  The world was slow to settle into a single image, and when it did…

There was darkness.  Darkness and heat.  An opening in the rock mere inches from him with its frame newly repaired.  He was back where he had been.

“Take what you want.”  The guttural hiss was Xeran’s voice.  “But the tattoo is mine.  Cut it off and throw him in.”

Tony moaned as fingers yanked at his boots, at his socks, at his pants.  His shirt was ripped open.  No.  Hands brushed over his naked chest, drifting up his ribs to his pecs and then his left shoulder.  To where his tattoo was.  He couldn’t let them… Please, no.  No.  Hazily his eyes tracked a wink of metal.  It was a knife, and hands stilled his meager struggles.  He whimpered as they started slicing his skin, as hot blood spilled down his chest.  No.  You can’t.  They were carving him up as he’d seen them do to others.  They were taking the tattoo from his still living body.  They were killing him. 

If he died, Steve would be left to bear the brunt of the deal he’d made.

No!

With a sudden burst of energy, he drove his knee up and into the groin of the littler guy who had the knife.  If his genitalia weren’t there, there had to be some other sort of sensitive place between his legs because he wailed and stopped digging the knife into Tony’s chest.  The bloody blade clattered to the ground, and one of the other aliens snatched it up and turned back to him.  The whole thing lasted hardly more than a second, but Tony used that second of alarm to twist loose of their holds, kicking and hitting.  His left arm was completely numb and almost useless, and he tucked it close to his chest as he rolled.  Panic drove him to his side, to his knees, to the only place he could go.

In the garbage port.

The gang grabbed for him, but they were too late.  Tony crawled and scrambled into the darkness, kicking at them frantically as their fingers grasped as his ankles.  They couldn’t hold on, and in a breath, he was inside the port.  Away from them.  His chest was bleeding, burning, and everything was pulsing in misery, but he was away from them.

Xeran wailed his frustration.  “Have it your way, Stark!” he screamed, and before Tony even realized it, before he even knew what was happening, the door was closing.  Xeran was shutting the door.

Oh, God.  Oh, God!

The paltry light from Hell outside just vanished, like it had never been there at all, and the world was plunged into complete, unending, unbreakable blackness.

They’d locked him inside here.  They’d left him.

Tony just knelt there, frozen in shock and terror.  His pounding heart and rushed gasps were deafening, echoing, the only sounds in the void.  If it wasn’t for the metal ledge under his knees, he would have sworn he was falling.  Weightlessly tumbling into the abyss around him.  His senses were reeling.  His brain was stuttering, spinning uselessly.  The reality of what had just happened was hovering in his head just above the surface of his thoughts.  After what felt like an eternity, it finally came crashing down.

Frantic, Tony grabbed at where he thought the door was.  It was there, solid and slimy beneath his fingers, and he sobbed in relief.  Then he pounded with his good hand.  “Open the door!” he cried, and his wrangled plea was thunderous, inside his head and out.  When there was no response, he banged his hand against the door harder.  “Can anyone hear me?  Open the door!  Open the door!”  Again, no one answered.  Tony banged even harder.  Faster.  More frantically.  “Somebody!  Don’t leave me in here!  Open the door!  Please, open the door!”

Nothing.

“Open the door!”

Silence.

His voice cracked, and he ran his hands all over the door he couldn’t see, searching for something – anything – that could help him.  A latch.  A crack.  A weak spot.  There had to be one!  The door hadn’t closed all the way last time, so there had to be…  There had to be!  His fingertips probed and dug and scratched until they were raw and probably bleeding.  He wouldn’t know.  He couldn’t see.

He couldn’t see.

And there was nothing.

“Somebody help me!” he screamed.  Only the echoes of his voice answered, shrill and shrieking.  Damning.  He pounded and banged and slammed.  “Somebody help me!  Jesus Christ, oh God, oh God, please, don’t leave me in here!  Please! Please!”  On and on he screamed.  Then he sobbed, utterly exhausted, slumping against the door.  Heat embraced his nearly naked body, encasing him in sweat, but he could feel the blood running down his chest and caked on his face.  Everything throbbed, every tortured nerve in his body electrified with hysteria.  “Please, please…”  This couldn’t be happening.  This couldn’t be happening.  He was–

trapped in the cave, in the dark and the heat, and Yinsen was quiet, barely breathing, and they were both hurt and terrified and the Ten Rings were out there and they were coming and going to hurt them worse–

“No, God,” Tony moaned, squeezing his eyes shut against the memory.  Tears spilled down his cheeks.  He pounded again, panic thrumming in his heart.  “No, no, no, no…  Help me!  Someone!  Anyone!”

No one.  There was no one.

The last of his calm utterly snapped, and Tony screamed again.  He screamed and screamed.  He threw his weight into the door with as much force as he could muster.  Nothing gave, and it was utterly punishing to his already battered body, but he kept at it.  He kept at it until agony crashed over him, hot and hard and fast, and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t steady himself, and he tipped and lost his precarious balance on that narrow ledge, and then–

–he was falling, tumbling back to Earth from space, and Iron Man was dead without power, and JARVIS couldn’t hear him, and there was no air to breathe, and there was nothing to do but fall and fall and fall–

He hit the bottom on his back, landing on something that squished beneath him and felt soggy but sharp at the same time.  It smelled unbearably bad.  And the heat wafted upward, like he was breathing fire.  Like he was baking.  He tasted blood and filth.  He still couldn’t see.  He couldn’t see anythingEverything hurt worse and worse.  The darkness crushed him.  “Steve,” he whispered as consciousness faded.  “Steve, please…  Please…

It was a waste of breath, a waste of his last seconds of awareness.

Steve wasn’t there to save him.

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t come back.

Steve was out of his mind with terror.  He didn’t know what to do.  He’d left the loading bay, already vibrating with anxiety because the serum was erasing his tattoo.  It was erasing his tattoo.  As he’d walked back to Tavin’s after the work day ended, his mind had raced with what that meant.  Now that he was eating again, the serum was working, working hard, and undoing the damage this place had done to him.  All of the damage.  He’d gotten through the scanners at least, but it had been a harrowing experience and it felt like nothing short of a minor miracle.  The whole time he stood in line waiting for his turn to be scanned he’d had a hand over his chest, like he could hide the silver seeping out of his skin into his shirt.  He’d walked slowly to the machine, mired in trepidation and desperately trying to refrain from scratching the persistent itchiness.  Hoping no one noticed him holding his collarbone like he was trying to press the tattoo back inside him.

There had been, thank God, and he’d been so elated by that that he’d almost forgotten he’d been worried about Tony.  He’d spent the walk from the elevator to the pit trying to figure out what to say about his tattoo, mind racing and heart pounding.  God, they didn’t need any more problems, and this was definitely that: a big, big problem.  How could he tell Tony what was going on, that they needed to deal with this now, too?  That it wasn’t enough to reverse engineer the tattoos in general?  Tony needed to figure out how to fix his tattoo before anyone figured out what was going on or the scanners failed to read him anymore or any one of a million other bad things happened.  Christ, Tony had enough on his plate, enough to deal with, and he and Tavin both had told Steve to stay out of trouble.  That had been their one request: stay out of trouble.

Not that this was his fault in any way, shape, form.  Steve supposed he should have seen it coming, that the second the serum had the power to heal him, it would heal him, and that included the foreign substance stamped into his body.  That was what the serum did, what it was.  However, after all Steve’s internal struggles all that day with being a burden, with being such a goddamn failure, it was hard to convince himself that he wasn’t to blame.  Plus it hadn’t helped to think that Tony needed the liquid coming out of his skin, needed the substance in the tattoo that he couldn’t stop from seeping into his shirt and uselessly dripping down his chest.  Steve had been too afraid to look as he’d headed down, too afraid to see how much of the tattoo was gone, too nervous about alerting anyone to his predicament.  No, he had to stay positive and consider the possibility of this somehow helping Tony because the idea of it hurting them was too much to bear.

But that was neither here nor there as it turned out.  The second Steve walked into Tavin’s hovel to find no one there, all of his fear came rushing back in a tidal wave.  It was totally irrational to think everyone would come back at the same time, but he couldn’t help it.  He stood in the kitchen, panting and horrified.  The silence was deafening, the feeling of being alone utterly oppressive.  Despite the fact it was obvious the living quarters were empty, Steve searched the small space from top to bottom.  The little washroom.  The storeroom.  The closet Tony had turned into a workshop.  The spot where the two of them slept.  For a second he considered venturing into Xeran’s private place, but he didn’t.  It didn’t matter.  He called Tony’s name over and over again.  If Tony was here, he’d would have heard that and answered no matter where in the tiny dwelling he was.  There was no response.  Nothing.  Nothing was disturbed.  Everything was just it had been left in the morning.

In short order Steve found himself back in that tiny kitchen, breathing even harder, trying to think.  Tavin being gone made sense; he was likely working the dinner line, making, mixing, and dispensing cake to the prisoners.  This was when he was required to work.  But Tony?  Tony should be back by now.  Tony should have been there.

Where’s Tony?

All the awful images that had plagued him when he’d worked his first day in the mine came rushing back, slamming into him until the room was spinning.  Tony in pain.  Tony bleeding.  Tony tortured by one of their innumerable enemies.  Tony trapped some place, afraid and alone.  God, that one always hurt the most.  The thought of Tony like that, of him suffering that way…

Standing still was all but impossible now, but that was all Steve could do.  Stand there and wait.  Some small, rational part of his brain knew it was far too soon to worry.  There were possible, reasonable explanations.  Tony wasn’t that late, after all, and with all the important jobs he had to do, he could have simply been caught up.  Delayed.  Yeah, that seemed more than possible.  Probable.  Maybe he hadn’t been able to finish fixing whatever needed repair.  Maybe he’d been assigned more tasks that required additional time.  His job was like that, wasn’t it?  It was similar to the difference between earning wages by the hour and being paid a salary.  Steve worked by the hour, laboring for a designated time period for an allotted “pay”, like his father always had.  Tony was salaried, so he worked until he finished his work, like Bucky’s father always had.  This analogy rang true and actually served to calm Steve’s panic enough that he was capable of sitting at the little table and settling down.

At least a little.  The minutes stretched on and on.  Steve pulled his shirt opened and looked at the tattoo.  The damage wasn’t as bad as he’d feared.  He was still able to see the strange letters on his skin, could make out the way the tattoo was supposed to look, so that was good.  Heaving a sigh of relief, he got up and found some cloth in Tavin’s storeroom, one that was nothing more than a long, semi-clean rag.  Taking his tunic off, he tied the cloth around his chest.  It wouldn’t do much but collect the silver slowly but steadily leaking out of him, but it felt like extra protection anyway.  Protection against what, he had no idea.  It wasn’t like he could stop what was happening.

At any rate, after doing that, he managed to sit relatively still for what felt like an eternity, nervously tapping his fingers on the table and obsessively looking around before settling his gaze firmly on the hovel’s entrance.  He waited and waited and waited.

Still, the sound of someone coming in caught him by surprise.  His heart leapt in hope, a cold wave of expectation leaving him trembling.  He jolted out of the chair and watched in utter horror as only Tavin entered.  Only Tavin.

Not Tony.

Oh, no.

“Tony’s not here,” Steve said, breathless with fear.  “Where is he?”

Tavin met his gaze sadly, expression tight.  He didn’t bother checking himself or even looking around.  He simply took Steve’s statement at face value and shook his head.

That small gesture sent Steve’s stomach plummeting even further.  His heart shuddered to a stop in his chest, and he felt like he was falling, like the mere fact that Tony wasn’t there had sent him into a tailspin of panic again.  Tony’s not here.  Tavin didn’t know where he was.  Steve didn’t know where he was.  They didn’t know where he was!

Tony hasn’t come back.

All thoughts of the dilemma with his tattoo or what had happened during the work day utterly vanished from Steve’s brain.  Useless questions fled his lips in a flurry.  “Where was he working?  He was coming right back today, wasn’t he?  Wasn’t he?  He said he was.  Right before we were separated, he said he’d meet me here.”

“I–”

Steve stammered, shaking his head.  “Did he say anything to you?  Would he have gone somewhere else?  Is there a reason he’d be late?  Where is he?”

Tavin sighed.  He stepped past Steve and went into the kitchen.  It was clear he didn’t have any answers before he so much as spoke a single word.  “I would advocate for patience.  There have been times over the last couple weeks that he has stayed out late.  Some of the connections he’s needed to work are only available at night.  Skin traders do more business after the work day has ended.”  Steve grimaced at the thought.  Tavin shook his head.  “So there’s no reason to get nervous yet.”

Even though Tavin wasn’t acting worried and anxious as he explained that, Steve thought he could see it.  He could see that Tavin was scared, too.  The small creature was tense and distracted as he pulled out some ingredients to prepare the evening meal, as he began cutting them up with a knife he had, peeling what looked like some vegetables and heating some stock in one of his dented pots.  Steve just watched numbly, silently, utterly overwhelmed.  Tavin rattled around a little longer, and the quiet was torturous.  Eventually he turned around, and Steve realized he was still just standing there, useless.  “Would you help me?” Tavin asked.  He softened his tone.  “Please.”

Steve shuddered.  Then he moved, going to Tavin’s side.  The world seemed distant and off-kilter as the little alien silently showed him how to cut up the vegetables.  Steve felt like an automaton while he worked, following directions mindlessly.  He couldn’t think.  Couldn’t process this at all.  He was lost and reeling, too shocked to function.  Tony’s not here.  Tony’s gone.  God, of all the horrors they’d faced in Hell so far, this was always the one that had scared Steve the most.  Getting separated was the worst outcome imaginable.  It had been in the beginning, and it still was now.  They weren’t together.  Tony wasn’t there, so Steve couldn’t protect him.

And he didn’t know what to do.

After they finished cooking, they sat at the little table and ate in the same, awful silence.  That probably shouldn’t mean anything; Steve had hardly expected Tavin to make small talk before now.  But the heavy quiet was becoming unbearable, and the soup and hard bread tasted like ash.

When the meal was over, Tavin stood to clean up.  “It’s late, and the day’s been long.”  The cook sighed wearily.  “We should rest.”

And that was it.  Steve just snapped out of the haze.  Lost his restraint.  Broke.  “No.  No way.  I can’t do this.  I can’t wait.  I can’t go to sleep and pretend everything’s okay.  I can’t just be patient.”  He stood himself, scraping the chair on the rocky floor.  He didn’t know what to do?  No.  He knew.  “I’m going to look for him.”

Tavin sighed, like he’d expected this.  He probably had.  “Rogers, you can’t.  You cannot be certain anything is wrong.”

“I know there is.  I can feel it.  Maybe that’s crazy here because everything is wrong, but I just know.  He should be here.  Something happened to him.”

“You should stay calm,” Tavin implored again. “To do what he must do he needs freedom and trust.  You express neither by going after him.”

That was bullshit.  “Tony told me he’d be back,” Steve said again, voice hard.  He’d never been more certain of anything.  “He told me he’d meet me here.  He’d keep that promise!  I know he would!  I know him, and he would have wanted to make sure I’m okay.”  Tavin frowned, and Steve turned away, tense with restless energy, with the need to go.  “So if he’s not here, something bad happened to him.  I know it, Tavin.  I have to go find him.”

Tavin’s frown became even deeper with grief.  “If he is missing, Rogers…”

“What?”  Already frayed, Steve’s temper all but snapped.  “What?”

The alien hesitated.  “He’s…  He’s likely already dead.  Or wishing he was.  In either case, there’s nothing you can do for him, so the safer course is to wait here and see if he does return.”

The room spun and spun around Steve, shock and anger turning everything into a blur.  “You think he’s dead already?”

Reluctantly, Tavin gave a jerk of his head that could be construed as a nod.  “Given the dangerous game he’s playing, if he’s not here and said he would be…  Sadly, yes, I think he very well may be.”

Steve could hardly breathe with how tight his throat was, with how viciously his heart was pounding.  He shook his head.  “You don’t know that,” he hissed, his voice twisted with a tinge of hysteria and a whole lot of disgust.  “You can think, but you don’t know a goddamn thing, and you’re just writing him off!  Well, I’m not going to just assume one way or the other!  I can’t!  He wouldn’t do that to me.  He didn’t do that to me!”

Again Tavin sighed.  He seemed unwilling to accept that, unwilling but resigned to his helplessness.  Steve glared, so angry with the way of things.  Every fleeting moment of decency and morality seemed stomped out of existence by more apathy, violence, and cruelty.  He knew what Tavin was thinking even if he wasn’t willing to say it.  It was the same nonsense over and over again.  Take what you can.  Survive.  Don’t risk yourself.  If someone’s in trouble, let him die.

No chance in hell.  He absolutely refused to ever think like that.

Stiff with anger and determination, Steve turned and headed to the door.  Tavin’s call hardly slowed him down.  “Where will you even begin to look?  You can’t get out of here!  You can’t get up to where Stark was working!  The guards will punish you for trying!”

“Then I’ll start searching here,” Steve returned, not even glancing behind him.

“This is madness!  What are you going to do?” Tavin cried.  He seemed desperate to stop Steve.

Steve wasn’t going to be stopped.  “I’ll ask around.  Ask if anyone’s seen him.”

Tavin was even more astounded.  God, maybe it was crazy, foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst, but there was nothing else Steve could do.  He pulled the knife from his boot, checking it more for peace of mind than anything, and Tavin’s eyes went wider.  “They’ll just as soon as slaughter you as help you,” he reminded.

Steve gritted his teeth, securing the knife back in its place.  The fact that this was dangerous wasn’t going to faze him.  “I’ll figure out where he is.  I’ll find a way to go where I have to go.  I’ll do what I have to.”  He stared at Tavin a moment more, troubled by the alien’s pained expression, before charging through the curtain and heading back out into Hell.

I’ll find you, Tony.


Unfortunately, Tavin was right.  Steve didn’t know where to look, so that was a major problem.  It wouldn’t do to wander uselessly around the pit, calling Tony’s name and praying he could make out a response over the hum of music, conversation, shouting, and the occasional scream.  That wasn’t wise, safe, or terribly proficient.

But that was exactly what he ended up doing.  He had no other ideas, no other plan.  And that, of course, attracted unwanted attention, and more than once he found himself frantically hiding from a group of aliens who looked interested in tormenting him.  And, of course, asking for help as he said he would (even from the nicer-looking prisoners, though that was a baseless and subjective determination) was just asking for trouble.  Tavin was absolutely correct; the denizens of this forsaken city would rather hurt him than actually aid him.  More than once Steve found himself on the receiving end of a punch just for having the gall to interrupt the thugs who were drinking, smoking, and enjoying Hell’s ridiculous amenities, this high life into which they’d maimed, murdered, or otherwise cheated their way.  They were hot-tempered, and Steve was an easy target.  It didn’t help that as minutes and minutes went by in his search without any sign of Tony, his fear and frustration became more and more acute.  He knew it wouldn’t do him (or Tony) any good to panic, but it was so goddamn hard.  Those images of Tony in trouble, of him alone and bleeding and helpless and scared, bombarded Steve relentlessly, driving him to keep going, keep searching.  He had to find him.

And, of course, Tavin was right about this, too.  He was right about everything he’d said.  Steve couldn’t get out of this area.  He couldn’t get into the cell block or the other areas of the pit, like the dining cavern or mine entrance.  He definitely couldn’t access the central pillar and the elevator.  The last he’d seen Tony had been up there, on one of the higher levels, so it’d make sense to start his search at that location.  But he couldn’t.  The second he got even remotely close to the edges of the main cavern where the prisoners were herded every morning for work, the guards still on duty noticed him.  There was no slipping past or fighting his way through that.  That only further escalated Steve’s level of distress, because odds were if something had happened to Tony, it had happened on the job.  If something had happened to him, it would have been up there.

There was no way Steve could get up there.  So rushing around down here like a chicken with its head cut off was a goddamn waste of time.  Heading back to Tavin’s place to check if Tony had shown up was a waste of time (and he hadn’t, yet Steve kept obsessively checking).  Begging with these monsters for help was an absolute waste of time.  Doing what he was doing now, walking the maze of huts, avoiding the really bad-looking guys while trying to check in every building, behind every rock, against every wall, inside every shadow…  It was taking a shot in the dark.  A complete waste.  He was endangering himself and running himself ragged for absolutely nothing.

But he couldn’t stop.  He did it all over and over again, clinging to hope as the hours escaped him.  Logic meant nothing.  He couldn’t accept that he was helpless, that he had no idea where Tony was or how to find him.  He couldn’t accept that this was pointless.  He hadn’t eaten enough, and he was sore and physically stressed from the day’s work.  More than once he’d searched piles of trash and grime (and more than once he’d been knocked into them, too), so he was filthy again and covered in sweat.  New bruises from the blows he hadn’t been quick enough to avoid throbbed on his face and chest.  And his tattoo kept itching and itching.  He could practically feel the silver liquid from it draining into the rag he’d wrapped around his shoulder.  It felt like their chances of survival – of him saving Tony – were draining away, too.

“Get out of here!”

Steve had no time to protect himself.  The big guy he was trying to question roared in fury and suddenly backhanded him, and he was sent flying.  Pain exploded along his back as he slammed into something hard.  Then he was slumping to the ground.  For a second, he was positive he’d pushed too far, wandered somewhere really, really bad.  That his luck – and Tony’s – had run out.

The lug just growled at him, though, and glowered before slamming the door of his larger hut.  Shaking with the close call, Steve rolled from his back to his side and spat a mouthful of bitter blood out onto the grungy floor.  Something behind him snapped, like metal breaking.  Terrified, he twisted over onto his belly again and covered his head.

Nothing happened, though.  Steve spent a second paralyzed with fear, not even daring to breathe, heart pumping in his ears.  He lifted his head a little and peeked out from under his arms.  He hadn’t really noticed before, but this corner of Hell was like… a scrapyard?  He’d missed the little crevice in the cavern wall that led to this place the first couple times he’d walked the perimeter of the city, which was pretty negligent on his part considering that “little” crevice was wide enough for a car to go through.  It was dark, and in his defense he’d been so consumed with hope that Tony could be here because he hadn’t really taken stock of his surroundings.

Tony wasn’t, and Steve found himself laying in a mess of metal.  A lot of metal.  It was all pieces of varying shapes and sizes and covered in grime.  Steve spotted empty crates that had probably come from the load bay, pipes, parts of machines, broken items…  Some of the sheets were likely what was used to build the huts and structures out in the city.  Wow, if Tony knew about this place, he could really make use of some of this stuff.

Steve groaned and sat up, looking around more carefully just to be sure he was safe.  Yeah, that was a close call.  He’d slammed into a sizeable sheet of metal, one that was holding up a whole wall of debris.  It was only doing that because a cable was tangled up around the sheet and the mess.  The wire was thick and long and went into the darkness behind him.  Steve climbed to his feet, grasping the cable and tugging experimentally.  Everything jerked again.  That and the residual ache from the big alien’s punch was enough to have him scurrying away.

A breath and a blink later he was back in the city.  “Goddamn it,” he whispered, battling a sudden rush of frustrated tears.  He stood there on the outskirts, staring at the maze of huts.  Kar’s buildings and places and people.  Kar.  Maybe he could ask Kar for help.  For God’s sake, the alien mob boss or whatever the hell he was was supposed to be protecting Tony.  It was obvious the guy had a lot of power, and from the way Tony talked about him it seemed like Tony was his asset (or his tool or his prize or slave, and all three of those labels made Steve feel even sicker).  Tony was valuable, and Kar might be willing to work to recover him.

That was a good idea in theory, but Steve had no idea how to go about getting in contact with him.  Presumably he was somewhere here, living off the sweat and blood and suffering of everyone else.  Presumably the thugs around here would be as willing to help Steve get to him as they had been thus far with finding Tony.  Presumably Kar would be protected, too, so even if Steve could figure out where he was, the chances of him just waltzing up there and trying to negotiate were slim to none.  And negotiate with what?  No matter how he sliced it, he was still just a Grub.  He had nothing to offer other than physical strength, than the capacity to labor, and they’d been shown and told time and time again that that was worth next to nothing down here.  On top of that, he’d been nothing but trouble since he arrived.  Kar would just as soon as kill him in all likelihood to get him out of the way.

Then his tattoo itched again, and he was about to scratch it when it occurred to him.  He looked down at his chest, feeling the tingly discomfort, and he winced.  God.  He did have something with which to barter.  He had something extremely valuable.  The serum.  The serum undoing his tattoo.  If Kar was hell-bent on trying to control the tattoos (and he probably wasn’t the only one), the ability to erase a tattoo equated to power.  Steve wasn’t sure how long it was going to take, but in a matter of hours, maybe a day if he was lucky…  He’d be the only prisoner in Hell the scanners couldn’t track.

He tucked himself into the rock wall, deep into the shadows, and clutched at his chest.  This made everything more complicated.  He closed his eyes.  It was an idea.  Something he could use if he had to.   He prayed he wouldn’t have to.  God, the irony.  Tony selling himself to Kar to save Steve, and then Steve doing the same to save Tony.  They were quite the pair.  It was silly, but Steve thought of Della and Jim from The Gift of the Magi, sacrificing for each other on Christmas with her cutting her hair and him pawning his watch only to find the things they’d bought for one another useless.  He could only hope this situation ended with a commentary on the wisdom of their actions, but somehow he doubted it.

Forcing himself to let it go for now, he blinked the exhaustion from his eyes and looked around again.  He was back to not knowing what to do.  After all of this, all the searching and hunting and thinking…  He still had no idea where Tony was.

The horn blared.  It was so loud it rattled the cavern walls.  Steve jolted.  For a second, he couldn’t make heads or tails of what that was.   Then it sunk in.  It’s time for work.

“Shit,” Steve whispered.  He’d completely lost track of time.  Though seemingly endless as he’d searched and searched, the whole night had just disappeared.  Tony’s been missing the whole night.  Steve breathed through a sob, raking his hands through his hair.  Oh, God, God, Tony, where are you?

He couldn’t answer that now any more than he’d been able to before, only now he was even more sure something was wrong.  He felt sick with his certainty, like it was a lead weight in his stomach.  Again the horn rumbled, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut harder, every nerve in his body sizzling in agony over his own helplessness.  The goddamn inevitability had blind-sided him.  Tony was missing, and Steve had to go to work.

I can’t.  He pushed himself off the wall, staggering out into the maze of huts.  All around him prisoners were shuffling out, putting aside their leisure time to start the next day.  He walked through it like a zombie.  God, what do I do?  I can’t work.  I can’t go up there.  It’ll be hours before I can come back…  There was a fight breaking out in one of the huts, and he was nearly bowled over as he passed, a thin guy with too many arms almost colliding with him.  Steve gasped, afraid and so deeply rattled, and he picked up his pace, practically sprinting away.  He moved without thought, running on instinct, boots pounding onto the ground and then up the steps.  Vaguely he realized he was heading back to Tavin’s place.  Maybe Tony came back.  Unwittingly hope surged through him, and he climbed faster.  Maybe Tony came back while I was gone.  Maybe he’ll be there this time.  Maybe–

He raced through the curtain into Tavin’s dwelling, breathless and frantic and having all but convinced himself that Tony would be right there waiting for him, irritated at him for being so damn stubborn and impulsive and needlessly putting himself in danger, and Steve would cut him off, hugging him hard, and it’d feel so good to have Tony in his arms, to know Tony was there and real and safe, and he could almost feel it already–

Only Tony wasn’t there.  It was just Tavin, watching him with worry deep in his strange eyes.  Steve felt his expression crumple.  His heart just dropped, tingling in his toes, and he wanted to scream, but his voice just wouldn’t come.

Tavin spoke, though.  “Nothing?”

Steve couldn’t manage to admit it.  “I can’t go,” he declared, breath shivery with panic.  “I can’t go up to work.”

Tavin frowned.  “There’s no choice.”  The alien gestured to the table where breakfast was already waiting.  The same as yesterday, the red porridge.  Just one bowl, like he’d known Steve would come back, and that he’d come back alone.  “Eat.”

That made everything worse.  Steve raked his hands through his hair again, sending the longer locks into total disarray.  “You can’t… I…”  He didn’t even know what to say, the helpless energy leaving him sick and more frustrated than he could ever recall feeling.  “I can’t just give up!”

“Eat,” Tavin implored again, though his tone was soft and without any heat.  “Please.  You must.”

Steve simply stared at the bowl.  He couldn’t catch his breath.  He couldn’t think.  Tony had been missing for twelve hours (at least twelve hours) and he didn’t know what to do.

So he ended up sitting.  He ended up eating.  He ended up back in the washroom, hands shaking as he rinsed his face and wiped away dried blood from his lips and nose and everywhere else he’d been hit.  He swished water around his mouth, spat it out, straightened his clothes like a goddamn automaton again.  Checked his tattoo.  It was still there but fainter.  Grimacing, he stashed the rag that had caught the silver liquid under the pallet where he and Tony slept.  He didn’t know if it was of any use, but saving it felt like something useful he could do.  Then he wrapped the area up again and put his shirt on and headed out.

God, how can I leave him?

Steve was caught in a hellfire of complete terror, total panic, and miserable frustration as he plodded toward the central pillar in the line of prisoners.  By the time he reached the scanner, his stomach was so twisted in knots he thought he’d vomit.  He didn’t know what he wanted.  If his tattoo was unreadable and the machine failed to admit him, was there any chance the guards would just let him go?  Let him spend the day looking for Tony?  Was that even possible?

As doubtful as it was, he’d never know.  The scanner winked over him, a second stretched into a hellish eternity by Steve’s anxiety, and the machine let him pass.  He didn’t know if he wanted to cry in relief or in complete terror.  All he was certain of was wanting to cry.

He spent the rest of the time making his way up to the loading bay trying to gather himself, trying not to feel so alone and lost without Tony.  It occurred to him when the elevator doors clanked shut that he should be looking around at the load of other workers in the lift.  Maybe Tony hadn’t come back to Tavin’s for some other reason.  To protect him?  Maybe someone hadn’t let him, but he was working today because he had to?  Just like that, Steve’s hopes soared again, and he mentally kicked himself a good one for ever giving up.  Surreptitiously he glanced around, checking out filthy faces and downturned eyes.  He turned to scan behind him, expecting to be struck for doing so at any moment.  He wasn’t, but there was nothing to show for it.  Tony wasn’t on the elevator.  Damn it, he should have looked more carefully down below!  That had been a better opportunity to really search, when everyone had been herded in a group to the scanners, but he’d wasted it being stricken and depressed.

Even after he was fairly sure Tony wasn’t in this group, he still watched carefully as the other inmates got off at their stops.  Eventually, though, everyone was gone but him and other loaders.  Steve bit the fleshy inside of his cheek until he tasted blood.  God damn it.  He had to do better than this.  If Tony was alive…  He’s alive.  I have to find him.

But first he had to work.


The day absolutely dragged.  He was sloppy and distracted, which earned him quite a few sharp reprimands and a cuff or two upside the head from Zet (who’d taken him under his wing again – Steve didn’t know if he should be worried or grateful.  He settled on both).  To be fair, the punishments were warranted.  He was doing a poor job and he knew it, but he couldn’t make himself focus.  He kept looking around, eyes everywhere as he scanned the massive loading bay for Tony.  The chances of Tony actually being up here were painfully slim, but, like before, he just couldn’t stop.  Any chance was worth taking.

And his mind was playing downright cruel tricks on him.  Steve was so exhausted (and hungry – he should have eaten more) that he wasn’t sure delirium wasn’t getting the better of him.  Over and over again he thought he saw Tony.  Down the way with another load team, working on some equipment.  Across the bay, elbows deep in the innards of a malfunctioning forklift.  Over at a panel near the wall.  Under a platform, quickly trying to repair it.  None of these people were actually him, of course.  Some of them weren’t even close to looking like him, bearing no resemblance at all.  But Steve’s brain had equated anyone doing something even remotely close to fixing something to Tony.  He couldn’t get himself to stop with the torturous nonsense.  Tony said yesterday he could come up here, so it was possible he could be here, right?

No.  The day wore on, infinitely long, filled with disappointment after disappointment and so much devastating fear and worry.  By the end of it, Steve was even more tired, fatigued down to his bones, hollow inside and completely worn by so many false hopes.  His composure was worn thin, heart rubbed raw, and all he could think about was getting back down to the pit.  Maybe…  Maybe Tony would come back tonight.  He had to come back.  He had to be okay.  He had to be.

He wasn’t.  Steve got back to Tavin’s (God, it was a minor miracle he got through the scanners considering how degraded his tattoo was becoming – the damn thing had to scan him twice and the guards had been nothing but suspicious about that) to find the tiny place as it had been yesterday afternoon: silent, desolate, and completely empty.

Steve might have screamed.  He definitely collapsed against the wall near the pallet where they slept.  He sat there for what felt like forever, knees to his chest and arms around them, weak and lost and really damn scared.  Tony’s absence was so sharp, so vicious, that he could hardly breathe for how terrified he was.  He grabbed at his chest where the tattoo was still bothering him, curling his fist in his tunic until the fabric seemed about to rip.  God, it felt like he was dying.

Minutes disappeared.  He paid them no mind.  After what seemed like a very long time, a rustle of cloth at the entrance pulled him from his daze.  Steve lifted his head and pried his eyes open.  His heart didn’t bother with the leap of faith, with the rush of hope.  That turned out to be wise, because it was only Tavin.  The little alien stood there staring at him, and it wasn’t hard at all for Steve to imagine how destroyed and defeated he looked, tucked in the corner of their little room right next to where Tony had saved his life, had nursed him back to health, had held him just the other night…  Tony saved me and I can’t do a damn thing to save him.

He’s probably already dead.  And if he’s not, he’s wishing he was.

“I have information.”

Just like that, Steve snapped away from his despair.  He focused and found Tavin regarding him evenly.  It seemed like Tavin was contemplating the wisdom of revealing what he knew.  Then he settled on doing it, slowly exhaling and venturing further into the room.  “I heard rumors during breakfast that there was an exchange of privileges.  Certain miners gaining access to the city who never had any before.”

Now Steve’s heart leapt, and it leapt high.  He pushed himself to his feet.  “Wh-what?”

“At dinner, I was able to determine who it was.  I was ordered to dispense larger portions of cake to them.”

Steve couldn’t breathe.  Orders.  “Xeran?  He ordered it?”

Tensely Tavin nodded.  It was the only thing that made sense.  Of course it had to be Xeran.  Anger left Steve’s brain skittering for a second.  Tavin went on.  “He’s gloating.  No details.  No direct confirmation.  But…  It’s more than obvious that he’s done something to Stark.”

Steve bit his lip hard.  The anger got worse and worse.  “Won’t Kar come after him?  He’s willing to risk that?”

“Apparently.”  Tavin looked helpless.  “Rogers, Stark’s dead.  If Xeran attacked him, he wouldn’t have let him walk away from it.  He wouldn’t have invited Kar’s retribution without making certain he got what he wanted.”

Sudden energy pulsed over Steve, and he pushed himself off the wall.  Boldly he took Tavin’s arm, belatedly remembering the alien didn’t care for physical contact.  “No,” he said firmly.  “No, we don’t know that.”

Tavin tensed, eyes flashing.  “You’re being a fool,” he hissed.  “A fool for him!  And you will get yourself killed!”

“Just show me these guys.”  Tavin’s face went blank, but Steve didn’t miss the minute jerk of his head.  He was scared and probably with good reason.  A random bastard hurting or kidnapping or even killing Tony was one thing.  Awful (or at least regrettable for Tavin), but isolated.  This had now become a situation with much bigger consequences and broader complications, and getting involved…  It was dangerous for Tavin.

Just as it likely had been when he’d helped Tony save Steve.

Tavin sighed.  He didn’t try pulling his arm away, but Steve let him go all the same.  “I’m sorry,” Steve said, and he genuinely felt it.  He backed up, giving him some space.  His voice cracked in fear.  “You’re right to call me foolish and stupid and naïve and whatever else you think.  I don’t know what I’m doing!  I don’t know if he’s – if he’s alive or dead.  I don’t know if I can find him.”  He swallowed down the lump in his throat.  “I just know I have to try.”  Tavin’s frown softened further at that.  Steve shook his head.  “That doesn’t mean you have to.  You don’t have to get more involved.  Just please…  Point these guys out to me.  After that, feel free to walk away.”

It was silent.  Steve stared evenly, and Tavin stared back.  There was no heat or anger between them.  Just pain and fear.  Finally, Tavin dropped his gaze, looking now at the place where Steve had grabbed his arm.  He closed his odd eyes and then nodded.

Steve nodded, too.  His relief was nearly overpowering.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Tavin softly replied.

Then the two of them were heading out into Hell.  Silently they descended the rickety scaffolds from the living areas down into the city.  They probably looked like quite the pair, Tavin dark and little compared to Steve’s height and fair complexion.  Other prisoners stared as they walked side by side through the huts, and the heinous sense of wandering into danger that dominated every goddamn second here had Steve clenching his muscles and glaring right back.  He wasn’t going to let anyone hurt Tavin or take advantage of him on his account.  Never mind that Tavin had survived here for who knows how long before Tony and Steve blundered into his life.  Never mind that Tavin had possibly committed some sort of crime himself to be sent here in the first place and therefore there could be more to him that met the eye.  And never mind that Steve was, in fact, taking advantage of him now; Tavin had no vested interest in saving Tony at all.  They weren’t friends, barely unlikely allies.

It was just better not to think.  Keep going.  Keep looking.

“There,” Tavin whispered.  He’d drawn to a stop once they’d crossed the labyrinth of huts.  Now they were near the far wall, tucked in the shadows next to another hut, this one empty.  Directly ahead of them a bigger building somewhat stood apart from the rest.  It looked like…  God, Steve couldn’t deny it.  A bar?  There were all sorts of prisoners inside, deep shadows that shifted, and the place utterly reeked of smoke and a bunch of other unpleasant things.

Steve grimaced.  “He’s in there?”

“No.  There.”  Despite the fact that no one could really see them, it took another second or two of Steve uselessly scanning the throng of people before Tavin was brave enough to actually point.  Steve followed the direction of the alien’s finger.

Then his stomach dropped out again.  “Goddamn it,” he hissed, closing his eyes in utter aggravation.  Someone had it out for him.  God.  Fate.  Whatever.  Someone wanted him to suffer and die miserably.

It was Mook D.  The little guy (well, littlest of the Mooks – he was about the same size as Steve) was clearly enjoying his first night outside the cell block, laughing it up with some other prisoners with a dented tankard of some beverage in his fist.  Purple liquid sloshed out of it as he laughed that awful laugh of his that reminded Steve of darkness and dirt and pain and the tastes of sweat and blood.  Where Mook D was, the others were likely to be, too.  That meant the whole awful gang of them was probably around here somewhere.  The thought turned Steve’s blood to ice, made his ears ring and his body ache.  The feeling of that chain around his throat, tightening and ripping and choking him…

Steve swallowed and rubbed at the still tender skin under his chin almost compulsively.  He didn’t know if it was just coincidence or a goddamn conspiracy that Xeran had hired the Mooks to attack Tony, but whatever it was didn’t matter.  His anger was sharper still, even more potent than his fear.  These assholes knew what had happened to Tony.  They’d been the ones to do it.

And he was going to get answers.

He spent a second watching.  Waiting until most of the others were heading back inside the bar, probably looking for more to drink or smoke.  Mook D was still sloppily slurping, giggling hideously, and Steve growled.  He reached into his boot and pulled out the knife.  Beside him, Tavin’s eyes went wide.  “Stay here,” Steve said softly.

Before Tavin could object, Steve was stalking closer to the bar’s exterior.  He stuck to the shadows as much as he could, creeping through the darkness with the knife clenched in his hand.  He was slow and steady, though his mind and heart were at war with one another.  These bastards had tormented him, very nearly murdered him, and had indirectly caused the situation he and Tony were in now.  And, yeah, they were just thugs, but they’d done so much damage.  He was terrified.

Plus, this wasn’t him.  Skulking in the shadows.  Threatening like this, with a goddamn knife in his hand.  But there was no choice.

No choice.

As soon as Mook D was more or less alone, Steve attacked.  He charged from the darkness, fleet and threatening, and rammed the other prisoner hard.  Steve threw all his weight into the attack, and Mook D was taken completely by surprise.  He staggered back, banging into the wall in the little nook behind them.

And Steve was right on top of him, pinning him there with his left forearm securely across his chest and his knife right to his throat.  “Where is he?” Steve hissed, letting all of his frustration fuel his bravery.  The alien gasped but didn’t answer, scrabbling to push Steve back.  Steve didn’t let him.  He pressed him rougher into the wall, jabbing the sharp edge of the blade into his oddly colored skin.  “Answer me!  Where is he?”

“Didn’t we kill you?” asked Mook D.  He stilled his struggles, but his nearly human facial features were tight with hatred.  He wasn’t even close to submitting.

Steve knew that.  And he wasn’t going to let up.  “Nope,” he said lowly.  “You didn’t, but you’re gonna wish you had if you don’t answer my question.  Where is Tony Stark?”

Mook D grunted, sneering.  “Who?”

Steve shoved him even harder.  “You know damn well who!  Xeran sent you after him, you and your friends.  What did you do to him?”  The alien didn’t answer this time, and Steve’s restraint frayed further.  “Come on, you sick bastard!  Yesterday!  This was yesterday.  I know you hurt him!”  Still no response.  Steve knew the asshole was playing with him.  That was the sad thing about this place.  He found it morally repugnant to threaten someone like this, even when said someone was evil to his or her core.  He’d seen Romanoff and Barton do it before.  Hell, he’d done it himself in the past once or twice during the more desperate times in the war.  He’d do it if he had to.

And he had to here and now.  But, here and now with this caliber of criminal all around him and in this environment, even holding someone completely at your mercy with a knife to his neck didn’t mean much.  Mook D didn’t twitch, didn’t blink, didn’t say a goddamn thing.  Steve’s patience was hanging by a thread.  “I don’t have time for your stupid games.  I know you know what I’m talking about,” he hissed.  “Tony Stark.  My friend.  Xeran ordered you to kill me to get to him.  Now he ordered you to kill him.  Did you?”  Still nothing.  Steve dug his knee up painfully into the alien’s gut and practically smothered him, letting the bastard feel every bit of his enhanced strength.  “Did you?”

“You won’t hurt me,” the guy snarled, irritated now.  “You’re fucking weak.  Acting like you care.  You won’t do it!”

Steve jabbed the knife in even harder, drawing a bit of black blood from the alien’s quivering throat.  He didn’t know if he could (or would, to be honest), but this asshole didn’t know that.  “Try me.  If you think I’m not willing to kill for him, go ahead.  Try me.

For a seemingly interminable second, it was silent.  Mook D said nothing, but Steve could see the fear in his eyes now.  For his own part, Steve just stood there, glaring maliciously, unmoving, hardly breathing, praying to God and all that was holy that the alien didn’t force him to act.  Romanoff (and Tony for that matter) always told him he was a horrible actor, a terrible liar, that Captain America was not at all convincing when it came to anything duplicitous.  He hoped wildly that he could prove them wrong.

The moment finally ended.  The alien closed his eyes.  “We attacked him.”

Steve almost let himself slip.  He held it together, though.  “I know that already.  Is he alive?”  Mook D grimaced but said nothing.  Steve let the rage embolden him.  He pushed up the guy’s chin with the knife, slicing again.  “Answer me, I swear to God.  Is he alive?”

“Doubtful,” spat the alien.

But there’s a chance.  They didn’t kill him.  They didn’t.  “Where did you leave him?” Steve harshly demanded.

“He did it to himself, Terran,” Mook D snapped.  The translator stuttered.  “Stupid fuck!”

Steve didn’t know if that was directed at him or Tony, but he frankly didn’t give a damn.  He hit the guy, hit him hard, smashing his head into the wall.  “Where is he?” he shouted again, voice breaking with emotion.  “Where is he?”

The mook turned, face caught in a horrific, pained smirk.  “Garbage.”

Steve stared.  That didn’t make sense for a second.  Then his brain flashed back to the day before yesterday, the day he’d woken up and wandered out into the city to find Tony.  How Tony had dragged him under the stairs along the cavern wall, hugged him down there in the shadows.  It had stunk down there like garbage.

What had Tony said yesterday morning?

He said he was fixing a garbage port.

Steve’s fingers went lax, at least until Mook D realized he could get loose.  He tried, twisting and going for the knife, but he wasn’t faster or stronger than Captain America.  Steve roared his fear and frustration, slamming the guy into the rocks once more, grabbing at his wrist and twisting.  There was a crack, and the alien howled.  Steve could have killed him easily.  He still had the knife clenched in his right fist.  It would have taken nothing at all to cut his throat or stab him.

Hell, he didn’t even need the knife to kill him.

But he didn’t.  He kneed the guy in the midriff, which made him double over with another ragged cry.  One massive, powerful punch had the alien crumpling to the ground.  Steve stood over him, breathing heavily, staring at his unconscious form.  Then he turned.

Tavin emerged from the shadows, rushing across the way to meet him as he came back.  “Rogers, wait!  Stop!”  He shook his head, clearly angry and a tad panicked.  “You can’t just leave him there!  You need to kill him!  He’ll go back to Xeran, tell him you’re – wait, Rogers!  Listen to me!

Steve didn’t listen.  “We need to find where they left Tony,” he said instead, running away from the grungy bar and the other aliens who’d come to see what the ruckus was about.

Tavin looked aghast as he raced after him.  “Where they…”

“They left him in the garbage.”  Steve was shaking as he led Tavin back through the city.  Tavin was struggling to keep up with Steve’s long, determined stride.  “That’s what that guy said.  And Tony said he was working on a garbage port the day he went missing.  That can’t be a coincidence.”  He shook his head as he worked through his reasoning.  “But it couldn’t have been up above.  Those bastards wouldn’t have been able to get up there.  Well, I guess Xeran could make it happen, but somehow I doubt it.  Why go up to take him out when they knew he’d have to come back down here?  And there are more Kree up there.  More chances they’d be caught.”

“Rogers–”

“He’s down here, Tavin.”  Steve turned to him, practically in a frenzy of excitement and desperation and not caring one bit.  “He has to be.  Where do they take the garbage?”

The answer to that question revealed the breadth of the next problem.  If Steve was to assume Tony was alive and that he’d been attacked down here (two huge ifs, as Tavin was quick to remind him), they’d apparently only reduced the size of the haystack in which the needle was lost.  There were numerous garbage ports spread around this little city.  Tavin said there were more in the cell block, more in the main and dining caverns, more in the mine.  There was a lot of ground to cover.

But Steve let his optimism flood him.  This was progress, even as meager as it was, and he wasn’t about to let that go.  He didn’t waste a second because if Tony was trapped around or in (God forbid) one of these ports…  Their first night in Hell Tony had been practically beside himself with fear when they’d had to bed down in the dark.  He’d teetered on a flashback, Steve was sure of it.  He’d practically had a panic attack.  Steve needed to find him now. 

So they started looking again.  Tavin led Steve to each garbage port in the city.  His wary companion was definitely not pleased at all to be doing this, but he didn’t argue or even object, silently guiding Steve and even helping him examine the ports.  They were little doors in the wall, and most of them were grimy and foul-smelling beyond the pale.  A few of them worked.  Steve opened those that did, crouched to crawl inside just a bit, and looked around only to be met with pitch black, a stench so bad he had to fight not to throw up, and unbearable heat.  He couldn’t see a damn thing, couldn’t hear anything when he called Tony’s name.  Obviously the chute went down, though how far Steve couldn’t tell.  And obviously Hell incinerated its garbage.  Who knew how often?

That only frightened Steve more, and he kept pushing Tavin faster.  It wasn’t as if he could definitely say Tony hadn’t been down any of the chutes he’d checked so far (the ones he could get in, anyway).  God, this was such a mess, such a longshot, and Steve could see what Tavin wouldn’t say all over his face.  He was wasting his time.

If Tony had been pushed into one of these chutes, he was dead.

Hours into their tense, exhausting search, they were nearly back to the stairs that led up to Tavin’s place.  There was one more port here, and obviously it hadn’t been working right for a while.  Steve pushed his way through the trash piled around it, which was unpleasant to say the least.  Tavin wasn’t as eager to join him, hanging back on the cleaner section of the path, shaking his head sadly.  “Rogers, this is futile.  We should go back and rest.  There aren’t many hours left to sleep.”

Steve ignored him, loudly heaving a container of something particularly rancid out of the way.  He caught his breath, appraising his surroundings.  “I think some of this stuff has been moved recently,” he said.

Tavin seemed absolutely flummoxed and frustrated, and Steve felt so damn stupid and desperate that he wanted to cry.  He just sniffled, wiping his disgusting hands on his shirt and going back to moving garbage aside.  It did seem to him like it had been moved, though he couldn’t say why he thought that.  A pile of trash was a pile of trash, and people scavenged down here.  Anyone could have picked through this.  This was probably just that foolish optimism again, but Steve couldn’t let himself doubt.  Tony could be here.  He needs me.  I have to find him.

A minute or so later, he finally reached the chute.  Steve narrowed his eyes as he looked it over.  Now that crazy sense of hope sank its teeth into something real.  First of all, the chute wasn’t closed all the way.  Not entirely.  It was hardly anything, but after working with the others, he could tell the door should have gone into the wall on the opposite side a little further.  It was hardly more than a fraction of an inch, but it was telling.  More than that, though…  Someone had pulled the frame off recently.  There was a sliver of the door’s surface that wasn’t quite so filthy, like the frame had been covering it for years but had been reseated so now the cleaner area was exposed.

Steve ran his fingertips over what looked like a dent that had been banged back into shape.  “Tony,” he whispered.  Suddenly he knew it.  In the pit of his stomach, in the marrow of his bones, in his heart and his head…  “Tony was here.  Tony fixed this!”

Helplessly Tavin shook his head, but Steve hardly noticed.  Hope was jolting through him again like a charge from a livewire, and he slammed his palm to the door controls.  It opened.  Steve crawled inside, finding the same darkness, the same awful claustrophobic feeling.  The same heat and stench.  “Tony!” he screamed, resting his hands on the little ledge.  “Tony, are you in here?  Can you hear me?  Tony!”

Only his frantic cries answered him, echoing through the darkness.  Steve looked around, but there was nothing to see.  He couldn’t peer into the pitch below him.  Heart pounding, he crawled back out.  Tavin had come a little closer.  “Do you have a flashlight?” Steve asked him.

Tavin shook his head again.  “What?”

“A flashlight!  You know, a mobile light source.  Small.  Runs on batteries.”  Tavin stared at him owlishly, and Steve damned the translator.  “Something I can use to see down there!  A flashlight!”

Now Tavin understood (or had gotten over his alarm enough to answer).  “In the storeroom,” he answered softly.

Steve grasped his shoulders, ignoring the flinch.  “Stay here!”

“Rogers, wait!”

He didn’t wait.  He sprinted around to the steps, nearly bowling over a group of prisoners as he did.  They cursed and spat at him, but he didn’t slow, not for a second.  His feet thundered up the steps, rattling the dilapidated structure so badly Steve was terrified it would collapse.

It didn’t.  He made it to Tavin’s and raced inside the small apartment, bursting through the curtain.  He barreled into the storeroom, which as hardly even big enough for him to fit in.  It was cluttered with things, tools and food and other paraphernalia, and Steve stood there, panting and sweating and scanning the shelves frantically.  He didn’t know exactly what this flashlight-like thing would look like, so that made the search slower and more aggravating.  A second of more careful inspection yielded what he needed, and he snatched the item off the shelf.  It was like an egg with a strap, one that was clearly meant to go around the back of his hand so that the light could rest in his palm (and the whole thing was clearly meant for hands smaller than his.  It barely fit).  Pressing his thumb to the side activated it, and it produced a surprisingly large amount of clean, white illumination.  Perfect.

Too panicked to be relieved, Steve raced back out of Tavin’s place.  It wasn’t until he was halfway down the steps again that it occurred to him: he needed a rope.  As bright as this light was, he doubted it’d be enough to let him see much in that port.  The chute could be very deep.  “Shit,” he breathed as he ran, once more nearly colliding with some irate prisoners trying to come up as he careened down.  He wracked his brain, his eidetic memory producing what he knew to be a pretty accurate picture of the shelves he’d just seen.  There hadn’t been anything there that could work as a rope.  There wasn’t anything in the rest of the apartment that’d suffice, either.  There probably wasn’t anything in all of Hell that could–

Steve stopped dead in his tracks.  “Shit.”  Yes, there was.

As he ran back to that little secluded corner with the scrapyard, he hoped Tavin would stand guard for just a little bit longer.  Hopefully this was going to work.  He didn’t have any other ideas.  And hopefully the not-too-pleasant proprietor of said scrapyard wasn’t going to mind him borrowing some of his supplies.  He’d return them – it – when he was done.  He swore it to himself, which was just plain stupid, but he didn’t care.  He was going to save Tony and make everything right.

Steve crept back through the crevice, back inside the shadowy little area.  It was quiet.  He couldn’t see the guy who’d been there last night, the one who’d thrown him into the heaping mountain of metal debris.  Hopefully the alien wasn’t around.  Steve couldn’t spare the time to be certain.  He found the pile again, and, sure enough, the cable was still there, still holding up the mess.  Steve’s eyes tracked it through the tangled knot of wreckage.  It was at least twenty feet long, maybe longer.  He didn’t know how deep that chute was, so whatever length he could get was going to have to do.

Not wasting another second, he rushed to the wreckage and grabbed the cable.  There was some give when he tugged.  He threw caution to the wind and put his back into holding up the metal sheet as he pulled the cable loose.  It was a bit of a juggling act, and it made a ridiculous amount of noise.  Steve grimaced more with that than with the effort.  Goddamn it!  Everyone could probably hear!

He didn’t stop, though.  He was committed, and there was no other choice.  He just had to get it done fast.  The metal sheet was loose enough now that he let it fall to the ground after getting the cable out from under it.  A sharp tug freed one end of the cable, though quite a bit of wreckage came down with it.  Steve turned away, avoiding what he could from the falling mess and protecting himself from what he couldn’t.  When it was mostly settled, he turned again and started yanking harder and harder on the cable.  Everything was so tangled and precariously balanced that getting it out this way was nothing short of lunacy, but there was no time for anything else.  Rapidly, foot by foot, Steve pulled it loose.

Until he couldn’t anymore.  It just stopped.  Dozens of feet of it were strewn and coiled around him, but he couldn’t get anything more out.  Even though his hands were raw, cut, and bloody, he yanked as hard as he could.  Dug his boots into the dirt.  Pulled his lips back from his teeth in a snarl of exertion.  He hauled the debris across the ground, the whole damn pile of it, a good foot, but the cable didn’t come loose.

 “Damn it,” Steve hissed.  Whatever the cable was stuck on, it was good and stuck.  It was probably a minor miracle he’d gotten out as much as he had.  But, God, couldn’t anything ever be easy in this place?

Behind him, there was a rattle.  And a thump.  And low talking.  Steve twisted around and spotted movement near the hut where he’d questioned the alien who ran this place yesterday.  The shadows he saw were huge and coming closer.  Goddamn it!  Turning back, he redoubled his efforts, pulling, yanking, dragging, before giving up and staggering over to where the cable was twisted up.  Now he could clearly see it was really tangled, wrapped around some metal pole that was about the width of his head.  Moving that was difficult (and unwise, considering it seemed to be supporting some really heavy stuff), but the cable had gotten frayed from scraping over the sharp metal edge of some sort of gigantic box next to it.   Maybe he could break it and take what he had.

He had to try.  Finding some place relatively stable to stand in the mess, he grabbed the cable and raked it back and forth over the sharp side of the box-thing.  The sound it made was shrill and awful, but that succeeded in fraying it more, metal threads twisting away as they were cut.  Hopefully that weakened it enough that he could just rip it.

After a few additional harried seconds of sawing, he tried.  His hands were so slick with blood that it was hard to get a decent grip until he wrapped the cable around both his wrists.  One massive yank was enough to tear it.  Steve took the ragged end and stumbled away, racing to gather up the rest and get the hell out of there.

“Hey!  Hey!”

He didn’t stop, and he got back to the garbage port in record time.  Thankfully, Tavin was still there, though he looked a mixture of horrified, flabbergasted, and disgusted at seeing Steve approach.  “We need to find a place to tie this,” Steve said, holding up one raggedly torn end of the cable.  “Something strong and close!”

“You can’t be serious,” Tavin said, shaking his head, his weird eyes wide.

Steve didn’t answer.  A cursory glance revealed that the relatively thick supports of the stairs might do the trick.  The closest leg was about five feet away.  Steve would have preferred something a little closer (and a little sturdier, when he thought about how those stairs shuddered as he’d gone up and down them), but, again, it wasn’t as if he had a ton of options.  Quickly he tied the end of the cable around the thickest part, bending the cable around itself as low to where the support was bolted into the ground as possible.  Then he rushed back.

The port was open and waiting, still darker than sin and venting hot air.  Steve stared a second, trying to steel himself for this.  Tavin was silently watching him.  Waiting for him.  Perhaps judging him for this monumental act of stupidity that was a culmination of all the smaller acts of stupidity before it.  Steve didn’t care.  He tossed the coiled length of the cable into the open chute.

I’m coming, Tony.  Hold on.  Hold on.

He didn’t hesitate about getting down on his knees, didn’t hesitate about crawling inside.  He grabbed the cable with his right hand, wrapping it around his slippery fingers and wrist, and stuck his left into the palm flashlight.  That he switched on.  He tested the cable, pulling a bit to see if it would hold.  It seemed like it would.  His breathing sounded thunderous in the small space.  He could see the ledge now with the light on it.  It was just wide enough for someone to kneel on.  Maybe.  Steve swallowed through a dry throat, shining the light into the darkness.  He still couldn’t see the other walls of the chute.

“Rogers.”  Tavin’s call had him scooting back out of the port a bit, which he needed to do anyway to go in feet first.  He glanced up at his companion.  Tavin regarded him sadly.  “What should I do if you don’t return?”

The way he asked that, so evenly and genuinely, just threw Steve for a loop.  What did it matter, what Tavin did if he didn’t come back?  The cook had made it clear numerous times that he really had no vested interest in Tony and Steve beyond making sure they kept their drama away from his station in Hell as much as possible.  “Carry on,” Steve said after a beat.  After all this trauma and suffering, he couldn’t help the twist of his lips into a little smile.  He even laughed.  “Business as usual.”

Tavin didn’t seem to find that at all amusing, staring at him with irritated eyes.  Steve frowned at the lack of compassion and idly wondered how difficult and stressful situations were handled in Tavin’s culture.  Obviously not like this.

There was no time to explain how making light of things was a tried and true method of trying to deal with trauma on Earth.  Steve scooted and slithered his way into the crawlspace on his back.  Then he turned, rolling onto his stomach as he neared the ledge.  Gripping the cable and the light as tightly as he could, he swung his legs over the edge.  God, that was nauseating.    The stench was so strong it only made him dizzier.  There was so little light that every movement seemed amplified, and he felt like he was falling the second he let go of the ledge.

Harsh breathing echoed through the chute.  It took his brain a second to realize it was coming from him, and he needed to be quieter if he wanted to hear Tony.  “Tony?” he called once he’d calmed himself a little.  “Tony?  Can you hear me?”  He shone the light below, but the beam didn’t go down far enough to reveal the bottom.  Just as he’d feared.  All he could see was the cable dangling below him, leading directly into darkness.

Steve took a deep breath and started climbing down, repelling off the wall in small, tentative leaps.  Normally he could have done this in a blink of an eye and not broken a sweat.  Normally he probably could have jumped down, given it wasn’t too far.  But this?  Slowly descending into what was an abyss for all intents and purposes?  What was below Hell?  Does Hell have a hell?

He was about to find out.

“Tony?  Tony, are you there?”  His voice broke.  He stilled on the cable for a second, pausing to shine the light around.  This was crazy.  In truth, he had no more meaningful proof that Tony was here rather than any other chute.  A dented frame?  Trash that looked moved?  The door not closing all the way?  That was hardly substantive evidence.

But here he was, screaming into the darkness, going forward because he couldn’t let himself give up.  He’d climb down every goddamn garbage port in Hell if he had to.  “Tony!  Tony, it’s Steve!  If you’re down here, answer me!”

There was no response, nothing but the echo of his own hoarse shouts.  Steve forced himself to stay calm.  He still had maybe five or six feet left on the cable, so he could go down further.  His hands stung miserably as he did.  It was so damn dizzying down here, and the heat was miserable.  Sweat rolled down Steve’s face, dripping off his nose and chin as he looked down.  He paused again when he was another few feet lower and shone the light around wildly.

The narrow shaft of illumination finally hit something.  Trash.  Lighter grays and some whites and other murky colors.  He’d found the bottom.  Thank God it wasn’t further down than this.  Steve twisted around on the cable to see better, banging against the wall as he did.  He fumbled to move the light around while hanging on tight.  The fumes coming up from down there were thick and atrocious.  It was like breathing poison.  God, if Tony was down here…  “Tony!” he yelled again.  “Can you hear me?  Tony!  Tony!”

The jittering light flashed over a hand.  Steve jolted in shock and alarm, and his own hand slipped, and he scrambled against the wall in panic to reinforce his grip.  The too-snug strap on the flashlight snapped as he banged his hand into the rock, and the light tumbled down into the trash.

And landed right next to a body.

“God…” Steve breathed, panic surging through him.  He didn’t waste another second, letting go of the cable completely and jumping down the last ten feet or so.  He hit the trash with a thud, finding it lumpy and unsteady beneath his boots as he scrambled over to the body. He could barely breathe, barely think.  He picked up the fallen flashlight and shone it directly on what was in front of him.  “Oh, God…”

It was Tony.  He’d been beaten badly, his face covered in splotches of dried and gooey, grimy blood.  One of his eyes was severely swollen, and his busted lips were crusted in red.  He was almost naked save for his underwear, the same underwear he’d been wearing when they’d been forced to strip that first day.  He had no shirt or shoes or boots.  Ugly, mottled bruising ran down his ribcage and belly.  His left shoulder was misshapen, probably dislocated, and below that the skin over his collarbone was covered in the same blackened blood.  It looked like someone had been cutting at his tattoo.  He was not moving, maybe not even breathing.

Maybe dead.

No.  Steve fell to his knees beside him, setting the light down to shine on Tony’s seemingly lifeless form.  “Tony,” he whispered.  His hands shook as he reached for Tony’s battered face.  Was he alive?  Steve swallowed down the pounding of his heart, fearfully touching his fingers to Tony’s pulse point on his neck.  An eternity trickled by, and he found nothing.  Then there was a tentative beat.  And another.  Shaking with hope, Steve leaned over him, ducking his ear right next to Tony’s mouth.

Tony was breathing.  It was faint, hardly anything at all, but Steve could hear it.  Steve could feel it on his cheek.  Tony was still breathing.  Still alive.  Somehow, after more than twenty-four hours in this awful place, Tony was still alive.  It was a miracle, pure and simple.  Steve bit down on a sob, shivering even harder with cold waves of relief, closing his eyes and tucking his face close to Tony.  Tony’s alive.  Tony’s alive.  Tears dripped down onto Tony’s lips.  I got him.

I found him.

But now he had to get him out of here.  Steve took a breath to get control of his emotions and looked up.  He could barely see the port was still open, a shaft of faint but lighter gray in the black.  That was the light from the outside world was bleeding in.  It was probably thirty feet above him.  He moved the light around, still not finding the other walls aside from the one he’d used to get down.  He supposed he could go looking around to see if there was another way out (or anything else he could use), but the thought of spelunking down here in the trash was downright terrifying.  That left no other option but to climb up with Tony.

Steve turned back to the other man.  It didn’t look like Tony had suffered damaged to his back or neck from the fall (and thankfully the trash was soft and squishy enough beneath them that it had probably softened the impact considerably).  Steve couldn’t be sure, though.  Still, carrying him out was the only choice, and that would be much easier if Tony was at least able to hold onto him.  “Tony?” he prodded.  “Tony, it’s Steve.”  He patted the other man’s cheek gently, but Tony didn’t open his eyes.  He didn’t move at all.  Steve cradled his face.  “Tony?  You gotta wake up.  Please.  Please wake up!”

Tony didn’t.  Steve leaned back, sniffling and wiping at the sharp stinging in his eyes.  He coughed, the fumes rising up from beneath them choking him as he looked up again.  Thirty feet was nothing.  At home, he could climb that swiftly, even carrying someone.  It didn’t matter that he was weak and exhausted and that he could barely breathe.  He could do this.  He had to.

Quickly he scooped Tony into his arms.  The engineer didn’t react at all, which worried Steve pretty severely, but he didn’t stop.  He couldn’t be sure, but it felt hotter in here, and the stink rising from the trash seemed worse.  Time to go.  Steve grimaced, hoisting Tony over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.  His muscles wracked in pain; he was seriously worn from two days of constant movement and not recovered enough from his own near-death experience for this.  He didn’t buckle, though.  The ground felt even more unsteady beneath his boots as he staggered back to the wall.  It was getting harder and harder to breathe.  This really was hell within Hell.

He raised the flashlight, blinking fresh tears and sweat from his eyes as he scanned for the cable to no avail.  Forcing himself to be calmer and more methodical, he slowed down and swept the beam of illumination more conscientiously.  “There,” he breathed when he spotted it.  Ten feet above him.  Ten feet.  Steve couldn’t hold Tony, the light, and the cable at the same time, so he set the flashlight down below them in a mess of what looked like wet cloth.  He made sure it was angled upward, for what little that was worth.

Very little.  This was going to be difficult.  Tony didn’t weigh that much at all, but Steve was already shaking with the heat and fatigue.  He spotted a little indent in the wall maybe halfway up to the end of the cable.  A foothold.  Steve gritted his teeth, gripped Tony’s body tight where it was draped over his shoulders.  He bent at the knees and jumped up with all the power he had.

He got his boot in the tiny hold, cried out as he pushed himself even higher, and reached with his left hand.  Time stretched long again.  So much was working against him.  His aching body and the dead weight of Tony across his shoulders and neck and back.  The darkness and the sweltering heat.  Utter exhaustion.  Still, his fingers touched the cable on his first try.  Steve clenched his hand shut with all his strength, grasping the wire.  As his weight went back down the other way, he cried out, the skin of his palm and fingers shredding as his hand slipped down an inch or two.  He didn’t let go, though.  He never let go.

When everything settled, he had the cable in his fist.

He groaned, breathing hard through gritted teeth.  Christ, this hurt.  He could manage it, though.  After spending a second catching his breath, he twisted and planted his boots against the wall.  Then he shimmied up, the muscles of his chest, abdomen, and back working and aching as he did.  It was slow and awkward as hell, but he climbed, using the wall for support as he did, digging his feet in, pushing up, regripping the cable, and then pulling his feet to the next spot in the wall.  He could manage this.

He made it about halfway before bad got worse.

The heat had been steadily increasing.  Steve was almost sure of that, but all the sudden there was light in addition to the heat.  A faint, orange glow below them.  Steve stopped, breathing heavily, and looked down.  He squinted.  Was that…

Something rumbled.  Something else rattled.  An alarm not unlike the work horn went off, and Steve looked up.  “Oh, goddamn it…  You have got to be kidding me…”

The door was closing.  The damn chute was sealing.  Closing off to incinerate the garbage.

And incinerate them with it.

Panicked, Steve scrambled upward, climbing harder and faster.  “Tavin!” he screamed, his voice breaking and echoing over all the racket.  “Tavin, stop the door from closing!  We’re gonna be trapped!”  He couldn’t see if Tavin heard him.  There was still light above, but he couldn’t tell if it was the same or less.  “Tavin!”

Go faster!  He stopped thinking after that, focusing on only the singular need to get Tony out of this.  He ripped his hands more on the sharp cable, digging his boots into the wall until his toes felt about ready to break, pushing, climbing, hauling himself and Tony up, up, up–

Fire exploded out from beneath them.  Steve spent just a split second watching the wall of flames rising before moving somehow even faster.  They weren’t far from the top now, just a couple feet, but the fire was rising quicker than Steve was climbing.  In a matter of seconds, they were going to be roasted alive.

Steve roared, gripping the cable tightly.  The ledge was just above him, and he was crammed under it now.  He was only going to get one shot at this.  He planted his aching feet into the wall, held Tony desperately, and kicked off with all the strength he had.  He swung out in an arc, and for a moment he could clearly see the fire coming up.  It was like a monster, swirling reds and oranges, hungry and reaching for them.  Steve ripped his gaze back to the ledge as he swung back and waited until just the right moment.  Then, when the ledge was just barely in reach, he let go of the cable and grabbed onto it.

His fingers spasmed, but he didn’t let go, even as his inertia yanked him under the ledge.  The agony was almost more than he could bear, and his arm felt like it was being ripped from its socket.  He screamed until his body settled.  Then he was dangling, panting and fighting to hold on with just his one hand.  It was torture.  The heat billowing up from beneath them was scorching, sucking his strength away even faster.  Crying, he finally pulled himself up, fighting all of his weight and Tony’s weight.  The pain got worse, his arm throbbing like it breaking under the strain, only it didn’t break, and he shoved Tony onto the ledge.

It felt like the fire was licking at his feet.  It probably was.  Steve moaned through a sob, throwing his now free right arm up and onto firm land.  His shoulders pulsed in agony, his feet kicking blindly.  Come on, come on, come on…  He was spent, but he managed to pull himself high enough to swing his leg up, first one and then the other.  He pushed Tony more onto ledge to make room before hauling himself up the rest of the way.

The feeling of that little, flimsy ledge under him was amazing.  So was the feeling of Tony where he was practically underneath Steve’s leaden body.  Steve nearly collapsed onto Tony’s chest, slumping to the side a bit, reeling in the suffocating heat, dizzy and aching and exhausted.  For what felt like forever, he just laid there.

“Rogers!”

Steve’s eyes snapped open at the muffled shriek.  He lurched off of Tony, scrambling into the crawlspace.  His heart was pounding in panic.  Was the port open?  Was it?

Barely, but it was.  There was about an inch between the door and the frame.  The cable was still there, trapped in place.  There was also a metal rod wedging the door open, one that was dented and slimy and probably from the trash pile out there.  And fingers.

Tavin’s fingers.

Tavin had stopped the port from shutting in time.  Steve choked on his relief.  He pulled Tony as much as he could into the port’s crawlspace.  Heat blasted over him, thick with putrid smoke, and the chute shook as the furnace burned hotter and the flames went higher.  God, get us out of here!  Steve jabbed his fingers in between the door and the frame right next to Tavin’s.  “Hold on!” he yelled, and then he pulled the door back with a cry.  In the cramped space, he couldn’t find hardly any leverage, let alone leverage at the proper angle.  It was awkward and ungainly all tangled up with Tony, but the door wasn’t stronger than he was.  He wrested it open and held it that way.

Tavin was right there.  Tavin was there.  “Grab Tony!” Steve gasped, twisting his body to make room while trying to keep the door where it was.  “Grab him!  Hurry!” 

Tavin scrambled to follow his order, reaching inside and taking Tony’s arms.  The little alien dragged Tony out.  Steve moaned, the flames raging behind him, but he didn’t move until Tony was clear.  Then he turned, squirmed, and slid his way out, all while holding the door open.  Tavin’s hands joined his own at the end, helping him so he could crawl out the rest of the way.  Once he was clear, Tavin let the port go, and it shut with a heavy clank.

Steve didn’t make it more than a couple feet before his elbows bent and his knees gave out and he went down face first into the ground and the trash piled onto it.  He couldn’t catch his breath, coughing and choking, sucking in lungful after lungful of the relatively fresh, cool air of Hell.  His chest was heavy and aching from breathing the hot fumes, but slowly his lungs stopped rebelling and loosened.  After a bit, he felt well enough to lift himself out of the crud.

Tony was right next to him, still unconscious.  Filthy and battered and wheezing, but alive.  Steve shivered, reaching for him.  “Tony,” he moaned.  “Tony, thank God.  Thank God!”

Tony didn’t answer.  He shuddered, though, a weak, unconscious thing that had Steve stripping off his shirt and working it onto Tony’s torso.  “I got you,” Steve promised, shivery with shock himself and cooling sweat.  He pulled the rough spun fabric down over Tony’s chest.  “I’ve got you.  It’s okay now.  I got you out.  Tony?  It’s okay!”

Tavin was looking around with fearful eyes.  “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Steve glanced at the shadows, at prisoners watching, at the threat still around them and probably more dangerous than ever.  Without a concern for his own troubles, he gently worked his arms around Tony’s shoulders and under his knees.  Then he lifted him, making sure the engineer’s face was tucked firmly into his shoulder before following Tavin, before running away with the only thing that mattered safe in his arms.  It was a miracle.  Tony was alive.  He’d known it, and he’d found him, and they were still together.  They were okay and together.  We’re okay.

And I’m here.  I’ve got you, Tony.  I’ve got you.

Chapter Text

Day 30

The first thing Steve did when they got back to Tavin’s place was lay Tony’s limp body down on the lumpy blankets where they’d been sleeping.  Then he was up, running back to the entrance to check if they were followed.  “Rogers,” Tavin gasped from where he was kneeling beside Tony.  The little alien was winded and worried with good reason.  Steve had just broken his rule, his major rule, of not bringing their troubles into his home.

He didn’t seem angry, though, more scared than anything else, like he was afraid Steve was leaving him to deal with this mess alone.  “What are you–”

“Shh!”  Steve stopped at the curtain to the main doorway, peering through the little slit where the ratty fabric didn’t quite meet the wall.  The corridor beyond was just as dark as ever, and it was empty and fairly silent.  Steve struggled to quiet his thundering heart, to hold his breath and listen.  It didn’t seem like anyone was coming.  Thank God.  “I think we’re okay,” he whispered, scanning the shadows once more but finding nothing but rock.  It took him another moment to feel secure enough to look away, but he did, rushing back to Tony and Tavin.  “We’re safe,” he said again.

Now Tavin’s eyes flashed.  “Safe?  Safe?  After what you did?  What you let happen?

“I wasn’t going to kill that guy!” Steve hissed, shaking his head and pressing his fingers to Tony’s neck again.  Tony’s pulse was still weak.  Gritting his teeth, Steve worked his shirt up and off him.  In the better light of the dwelling, Tony’s state was all that much more distressing.  He was filthy, covered in grime and reeking of garbage.  There was blood all over him, some dark red and other spots black from dirt.  A lot of it was from his shoulder.  Steve took one look at the slices in his skin around the silvery writing of the tattoo and a million horrific thoughts raced through his head.  They tried to cut it off him when he was still alive.  God Almighty.  “We need water,” he declared, brain kicking into gear finally, “and bandages.”

Tavin shook his head.  “You’re not listening!”

Steve was on his feet, running to the kitchen to find what he needed.  It was probably rude and presumptuous of him to take Tavin’s supplies like this yet again, but he didn’t see any other choice.  He found a couple canteen-like containers of water.  Then he rushed to the washroom to fetch the cloth that was there.  He was back with his haul seconds later, immediately kneeling at Tony’s side again.  He couldn’t make himself look at Tony’s face.  Instead he poured a little of the water onto one of the swatches of cloth and gently but quickly started wiping the grime away from Tony’s bloody shoulder to get an idea of how bad the wound was.

Tavin grabbed his wrist firmly.  “You are not listening,” he hissed again.  “You think it was an act of mercy to spare that miner?”

“I think not sparing him would have been murder,” Steve snapped, feeling his already brittle control slipping more.

Tavin practically snarled at him.  He was really angry, angrier than Steve had seen him thus far.  “I have tolerated your naivete, but I cannot abide by you endangering me.  I cannot!  In the matter of two days, you have brought this danger into my home when I specifically told you–”

“Fine.”  Steve couldn’t stand listening to it.  It hurt.  Tavin was right.  Steve had no business asking anything of him, no business taking Tony back here.  He had no right to bring any heat on Tavin at all or to drag Tavin into this mess simply by his association with them.  But, God, there was no compassion in this place.  No integrity or decency or basic understanding.  He didn’t know why it still surprised him.

But he wasn’t going to be blindsided or hampered by it anymore.  “Fine,” he said again.  He’d hardy even started cleaning the wound on Tony’s shoulder, but he set the cloth to the ground and capped the canteen of water again.  That he handed to Tavin, who seemed flummoxed more than enraged now.  Steve couldn’t tell because he couldn’t look him directly in the face, either.  He just slipped his arm under Tony’s knees and grasped him about the shoulders and stood, tucking him close to his chest and mentally preparing himself for whatever would befall both of them when he walked through that curtain.

He didn’t make it more than a step.  “Wait, wait,” Tavin said on a rushed, aggravated breath.  “I am not trying to throw you out.”

“It’s okay if you are,” Steve forced himself to say, because it had to be okay.  He and Tony were not Tavin’s burden or responsibility.  They never had been.  “We’ll be alright.”

“No, you won’t,” Tavin said sharply.  He averted his gaze.  “You won’t.  You still can’t accept what this place is, what it does to you!  You’re still fighting it!”

“I told you,” Steve returned, holding Tony tighter, “that I can’t just fall into line and hurt other people to protect myself.”

“And I told you that your morality will get you killed!”

“You think I don’t know that?  That bastard put a chain around my neck and hung me!  They almost killed me!  And they did this to Tony, beat him, cut him, left him down there to die!”  Steve’s voice cracked.  “I should have killed that guy, yeah, but where I come from?  That’s murder.  He was defenseless.  And, yeah, he’ll run back to Xeran.  I know he will.”

“Xeran probably turned on the incinerator in that chute,” Tavin declared evenly.  He narrowed his eyes.  “Surely you thought of that, how odd and coincidental it was that the oven for a broken garbage port should all the sudden re-engage right when you go down there to rescue your friend.”

Honestly, no, Steve hadn’t thought about that.  In all the chaos of running back here, adrenaline still hot in his blood and mind still reeling with the enormous fact that Tony was alive, he hadn’t stopped to consider how strange it really was.  Tavin was right; there was no reason the incinerator should have turned on given the port was broken.  There’d been a huge pile of trash down there, and it had clearly been there for a while.  The whole damn chute had been malfunctioning, which meant either he and Tony were the unluckiest people in the universe or someone had activated it on purpose.

His ire cooled as he came to that realization.  It meant Xeran already knew.  Mook D had already ratted them out to him.  Or maybe the whole thing had been some sort of trap from the get-go, although a trap for him didn’t make much sense.  Frankly, there was just no way to be certain.  “I can only stay true to myself,” Steve said after a moment, eyes focusing again on Tavin as he pulled himself from his thoughts.  His words started out quiet and uncertain, because, hell, he was uncertain.  Tony was in his arms, broken and tortured and left for dead, because Steve hadn’t done a thing to protect him.  That was what killing Mook D would have been.  Protection.  Looking out for themselves.  Striking first instead of responding after the damage was done.  Doing whatever was necessary to not just survive but thrive.

No.  Even during the darkest parts of the war, he’d never killed an unarmed combatant.  Never.  He could only think of this like that.  It didn’t matter how high the stakes were.  There was a way to do the right thing, to do what needed to be done without sacrificing what he knew was ethical.  His voice got louder, surer.  “I can only stay true to what I know.  And all I can know is…  If we succumb to this?  To this hell and everything in it?”  He shook his head.  “We won’t be any different than them.  There won’t be anything left of us worth saving.”

Tavin stared at him, eyes veiled, expression as unreadable as ever.  Steve expected another lecture – you can’t be so stupid, so foolish, so blind as to not see what this place is and the danger you’re putting yourself in – but it didn’t come.  Tavin’s scowl softened, the tight lines about his eyes and mouth loosening.  “We need to get him clean,” he said quietly.  “There’s no knowing what he’s come into contact with down there.  I shudder to think about it.”

Steve hadn’t thought about that either until now, and he did shudder.  He turned fast, depositing Tony back onto the mess of blankets.  Tavin followed, and just like that, the argument was over and the situation had been accepted.  The little alien took another of the cloths and wet it before wiping at Tony’s face.  Steve watched a moment, surprised and so relieved, before acquiring the cloth he’d had before and going back to work.  He wiped around Tony’s sliced shoulder, scrubbing as hard as he dared to get the dried blood away.  One slash seemed particularly bad.  Once it was clean enough, Steve prodded at the edges of his skin.  The tattoo itself was intact, which was a blessing because Steve had no idea how they’d deal with that otherwise.  The wound above it was still seeping blood.  It was maybe a couple inches long, deep, down into the meat of his pectoral muscle.  It needed stitches.  God, everything smelled so rank.  Tony was utterly foul with all the crud covering him, all the dirt and filth and excrement, and Steve could practically feel his wounds getting infected.  He swallowed through a dry throat.  “Do you have thread?  A needle?”

Tavin nodded.  Steve figured he probably mended his own clothes.  “I also have…  Well, I’m not sure it will do much good, but I have a small bottle of Centaurian whiskey.  It has a high alcohol content, so it may serve as an antiseptic or at least an analgesic.”

“Yeah,” Steve breathed, the breadth of just how serious the situation was sinking in.  “Okay.”

Tavin was up and scurrying off to gather what they needed.  Steve dampened another cloth and went back to scrubbing the grime away.  The crap was literally baked onto Tony’s skin.  Steve tried to ignore the fact it was Tony like this, suffering and shivering beneath his hands, nearly naked and brutalized.  God, this is my fault.  He rinsed the cloth and went at it again, working in silence for many long minutes as he took a layer of filth off Tony’s chest to expose the bruising there.  It was hideous, mottled blacks and blues and purples.  Tenderly Steve prodded at them, searching for signs of damage to the ribs beneath.  Nothing felt broken, though Tony jerked and whimpered softly in pain.  He didn’t wake up.  Steve bit his tongue until he tasted blood.  He did this to save me.  To protect me.  He felt at Tony’s belly, too, and thankfully found no rigidity or evidence of serious internal injuries.  His eyes went to the scars over Tony’s sternum where the arc reactor once sat.  They left him in there, in the dark.  God, hasn’t he suffered enough?

Tony moaned again when Steve examined his left arm.  “Tony?” Steve asked, leaning over him.  He took the canteen and wet the cloth more before swiping it down Tony’s face.  Tony’s right eye was extremely swollen, but Steve noticed his left eyelid fluttering like he was coming around a bit.  Steve’s heart nearly stopped with hope, and he moved closer, wiping blood from beneath Tony’s nose and chin.  “Tony, can you hear me?  It’s Steve.”

Tony’s dry, cracked lips moved around a breathy word Steve couldn’t make out.  His slack expression tightened into pained grimace.  He had to be seriously dehydrated, trapped in that oven for as long as he had been.  Steve realized now that Tony wasn’t even sweating.  That wasn’t good at all.  He took the canteen and propped Tony up against him gently, tipping the top of the container to Tony’s lips.  Water slowly spilled into Tony’s mouth, and at first he didn’t swallow, but then he eagerly drank.  “Easy,” Steve whispered.  Tony coughed, sputtered, and gasped for air.  He sobbed softly, reaching up with his good arm and weakly trying to push Steve away.  “Easy.  You’re alright.  I’ve got you.”

Tony struggled a moment, stiff in Steve’s embrace.  Steve couldn’t tell if he was really awake; he was moaning, twisting, and his good eye was opened just a bit, but it was revealing only unfocused, delirious brown, and there didn’t seem to be any recognition there.  Regardless, Tony was too weak to really fight him, and he settled down against Steve’s arm and drank more as Steve let him.

A rustle down the little hallway had Steve looking up minutes later.  Tavin was there with the supplies, including a pot of steaming water.  That explained why he’d been gone so long.  He set the pot down beside the pallet.  “What first?”

Steve forced himself to stay calm and think.  “We have to set his arm,” he decided, looking again at the injured left side.  The arm wasn’t broken, but Tony’s shoulder was definitely dislocated.  “We need to get it back in place before we stitch the wound.”

Tavin shook his head.  “How?”

Steve considered it for a moment.  “I better hold him.  You rotate his arm until it pops back into the joint.  I’ll tell you how.”

“You have done this before?” Tavin asked with a frown.  He was clearly worried about his role in the procedure.

Steve grimaced.  “Had it done to me a bunch of times.  It’s not pleasant, but unless we do it, he’s not going to be able to use that arm properly.  Plus popping the joint back together does wonders for the pain afterward.”

Even after that explanation, Tavin looked less than thrilled.  Steve didn’t wait for him to be on board with the idea; he had to reduce Tony’s shoulder one way or another.  He could do it himself, but it was easier with two people, particularly with Tony potentially unaware enough to cooperate and stay still.  For all he’d hoped minutes ago for Tony to wake up, as he maneuvered Tony flat again and positioned himself on Tony’s right side, he prayed the other man would stay unconscious for unpleasantness.

Once he had Tony secure and his weight lightly placed on Tony’s good shoulder and chest to hold him steady, he looked up and nodded at Tavin.  The alien hesitated, his gaze darting between Steve and Tony’s shivering body.  He finally met Steve’s eyes, and Steve gave another nod, this one hopefully comforting and encouraging.  Then Tavin took Tony’s bruised wrist in his hand, his four fingers enclosing tentatively like the mere contact of skin to skin was repulsive and difficult to overcome.  “Okay?” Steve asked softly.

“Tell me what to do,” Tavin said, voice tense.

Steve reached over and guided Tavin’s hand to bring Tony’s arm over his stomach.  He kept Tony’s elbow bent, so that the forearm was perpendicular to his torso and laying across his belly.  Tony didn’t react.  Steve knew how much this hurt better than anyone.  Please stay asleep stay asleep stay asleep…  “You’re going to hold his elbow in place with your other hand.  Then rotate his arm, lifting it and then moving it all the way out to the side, like this.”  Steve mimicked the motion with his free arm.  “Slow but steady.  The arm should pop back in the joint.  Don’t force it.”

“This is not something that typically happens to my people,” Tavin murmured unhappily.  He was obviously concerned about messing this up.

“Just do your best.  There are other maneuvers we can try, but this is the easiest in my opinion.”  Steve took a deep breath, praying they could do this in one pass.  “Alright.  Whenever you’re ready.”

Tavin exhaled.  His weird, mottled skin seemed to shimmer, and Steve couldn’t help but wonder if his species sweated.  He didn’t push or coax, instead giving Tavin whatever time he needed to compose himself for this.  It didn’t end up being much at all, and a few silent seconds later, he started rotating Tony’s arm, just as Steve had instructed.

At first, Tony didn’t react.  Steve had a firm but gentle grip on him and he was watching like a hawk besides, so there was no chance Tony could pull away.  However, there wasn’t so much as a twitch, not even as Tavin moved his forearm so that it was completely up and at a right angle with the rest of his body.  The quiet didn’t last, and sure enough, as Tavin continued to turn Tony’s arm toward him, Tony started to squirm.

“Easy,” Steve murmured, carefully tightening his hold.  He always had to rein in his strength so much at times like these.  He could break Tony’s other arm if he wasn’t careful.  “Easy.  It’s alright.  You’re gonna be alright.”

It didn’t seem as if Tony could hear him.  His bruised face scrunched up into an agonized grimace, and he struggled harder.  Steve didn’t let him do much more than wriggle, wincing as Tony barked out a hoarse sob.  Tavin was pulling a little harder, going faster now as Tony became more and more aware of the pain.  “This is not working,” the little alien declared worriedly.

“It is,” Steve insisted.  “Keep going.”

Tavin was definitely averse to that idea, but he did as he was told, turning Tony’s arm further.  Tony sobbed again, kicking his bare feet uselessly into blankets and thin padding of the pallet.  His sporadic cries finally escalated into a longer, hoarser scream as Tavin pushed his arm to the floor.  “Tony, easy!” Steve hushed.  “You’re okay!  You’re okay!”  Tony tossed his head, delirious and suffering.  Steve knew just how much it hurt, how excruciating the muscle spasms could be.  Another ragged howl burst through Tony’s lips, and Tavin stopped again.  “Keep going!  You’re almost there!”  Please almost be there.

It was.  Tavin pushed his forearm down by the wrist a little more, and the limb jerked in his hands.  Steve watched the distended shoulder grotesquely shift as the bone popped back into the socket.  Tony wailed.  The cry echoed through the little room, and for a second Steve winced at how loud it was and worried that it’d attract attention.  Then he remembered where they were.  In Hell, it seemed like there was always someone screaming.

Tony was crying now, a meager few tears spilling from his eyes, all his dehydrated body could spare maybe.  He was laboring for air, trembling in Steve’s embrace.  “You’re alright,” Steve promised again.  “You’re alright.  It’s over.  It’s over.”

Tavin gave a shuddering sigh, setting Tony’s arm back over his belly.  He, too, was breathing heavily, and for a seeming eternity, that was the only sound that could be heard: the three of them catching their breaths and recovering. 

It was Tony who ended the quiet.  “St-Steve?”

Steve opened eyes that fallen shut, snapping from the haze of exhaustion so fast that the room spun.  He looked down where Tony was cradled against him.  Tony’s one good eye was open wider, but that glazed look of confusion was worse.  Still, he was awake.  He was awake.  “Yeah, I’m here,” Steve said softly, holding Tony tighter and angling himself more to get right into Tony’s line of sight.  “I’m here, Tony.  You’re safe.”  His voice broke.  “You’re going to be okay.  It’s okay now.”

“’s dark,” Tony whispered.  “Falling.”

It was dark, but it was just the level of dimness that seemed to be Hell’s constant ambiance.  Not like it had been in that trash chute.  “You’re not falling,” Steve promised.  “I’ve got you.”

Tony’s semblance of calm dissipated in a blink, and his face collapsed into a look of utter despair.  He choked on another sob, trembling harder and harder.  “I saw ’em,” he slurred.  “Out there.  Saw them, Steve!”

Steve didn’t understand.  “Saw who?”

Tony clutched at Steve’s bare arm, digging raggedly torn nails into his skin.  “Chitauri!”

Tavin physically jerked beside him, eyes going wide and breath hitching.  He looked terrified.  Clearly the Chitauri were a force feared by other races and planets.  Steve shook his head at him, hoping to still whatever he was about to say.  “Tony, that wasn’t real.  You…  You had a flashback or something.  Back to New York.  There aren’t any Chitauri here.”  That wasn’t necessarily true, given where they were.

And Tony didn’t believe him at any rate, though not for any logical reason.  “They’re coming,” he cried.  “They’re out there!  Suit’s dead.  I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m – I’m–”

“What is he talking about?” Tavin demanded, probably keying into the fact that Tony was deeply delirious.

Steve shook his head, heart aching and heavy in his chest.  “The Chitauri invaded Earth about a year ago.  We fought them.  Barely won.  Tony almost died.”

Tavin’s hard expression softened with sympathy, but he didn’t seem to understand why that was relevant now.  “Then why is he–”

“He’s having a flashback.”  Tony screamed wordlessly, and Steve winced, holding him tighter and getting more distraught and frustrated with the situation.  “He has shell shock!  Post-traumatic stress disorder!  He’s dissociated from here and now, reliving a traumatic experience!”

“And this afflicts humans commonly?” Tavin asked, a mixture of pitying and shocked.

“In our line of work, yes!”

“Then I pray for your sanity given the circumstances,” the alien said without even a touch of wryness to his tone.  “I had no concept that Terrans were so… sensitive.”

Goddamn it.  Steve was pretty sure Tavin didn’t mean that blunt statement as an insult, but with Tony locked in the throes of a pretty horrific flashback in his arms, writhing and shivering and stricken, he couldn’t stop himself from getting angry.  “Let’s get his shoulder stitched up.”

Tavin frowned.  “Should we wait until he–”

“No.”  Now seemed as good a time as any.  Tony was so out of it, and Steve was becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of infection.  He could be imagining it, but it felt to him like Tony was developing a fever.  The stress of reducing his shoulder might have made him feel hot, and of course there was the chance the lingering heat from the oven was still afflicting him, but somehow Steve doubted it.  Given their run of luck in Hell, some sort of illness would be the only outcome.  Perhaps he could stop it, but they needed to act fast.  Tony had already spent twenty-four hours exposed to that toxic swill.

Of course, Tony couldn’t exactly consent to anything they were doing now.  Considering how terrified he seemed, maybe it would kinder for Tony to be aware of what they had to attempt and why, but Steve didn’t think he could get through to him.  He’d try.  “Tony, Tony, listen to me.  Listen!”  Tony stilled a little, though whether it was because Steve asked him to or a coincidence, Steve couldn’t tell.  He went on anyway.  “We need to get your injuries treated, okay?  The one in your chest needs stitches.”

“N-no!” Tony cried.  He shoved at Steve’s hands, but it was useless.  Steve could restrain him without even trying.  That seemed cruel, but the sooner they got this done the better, so he pressed Tony’s right shoulder into the blankets with a fraction of his strength and stayed firm.  Tony squirmed harder.  “Don’t!  Don’t take it!  Don’t!  Don’t touch me!

“Tony, it’s Steve!”  Steve kept his hands gentle and tried to do the same for his voice, but it cracked with fear and desperation.  “It’s me!  It’s Steve!  We’re not going to hurt you!”

Tony screamed and struggled, wrenching his left arm from Tavin’s hands.  That probably hurt terribly.  He sobbed again, but he didn’t stop, striking weakly at Tavin.  He was terrified out of his mind.  “Please don’t touch me…  Let me go…  Let me go…

Steve felt sick and helpless.  “Tony, please, we have to take care of you.  We have to close up your shoulder, okay?  Get you cleaned up.  You’ll get sick if we don’t.”  He swallowed thickly.  “You are sick.”

“No, God…  Fuck, fuck, please!  Stop!”  Tony was practically hysterical, nearly hyperventilating as he fought them.  “Don’t touch me!  Don’t!”

Steve almost let him go, the thought of Tony mistaking him for someone who hurt him making him ill.  Xeran or the Mooks or the Ten Rings or anyone who’d ever caused him pain…  Steve cursed them all.  “Tony, stop,” he begged, swallowing back tears as Tony writhed against him.  “Please listen to me.  I’m not trying to hurt you.  Please listen!”

“He can’t,” Tavin said sharply, “and there is no sense in continuing to try to reason with him.”  Steve glanced up at him to find him staring pointedly.  Just as PTSD seemed to be a foreign concept to him, maybe his kind never suffered from delirium.  The sharpness faded from Tavin’s face and tone.  “Let’s just do as you say and treat him.”

It was the logical course of action, as compassionless as it felt.  Tavin took the little kit he brought and procured a needle from it, one that was thicker than necessary for this and bent a bit at the end.  Steve winced, and Tony saw him flinch, saw the metal of the needle, saw Tavin stare at it as he appraised it.  “Is it sterile?” Steve asked.  He hadn’t thought about it until now.  Asking if something was clean down here was like asking if they had a chance of winning the lottery.  It was practically impossible.  “And is the thread–”

“This came from the medical supplies Kar brought for you,” Tavin replied as he fished out the thread.   “Other than that, I can’t say.”

That wasn’t comforting.  Even with the serum depressed as it had been, Steve had still had much greater defenses against alien bacteria and viruses than Tony did.  It was probably a minor miracle Tony hadn’t gotten sick so far considering all the awful crap with which they’d come in contact, all the cuts and bruises and wounds Tony had sustained with anything to protect him.  The whole reason they were stitching his wounds was to attempt to mitigate infection and promote healing.  Sticking a dirty needle and thread into his skin was the very definition of counterproductive.

In war, though, things weren’t always ideal.  Steve knew that all too well.  Something was better than nothing, so they had to take the chance.  Tony had probably thought the same thing when he’d put the IV in Steve’s arm and prayed it’d revive him.  The comparison bolstered his resolve again, and he nodded.  “Fast as you can,” he softly reminded, sick with dread.

Tavin glared lightly but said nothing.  He grabbed one of the bandages, probably also from the medical kit Kar had given Tony for Steve, and set it to Tony’s chest around the wound.  The light was poor, not the sort to be stitching a wound by, but Tavin simply hunkered down closer.  First, he doused the wound in the alcohol.  He did that without any warning and thoroughly, and that had Tony screaming immediately.  Steve hushed him, holding him tighter as Tony gasped and writhed and sobbed.  Tavin threaded the needle.  The thread was weird, something stretchy but incredibly thin.  It looked to Steve like spun sugar.  Tavin’s hands were steady as he affixed the thread to the needle.  Then, without further delay, he went to it.

Tony screamed again the second the needle pricked his skin.  Steve hadn’t been quite ready for the jolt of him flailing this time, and he almost lost his grip.  “Do you have him?” Tavin snapped, the needle nearly slipping from his fingers.

Steve adjusted his grip, burning with embarrassment and distress.  “Sorry!” he gasped.  Tony wailed again, eyes squeezed shut and every muscle taut with misery.  Steve grimaced.  He had a strong stomach; he’d seen horrors during the war, seen men tortured and get shot and be blown apart.  He’d performed medical aid in the field, and some of the things he did haunted him still.  This was minor in comparison, but God if it didn’t hurt.  He felt nauseous watching Tavin push together the sides of the gash, the sight of that and stink of blood intense and upsetting.  He knew why this was so harsh.  This was Tony.  Knowing that, feeling that, made everything so much worse.

Tony cried louder, kicking senselessly anew, gripping Steve’s bicep hard enough to hurt as Steve held him down.  Steve forced his eyes away from the bloody mess, from the red coating the needle and the thread and Tavin’s capable fingers quickly sewing.  “It’s almost done,” he said.  He didn’t know who he was reassuring, Tony or Tavin or himself.  It didn’t matter anyway because his voice was too meek to be heard over Tony’s racket.  He swallowed down the burning nausea in the back of his throat and spoke louder.  “It’s almost done!  Just hang on, Tony…  Hang on!”

“Don’t let them – it’s in my chest!  They’re taking it!”  More tears bled from Tony’s good eye, slipping down his face to streak into his hair.  “Steve!”

Steve turned him so he couldn’t see Tavin working anymore.  This was awful.  Steve knew Tony was tough as nails.  In another place, another time, he’d be able to handle this.  After what had happened, though?  What he’d been forced to endure?  “I’m right here,” Steve promised in a hushed, nonthreatening tone.  “I’m here!  I’m here!”

Tony’s eye opened.  Now he wasn’t fighting so much as clinging.  “Don’t let them take it,” he whimpered.  “Don’t let them!  Don’t let them!”

“Is he speaking of the tattoo?” Tavin asked.

Helplessly Steve shook his head.  “I don’t know!”

“It’s in my chest!  They put it there!” Tony shouted.

“I know,” Steve soothed.  He didn’t know what else to say.  He spotted the faint scars on Tony’s sternum again, and it was almost too much to bear.  “I know!”

Tony heaved a sob, curling into Steve’s side.  “Hurts so much.  They’re out there.  Want me to…  I can’t.  I can’t!  I can’t!  Please don’t make me–”  His words rose into another cry.  “Fuck, please…  Please help me…  They’re coming, Steve!”

“No one’s coming,” Steve said.  It was a lie.  He couldn’t promise that.  Xeran, the Mooks, Kar…  They could all be coming.  “Just calm down.  Listen to me.  We’re safe here, I promise.”

“Jericho…”  Tony sputtered on his breath.  “They want…”

“Jericho?” Tavin repeated, even more confused.

Steve knew what that was.  That heavy pain in his chest got worse.  This was definitely a flashback, and like the first night they got here, Steve’s heart broke with sad understanding.  “Tony, you’re not back there.  You’re not…”  He didn’t know how he could prove this wasn’t Afghanistan.  And, even if he could get through to Tony to show this dark, dank, rocky place with all of its horrors and with Tavin stitching up his chest wasn’t the same as his nightmares, was it really any better?  “You’re safe.”  He just said that again, like it meant something.  “You’re safe.”

Tony stared at him with teary eyes.  “I gotta do it,” he moaned.  He stopped squirming so hard, like he was surrendering.  Admitting defeat.  “I gotta do what they want.”

That hit so close to home.  Everything seemed like a blur, a mixture of then and now, and even Steve felt turned around and dizzy.  “No, you don’t,” he softly said.  “You don’t.  We’ll find another way.”  He managed a smile.  “There’s always another way.”

Tony was calmer now, settling suddenly.  His feverish eyes were glazed with exhaustion.  They were focused on Steve.  “You…  You were the one who told me sometimes there’s no choice but to lay on the wire.”

Steve gasped a little sob mixed with a rueful chuckle.  “Yeah,” he confessed.  “Yeah, I did.  I was full of shit.”

That made Tony grin, his battered lips twisting into the small smile.  “Made you admit it,” he whispered.  “Captain America is full of shit.”

“Sometimes,” Steve conceded.  He loosened his grip now that Tony was quieter and more pliant.  A quick glance to Tavin revealed he was almost done and the wound was nearly sealed shut, a row of very neat, precise stitches pulling the skin together.  Tavin was preparing some bandages, looking up to catch Steve’s gaze.  He gave a firm nod, and Steve exhaled slowly in relief.  Thank God.  “Sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

“You’re staying with me,” Tony whimpered, closing his eyes again.  “Stay with me!  Don’t leave me!”

Steve didn’t think twice.  He pulled Tony even closer and pressed his lips firmly into his filthy hair.  “Never,” he swore.  “Never.  They won’t hurt you again.  I promise, Tony.  I promise!”

As Tony lost consciousness in Steve’s arms, Steve prayed he wasn’t making a promise he couldn’t keep.


They spent the next couple hours tending to the rest of Tony’s injuries.  The dislocated shoulder and the deep wound on his chest were the worst of them thankfully.  Most everything else was bruises and scrapes and lacerations, the common outcome considering the beating Tony had received.  Tavin brought out the rest of the medical supplies Kar had given Tony a couple weeks back.  Thankfully he’d carefully stored them and was willing to use them now instead of keeping them for himself, which he certainly could have done.  And he was nothing but soft, gentle, and compassionate as he helped Steve bathe Tony as much as they could.  It wasted a ridiculous amount of water, the entire pot Tavin had boiled and then some, but there really wasn’t much choice, not with the filth covering Tony.  It was caked into some of his cuts, dirt and detritus and who knew what else, and Steve couldn’t help but shudder at the mental image of Tony laying in the darkness on top of that trash pile, things crawling all over him…

God.

Needless to say, he did the best he could to clean him up and didn’t give a damn about the resources it spent.  Once they had him washed off with the hot water and wiped down, Steve set to rubbing the whiskey Tavin had into the rest of Tony’s wounds.  They applied it again to the injury they’d stitched, which had led to some serious screaming.  This time Tony thankfully stayed fairly quiet through it all, mumbling to himself and wincing but not otherwise struggling.  It was a small mercy, really.  Steve obsessively kept checking his forehead, laying his palm there and feeling for any signs of fever.  He was pretty sure Tony was running one, though it was still hard to tell.  He and Tavin managed to get an IV inserted, and the last of the fluid solution they’d used to save Steve’s life was now draining into Tony.  Hopefully that would contend with whatever issues Tony might have due to dehydration.  Dealing with the possibility of infection…  “Is this all we have?” he asked, dousing a slice on Tony’s right arm with the alcohol.

Tavin’s lips pressed together in a thin line.  “Unfortunately.”

Steve looked down at Tony.  He was grimacing in his sleep, flushed and warm.  The alcohol had a very strong smell to it, not entirely pleasant but sharp and tangy.  To Steve’s enhanced senses, it was especially pungent.  There was no telling what it would do.  There was no telling what anything would do, if this bag of fluids dripping down into Tony’s body would help him, if the whiskey would serve to kill whatever bacteria might be on Tony’s skin and in his wounds, if any of this would matter.  Steve took some solace in the fact that Tony hadn’t gotten sick so far down here, and this was hardly the first time he’d had open wounds covered in filth.

Not this bad, though.

“We’re doing all we can,” Tavin assured.  He took a bandage from the meager pile and began applying it to the area Steve had just (hopefully) disinfected.

Steve watched him.  Warm gratitude soothed his pain like a balm.  “Thank you,” he softly said.  Tavin glanced up at him as he affixed the bandage.  Steve offered a small smile.  “I dragged you into this.  I’m sorry for that, and I really appreciate that you helped us all the same.”

Tavin stared at him with that blank, inscrutable expression of his.  Then he nodded.  “I believe my fate has become intertwined with yours, one way or another.  I…  Well, I no longer resent that fact as much as I did.  You and Stark are idiots undoubtedly, and without my aid, you would surely destroy yourselves.”  Steve inwardly bristled, but then he realized Tavin was joking with him.  The alien’s expression was soft, almost smiling.  “Do they have something such as–”  The translator gave out.  Steve heard nothing but a dull, rattling hum for a fraction of a second, which was not how the translator had stumbled over words it couldn’t handle before.  It kicked back into gear almost immediately.  “–on your world?  It’s the sensation of doing something repeatedly.”

Steve wasn’t sure to what Tavin was referring exactly.  The fact he’d done probably this very same thing a couple weeks ago only with Steve injured and Tony at his side?  “Déjà vu?”

Tavin frowned in confusion.  Perhaps his translator was struggling as well.  “An act of futility.”

“You mean doing something over and over again and always getting the same result but hoping for something different anyway,” Steve said, idly rubbing his hand over Tony’s hair to quiet him when he shivered and squirmed a little.  “That would be the very definition of insanity, as we call it back on Earth.”  Steve paused.  “Or a fool’s errand.”

“Ah,” Tavin said.  He nodded.  “That analogy I understand.  It’s quite apt.”

Again, Steve could have been insulted, but that statement was made almost fondly.  “Your fool’s errand of keeping the stupid humans alive around here,” he commented with a soft, wry grin.  “Definitely fitting.”  And sad, but he was beyond the point of deluding himself that survival was anything but a continual struggle.  All the hope he’d felt a couple days ago when he’d seen light from the outside for the first time in a month seemed as distant as said light was now.  “And we haven’t been helping you out.”

“It’s alright,” Tavin assured.  “On my world, there is a particular sort of animal.  It is a beautiful thing, with the loveliest coat of white and shimmering fur.  Most of the animals on our planet are scaly or have skin like we do, neither fair nor covered in hair, so this particular beast is truly unique and magnificent.  The years are far longer on our planet, so the seasons stay constant for a great deal of time, and this creature, which fills our few forests, stays beautiful for days and days.  Yet when the seasons finally do change and it becomes warmer, it must lose its fur.  Some of them struggle, traveling northward to avoid the inevitable, which is dangerous and so many are slaughtered by the predators there…  It is a better thing to be the same as everything else than suffer, than expend all that energy only to die anyway.  It is better to conform than struggle.  My people watch this happen every year without fail, and we say, ‘Submit, for it goes as it goes’.”  His eyes had gone distant with thought as he’d explained this.  Distant like he was light years away, back there and remembering.  Steve watched, not knowing what to say, so he said nothing at all.  A moment of tense silence slipped away. 

“As it goes,” Tavin finally whispered again, looking down.  “I’ve not seen my home in ten years.  Ten years.  They brought me here…  I committed no crime.  The one for whom I worked broke our laws, stole from the High Class, took liberties with others above his station, and I was punished for his indiscretions for simply being aware of it.  He bought his way out of trouble, but I could not.  There came a moment when I was sentenced to this nightmare where I begged him to exonerate me…”  He shook his head.  “You can deduce how my plea was answered.”

Indeed Steve could.  “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment.

Tavin looked up at him.  “It is hardly your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I’m still sorry.”

Tavin stared a second like he couldn’t make heads or tails of that.  Then he said, “Thank you.”  His tone was only genuine, and Steve nodded.  Then Tavin went back to bandaging Tony’s wounds.  “I assume similar circumstances brought you here.”

Steve shrugged.  The battle in San Francisco felt like a lifetime ago.  “Somewhat.  We’re, um…  Well, we’re part of a team that defends our planet from domestic and…”  International wasn’t exactly the correct word, not by any stretch.  “Intergalactic threats.  There was a fight, and Tony and I were captured and taken from Earth.  Long story short, we were sold into this.”

“Slaver’s auction?” Tavin questioned.  Steve cringed and nodded.  “Sadly, this was probably one of the better outcomes.”

“Probably,” Steve conceded.  It wasn’t much consolation.

Tavin watched him, but now it was only with sympathy.  “The universe is a frightening place.  There is something to be said for keeping your head down, accepting things the way they are.  Submitting.”  He looked a bit ashamed.  “As I said.  In the beginning here, I was like you.  I held onto some sort of hope that I could go home, that I could see my family again.  Someday, I thought, there’d be something.  If I looked, if I held onto my faith, if I worked hard and kept my head down…  Maybe I could find a way out.”

The result of that seemed painfully obvious.  He didn’t need to explain, didn’t need to say another word.  With Tony settled between them, Steve reached across and touched the alien’s narrow shoulder. Tavin tensed just a bit with the contact, but he seemed to battle that initial reaction and accept the show of comfort for what it was.

But then his eyes went wide.  “Rogers, what…”

Steve didn’t understand what had spooked him.  He shook his head, glancing down at Tony, but Tony was quiet and calm.  As he looked, though, he saw the cloth he’d wrapped around chest had come loose.  It was hanging down, revealing the tattoo.

Or what was left of it.

And it was hardly anything other than a smear of wet silver.  Steve saw that much before he hastily pulled the cloth back up.  Tavin whispered something that sounded very much like a curse.  “What – I – I do not…  I…”

There was no time to explain.  Christ, he’d forgotten all about this!  How could he have been so stupid?  All the sudden his mind was utterly racing.  He had to do something before it was gone completely.  “Do you have paper?” he demanded, untangling himself from Tony’s body and jumping to his feet.

Tavin was absolutely shocked.  “What?”

“Paper!” Steve cried.  He snatched up his discarded shirt.  “Something to write on!  And something to write with!”

“In the storeroom,” Tavin murmured, and Steve took off running.  He couldn’t think about anything other than trying to preserve what he could.  If he didn’t…  God, please let me not be too late!  He thundered into the storeroom, once again frantically scanning the shelves.  There, in the upper right, was something rolled up and dusty.  Steve stepped over Tavin’s little stool and easily reached the top shelf, taking down the item.  It was a scrap, something that had maybe once been a packing slip?  It didn’t feel like paper to Steve, more metallic and less flexible, but it’d do.  Inside was a stick of sorts that somewhat looked like a pencil.

Taking what he’d found, he ran to the tiny closet of a washroom.  There was no mirror.  Of course there wasn’t.  He looked around uselessly for a second and then made do without.  He pulled the cloth away from his chest, put the odd pencil to the equally odd paper, and went to work.

There was just enough of the tattoo left that he could barely make it out.  He squinted, blotting the silvery liquid still seeping from his skin away with the cloth, and set to drawing the symbols.  There was nearly a dozen of them.  Mentally rotating the image was easy enough.  So was getting the details.  Hell, thanks to the serum, he probably could have remembered the tattoo without the aid of the sketch, but he didn’t want to take the chance.  There was too much at risk here.  There was absolutely no way they’d be able to recreate his tattoo if they didn’t know what it looked like, and it wasn’t as if they could ask someone for help.

It took only a few seconds for him to draw it.  It took longer, a minute or two, to double and triple check it.  He couldn’t afford to make a mistake, even if the serum made that extremely unlikely.  Then he folded up the weird paper and stuffed that into his pants pocket.  He took the cloth that had caught most the substance of the tattoo.  When he wiped it over the smooth skin of his chest again, more of the silvery liquid came away.  He could barely see the symbols any more.  “Christ Almighty,” he whispered.  His hands shook as he put his shirt back on and tucked it into his trousers as tightly as he could so that it’d stay in place and hide where his tattoo had been.  Where it was supposed to be.  “God, help me here…”

What the hell do I do now?

Suddenly a shrill blast of crackling noise wailed in his ears.  It was so unbelievably loud that he actually cried out, covering his ears with his hands which he belatedly realized was utterly useless because the noise was coming from inside his head. The pain was awful, like his ear drums were bursting, like there was thunder in his head, like his brain was being thrashed by some sort of wild electrical storm.  It seemed to go on forever.

But then it stopped.  In the wake of the godawful booming, shrieking hell, there was only a loud hum, like his ears were ringing.  Steve swallowed down his nausea, the pounding headache receding enough so that he could process his surroundings again.  He still couldn’t hear much over the hum, but it was slowly getting better.  His own heart pounding was pretty loud, anyway.  He dropped his shaking hands.

And found blood coating his fingertips on both his hands.

“Oh, hell,” he moaned.  He reached back up to the area behind his ears, probing with careful fingers.  Sure enough, he could feel the little lumps there where he hadn’t been able to before, the skin over them broken and wet.  “Not this too…”

The serum was forcing out the implants.  His translators were failing.

For what felt like forever, he just stood there, reeling with this latest twist.  His tattoo was nearly gone.  The implants in his head were on their way out.  Tony was hurt, could be sick or worse, and the engineering mafia and their thugs were after them.  That was, of course, if Kar and his thugs didn’t kill them first for causing all this trouble.  Could it get any worse?  Couldn’t someone give them a break?  Throw them a goddamn bone?

Apparently not.

The second he could hear again and get his mind actually functioning enough to process it, he heard a pained cry from outside.  That wasn’t Tony.  Tavin.  Steve’s blood turned to ice, his breath locking up in his chest, but his moment of shock didn’t last long.  He heard another voice.  An angry voice.

“Where is he?”

Xeran.

Funny how quickly he’d come to associate that guttural tone with fear despite having only heard it a few times before.  Steve pressed himself to the wall in the little space, peering through the spot where the ratty curtain didn’t quite reach the rocks.  He could barely see down the short hallway to the front of the dwelling where he’d left Tony and Tavin.  It was enough, though.  They’re here.  Of course, they were.  There was Xeran.  The bastard was standing there, glaring maliciously.  Murderously.  Around him was Mook A and Mook D.  That probably meant the other two thugs were holding or (God, no) hurting Tavin or Tony.  Or both.

“Damn it,” Steve whispered.  This was where his mistake came back to bite him in the ass.  And not just him.  Tony.  Tavin.  It made his blood boil.  Letting your guard down for a second in this hellhole was tantamount to disaster.

His right translator crackled and hissed more, so he couldn’t hear what exactly Tavin said in response.  This would certainly be an opportunity for Tavin to save his own skin and sell them to their enemies.  But he hadn’t thus far, and he didn’t now.  “–not here!  Get out!  You don’t have any right to come in here!”

“You’re lying,” Xeran snarled.  “If Stark’s here, the Grub’s here.  I want them both.  I want them now.

“Get out,” Tavin warned again, though his voice sounded greatly strained, like something was choking him.  “You’re making a mistake!”

“The only mistake I’ve made was ever allowing Stark to form an alliance with you,” Xeran snapped.  “You have no power here.  None.  And you’ve thrown your lot in with them, with these stupid Terrans.  I’ll enjoy killing you, cook.

Tavin was undaunted.  “Get out.

For a second, it was quiet.  Then there was a gasp of pain, and Steve could hardly stand the spike of panic going through him.  That was Tavin crying.  God, they were hurting him because of them.  He should have never come here.  He should have taken Tony and run.  He shouldn’t have been so damn selfish.  He reached into his boot and pulled the knife and made to go out there and stop this.  He had to stop this.  He’d die trying!

But then Xeran yelled, “Find the Grub!  He must be here!”

“What about this one?”

Tony.

“Take the skin.  Do it right this time.  And make him scream.  That will lure the other out.”

Steve clenched the knife tighter.  It took everything he had to stay still.  Through the curtain’s holes, he could see Mook D moving, coming down the hallway.  He backed up, pressed himself into the meager shadows in the washroom for cover, and waited, holding his breath and keeping completely still.  He was only going to get one shot at this.

But, even still, when the time came to attack, he didn’t go for the kill.  Mook D grabbed the curtain and pulled it back, and Steve lunged at him.  The guy never had a chance.  Steve tackled him, mercilessly slamming his head into the wall behind them with enough force to knock him out.  Then he was moving, rushing with the knife, and heading right for Mook A. 

Mook A had his huge hand around Tavin’s throat.  Steve launched himself at him, jumping up powerfully and grabbing at the thug’s mane of hair to get onto his back.  Mook A roared, dropping Tavin and batting at Steve, but Steve was already stabbing with the knife.  Even with his strength behind it, the blade hardly went in.  The alien’s skin was that thick and tough.

Despite the attack not doing that much damage, it clearly hurt.  Mook A screamed in frustration when his first attempt to reach Steve failed.  Steve yanked the knife out with his right hand, holding on tight with his left as the monster flailed and whipped about.  Mook B lumbered over from where he’d been holding Tony down with a foot on the engineer’s chest, and when he raised his huge fist to punch Steve, Steve let go at the last second and dropped to the ground.  The blow struck Mook A’s back instead of his, and that apparently hurt even worse if the bellow Mook A let out was any indication.  Steve didn’t stop to see, scrambling from between the mooks, grabbing Tavin’s arm, and pulling him away from them.

But there was nowhere to go.  They were in a tiny space, which was now crammed with thugs and Xeran, so there wasn’t much room to maneuver.  “Cover Tony!  Cover Tony!” Steve cried, pushing Tavin over to Tony’s nearly unconscious body.  Steve didn’t have a chance to see if Tony was okay.  Mook C was lunging at him, but he dodged, swiping the knife.  It scraped against hard chitin, and Steve wasn’t expecting that to be beneath the leathery skin.  He didn’t allow that to slow him much though, twisting, lithely avoiding another sloppy strike, and punching back with his free hand.  God, what he wouldn’t give for his shield right now.  Still, he hit hard enough that that the plating cracked beneath his knuckles.  He struck again after sidestepping a return attack, and the alien staggered back with a shriek, clutching at his now broken chest.  Steve spun and kicked him for good measure, and the alien’s flailing body slammed into the other mooks before tumbling to the floor.

“Rogers, look out!” Tavin cried, and Steve turned, stepping back.  He wasn’t fast enough to avoid Xeran’s claw, which curled into his shirt and yanked.  The fabric ripped.  Steve ducked, the wicked glimmer of a knife’s edge slashing at where his chest had been.  Xeran was quick to slice at him again, using his grip on Steve’s shirt to limit his movement.  Steve wasn’t fast enough to avoid it completely this time, and the blade cut across his stomach.  It wasn’t serious, but it stung something awful.  Xeran’s eyes lit up with the sight of fresh blood, and that made Steve even angrier.  The next stab was sloppier, and Steve anticipated it so it was easy to grab Xeran’s wrist.  He threw his weight into the alien, bending his arm a way it wasn’t meant to go until there was a crack and a cry.  The knife dropped out of Xeran’s fingers.

A huge fist reached for Steve, but he ducked and swung his leg out in a wide arc, knocking Xeran’s feet out from under him before spinning up and kicking Mook A back again.  Xeran fell with a frustrated yowl, taking Steve down by his shirt until Steve lodged his knife deep into his shoulder.  That was enough to get Xeran to let go, and the scream he let out was utterly horrid.  Steve tugged but the blade wouldn’t come loose from Xeran’s flesh, like it was stuck in bone or something.  Xeran turned sharply, latching onto Steve’s hands and digging his nails in hard as he tried to wrest control from him.  Steve yanked, and Xeran twisted, and the handle of the knife snapped clear off the blade.  Shocked, Steve shoved Xeran away, scrambling back as the alien bled and wailed his fury.

By now, however, both the big brutes were on him again.  Mook A and B utterly towered over him, the vampire-looking ringleader and his hairy, vicious sidekick, and Steve backpedaled to get away.  Mook B growled and reached for him, but he was faster, dodging and escaping.  “Get Tony out of here!” he shouted to Tavin, slipping away from another grab.  Some part of his brain not totally overcome by panic realized that was stupid beyond belief.  He was faster than these guys, but they were definitely bigger and stronger and they outnumbered him.  He couldn’t win.  And there was nowhere safe, even if Tavin could carry Tony by himself and even if he managed to escape with him.  They were trapped.

Xeran basically had them where he wanted them.

But Steve didn’t give up.  He darted between the two massive aliens before pivoting and ramming his elbow into Mook A.  This time he had more power behind the hit, and the thug cursed viciously at him as he was knocked back into the wall.  Steve whirled and punched at Mook B, but the bastard was ready for it.  He caught his fist, completely enveloping Steve’s hand in his massive fingers and locking them into a battle of pure strength.  Steve dug his boots into the ground, pushing with all he had.  He knew how strong he was, how much weight he could lift and how much force he could stand withstand, but this guy didn’t budge.  Grotesquely gigantic muscles flexed under the dark, coarse hair covering Mook B’s body as he countered Steve’s effort with an irate snarl.  They actually seemed fairly well-matched.  Steve let himself hope for a second that he could win.

And he might have had a chance until Mook A rejoined the brawl.  He was frustrated and furious, and Steve couldn’t pull away from Mook B’s hold in time to avoid Mook A draping a massive arm around his throat and yanking him back into the solid, unforgiving wall of the alien’s chest.  Panic rushed through Steve, pounding in his brain with every fast pulse of his heart.  He was immobilized and utterly vulnerable.  He got his hands around the meat of Mook A’s forearm and pulled with all of his strength, but he couldn’t break the hold, and the pressure on his throat was unbearable.

“I’ll break your neck this time!” hissed a voice in his ear.  The arm around his throat pulled even tighter.  “Let’s see you escape this…”

Blackness danced along the edges of Steve’s vision as he struggled to breathe, his windpipe crushed again.  It only got worse when Mook B punched him straight in his exposed midriff.  The last of his air burst from his lips in a wrangled gasp, and pain burned through every nerve in his body.  Mook B sneered, realizing he had his victim at his mercy, and drew back to hit Steve again.

With the last of his strength, Steve used the hold to his advantage.  He braced his back against Mook A’s chest for leverage, throwing himself into the other and kicking up.  Both his boots landed solidly into Mook B’s belly, and the alien doubled over with a cry and a splurt of blood from his lips.  The motion jostled Mook A’s grip just enough that Steve could suck in a bit of air, and with renewed energy and determination he yanked at the arm around his neck, yanked and pulled hard, and won more freedom, more air, more time to fight and struggle.

It didn’t matter, though.  Xeran stepped up, nothing but pure rage in his eyes.  “I was going to make him watch me gut you,” he hissed, standing right in front of Steve as he squirmed.  The translator crackled and hissed more, stuttering and stumbling, but Steve could still make out every awful word.  Xeran drew a knife from his clothing, one he ran up Steve’s chest until it was right in front of his horrified eyes.  “But now I’m thinking the other way could be just as satisfying.”

“Don’t,” Steve gasped, fighting for air.  “Please!”  The serum.  This was his last chance to barter.  “I – I can – I have–”  But he couldn’t.  He couldn’t speak anymore.  Mook A tightened his hold around Steve’s neck, and his words were choked off.  His lungs ached and burned, his heart straining to feed oxygen to his body, and it was all he could do to blink away the pull of unconsciousness.

“Finish it!” Xeran snapped to the others.

Mook B had regained himself, even more enraged.  Instead of hitting Steve again, though, he stalked over to where Tavin was protecting Tony.  Tavin’s eyes were wide with terror as he stood between their attacker and his target.  He didn’t get a chance to say or do anything.  Mook B batted him to the side like he was nothing, and he hit the wall with a horrible-sounding thud and crumpled.

Steve helplessly watched as Mook B leaned down over Tony’s unconscious body.  No!  Please!  The beast unfurled his massive claw, the long, wicked nails of it grimy and black.  He touched Tony’s chest, right above where they’d bandaged the wounds around his tattoo.  The nails dug and gouged in, and Tony cried out, wriggling.  No, no, no!  The monster growled, grabbing a handful of Tony’s pec, grabbing the tattoo, and making to rip it clear off him.

No!

Then the strangest thing happened.  There was a weird sound that Steve barely made out over the pounding between his ears, and Mook B just toppled over.  Steve couldn’t understand it, couldn’t focus, could hardly see through the tears in his eyes and think with his oxygen-deprived brain all but shutting down.  Oddly enough, though, the choking pressure across his throat vanished, too, and there was a thud behind him, and he was free.

He immediately went down onto his knees, coughing desperately, chest heaving and burning as his lungs worked hard to get air, air that smelled foul like burning hair and flesh.  It felt like an eternity passed while he fought to breathe, but it was only a second or two.  Then he blinked and saw Kree in the room.

Kree.

Only these weren’t the guards.  They were the guys he’d seen off and on before, the ones who didn’t work, the ones who collected skins off the dead.  The ones who served Kar.  And that noise had been a rifle firing.  The stench was burning flesh, as in the massive hole in Mook B’s back where he’d been shot.  Steve twisted around and saw Mook A behind him, dead as a doornail.  In fact, there was a crater where his face used to be.  Terror washed over Steve again, and he turned back, sick and panicked.

The Kree with the rifle stepped over to Steve, in front of Steve, and then past Steve.  He kicked Mook C where the alien was still moaning on the floor with his chest punched in and fired the gun again.  The weird, electrical whine made Steve jump, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw a smoldering, charred mess where Mook C used to be.

They’re not here for us.  They’re not here for us!

That was even more obvious when Xeran lunged at the Kree who had the rifle.  As deceptively strong and fast Xeran was, he was no match for the tall, muscular alien.  It was strange to see this powerful threat that had dominated their lives since arriving get smacked down so simply, but that was what happened.  The Kree whipped the rifle across Xeran’s face and he collapsed, the knife clanging to the rocks.  The Kree knelt down to pick it up and then handed the rifle to his comrade.  That one went deeper into the dwelling.  A second later, Steve heard Mook D moaning and begging.  The translator gave out, so Steve couldn’t make out what he was saying.  The pain and fear was understandable enough, as was the sound of that gun.  Steve jerked, trying not to picture what it looked like.  As it turned out, he didn’t have to imagine.  The Kree with the rifle came back a few seconds later, carrying the corpse of Mook D over his shoulder like it was a sack of goods.  His chest was melted.

Horrified at the grisly sight, Steve turned back to the scene before him.  Not that this was any less violent or awful.  The first Kree was staring down at Xeran, pretty uncaring about his peers hauling out the bodies of the dead mooks.  The dead mooks.  In the matter of a few seconds, this gang of Kree had exterminated the entire gang.  These monsters who’d tormented and tortured and nearly killed Steve…  Now they were dead.  Just like that, it was over.

And it was about to be over for Xeran.  The bastard knew it, shaking wildly, watching with wide eyes as the Kree nonchalantly used his knife to pick at his nails.  “I made a mistake,” Xeran said.  “I didn’t realize he wanted Stark to himself!  I didn’t understand!  I didn’t…”  It was obvious his excuses weren’t making a bit of difference.  The Kree towering over him couldn’t have looked any more disinterested.  Xeran’s earnest expression melted away.  “That fat bastard…” He seethed.  He said something else, something the translator failed to catch, but the tone was enough to convey the depths of his rage.  “–done nothing but serve him for years, and the minute a new face comes around, he goes with him.  Stark’s not smarter!  He’s not smarter!  I could have figured it out, could have done what that asshole wanted, but he didn’t care, passed me over like I was nothing after everything I’ve done, so fuck him and if he wants to waste his time on these pathetic humans like a fucking fool–”

That was it.  The Kree didn’t let him finish.  Steve hardly saw him move.  It was nothing more than a wink of silver in the poor light, but that wink of silver was deadly because the Kree slashed Xeran right across the throat.  Xeran didn’t even seem to realize what had happened.  His hard scowl faded, and shock worked its way over his face when he discovered his voice wasn’t working any more.  Blood gurgled from his mouth when he tried to breathe, and he covered the gushing wound with his hands, like that could keep his vital fluids in.  It couldn’t.  A second or two later, he pitched forward.  His body hit the floor hard, twitching unnaturally as a black pond spread from his head and neck.  Then he went still, his eyes open and staring right at Steve but unseeing, glazed with death.

Steve stared back for a second, utterly overwhelmed.  That was all he could do.  Stare.  Then he swallowed through a tight, dry throat and managed to pull in a breath, turning his gaze to the Kree.  He found the alien staring right at him with dark eyes.  The massive creature took a step closer, and Steve couldn’t help it.  He flinched, drew back, bumping into Mook A’s corpse.  The Kree leaned over him, that wicked knife dripping black blood.  “You,” the Kree hissed.  Steve scrambled back even more, but there was nowhere he could go.  He felt Tavin’s eyes on him, felt the room seemingly close in because this guy was going to murder him next.

But he didn’t.  “It’s your job to protect him?” the Kree demanded, violence and ire in his glare.

Steve didn’t follow for a second.  He caught Tavin’s gaze, Tavin where he was covering Tony’s body with his own.  Tony.  Tony’s chest was moving.  Tony was breathing.  Tony was whimpering softly.  Tony was alive.

“Yes,” Steve whispered.  He took another breath, made his voice stronger.  “Yes!”

“Then do it,” the Kree snarled, shoving the knife toward Steve.  Steve jerked but didn’t move further.  “Whatever it takes.  Don’t make the boss intervene again.”

Surprised, Steve managed a nod.  The Kree moved, and Steve almost lurched out of the way, but he wasn’t coming to grab him.  He grabbed Xeran’s body instead.  He and another of his thugs pulled him away, and more came to get Mook A.  Steve watched, utterly flabbergasted.  He sat still, surprised into a state of paralysis, as the Kree efficiently collected the rest of the bodies and removed them from Tavin’s place.  Nothing further was said.  No more was done.  In less than a minute, they were gone, and the only sign that there’d been a fight at all was the mess and the puddles of blood.

Steve watched the curtain, unable to process anything at all for what felt like a long time.  The gray cloth didn’t move, blocking the outside of Hell from them.  Like they were safe.  Safe.

They were safe.

That thought blasted through the shock, and Steve lurched up from where he’d been sitting.  He raced across the little distance between him and the others, dropping roughly to his knees beside Tavin where he was still draped over Tony.  Tavin’s mottled skin was even more shimmery and discolored, a strange green hue that was likely bruises blooming from where he’d been hit and thrown into the wall.  Steve set a hand to his back.  “Are you okay?  Are you?”

Eyes as wide as saucers, Tavin nodded.  He moved without being asked, letting Steve get closer.  Steve leaned over Tony, hands shaking.  The bandage over where Tony had been cut was dislodged, and around that were the gouges from Mook B’s claws, five of them marked by rubies of blood welling up.  Steve wiped them away with his own palm to get a better look.  The punctures weren’t deep.  Tony was alright.  Hot with a fever, trembling in his sleep, but he was alright.

Safe.

Steve gathered him up in his arms, giving a long, shaking sigh of complete relief.  Then he threw an arm around Tavin, too.  He pulled him closer.  Maybe it wasn’t appropriate, but he found he couldn’t care much.

Strangely enough, Tavin didn’t seem to care, either, and clung back just as hard.


They cleaned themselves up.  Secured their belongings.  Tried to straighten up the mess and put the dwelling back together.  Thankfully not too much had been damaged in the brawl.  The medical kit had been dumped and scattered sometime during the struggle, and Tavin was painstakingly organizing their limited supplies.  He’d mostly refused care for himself.  It was pretty clear he hurt all over.  Steve did, too, and he also hadn’t done much to care for his new cuts, scrapes, and bruises.  The both of them were battered and bloodied and quiet, a little overwhelmed, tentative with everything like this wasn’t quite real. Like making too much noise or moving too fast and accepting reality would make this newfound peace vanish.

But it wasn’t.  Tavin had mopped up the blood, wiping it away like someone could erase death and pain and suffering.  The whole thing was like some weird, bad dream, fading slowly while leaving the world hazy to Steve’s senses.  He sat with Tony in his arms in their spot.  He was just feeling Tony breathe, resting in the quiet and, dare he actually call it this, comfort.  Any serenity or sense of security was an illusion, and he damn well knew it.  This was Hell, and there were bound to be a dozen other thugs and brutes and sadistic bastards out there perfectly willing to take the Mooks’ places.  Xeran’s spot would get filled by the next bloodthirsty prisoner wanting a chance to rise and clever and cruel enough to take it.  Logically Steve had accomplished very little today.

They were all alive, though.  Steve was alive.  Tavin was alive.  Tony was here in Steve’s arms, sick, yes, and battered, but alive.  Considering all they’d been through, there was no way this wasn’t a win.

“How is he?” Tavin asked.  He was coming into the front area with a handful of things, food included.  It was very late, and they’d never had a chance to eat before.  Tavin handed Steve something that looked like dried meat and set a canteen next to him on the floor.

Steve took the food with his free right hand.  His left was around Tony, holding him tight.  Tony was breathing slowly and steadily into his neck, eyes closed, the length of his dark lashes pressed to his cheekbones.  The IV had fallen out during the fight, but they’d easily gotten it back in place so he was getting steady fluids.  That was a serious relief.  Steve had his palm on Tony’s back, and he was rubbing the flat of it up and down Tony’s bare skin.  He probably didn’t need to be holding Tony like this, but it felt good.  Grounding.  Tony was quiet, peaceful, and each brush of air against the nape of Steve’s neck was nothing short of a miracle.  “Okay,” Steve answered.  “Breathing easy.  Pretty sure he’s got a fever, but it’s not too high.”

Tavin nodded.  That hideous bruising was blooming all over his face.  “Will that kill him?”

There was no way Steve could know, but he didn’t let that deter him from having hope.  “No.  He’s too strong for that.”

Again Tavin nodded, though more solemnly.  He didn’t speak for a moment, sitting down across from Steve and eating his fruit.  Steve chewed on the dried meat.  It tasted pretty good, but that might have been because his stomach was a miserable, empty pit inside him.

They ate.  Steve downed the entire canteen of water Tavin brought.  Once he started drinking, he couldn’t stop.  Wordlessly Tavin offered him more, another canteen and more meat.  “You realize this does not free him of his obligations,” the alien said softly.  “Should he recover.”

“He’ll recover,” Steve assured again, dropping the canteen from his lips.  “He will.”

Still Tavin didn’t debate.  It didn’t make a difference.  No matter what, they had a rough time ahead of them.  Tony was most certainly ill with something.  His breathing and pulse were strong, but this was an infection.  Steve was sure of it.  He’d battled more than his fair share of sickness in his life so he felt like he knew.  He knew serious illness from something more minor.  This was something more minor.

They were quiet again.  Steve chewed, sinking into exhaustion and refusing to even entertain the possibility of Tony surviving all this only to die at the hands of the filth that had invaded his body.  It wouldn’t happen.  Steve wouldn’t let it.

Eventually Tavin stood.  He gathered up the empty canteens.  “I think I will try to sleep,” he declared.

“You should,” Steve said softly.  Tavin started to walk away, but before he could leave, Steve spoke again.  “Something that’s bothering me…”

Tavin turned back, and the smile on his face was fairly wry.  “Just one thing?”

Steve smiled too.  “I was wondering…  How did they know to come?”  This question had been whispering in the back of his mind since the fight.  It couldn’t have just been coincidence that those Kree showed up right when they did.  “How’d they realize Xeran and his guys were coming for us?  That they were here?”

Tavin’s smile slid away.  “I told Kar,” he declared.  Steve’s eyes widened.  Tavin tipped his head slightly.  “Well, to be clear, I did not go before him and ask for help specifically.  I merely spoke to his guards.  That was thankfully sufficient”

That didn’t make any sense.  “When did you do that?”

“Yesterday, before I came to you with the information I’d learned.  I…  I anticipated you would act on it, and I knew you would be facing Xeran and those he had recruited.  I believed you would not seek help, and there was simply no way you could defeat them alone, no matter how strong and stubborn and foolishly brave you are.”  Tavin sighed.  “We are very fortunate the others arrived on time.  I had hoped it would not come to what it did, but then you let that miner go.  I suppose it’s of no consequence now.”

Steve stared.  He couldn’t quite process that, at least not beyond the fact that Tavin had saved them.  Again.  “And you didn’t need to offer Kar something else to get his help?”

Tavin shrugged sadly.  “He believes in protecting his investments almost as much as he revels in destroying those who cross him.  Xeran crossed him.  He has been crossing him for a long time.  Today was the day he outlived his usefulness.”

Steve digested that.  The moments he’d spent fearing, considering going to Kar and then dismissing it because he had nothing to offer, nothing with which to negotiate…  Tavin had essentially just ratted Xeran out, gone and tattled on another prisoner, and that had been enough to bring down Kar’s wrath.  It was disturbing to consider, that Kar had condemned Xeran just like that, signed his death warrant based upon simply the word of someone else.  Disturbing, yes, but also relieving at the same time, and Steve didn’t know what to think.

Other than the same thing yet again.  Tavin had saved them.  He’d gone to bat for them, risked himself for them, gone along with this no matter how dangerous and detrimental to himself it was.  The aloof, stoic, unlikely ally they had here…  He was nothing short of completely invaluable.

“Thank you.”  Steve heard himself say that.  His mouth was way ahead of his brain, operating on manners instilled into him alone because he still couldn’t manage a cognizant thought.  He had to keep saying it, because he didn’t think he could ever repay the other prisoner for what he’d done.

Tavin nodded, face softening.  Then he said something, and the translator utterly failed.  Steve’s head throbbed viciously for a second.  The implants caught basically nothing of what Tavin was saying.  Nothing.  Steve couldn’t understand him at all.  Still, he nodded like he could, desperate to hide this latest calamity.  The buzzing, crackling, and hissing went on long after Tavin had already walked away.

When the noise finally did abate, he heard Tony moan into his neck.  Steve released a breath, leaning back to look down.  Tony was still laying against him.  The engineer licked his torn lips, shivering.  “Steve?”

“Yeah, Tony,” Steve said, warm with renewed energy.  “Yeah, I’m here.”

Tony didn’t say anything further for a second.  Then he mumbled, “They kill us?”

That was so stupidly outrageous that Steve couldn’t help a little laugh.  “Not yet.  And not if I can help it.”

Tony giggled himself, but the giggle dissolved into a sob, and he clutched at Steve’s shirt, pulling hard.  “Can’t help it,” he mumbled, slurring the words.  “Feel like shit.”

“I know,” Steve soothed.  He swept his hand down the other man’s trembling back more pointedly.  “Just hang on, okay?  I’m gonna get you through this.”

Tony didn’t seem capable of hanging onto anything, let alone his composure.  The sobs got worse and worse, more pained and frightened.  Wet breaths and shuddery sighs and clenched whimpers.  Steve didn’t know what to say or do.  He wasn’t sure if Tony was at all aware of what had happened, but it didn’t matter.  He hushed him softly, still rubbing comfortingly at his back.  “It’s alright.  It’s over, Tony.  They’re all dead.  They’re all dead.  And you’re gonna get better.  You will.  I know it.”

“Don’t leave me,” Tony suddenly begged.  Hot tears soaked through Steve’s shirt.  “Please don’t leave me!”

Steve closed his eyes.  He’d sworn this before, and he’d swear it again.  Over and over again.   As many times as Tony needed.  “I’m not leaving you, Tony.  Never.  I swear it.”

“Don’t let them get me.”

“Never.”

“Don’t let me fall!”

“Never, Tony.”  Steve squeezed him tight.  “Just sleep, okay?  I’m not going to let anything hurt you.”

“Steve…”  Tony buried his burning face even closer into Steve’s neck.

“Shhh.”  Steve kissed Tony’s head and grabbed the ratty blanket.  He pulled it over them both.  It wasn’t much, not much warmth or comfort or protection, but it felt more substantial than it was.  It felt good.  “Sleep.  It’s alright.  Sleep.”

Tony quieted.  Steve kept running a hand down his back, many long minutes slipping away as he did.  Eventually he felt something trickle down his face.  Tears.  And something rolling down his neck.  He didn’t need to feel it to know it was blood.  By the next morning, the serum would completely push out the implants.  He’d be unable to understand Tavin, to understand anyone.  Unable to go anywhere.  Unable to work.  Isolated and alone and disabled.

Right now, though, he could do the one thing he’d swore he do.  Protect Tony.  He’d do that with the last breath in his body.  This was what he was here for, how he could help.  So he’d keep saying whatever he had to.  He’d keep his eyes open no matter how tired he was, keep watch no matter what.  He’d keep fighting.  He’d keep Tony safe.  He’d promised he would.

And he’d more than shown to everyone that he could, himself most of all.

Chapter Text

Day 34

As Tony began to wake up, he felt warm and safe.  That was nice.  Really nice.  He’d gotten rather acquainted over the years to waking up not feeling either of those things.  On top of that, he’d been seriously hurt enough in the past to recognize that he was regaining consciousness after something really bad.  He couldn’t remember what exactly, and that was probably a good thing.  Ignorance was bliss and all that.  There’d be pain when he did come to.  He was sure about that.  Pain and distress and probably shit worse than that.  Whatever hell he’d left behind.  Plus this felt so good that it was hard to even want to acknowledge the disaster that had landed him in this state, so he slipped away again.

But eventually he had to go back to the world.  Awareness mounted until he couldn’t ignore it any longer, and he opened his eyes.  There was blurry gray rock and shadows.  Something new and different.  That bitter thought came and brought a barrage of unpleasantness but a surprising amount of logic and understanding with it.  This wasn’t Afghanistan.  There was no arc reactor in his chest, no slew of angry terrorists demanding he build weapons outside his cell door.  No, this was Hell.  The hell he’d left behind was Hell.  He felt a little giddy with how stupid that was.  He was still in Hell.  Of course he was, and of course that was hardly any better (or even different really).  On the tails of that sad realization came another thought, this one more upsetting but at the same time utterly incredible.

I’m still alive.

He definitely was.  A slew of sensations flitted across his awakening mind.  Heat.  The overwhelming stink of garbage.  Pain in his chest.  Someone cutting him.  Slicing him.  He shifted uncomfortably, that horrifying thought crawling over him like a horde of insects.  God, they had tried to cut off his tattoo.  And more pain, something pulling at his skin, stitching it…  Yelling.  Fighting.  A chaotic struggle around him.  Fire in his head.  Coughing and sobbing and sickness.  Calm, tender hands, smoothing his hair, rubbing his chest, helping him drink.  Bandaging his wounds and washing his skin.  Strong arms and a warm, firm chest.  A steady heartbeat under his ear.  A loving voice, soothing him through his nightmares.  He remembered that more and more now, that he’d been delirious, drifting in and out of consciousness, but those tender hands and strong arms and that familiar voice were constant.  They kept him alive, kept him sane.  Anchored him.  Got him through.

And those arms were holding him now.  Those hands were around his chest and belly.  Someone was breathing into his neck.

Steve.

Tony groaned, simultaneously horrified and so, so relieved to have Steve right there, apparently sleeping behind him.  More fully awake now, he blinked hazily and took better stock of his surroundings.  This was definitely their little place in Tavin’s hovel.  It was… night?  Day?  There was never any way to tell, and that made his confusion about what had happened and how much time had passed much worse.  He was propped up against Steve’s chest, between Steve’s legs on the pallet, and a couple ratty but surprisingly warm blankets were over them both.  Steve was obviously leaning against the wall, sleeping in a position that wasn’t likely too comfortable for him, and Tony’s beleaguered brain didn’t realize why at first.

Then he understood.  One deep breath was all it took.  Fuck, he was congested.  He could feel it in his nose and ears, in his sinuses and throat, in his chest.  It was hard to inhale, harder still to exhale without choking.  It was like a lead weight inside him, tugging down in his lungs and making it difficult for his muscles to operate.  As if his sudden notice of it kicked it into high gear, a cough barked out of his lips.  He shifted again, trying to swallow down the uncomfortable tickle in his dry throat, but he couldn’t, and pretty soon he was trying to hack up his lungs.

That woke Steve up quickly.  Tony didn’t have the strength – God, he was weak – to lean away from him, so his violent coughs shook Steve as much as they did him.  “Tony?  Tony…  Oh, geez, Tony – Tony, hold on.  Easy!  Easy, easy, easy.”

The world dimmed as Tony choked.  Vaguely he felt Steve bending him forward a bit, those big, strong hands on his back, rubbing consolingly.  It was hard to focus on that, on Steve’s arms around him and Steve’s voice murmuring in his ear, but he did.  Hazy recollections of doing this before, over and over again, buzzed around the edges of his consciousness where things were dim and strained.  It felt like forever that he suffered with the paroxysm, struggling to suck in air when his lungs kept fitfully rebelling. Steve stayed close, not letting go of him for a second.  Tony could hardly see him through the tears in his eyes and the blackness encroaching on his vision, but he knew he was there.

When his body finally decided to stop torturing him, he hauled in a desperate, reedy breath.  “Fuck,” he moaned.  His voice sounded awful.  Hoarse didn’t begin to describe it.  “Fuck…”

“Here.”  It seemed at some point Steve had moved away a bit, and now he was back with a flask.  “Small sips.”  The canteen was tipped to Tony’s lips, held steady by Steve’s hands since his were shaking so much.  Greedily Tony sucked water in to soothe his throbbing throat.  Steve’s hand was on his back again, rubbing up and down.  Tony gagged and choked more after he swallowed, coughing so deeply it hurt.  Something thick and foul-tasting came right up his throat.  Steve was ready, putting an empty, dented tin in front of him.  “Get it out.  It’s alright.”

Tony did just that, spitting everything out, moaning as he did.  It was utterly disgusting.  And painful.

Steve sighed, taking the tin away.  “Well, no blood this time, so I’m calling that an improvement,” he commented.  Tony couldn’t make sense of that right away, that Steve was actually examining the mess of phlegm he’d coughed up.  Then Steve set it aside and came back with more water.  “Drink some more.”

“What the hell…” Tony whispered after he’d taken a few additional sips.  The room was really spinning.  He didn’t know if that was from coughing so hard or shock or what, but sitting up like this suddenly seemed like too much, too taxing and dizzying. 

Steve was right in front of him, though, eyes bright in the shadows.  He held Tony steady, his hands firm.  “You’re alright,” he swore.  One palm swept over his forehead, brushing his hair back.  “Easy.”

“Goddamn it…”

“No fever.”  Steve cupped Tony’s face and gazed into his eyes.  Tony dazedly stared right back, confused and a little lost in those beautiful blue orbs, and just for a second, he felt very far away from this hellhole and the ache in his chest and head and the cold sweat coating his filthy skin.  “Looks like it’s finally breaking.  And you’re tracking me much better.  Thank God.”  That was said with no small amount of relief.

“Fever?” Tony asked with a wince.

Steve nodded.  He took up Tony’s hand, pressing his fingers into Tony’s pulse; He was silent for a few seconds, very clearly counting.  He seemed pleased enough.  “Yeah.  It’s been pretty bad.”

Tony grimaced harder.  He couldn’t help but wonder what Steve had gone through taking care of him.  The fog in his head was doing a pretty decent job at making everything just one long blur of pain and nightmares.  “How long?” he whispered.

Steve frowned.  This time he gave Tony the canteen and steadied his hand.  Tony drank again, more or less by himself.  Mostly less.  “Four days,” Steve answered.  Tony squeezed his eyes shut.  “Or thereabouts.  That’s how long you had the fever.  This is the first time you’ve made any sense in a while.”  Jesus.  Tony focused on breathing a bit, trying not to be overwhelmed.  Four days.  He didn’t even realize he was shivering until Steve put his arm around him, gathering the quilts back up around him.  “Here, Tony.  You should lay back down.  Don’t push yourself.  You’re still not well.”

He could feel that in the marrow of his bones.  Even if he wanted to protest against Steve pulling and nudging him to lay flatter, he didn’t think he had it in him.  His limbs were like limp noodles, his head stuffed with wool.  It took him a few seconds to make his brain come up with the obvious question.  “What happened to me?”

Without hesitation or preamble, Steve stroked Tony’s hair back from his forehead again.  This one couldn’t possibly be due to him checking Tony’s temperature.  “What’s the last thing you remember?” he softly asked, tucking the blankets around him.

Tony didn’t want to think about it, but it all came surging out of the fog unbidden.  He sighed, struggling with the memories as much as with the ache in his chest.  Those damn lizard-like eyes and that awful sneer.  The bastards holding him up to be beaten.  Dragging him and pinning him down and cutting his chest.  He felt it now, the skin at his left pec and shoulder pulling uncomfortably with he moved.  There were bandages there, and his arm was in a sling made of cloth.  The whole limb hurt with a dull, throbbing ache.  Tony closed his eyes again.  “Xeran,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed softly.  His hand closed over Tony’s undamaged shoulder.  “He and his crew attacked you.  They threw you down one of the garbage chutes.”

Tony remembered that well enough.  Christ, if he could only forget it.  It was weird, how it seemed so surreal now.  An indistinct nightmare mixed in with a shit ton of reality he’d rather forget.  Heat and air that hurt to breathe, so terrible in his body…  Agony.  “How long was I down there?”

Steve hesitated.  Tony saw so much regret flash in his eyes.  “About a day.  I think.  I don’t know exactly when they did it.  I…  Tony, I swear to you, I came as fast as I could.”

Tony shook his head, a small, rough jerk.  “No, no.  I just…”  He didn’t know what to say.  He looked down at his left arm again, peaking at the bandages.  They were soiled and definitely from that first aid kit Kar had given him when Steve had been starving.  Moving around had dislodged one side a bit, and he could just see the end of a slash, stitched with very precise black thread.  His stomach rebelled, and his lungs came close to seizing again.  God, it hurt.  The memory of those assholes dislocating his shoulder jolted across his head.  Clearly Steve had reset the joint.  And stitched up his chest.  And nursed him through whatever disease had befallen him.  Hell, Tony had no clue how Steve had gotten him out of the chute to begin with.

Or found him for that matter.  It was a miracle.  He should be dead.  For hours he’d languished down there, half out of his mind with terror, floating from flashback to nightmare to memory to unconsciousness.  Passing out had been a small mercy when his lungs, burned with chemicals and heat, had practically failed him.  Steve must have come shortly after that.  He wouldn’t have survived much longer, after all those hours breathing that poison.

And that probably explained the damage to his chest now, the congestion and the heavy pain.  He could hear himself wheezing.  That sad truth came again.  He should be dead.  Tightly he closed his eyes against his tears.  He couldn’t stop the shudder from working its way over him.

“You’re doing a lot better,” Steve promised gently when he saw that, squeezing Tony’s hand.  “Really, you are.  You got through it.  Not gonna lie.  It’s been a rough few days for sure.  But it’s over now.  You’re okay.”

Tony couldn’t stop the laugh from bursting out of him, and of course that brought with it a whole new slew of coughs.  The attack quickly went out of control, getting worse and more vicious as Tony started to panic.  Steve moved closer, rubbing his chest now as he struggled.  “Nice, slow breaths.  Easy.  Try to stay calm.”  Tony tried.  Fuck, it was hard with his throat closing up and his chest aching and his brain screaming that he needed oxygen now.  “Easy.  With me, Tony.  Okay?  Just follow me.  In and out.”  Steve took a deep breath, exaggerating the action for Tony’s benefit.  Normally Tony might have been irritated at being babied like this – he knew how to fucking breathe, thank you – but right now he was too panicked to do much more than follow along.  Steve exhaled, and Tony tried to with him.

It took a while before he could get control (and enough air) to speak again, but he did.  “’s awful.”

“Yeah,” Steve softly agreed.  His eyes were filled with pain.  “I know.”

Tony realized he did know.  A youth spent struggling with asthma probably taught someone a thing or time about handling damaged airways.  That was strangely touching, that Steve was probably using a technique he’d been taught as a kid on Tony now, and Tony did nothing but follow it a bit longer, letting the slow, steady constancy of Steve breathing in and out console him.  Steve continuing to rub his chest helped, too.

Eventually Tony settled, closing his eyes.  “How’d you…  How’d you find me?”

Steve paused in his touches like he’d been caught in a crime, but then he went right back to it.  It felt really nice, a small solace in a world of hurt.  “I almost didn’t,” Steve softly admitted after a pregnant pause, and there was so much guilt and pain in his voice that it made Tony’s chest ache for an entirely different reason.  He opened his eyes to see Steve’s face.  Steve’s eyes were still so bright, and now they were wet, too, glistening with a hint of unshed tears.  “It was just dumb luck.”  He looked like he wanted to say more, but he was stopping himself, as if he wasn’t certain it was right.  “I was so scared I wouldn’t.”

That ache in his chest – in his heart – got stronger.  “I’m sorry.”

Steve gave an embarrassed, lopsided smile.  “Not your fault.”

“No, I’m…”  Tony swallowed down the lump in his throat.  The mere fact he was alive was again overwhelming, more than he could stand to process.  Steve found me.  I called for him, and he must have heard me.  Must have…  It didn’t make a damn bit of sense, and it was totally implausible and utterly irrational, but how else could Steve have found him in that one random garbage chute in all of Hell?

Steve saved me.

All this guilt just came pouring out of him.  He knew it was days ago that he’d felt ashamed of how he’d acted, that he’d said things that were mean and harsh and cruel because he himself had been frightened and hurting and too much of a chicken shit to ask for help…  But now it seemed paramount.  “I’m sorry I told you I didn’t need you.  That you couldn’t help me.  I’m sorry I pushed you away.”  His throat almost seized up with a sob, and he felt helplessly out of his mind with how alien and unsettling this was, to feel so strongly.  He gave a dopey, apologetic smile to hide the onslaught of emotion.  “Guess I was really wrong about that.”

Steve’s hand went back to stroking through his matted hair.  Tony could feel how grungy and filthy he was, but Steve didn’t seem to care.  He wasn’t much better himself.  “You were,” he said with a teasing smile that did nothing to hide how relieved and touched he was.  “But it’s alright.  Like I said, Tony…  I almost…  I didn’t…”  That wet glimmer got even wetter, and Steve ducked his head with a sigh.  “You were down there much longer than you needed to be.  If I’d just figured it out–”

“Steve, stop.  You – you got me out.  Saved my life.”  Tony’s voice broke.

“And you saved mine,” Steve countered gently.  He wiped at his cheek, but that only smeared the tears.  “So I guess we’re even?”

That made Tony feel sad and hopeful at once.  It was too formal, too hinged on the familiarity of being teammates and hardly more than friends.  “Guess so.”

Steve seemed to recognize his disappointment (or he himself was feeling similarly, wanting of something else or something more – Tony could only hope).  “We’re still together.  Have to make it out of this together, right?”  Steve smiled, staring into Tony’s eyes, and Tony felt warmer again as he stared back.  “Besides, as a former sick kid and the son of a nurse, I did know how to handle this, thank you very much.”  Tony couldn’t help but grin at that, feeling nothing but grateful.  Steve smiled back, but it softened in concern.  “How are you feeling, anyway?  Should’ve asked before.”

Condensing how he was both physically and emotionally down to a few words was impossible.  “Alright,” he finally said.  “Feel weird.  Weak.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed.

Tony couldn’t lie, couldn’t hide it.  He shivered as he sighed.  “And scared.  So fucking scared.”

Steve leaned closer, sweeping his thumb over Tony’s knuckles in a gesture that now seemed very familiar.  “Yeah, I know.  Me too.”

“If…”  God, he could hardly stand to even think about it.  “If Xeran knows you…  If he finds out I’m alive, he’ll–”

“He’s dead.”

Tony didn’t process that for a bit.  His brain was skipping, stuttering, spinning like wheels in mud.  “You killed him?”

Steve shook his head.  “No.  No, I didn’t have to.  Kar sent his goons in to do his dirty work for him.”

“Kar did it?” Tony asked, shocked and alarmed and so relieved that Steve hadn’t had to take Xeran on alone.  Considering the size of the assholes Xeran had recruited to his cause (and the fact they’d hurt Steve before), Steve probably wouldn’t have stood much of a chance.  There were limits to what Captain America could handle, particularly down here.

Steve nodded.  “Xeran crossed the line,” he explained, “when he went after you.  Tavin told Kar, and that was that.”

Tony got the impression that was not simply that, but he didn’t press.  The hazy memories he had of some sort of vicious brawl around him were enough to convince him that taking down Xeran and his thugs hadn’t been that easy at all even with help, the pain and worry in Steve’s eyes notwithstanding.  “Tavin?” he asked instead.  “He’s okay?”

Steve nodded.  “He took a couple hits, but he’s alright.  He’s at work.”  He smiled sadly.  “I wouldn’t have found you without him, Tony.  We owe him our lives.  Both of us.”

Tony wasn’t going to argue with that.  He didn’t know all the particulars, but he didn’t need to in order to realize how damn lucky they both were to have found this strange ally down here.  He felt strangely better, knowing Steve hadn’t had to handle this situation by himself, that he’d had aid.  And guilty, because it was still pretty damn clear he’d put Steve through the wringer.

Which brought him to his next question.  His words were soft, strained.  “What about you?  You okay?”

Steve smiled, but Tony could see the tightness around his eyes, the fact that the gesture was more than a little forced.  “I’m fine,” Steve said, and, again, of course he’d say that.  This is the same asshole who’d rather starve than take a crumb of Tony’s cake, who’d rather bleed out than force Tony to deal with his injuries.  Who tried to save strangers the first day they got here just because it was the right thing to do even though those strangers quite literally stabbed him for his kindness.  Tony didn’t know whether to be angry at him or grateful that he was who he was.  Still.  At least I protected that.

Of course, even muddled as he was right now, his brain was too sharp not to notice an oddity.  Like the fact that Steve was with him when he said Tavin was working, which implied this was during a work day, which therefore implied that Steve was very clearly breaking the rules.  “Why are you here?”

“What do you mean?”  Steve was checking his forehead again and obviously worried he was having another break with reality.

Tony shook him away.  “Why aren’t you working, too?  You said…”

“Oh.”  Now Steve’s grin turned a tad sheepish.  “Kar’s guy told me to make sure you’re okay, so…  Well, I took that literally.  Figured that was about the same as telling me to be your bodyguard.”

That wasn’t the whole story.  It was obvious as hell.  Steve was keeping something from him.  “Are you really okay?” Tony asked more firmly, frankly afraid of the answer.  He was even more afraid now than he had been moments ago, afraid enough to be grasping at Steve’s chest with his good hand, pulling at his shirt and feeling for injuries he couldn’t see.  This was stupid, irrational, but the thought of Steve getting hurt, of Xeran or Kar or anyone doing anything to him while he’d been defending Tony…  It was unbearable.

But when he pulled Steve’s dirty, rough-spun tunic aside, there was nothing there but warm, solid flesh.  Steve’s skin was filthy but unhurt, the breadth of his pectoral muscles smooth and undamaged, the hills and valleys of his abs unblemished.  Maybe his muscles weren’t as prominent and defined as they were when he and Tony had first been brought to Hell, but he really was alright.  As he pressed his shaking fingers to Steve’s chest, Tony shivered with how good that was, how much of a relief.  Memories of how rail-thin and bony it had been when he’d been so sick were right there, too close for comfort.  There was no reason to let that trouble him now.  Steve was alright, breathing slowly, watching Tony’s hand on his chest with soft, somewhat blissful eyes, like Tony’s touch meant something.  Tony could hardly believe it.

Then he noticed Steve’s tattoo was completely gone.

It took a beat for that to make sense in Tony’s head, but when it did, his eyes widened in alarm.  The skin at Steve’s left pec and collarbone was as flawless and smooth as the rest of his chest.  There was nothing there, no sign the tattoo had ever been there.  Tony swept his thumb over where he knew it used to be, awestruck and too surprised to think for a moment.  His brain never stayed inoperable for long, though.  “The serum?”

He looked up at Steve, who wasn’t moving away despite what was an intimate touch that bordered on a caress.  Instead Steve only frowned.  “Yeah.  I guess getting enough to eat was a double-edged sword.”

“Jesus…”  Tony whispered.  He swallowed down another tickle in his throat, but he ended up coughing anyway.  Steve steadied him, putting an arm around his shoulder.  “When…”

“The day you went missing.  It was completely gone not long after that.”

“And they let you stay like this?”

Steve frowned more deeply.  “No one knows about it.  No one except Tavin.  I haven’t been outside since it happened, not since you got sick, and no one’s come in, so…  So it’s okay.”  Okay?  God, without the tattoo, Steve couldn’t work.  You don’t work, you don’t eat.  They were past those awful first few days when that was the case, but the mantra, the cruel, sadistic rule, was still sticking in Tony’s head.  Steve’s trapped here.  He can’t work.

Now what?

Steve sighed and took Tony’s hand away from his chest.  He pulled his shirt closed, hiding the spot where his tattoo should have been from view.  “It doesn’t matter.  This isn’t important right now.  What’s important is you resting more and getting better.  This is all okay.  We’re safe, and we have food and water and medicine, and Tavin’s looking out for us.  No one knows anything, not about the tattoo or you being sick.  So everything’s alright.”

Tony was so overwhelmed by everything that he didn’t think to object.  He ended up coughing again, the pain in his chest and head unrelenting as he hacked and choked into Steve’s shoulder.  When the miserable throes of it were abating, he groaned into Steve’s shirt, embarrassed to be crying, to be so fucking low and screwed up like this.  Steve hushed him softly, rubbing his back again, keeping him close.  “We’re going to die here,” Tony whispered.  Depression and doubt and goddamn defeat were all rushing him, stomping out whatever hope was trying to survive.  “Jesus, Steve, we’re going to die.”

“No, we’re not,” Steve promised.  Like that meant anything.  It hadn’t before.  It hadn’t from the first fucking day, the first night they’d huddled together like this, terrified and panicked and overcome with just how awful their situation was.  Even the minor improvements they’d managed on that front weren’t going to mean a damn thing, not in the face of the monumental struggle for survival still before them.  It all felt like the weight in Tony’s chest.  He couldn’t breathe with it pulling him down.

Steve was going to let him fall, though.  Not this time.  He tucked Tony’s face into the crook of his neck, both arms around him tight.  Even their legs were tangled together under the blankets.  “We’re not.  We’ll get through this.  We’ll figure it out when you’re better.  We’ll do what Kar wants, get out of this mess with him, and after we do that, we’ll find a way out of here.  We’ll go home.”  Home.  The mere thought was too incredible and agonizing to entertain.  “There’s a way to escape.  I know there is, and I know we can find it.”

Tony clenched his eyes shut against the burn of fresh tears.  Escape.  He couldn’t even consider that, hadn’t much even since the beginning.  The obstacles to mere survival were so fucking insurmountable that escape might as well be impossible.  Sickness swirled in his head, reclaiming his mind, and he couldn’t think again, couldn’t see anything beyond the shadows and their bleak odds.  Nothing will get better.  Just like that, he was back down in that pit, suffering and delirious and waiting to die.  “I’m scared,” he whispered again.  Admitting it felt like embracing weakness, but he couldn’t stop the confession any more than he could hold back the cough crawling up his throat.  “I’m so damn scared…”

“Hey,” Steve softly said.  He leaned back and gently pulled Tony’s face away from his shoulder so he could see it.  His warm palms cupped Tony’s chin.  “Look at me, Tony.  Look at me.”

Tony looked.  Even in the shadows, always no matter what, Steve’s eyes were so bright.  Blue and beautiful.  It seemed like they had a power all their own, a power that was untouched and untarnished by this place.  He’d never noticed that before, not like this, and he stared at them, into them, felt that power inside him.  “You’re not alone,” Steve promised.  “I’m with you.  We do this together.  And I swear to you…  I’m not going to let anyone hurt you again.  I promise.”

Some part of him rejected that oath.  It was a logical part, perhaps a little prideful too, because Steve shouldn’t need to protect him.  He said that the first day, too.  No heroics, not even for me.  He’d meant it then.  He was smart, capable, strong, better than the sum of his trauma and doubt and pessimism.  He knew that.  He didn’t need Steve to be his bodyguard.

But he wanted it.  He wanted so desperately to know Steve was there and that they weren’t defeated.  That they could survive and maybe – just maybe – find a way to escape.  He wanted Steve to remind him every time he needed it.  He wanted Steve to be at his side and protect him from the thugs he couldn’t fight and the memories he couldn’t face.  If nothing else, this had taught him he couldn’t stand alone, no matter how much he wanted to.  Together, they would figure this out.

Steve sincerely believed that, and he had faith enough for both of them.  He brushed his thumb down Tony’s face, even slower and more tenderly than before.  “Just sleep.  You need more rest, more time.  We’ll talk more about what happened when you’re better.”

“Okay,” Tony whispered.

“Okay,” Steve replied with a smile.

And that probably should have been it.  Tony was exhausted and in pain, and his eyelids were drooping, and it would have taken nothing at all to succumb to sleep.  But he didn’t because Steve didn’t move away, didn’t turn away, didn’t even look away.  Their faces were so close, noses almost brushing, and Steve’s arms were still around him, and Tony’s hand had gone back to Steve’s chest, and he swore he could feel the steady beat of Steve’s heart under his fingertips.  It was strong and sure, lulling and pleasant.  Calming.  Drawing him in.

Drawing him close until his lips were touching Steve’s in a light kiss.

He’d been so lost in everything that he didn’t even realize it was happening at first, which was strange considering how good it felt.  This was the first time anything had felt good in so long, in thirty days or however long they’d been prisoners, and it was sweetly overwhelming.  He wasn’t sure which of them had leaned in, who had crossed that meager distance between them, but idly he found he didn’t care.  Normally he’d wonder, analyze, doubt and overthink, but right now it just felt too perfect.

A dream that was somehow, here of all places, coming true.

Steve’s lips were dry, a little chapped, and the bristle of his beard was a little itchy.  He was so tentative, not in a way that suggested surprise or misgivings, but simply innocently unsure.  Distant thoughts tip-toed across Tony’s mind, thoughts like is this okay?  Is it his first kiss since he was frozen?  Do I deserve that?  Does he want this as much as I do?  Does he know what I feel–

God, he felt so much.  There weren’t words to express it, and even if there were, he couldn’t speak them anyway.  His mind was happily, dizzily flying upward to this strange state of euphoria.  Hell was far away.  Everything was.  There was no congestion in his lungs, no pain in his body, no cold, hard rock beneath him or the stink of unwashed bodies and sickness or the filth that coated everything down here or the shadows all around them.  There was nothing but this, this first kiss, and Steve’s heart beating steadily under his hand.

Eventually Steve pulled away.  Tony didn’t open his eyes at first, deathly afraid that he was imagining this.  Or, worse, he’d only see Steve’s derision or his disgust or his horror.  Or apathy.  That’d be the most terrible of it all.  Steve feeling nothing for him.  Christ, considering the shit he’d done, the damage he’d caused in his life with his own apathy and callous attitude and broken soul, maybe he deserved it.  For all the mean things he’d said to Steve in an effort to delude himself and hide his true feelings, he didn’t deserve this.

“Tony, look at me.”

At Steve’s soft command, his eyes automatically popped open.  Steve was right there, and his eyes were as deep and blue and bright as ever.  They were filled with emotion, so much that Tony couldn’t parse it, couldn’t figure out if there was love there.  Love.  That was what he wanted.  And here and now, with all this danger and darkness and misery around them, it was ridiculous to want it, but he did.  He did so much.

So he looked.  And he let himself see it.

But Steve didn’t say it, and neither did he.  Instead, they kissed again, Steve guiding Tony’s face to his, Tony pulling him closer by his shirt.  The second kiss was more than the first, less timid and trepidatious, deeper and more exploring.  More possessive.  More certain.  Steve’s mouth was warm and open to him, giving, and Tony took, shivering with something he’d desired all this time but had never once thought he could have.  Steve responded in kind, probing with his tongue once he was comfortable, and Tony let him.  Right then and there, Tony would let him have everything.

But he was too tired and weak to offer much more than this, this long, languid kiss.  When they pulled apart again, Steve was quick to draw him closer, to nestle him in his arms.  Quick but not quite quick enough to hide the wet glimmer of worry in his eyes.  “Rest,” he whispered into Tony’s lips.  “I’ll watch over you.”

Tony snuggled close, basking in the warmth and security, and drifted away as Steve gently kissed him to sleep.


By the time Tony woke up again, he was already well on the way to convincing himself that he’d imagined the whole thing.  It helped that he came to this time and found himself alone.  Steve wasn’t there beside him, holding and comforting and protecting him.  That was more familiar, more par for the course.  He spent a moment getting his bearings, trying to breathe deeply and force his head to clear.  A few awful coughs had a bunch of shit coming up from his lungs, and he fumbled with his good hand in the darkness to find that little tin.  Spitting the foul slime into the bowl, he grimaced and drank from the canteen that wasn’t far from where he’d been sleeping.  Like Steve had said, there wasn’t any blood in the mucus.  “Yay, merrily yay,” he bitterly rasped, drinking more and nearly puking it back up as he did.  Christ, what a nightmare.

After a few minutes, he felt moderately better and steady enough to try and get up.  He was still as weak as a kitten, weaker than he could recall ever feeling before, but he managed to get onto his hands and knees and then up to his feet.  With the wall behind him as support, he caught his breath, sweating like mad and wheezing.  His chest hurt.  It really hurt.  He didn’t know why (well, he did, but he wasn’t feeling certain enough of anything to admit it to himself), but suddenly he wondered if this was what Steve had felt like growing up sick and stricken with asthma.  Had it been a constant struggle for air, an unending battle against lungs that were too damaged to function?  It seemed strange to realize one could take such a mundane, natural, automatic act such as breathing for granted, but there Tony was, chest throbbing and faint with lack of oxygen and feeling sorry for the Steve Rogers of the 1930s who’d lived with this hell in and out for years.

If nothing else, thinking about that was a convenient distraction from the Steve Rogers of here and now, the Steve Rogers who’d rescued him from that trash chute, who’d fought Xeran and his bastard associates to protect him, who’d taken care of him for days, nursed him through what was probably some alien version of pneumonia or some such…  Who’d cleaned and stitched up his wounds, cooled his fever, held him through the worst of the pain, pierced the delirium with those brilliant eyes and tender hands and soft lips…  God, he could still feel them on his own, every bit as warm and wonderful as he’d always pictured them to be.  Could he have really dreamed it all?  As he limped off, he was torn between being frightened that was the case and wanting it to be true, because – God – if he and Steve really did kiss…

He didn’t know what that meant.  He was scared of what he wanted it to mean, and he was even more terrified that it’d mean nothing at all.

Despite his fear (and embarrassment and discomfort), he hobbled right toward the little kitchen.  Sure enough, Steve was there, and so was Tavin, though they weren’t talking.  Steve was eating some sort of purple stew-like substance at the table, and Tavin was working at the counter.  Their silence seemed… odd, not that Tony could explain why.  It wasn’t like Tavin had shown himself to be some sort of chatterbox. 

The second he limped closer, Steve looked up from his meal.  His eyes widened, and he stood, chair scraping on the floor.  That had Tavin turning as well, and the little alien watched as Steve carefully grabbed Tony.  He put an arm around Tony’s upper body to steady him not a moment too soon.  Tony felt about ready to pass out.  “Damn it, Tony.  You shouldn’t be out of bed.”

Just being this close to Steve stoked memories of the kiss, of every kiss they shared before he’d fallen asleep, and Tony was caught between wanting to run from them and burying himself inside them never to leave.  Steve was still so warm and strong, and his embrace eased the chills suddenly wracking his body.  Steve guided him to the dilapidated chair and set him there before going back out front to get the blanket.  He returned with that and wrapped it around his shoulders.  “You doing okay?”

“Wouldn’t…”  He paused to cough a few times, his eyes tearing.  Steve was crouching in front of him now, rubbing his knees.  “Wouldn’t call that pile of crap a bed.”  He darted his eyes to Tavin, who was watching as dispassionately as ever.  “No offense.”

“None taken,” Tavin responded.  He turned to get a second bowl, and a ladle full of the purple stuff was carefully poured inside.  He set that in front of Tony.  “Though Rogers is right.  You are not well enough to be taxing yourself.  You were very ill.”

No shit.  The urge to be sarcastic and snarky came.  It always did when his emotions were off-kilter, and they were seriously screwed up right now.  “Can’t lie around more,” Tony declared instead.  “Wastes time.”  Tavin frowned but didn’t argue.  He handed Tony a spoon, and Tony reached his good hand from beneath the blanket to grab it.  For a second he appraised the odd meal.  Then he sniffled and settled the utensil into the bowl.  He had no appetite.  “How much longer was I out?”

“Another day,” Steve replied.  He rose to his full height and went back to his own chair, though he was clearly apprehensive about leaving Tony unassisted even this little bit.  “You need more rest.”

Apparently this was the senselessly repetitive portion of the conversation, always a staple when he wasn’t looking after himself properly.  Pepper was an expert at it.  “I can’t waste more time,” he said again, taking up the spoon again in some foolhardy attempt to shovel food down and demonstrate his adequate health.  The barrage of coughing that followed pretty fantastically belied his act, and the spoon clattered onto the table as he doubled over, hacking and choking again.  The world dimmed.  He felt a hand on his shoulder, steadying, and he instinctively reached for it, grasping Steve’s familiar fingers and holding on tight.

It seemed like he was coughing forever, but a moment or two later, he had enough wherewithal to wipe the tears from his eyes and cheeks and take a deep breath, one that finally didn’t betray him.  Tavin was holding a cup of water in front of him, and he took it with a grateful nod.  Steve’s hands were right there to help him drink.  Normally he hated being treated like such an invalid, but with Steve taking care of him (and the fact that he pretty much was an invalid right now), he couldn’t mind all that much.  “Thanks.”

Tavin watched him sadly.  “Your gamble is backfiring.  I cannot say I’m surprised.”  Tony jerked and regarded the other with icy eyes.  It was one thing for him to admit that to himself and another thing entirely to accused of failing.  Steve watched the exchange, a strange look on his face.  Tavin glanced at him and then sighed.  “I heard rumblings in the dining cavern today that Kar is expecting progress from you.”

Tony went cold.  All his irritation completely vanished.  “Does he know I just spent the last however long almost dying because of that fuckhead he had working for him?”

Tavin frowned.  “Excuses will not matter.”

Tony bit his lower lip until he tasted blood.  “Just fuck,” he moaned.  He had no progress, nothing to show anyway.  Everything leading up to when Xeran had beaten him up and dumped him down the chute was pretty blurry, but he was certain of that sad fact.  He hadn’t been able to extract the tattoo from the skin on any of the samples he had.  He hadn’t been able to access to the control center for the scanners; that disaster had directly led to his attack.  All he’d learned thus far was gaming the system seemed fucking impossible.

Steve was still frowning that strange, perplexed frown.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.  “What he’d say?”

What?  Tony shook his head in confusion, his brain sluggishly skipping.  Steve sighed and looked up at Tavin.  “Do you mind giving us a moment alone?”

Tavin didn’t look pleased, though Tony wasn’t sure if it was because of what he’d said about Kar or Steve asking him to get out of his own place to give them some privacy.  He did it all the same, lingering just a second longer before shuffling out of the kitchen.

Once he was gone, Tony shuddered.  His thoughts finally caught up with what was going on.  It was all too much.  Too fucking much.  “The serum took out your translators, too?” he asked in a small voice.  “Jesus, fuck, fuck, fuck…

“Tony, it’s alright,” Steve murmured.  “I’ve been handling it.”  He smiled uncomfortably, like he was trying to hide how difficult it had been for Tony’s sake.  “Tavin can still understand me, thank God.  Which makes sense.  Of course it does.  And I’ve managed well enough.  Even picked up a few words and phrases of Tavin’s language, which sounds strange as hell, by the way.  Weirdest stuff I’ve ever heard.”  He smiled more, but it looked even feebler.  “Can’t even make half the sounds, to be honest.  I don’t think human vocal cords are capable of it.  But regardless, it’s been okay.”

God, Tony couldn’t take this, too.  Steve had spent the last few days with this problem on top of everything else.  How isolating it must have been.  How frightening.  If Steve hadn’t been here, with their one and only friend standing between him and the rest of Hell…  It would have been so much worse.  One would think after a while the shock of a near-death experience would get less potent, less alarming, but it never did.  It was a fresh torture every time, and Tony closed his eyes against the whirlwind of emotion battering him.

“Hey, it’s alright,” Steve said, rubbing Tony’s thigh again.  “We can figure it out, can’t we?  I know we can.  Tony, come on.  Please.”  He sighed.  Tony heard that rather than saw it, because he still couldn’t make himself open his eyes.  It was still too much.  All of it.  And this wasn’t what he wanted.  It wasn’t what he wanted Steve to say.  Yes, it was the right thing to say, by all accounts the optimism and cool level-headedness he needed to hear, but it wasn’t what he wanted.

And Steve seemed to realize that.  He exhaled slowly, shaking his head.  But what he said next…  It wasn’t any closer to what Tony wanted, what he was wishing for.  “I’m sorry I’m making things difficult.  I’ve been trying for days while you were sick to figure out a way to fix things, but…  But I can’t, Tony.  I couldn’t even come up with a decent way to tell you.”  Tony finally opened his eyes and saw sincere regret in Steve’s gaze.  “And I hate to cause us more trouble.”

“Steve…”

“What’s wrong?”  Steve leaned closer and cupped his face, but it felt… different than before.  Not as comfortable.  Not as easy.  “Tony?”

Tony searched his face.  He wasn’t sure what he was looking for.  No, that wasn’t true.  He knew what he wanted to see, but he just didn’t know what it looked like because he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen it before.  Love for him.  Love in someone else’s eyes.  And he didn’t know what to say.  He knew what he wanted to tell Steve, but he wasn’t sure if it was right for him to say it.  He wasn’t sure if it was right that he wanted Steve to kiss him again, because then he’d know it was real, what happened before and everything he was feeling right now…  It’d be real and right, and Steve would feel it, too, and he’d show him that if he’d just kiss him again…

He was leaning forward before he even realized it.  But then he jerked away, horrified, when there was noise from the other side of the tiny room.  Steve stood, promptly putting himself between Tony and whatever was happening, and Tony himself was gasping, reeling, hunching over in pain and doubt.  “What?” Steve demanded.  “What is it?”

“It’s Kar.”  That was Tavin’s voice.  Tony peered around Steve’s legs and saw the little alien at the entrance to the kitchen.  Behind him there were the Kree prisoners from before, the ones who did the mob boss’ bidding.  They were glaring malevolently at the two humans.  Tavin shook his head, his eyes wide with helpless fear.  “He wants to see you.”  Apparently those rumblings were more than rumblings.  This was it.  This was where he paid the price for the bargain he’d struck.

Tony closed his eyes again, slumping and surrendering.  I’m dead.


Venturing back out into Hell was pretty upsetting.  Tony felt like a prisoner again (Christ, as if he’d ever stopped being a prisoner), being marched to his doom.  Kree thugs flanked Steve and him as they were walked down the rickety gangways and steps to the City of the Damned below.  Tony was too distraught to think.  He wasn’t ready for this, not physically or mentally.  His brain was still pretty much offline, useless, too lost with the fact that this was already happening to even process it.  He felt raw and low and stripped bare.  His gait was shuffling and not just because he wanted to drag his feet; he could hardly stand up straight with his sore chest and wounded arm and the fatigue still sapping his strength.  Simply breathing without coughing was a trying torture.  He was feverish, sweaty, shaky with shock, too weak to be out and about.

But there was no choice.  These massive assholes would probably kill him – kill them all – if he resisted.  Kar wanted to see him, and Kar got what he wanted.

At least Steve was with him.  Thank God Steve was with him.  The Kree who’d come to take him hadn’t put up much of a fuss or fight at all about Steve’s declaration that he was coming, too.  Not that Steve would have been able to understand any refusal on their part.  And not that Steve would have been able to stop them from taking Tony had they wanted to.  This was the end of the line.  They were at the end of their rope.  And Steve coming along…  That was a really bad idea.  Steve couldn’t fucking understand anyone except for him, so not only was Tony going to have to go before an extremely dangerous monster and try to explain why he hadn’t made good on his promise yet, he was going to have to translate for Steve without being obvious about it, because if Kar caught onto the fact that Steve was free of the tattoo, free of Hell’s system…

Jesus.  He could only hope Steve kept his mouth shut and that Kar was feeling merciful.  To him, anyway.  Tony knew he was fucked.

Despite that being a rather massive and pressing issue, Tony couldn’t really focus on it as they descended down into the filthy pit.  Nor did he pay any attention to the garbage port underneath the steps, which was still obviously malfunctioning because there was new trash piled high around it.  No, he averted his eyes and walked in a submissive, defeated daze.  Steve was tense beside him.  Tony’s senses were scattered and dulled, turning the city into a blur of shadows and grime, but he could feel Steve glancing around and then looking at him every few seconds.  He was staying close enough that their arms were touching, close enough to steady Tony discreetly every time he wobbled.  Steve was utterly hypervigilant.  Acting the part of Tony’s bodyguard, through and through.  Tony didn’t know whether to feel relieved or terrified.  He was both.  That made him feel weaker and even more like a fucking failure.  He had to admit that in the days leading up to Xeran’s attack, he had felt a little…  Powerful wasn’t exactly the right word for it.  Neither was untouchable.  Comfortable, he supposed.  Safe enough that he hadn’t felt the need to watch his back continually.  He’d been a goddamn fool to even imagine he’d ever been protected.

He was now, though.  Now with Steve right beside him, his body tense with an unspoken warning.  The look he had at the moment was the same one he’d had that first day of work, when he’d thrown himself in between Tony and Xeran, fending off all the thugs who’d been trying to kidnap him with fire in his eyes…  That fire was there again, and it seemed like it was burning stronger than ever before.  That scared Tony as much as it heartened him.  No heroics. God, please, no heroics…

I can’t watch him be hurt.

They made it to Kar’s place.  Tony recognized it right away, even though he’d only been there once before and it was hardly any different on the outside than the other dilapidated huts around it.  The guards on the exterior let them pass, and then they were walking through the hut, passing other aliens as they talked and worked.  There weren’t so many people smoking and drinking this time, which only added to the ominous feel.  This was business, not pleasure.

Ahead the would-be throne room was pretty much the same as it had been before, though again emptier.  It seemed darker, uglier without the crowd, and it smelled weird.  There was some sort of pungent smoke in the air that immediately assaulted the senses, and with his lungs as weak as they were and his throat already sore and easily bothered, Tony was coughing again in no time.  Steve very boldly put his arm around Tony’s back, and over the roar in Tony’s ears, he could hear Steve asking for water.

That went over as well as one would expect.  The big Kree bastards pried the two of them apart.  They wrested Steve’s arms behind his back and pushed him roughly to his knees.  Steve struggled, but the Kree were bigger and stronger and there were more of them.  He couldn’t get away.  “Tony!” he shouted.  “Tony, no!”  Tony blinked tears from his eyes and tried to reach for Steve, but the biggest of the Kree was dragging him by the scruff of his neck a couple feet further into the throne room.

Kar was there, of course, with his pipe he was smoking (hence the putrid plume) and his beverages he was enjoying.  It’d been a couple weeks since Tony had last seen him, but unsurprisingly, he hadn’t changed much.  Still a big, fat, blue asshole.  His shrewd, black eyes were narrowed as Tony was deposited before him without no fanfare.  It didn’t take much at all for him to stumble down onto his knees.  He could hear Steve struggling behind him and to his right, but he didn’t dare look now.  No, all he could do was pray that Steve and his stupid, valiant, self-sacrificing nobility didn’t make this worse.

Like it could get worse.

“Well, well, well…  The negotiator has returned to my hall,” Kar said haughtily, as if he hadn’t sent his thugs to drag Tony here by force.  He was looking down on Tony like this truly was a kingdom and he was its king and Tony was his servant.  His slave.  An insect he could squish if he so desired.  Tony could hardly bring himself to raise his head, petrified with fear.  “Considering how expensive it’s been to ensure his survival, I pray for his sake that he’s brought me more than empty promises this time.”

Tony hoped that was rhetorical, but it wasn’t.  The silence weighed heavily, expectant, and the shadowy thugs sparsely positioned around the large room were clearly waiting for him to explain himself.  So was Kar, watching him with narrowed, black eyes, silently demanding an answer.  Tony’s mouth hung open limply at first because his voice wouldn’t come.  “Please,” he finally managed in a weak murmur, keeping his gaze to the floor.  “Please, I need more time.  I’ve been sick, so sick I couldn’t…  I haven’t been able to work.  I – I…”  It sounded like a bunch of bullshit excuses.  To the ruler of Hell, they were bullshit excuses.  But Tony kept stammering them because he had nothing else, nothing but a fool’s hope that Kar would take pity on him.  “I almost died.  I couldn’t – look at me.  I’m fucked up.  Xeran…  He–”

“–was a terrible mechanic,” Kar finished for him, “but he had the power to keep everyone else in line.  That’s more than I can say for you right now, Terran.”

Tony winced, looking up finally and making himself meet Kar’s gaze.  God, what a contrast this was from his first visit here.  All the bravado he’d had then, that he’d brandished to save Steve’s life…  He had none for himself.  “Please, sir, just please listen.”

“To what?” Kar snapped, leaning forward in his throne.  His fat rolls jiggled as he did.  “Even if I were to blame Xeran for any recent delays, you had weeks before you were attacked.  What progress have you made?”

Tony didn’t know what to say.  More stupid excuses were all he could manage.  “This takes time.  You have to realize that, realize what you’re asking of me.  I – I don’t have the equipment or the resources to do this quickly!”

Kar grinned.  It was tight and grim and nasty.  “I seem to recall you standing here and very boldly proclaiming that you could recreate the tattoos.  You told me it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“I was wrong,” Tony admitted in a small voice.  God, had he ever been wrong.  Everything Tavin had said, everything Steve had said, everything he’d known all this time in the back of his mind…  The whispers of logic and doubt he’d refused to oblige.  He’d screwed up so bad, made a deal with the devil with no way to repay his debt.  “I need more time.  I have figured out some things, but there’s–”

“Like what?” Kar asked coolly, appraising Tony with stony eyes.

Tony needed to stop fucking lying.  What the hell had he figured out?  What really?  There was nothing.  “I…”

“He’s working on it.”  Steve’s voice came from behind him, strong and brave and certain.  Basically everything Tony wasn’t right now.  Even though he could only understand one half of this conversation, he was defending him.  Of course.  “Like he told you, it takes time.  He’s – he’s had to gather skins to experiment on, which wasn’t easy.”  Everyone turned to him, and Steve blanched, like he was just now realizing him speaking here wasn’t the best idea.  He went on anyway.  “And he doesn’t have the equipment he needs.  And he had to take care of me when I was sick.”

“What?” Kar said, squinting in confusion and shaking his head.

Steve thundered on.  “And it took some doing to get up to the officer barracks to try and access the computer system controlling the scanners.  That’s what he was doing when Xeran attacked him.”

Kar didn’t seem to care about that.  He glared at Tony.  His awful eyes hadn’t once left Tony’s downturned face.  “The system controlling the scanners is inaccessible,” he hissed.  “You think we haven’t tried?”

Okay, so that justification was backfiring splendidly.  Tony winced.  “N-no,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry.”  He didn’t know what he was apologizing for.  He couldn’t have known.  Checking the control center had been a perfectly reasonable idea.

“He can do this,” Steve blindly insisted.  “You have no idea how smart he is.  Back on earth, he’s one of the smartest men on the planet.  He can do anything.”  He wasn’t just shining Kar on.  Steve meant it.  Jesus.  “He’s the best there is.  The best.”  God, Steve, shut up!  This was just like the goddamn slaver’s auction all those days ago.  Steve, running his stupidly noble mouth and making everything worse.  “So if you want this, you need to be patient and let him work.”

“I don’t do patience,” Kar hissed.

“You gotta give him another chance,” Steve said again, oblivious to Kar’s rebuttal.  God.  Tony knew he was going down.  This was going to be it, and it was probably inevitable that Steve was facing whatever doom he was, too, but this was making it worse.  He knew it.  But he couldn’t bring himself to tell Steve to shut up.  At least Steve had the strength and sense to keep fighting.  “He needs another chance.  You’re asking him to do the impossible!”

“He offered,” Kar corrected sharply.  “I didn’t ask.  I’m collecting on services I bought and paid for.”  He finally looked over at Steve, annoyance in his tone and eyes.  “And who are you?  Why are you here?”

Steve wouldn’t know to answer that, so he didn’t.  “Please.  Time costs you nothing.  Maybe – maybe there’s something else I can do for you to help–”

God.  Kar got even angrier.  “Who the hell are you?  Answer me!” he yelled.

Tony could barely bring himself to cover for Steve.  What the hell was the point?  “He’s no one important,” he muttered quickly before Steve could dig himself in deeper.

“The Grub,” one of the Kree guards supplied instead.  His voice was a low-pitched rumble.  “The one who has been protecting this human.”

Kar’s eyes flicked back to Tony.  It took a second for him to make the connection.  Tony wished he hadn’t, but it was probably inevitable.  “Oh, so he’s the one you sold yourself to save,” he surmised.  Kar laughed, great guffaws that shook his belly, and Tony grimaced, feeling lower than ever.  “Not worth it.  Not in the least.”

Tony was thankful Steve wouldn’t understand the jab at him.  Not that it mattered.  What was coming would be far more painful than a mere insult.  “Please,” he tried again, though it was futile and his tone of voice betrayed just how aware of that fact he was.  “Please let me have more time.  I’m begging you.  I’ll figure it out.  I just need time.  Please.  I swear to you I can do it and you’ll have what you want.”

Kar puffed on his pipe, the long black stick glowing green and yellow as he inhaled deeply.  Then he blew the foul, acerbic cloud of smoke right in Tony’s face, which was most definitely not an accident.  The second that poisonous shit hit Tony’s already damaged lungs, he was gasping, wheezing, choking.  His trachea felt like it was closing up, contracting against the smoke, and he could hardly force himself to draw in a single breath.

He could also hardly hear the fight behind him.  Some part of his brain still functioning utterly rebelled against the idea of Steve fighting for him.  Not now.  It was over.  Didn’t Steve see that?  Fuck, Tony was so tired, in so much pain, that he wouldn’t mind the idea of laying down to die.  The best he could hope for was that it wouldn’t hurt so much, for him but especially for Steve.

Over the ringing in his ears, he could barely hear Kar blathering on.  “He’s your bad investment.”  God, give it a rest.  “And you’re mine.”  Tony coughed so hard he gagged, and bile burned his throat.  Steve was still shouting.  Not that it’d make any difference.  No one was listening to him.  “You’ve had all these resources, medical care, food, shelter, preferential treatment…  All of this.  I spent all of this on you.”  Kar’s voice tremored with fury, and spittle flecked from his lips.  Tony sobbed, still unable to breathe beyond a few strained wheezes, shuddering in the face of the alien’s mounting wrath.  “I think it’s about time I make good on my threat.  Fulfill my end of the agreement.  Remember what I promised you?”

Tony did.  He did all too well.  “Please…”  He wanted to beg them to spare Steve.  That was all he cared about now.  The words wouldn’t come, though.  He couldn’t even get the air to voice them.

“Please what?  What?”  Kar was raging like a spoiled toddler.  “Let you steal from me more?  Let you get something for nothing?  I own you!  And I have every right to destroy you.  I don’t even need a reason.”

“No…  Please!”

“What do I have to show for what I’ve done for you?  Huh?”  Kar was standing now.  He loomed over Tony, eyes wild with anger.  They were menacing and violent, and the Kree holding Tony practically forced him prostrate before the crime lord.  Tony was starting to think he wasn’t going to live long enough to have the skin whipped from his back.  He grimaced and waited for the blow to fall.  Huh, smart man?”

“Don’t hurt him!” Steve hollered.  “Don’t!”

“What?  What do I have to show for it?”

“He can undo the tattoo!  Stop, goddamn it!  Stop!

Steve’s shout echoed through the room.  Tony closed his eyes in utter defeat.  Oh, no…  He wasn’t even surprised.  God, it had been inevitable.  He’d just been too low and weak to see that.

For a few seconds, it was utterly silent.  Kar was looking up now.  Steve had gotten his attention.  The fat bastard frowned, clearly in no mood to be played for a fool.  “Prove it.”  Steve didn’t move for a long moment, though whether it was because he didn’t understand or he’d figured it out but was afraid to go all the way.  Kar snarled, “Prove it now or I kill you both.”

“Steve, don’t,” Tony whispered.  “Please…”

But Steve did.  Tony lifted his head off the floor just in time to see Steve shrug away from his guards and take a couple steps closer.  He glanced Tony’s way, a cursory look clearly meant to just make sure Tony was still okay, and then he was slowly tugging the collar of his shirt down, revealing his left chest.  Tony squeezed his eyes shut again.  No…

There was nothing he could do, and it was already too late. 

Once more it was quiet, like time or fate or whatever force that governed the universe was holding its breath.  Tony certainly was.  Kar shook his head.  “What?  What?” he gasped.  Then he started to understand.  “Come closer.”

Of course Steve didn’t immediately leap to obey, so the Kree guard holding Tony to the floor was all too willing to grab Steve’s arms, twist them behind his back, and shove him up the small incline to Kar’s throne.  Tony found himself watching the commotion despite his efforts not to look, and he was sickened and terrified as Kar grabbed Steve’s shirt and ripped it open.  He stared right at the spot where Steve’s tattoo had been.  Tony could picture what it looked like, that smooth, unblemished skin right at Steve’s left clavicle.  How the tattoo was simply not there, erased like it never had been there.  It was gone.

They just didn’t know why it was gone.  Tony had to admit, as he sagged down again and wheezed against the stinking, filthy floor, that Steve’s plan was a bit ingenious (and probably more than a bit impulsive).  Kar spent another endless moment or two scrutinizing Steve’s clear skin.  Then he was glaring harder at Tony, and more of his guards came to haul Tony to his feet and hold him upright next to Steve.  “What the hell are you playing at?” Kar hissed viciously.

Tony fought to control his breathing.  This was only going to work if he went along with it, and there was no turning back.  “Not playing at anything,” he managed.  He didn’t dare glance at Steve, didn’t do anything to betray them.  “It’s…  I’m not done.  Didn’t think it was enough to show you.”  Being humble seemed like a good idea.

Kar was absolutely flabbergasted.  They all were.  The Kree guard held Steve still while Kar rubbed his fingers over his chest, grabbing the meat of his pec in his grubby hand and squeezing and stretching and scratching, like he was trying to make sure they hadn’t simply hidden the tattoo somehow.  Touching to be certain it was real.  His reaction was all Tony needed to know no one had gotten this far before.

After yet another long, uncomfortably tense silence, Kar turned to Tony.  “How did you do it?” he hissed.  Tony couldn’t tell if he was pissed Tony had succeeded, pissed he’d kept it hidden, or excited and impressed but pissed off was all he could make himself show.

Tony needed to fake this now and fake it well.  Their lives depended on it.  “It’s complicated,” he declared, his voice raspy and worn thin.  “I’ve – well, it only works on him right now.”  That wasn’t even a lie.  “On human skin.  I need more s-samples to work with so I can expand.  Kree skin would be helpful, assuming you want to change yours.”  Kar’s eyes flashed but he couldn’t argue.  It was a disgusting, but logical, request.  Tony went on.  “And I need more time.  I have to…  I need to build equipment and test things and figure out how to decode the symbols.  This is just the first step.  I didn’t think–”

Kar’s filthy nails left Steve’s flesh to grab Tony’s chin.  Tony winced and jerked back, but he couldn’t move.  “Don’t lie to me!”

“Not lying,” Tony whimpered.  “Does that look like a lie?”

Kar’s scowl softened just a bit, and Tony knew he had him.  Steve had him.  This was very obviously the closest Kar had ever come to getting what he wanted. 

So the alien let Tony go.  He looked between them a moment or two more, wary and suspicious and trying to see past the obvious, but he couldn’t, and in the end he had to agree.  He had to.  And they all knew it.  “More time,” he said.  “More time and you can figure out how to change them.”  Tony offered a small nod.  Kar glared just a bit more.  “Fine.”

Tony could have collapsed with relief.  He very nearly did.  “Thank you,” he managed to whisper.

Kar raised a dirty forefinger, a long, black nail jabbing in Tony’s direction.  “But don’t you dare cause me any more trouble.  If I have to save you from another situation–”

“You won’t,” Tony declared.  Then he meekly added, “Sir.”

The unspoken threat hung in the air.  Clearly Kar was rattled.  His hunger for what Tony was offering was overpowering his common sense, and he knew it, but he didn’t care.  He was like an addict, but his drug of choice was power, and, God, Steve had been smart to use that to their advantage.

Thankfully, Kar seemed none the wiser.  Vindictive and cruel, but blind as to which of the two humans before him truly had what he wanted.  That was sadly obvious when he turned to Steve and suddenly socked him a good one right in the jaw.  Even though he was fat and obviously sedentary, that blow had power behind it, because Steve ended up on his ass, cupping a red mess where his lips were split.  Kar sneered at him.  “And don’t you ever think you have the right to step into my place and speak to me.  Pathetic Grub.  I summoned him, not you.  I should kill you now for your insolence.”  Steve groaned, leaning forward and spitting a mouthful of blood all over the floor.  Emptily Tony watched the very thing Kar didn’t know he needed spilling into the filth and grime.  Again.

Clearly frustrated and hardly restraining himself, Kar turned to his thugs.  “Get them both out of here.”

Tony let himself be dragged out of the throne room.  He knew Steve was behind him, and the guards weren’t being overly gentle with him.  The scuffle sounded fairly brutal, and Steve cried out once.  Tony closed his eyes and submitted to the hands on his arms, to the force shoving him back through the hut, and the next thing he knew, he was being thrown out the front door and into the filthy street beyond Kar’s palace.

He hit the ground hard, getting a mouthful of foul, wet dirt.  His injured arm throbbed miserably where it got trapped underneath him, and he barely had the strength to roll over and relieve the pressure on his bad shoulder.  Something big and heavy landed roughly beside him, almost on top of him, but he was coughing too hard and too damn stricken to really process it.

“Come on, Tony,” Steve gasped in his ear.  Vaguely Tony saw him moving, twisting and struggling with his shirt, trying to close the torn cloth enough to cover himself.  Then Steve grabbed him and scrambled to get them both up and out of the muck before anyone else decided to take advantage.  Strong arms wrapped around Tony, gathering him close.  Tony heard someone scream, someone else laugh, and he tucked his face into Steve’s chest.

Steve just held him tighter, taking a couple fast steps away from the dangerous place.  He pulled Tony with him, bearing almost all his weight.  “Come on.  I got you.  Just lean on me.”

It was terrifying how much Tony was doing just that.


By some minor miracle, they made it back to Tavin’s home in one piece.  Tony was exhausted and shivery with shock as Steve guided him up the rickety steps, down the dark, narrow corridor, and through the meager curtain that separated this small sanctuary from the rest of Hell.  The enormity of what had just happened, of how narrowly he’d avoided being slaughtered for his monumental failure to deliver what he’d promised…  That hadn’t much settled into him.  Nothing had.  Not that Xeran was dead.  Not that Steve had taken such risks for him.  Not that they’d somehow managed to avoid catastrophe yet again down here.  For once, his brain was just blank.  Empty and bereft of any thoughts, useful or otherwise.  He was numb, in a haze where everything was dull, distant, blunted.  He didn’t care to leave that haze anytime soon.

Tavin was right there.  Frazzled was a strange look on him, but that was clearly how he felt.  Frazzled and anxious and worried.  He’d been waiting and fretting, that much was obvious.  He whispered some sort of soft epithet the translator couldn’t handle, shocked to hell.  “You’re alright?  He didn’t…”  He shook his head as Steve practically carried Tony past him to the pallet in the little room just off the main entry.  “I thought for certain you’d be…”  The alien stopped himself again, as if he was realizing what he was about to say was harsh (or too close to the truth).

Steve didn’t answer, seeing as how he couldn’t understand a word Tavin was saying, and Tony was too worn out to manage it.  In fact, as Steve lowered him to the messy pile of ratty blankets and cloth, he closed his eyes and sank into the void of depression and defeat even deeper.  He could feel Steve’s eyes on him, feel Tavin staring too, and he was a fucking coward for hiding like this, but he hurt too badly to do anything else.  His body and chest and throat and his arm and head.  His heart most of all.

Steve’s palm was a little clammy with sweat as it fell across Tony’s forehead.  “You’re alright,” he swore after a second, and he pulled the blankets up and over Tony’s trembling body.  “Just rest.  It’s alright, Tony.”

“Is he okay?” Tavin asked from behind them.  Tony couldn’t see him anymore.  When Steve didn’t answer, Tavin said it again, said it weird, like he was trying to annunciate something very clearly in his own language for Steve’s sake and the translator was having trouble decoding it.

Steve sighed but nodded.  “I think so.  Got Kar off him at least.”

Tavin was absolutely thunderstruck at that and with good reason.  A useless Grub with no authority or influence and who couldn’t understand anything being said to him had accomplished what few could down here: he’d held off Kar’s wrath.  Tavin didn’t know Steve was Captain America, that Steve did things like that.  That Steve had so much power.  Tony could practically feel the alien’s shock like it was a palpable thing.  “How?”

Steve rose from where he’d been kneeling at Tony’s side.  “Let’s get him something to eat and drink.  Okay?  Can we do that?”

For a moment it seemed they wouldn’t leave him, but they did.  Tony waited until he couldn’t hear the shuffle of their feet anymore or the soft murmur of Steve’s voice as he probably explained what had happened at Kar’s place.  He felt his cheeks heat with that in shame.  Fuck, he didn’t know why he felt so low.  It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault.  That was hardly any consolation, though.  All the sudden he understood all too well Steve’s desperation just a few days ago when he’d come to after nearly dying.  This driving need to help, to have some control and power, to be useful.  It was crippling.  This role reversal wasn’t at all pleasant.

It was a while that he laid there, listening to the noise outside, to the quiet within the hovel.  He kept his eyes shut, his breathing even.  Despite how empty his mind was, it was hard to let go.  He knew it’d be in his best interests to do what Steve suggested and sleep.  He hurt all over, and even with food and water and supplies, he shouldn’t tax himself.  Perhaps they’d avoided disaster again, but their luck would run out one of these times.  He had to get better, get back on his feet, and rest would help with that.  Plus there was that old adage, wasn’t there?  About tomorrow being a new day?  A better day?

Bullshit.

Tony sighed and opened his eyes.  For as long as it seemed like he’d lain there, he knew only a few minutes had passed.  He wasn’t going to be able to sleep.  He was fucking exhausted, still weak as hell, but he just couldn’t settle.  The tickle in his throat was tormenting him, and it was only through sheer willpower that he forced down another fit of coughing.  At least the pain had settled down into a new baseline level of misery, one to which he was becoming accustomed, so he was able to lean up and roll onto his less damaged side.  He stayed there a bit, listening to the muffle cacophony of Hell beyond the curtain.  Then he decided to get up.  It was probably a pathetic sight, him clambering to his feet, but there was no one to see it.  Neither Steve nor Tavin had come back from the kitchen.  Tony couldn’t hear them talking.  Grimacing, he limped down the hallway, bypassing the kitchen with surprising alacrity considering how lamed and weak he was, and headed to the tiny spot he’d claimed for his workshop.

Unsurprisingly, everything in there was just as he’d left it days ago.  The little workbench.  The piece of shit stool he’d fashioned for himself.  His tools, pilfered from all over.  The things he’d been working on for other prisoners to try and barter favors and skins.  The skins themselves, tucked into that little container.  It all seemed just as it was, but it wasn’t the same, because too much shit had happened.  I should be dead.  That thought came out of nowhere, and it hurt, sinking venomous fangs into the paltry sense of relief and courage he’d mustered.  He looked down at his arm in the sling, at the bandages over the scars on his chest.  I should be dead.

God, what have I done?

“Here.”

He was so tired that Steve’s soft voice didn’t even startle him.  He turned slowly and found the soldier there.  Steve was smiling gently, eyes yet so bright despite the rings of exhaustion around them.  He offered one of Tavin’s dented metal cups.  Whatever was inside was steaming.  “I think it’s tea,” Steve said, pulling the vessel back just a bit to regard the gray liquid dubiously.  “That’s what I asked him to make, anyway.  No honey, but I think he slipped in some of that whiskey he’s got.”  He grinned.  “Might be a hell of a cough suppressant.”

Tony took the cup without a smile or much of a response beyond a murmured thank you.  It was warm in his hand, at least.  It smelled fairly decent.  And a tiny sip revealed it did pass muster as tea more or less.  A cup of tea in Hell.  Would wonders never fucking cease?

Steve watched him for a moment as he leaned tiredly into his workbench.  He set the cup down there before lightly dragging the fingers of his good hand along the table’s surface.  Seeing and touching things didn’t make them realer.

“I’m sorry, Tony.”  Tony couldn’t find it within himself to look at Steve.  What the hell could Steve be apologizing for after everything he’d done for him?  The self-sacrificing asshole.  The mere idea of listening to this right now was making his empty stomach twist in shame.  Steve sighed.  “I had to buy us time.  I didn’t see any other way out of that mess.  He was going to kill you.”  Tony turned to him just in time to see him quirk a small, rueful grin.  “And I’d be a dead man walking without you to protect me.”

That was fucking laughable, only Tony couldn’t so much as giggle. “They know now,” he muttered instead.  “Christ, Steve.  He knows you don’t have a tattoo anymore.”

“But he doesn’t know why,” Steve softly but firmly reminded.  “And as long as he thinks you got rid of it, you’re worth something to him.  I’ll never be worth anything to him anyway, so it seemed like a reasonable risk.”

Tony closed his eyes against the burn of tears again.  “Not if they find out about the serum.”

Steve didn’t answer that right away, and the quiet felt oppressive.  Eventually he conceded.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  But they won’t find out.  How can they unless we tell them?”  Tony shivered all the same.  “Hey, Tony?  It’s okay.  It really is.”  You don’t know that.  Stop saying it.  You don’t know that.  But he couldn’t say that.  It was mean and harsh and Steve didn’t deserve that.  “We’ll…  We’ll figure it out.  We will.”

Tony didn’t answer that, either.  He was dragging his weary gaze over his workbench.  This time he noticed a box there that he didn’t remember.  It was little and as corroded and grimy as everything else in Hell.  “Oh,” Steve said.  “I put that there.  I, uh…  Well, I kept as much of the tattoo as I could when the serum forced it out of my body.”

Tony turned, narrowing his eyes curiously.  “Kept it?”

“Yeah.”  Steve grimaced.  “It came out through my skin.  Unfortunately it’s soaked into some rags, but maybe we can figure out a way to extract it.  I don’t know.  I also jotted it down before the serum got rid of it completely.”  Steve smiled sheepishly.  “Didn’t want to risk forgetting what it looked like with everything going on.”

That was good at least.  Not that the serum would let Steve forget.  And not that Tony could bring himself to care much right then, not about their problems or how to fix them.  He just stood there, leaning into the table, drifting uselessly from one second to the next.  “And I kept the translators after…”  He could practically feel Steve wince, and beneath the numbness suffocating him, he could imagine how gross that must have been, to have the serum push the offending devices out of Steve’s body.  “They’re in there, too.  Maybe…  Maybe I can help you figure out how to wire something up, something I can wear maybe?  Something small so no one notices.  It’d be nice to understand everyone again.  Well, nice is relative, but I do kinda miss being insulted and degraded and threatened all the time.”  The joke fell utterly flat.  Steve’s hand tentatively curled around Tony’s shoulder.  “It’s gonna be okay.  We’ll figure this out.  You’ll figure it out.  I know you can.  You’re Tony Stark.”  Yet again Tony closed his eyes and closed them tightly.  “You’re the smartest person I know.  If anyone can find a way to fix this–”

“Steve.”

Steve stopped babbling.  “What?”

Tony didn’t know what he was saying.  He didn’t know what he was doing.  “About before, when I…  When we…”  He could feel the weight of Steve’s gaze on him, worried and expectant and so damn open.  “When we kissed.”

There was no answer to that right away.  Tony didn’t know how to take that.  He didn’t want to think at all, because if he did, if he let himself hope, he’d change his mind about what he was doing.  Not that he’d thought this out.  He hadn’t at all.

“What about it?” Steve finally asked.  He was clearly trying to keep his voice even, trying and failing.

Tony steeled himself.  He knew he was being a fucking coward, but he couldn’t stand it anymore.  He couldn’t stand how low and useless he felt.  How utterly unworthy.  And he couldn’t deal with how terrified he was of what he wanted, how frightened he was of what Steve wanted.  He didn’t even know what Steve wanted, what Steve felt, but the mere possibility of it being not what Tony wanted and felt was too much to bear.

So he was doing what he always did when things came to close to his heart.  Running.  Hiding.  Hurting.  “I shouldn’t have.  I should never have…  I shouldn’t have kissed you.”  Steve’s face fell.  Tony rushed on.  “I was sick and scared.  I just wanted to feel good for a second.  That’s it.”  He found strength in the lie, in the mask, and he managed to look Steve in the eye.  That was a mistake, because the hurt was already starting to blossom there.  At least, Tony thought it was.

He couldn’t stop now, though.  “I’m sorry.”

There was an eternity of awful limbo after that.  Steve was staring at him, searching him.  Tony didn’t dare let himself think it was for anything other than confirmation of what he was saying.  He didn’t let himself look beneath Steve’s expression, didn’t let himself search for anything other than acceptance and relief.  He’d make himself stick to that.  That was what he saw in Steve’s eyes.  Relief and acceptance.  Not disappointment.  Not pain.  Not fear or want or hope.  Steve couldn’t feel anything more for him than he had before this had started.  They were teammates, nothing more.

He can’t want me.

Finally Steve reacted.  He looked away, swallowing stiffly.  “Okay.”  That one word was like a knife to Tony’s heart.  Steve nodded, more to himself than Tony.  He sniffled, nodding more, and took a step away.  “Yeah, okay.  Sure.  I…  Yeah, that makes sense.  I feel the same.  Just a…  Just to feel good.  Did feel good, didn’t it.”  God.  Tony couldn’t answer, couldn’t speak around the lump in his throat.  He did manage a smile, and Steve smiled back.  “No big deal.”

After that, the awkward tension between them practically skyrocketed.  It was unbearable.  Thankfully, Steve wanted out.  “I, uh…”  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “I’m sorry, too.”  Please don’t apologize.  Please…  “I’ll let you be.  If you need anything, just give a holler.  And, um…  Yeah, you should sleep.  This stuff can wait.”

“I will,” Tony promised emptily.  “Don’t worry about me, Cap.”

Steve lingered a second more before his own emotions at last got the better of him, and he left.

Very quickly, the silence became deafening.  Tony shivered, teetered, leaning more into the table.  God, he was an asshole.  He was a monumental bastard.  Why?  Why did he always do this to himself?  Why couldn’t he be honest, braver?  Stronger?  He was so depressed, so defeatist, so fucking unworthy.

You coward.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut in a sudden burst of rage, nearly collapsing it was so strong.  He wavered in it.  Suffered.  Shivered and hated this place and everything and everyone in it, himself most of all.

But then he calmed down, breathing deeply through his nose so as not to aggravate his cough.  He could imagine Steve beside him, showing him how to inhale deeply, to exhale gently.  To stay slow and steady.  It worked surprisingly well, and in the matter of a few seconds, he felt…  Well, not good.  Not better.  Just numb again.

Numb enough to survive.

Sighing, he reached for the box Steve had left and pulled it closer.  He opened it.  There were the rags Steve mentioned, streaked and stained with silver.  Tony didn’t look at them much, not yet anyway.  He set them aside.  There was a rolled-up piece of paper, which probably had the sketch of the tattoo on it.  Tony opened it, barely interested, and dragged his weary eyes over the symbols Steve had drawn onto the paper.  It felt just a bit like looking at a part of Steve, a scar or something like it, and that was creepy and unsettling.  Tony shivered through a breath and folded the paper up again.  Back into the box it went.

And out came the two translators.  It was weird seeing them.  They were no larger than a centimeter or so, and they were surprisingly thin and flimsy.  There was some sort of strange wiring in them, not anything Tony had seen before.  He found himself touching behind his ear.  He could hardly feel his own translators there, and these were so small, so seemingly fragile.  So complicated.

Sighing, he dropped his hand, sagging into the table again.  His exhaustion was crushing.  He should do what Steve said and go sleep.  Rest.  Put this off.  Steve had bought them time.

But he didn’t.  Instead he reached for his tools and went to work.

Chapter Text

Day 36

It ended up not being overly difficult for Tony to wire up Steve’s translators into an earpiece he could wear.  Well, technically that was true, since he didn’t have any trouble figuring out how the devices worked.  The chips were small, and it was obvious there were two tiny interfaces that likely connected directly into the nervous system on each one.  Otherwise, the chips themselves were essentially little black boxes; there was no way for him to really deduce how they functioned, how they transformed all sorts of different languages into whatever tongue their bearer natively spoke.  He assumed the target language had to be preprogrammed, but other than that, the way they operated was a mystery.  If he’d been back in New York and had JARVIS and all of his power at his disposal, he might have been able to uncover more.  He had to admit as he worked with them that it was something of a marvel, that these tiny items, each no bigger than a dime, could contain a veritable encyclopedia of languages and an algorithm capable of converting one language to another in real time with few errors (at least that he’d noticed).  Compared to the rest of the technology in Hell, this was downright remarkable, and he was extremely curious how the Kree (or whoever had designed these) had managed to store so much information and computational power in such a little medium.

At any rate, determining how to wire them into an ear bud-type device wasn’t tough at all.  The true challenge was he only had one good hand at the moment, so he needed Steve’s help to get the work done.  He tried on his own at first, fumbling with fingers that were shaky and numb from the pain in his left shoulder.  Obviously there was nerve damage there, definitely caused by the dislocation, and he didn’t have the fine motor control he needed for delicate work.  That resulted in him frying one of the translator chips.  To be fair, he’d misjudged the voltage necessary to power the device he was building.  He hadn’t been able to detect any sort of power source in the chip itself, and that implied it normally drew its power from the nervous system (which, again, seemed a marvel, both that the technology to convert biochemical energy to normalized electrical input existed and that this tiny system could adapt to the myriad neurophysiologies into which it was inserted).  At any rate, his first attempt to activate it resulted in him botching the connection and oversupplying power, and he couldn’t get the battery detached in time to stop the surge from damaging the chip.

Holding the smoldering remains in his palm had been pretty sharp motivation to get over himself and ask Steve for help.  Of course, it wasn’t so easy to do that.  Somehow, despite their cramped quarters and the fact that they were basically sleeping side by side, they were avoiding each other like the plague.  Everything had gotten so fucking awkward and tense.  It was miserable, really, and Tony knew it was his fault.  Steve didn’t have even a halfway decent poker face (at least not about this), so he was practically broadcasting his confusion and hurt.  He might have said it was okay, but clearly it wasn’t, and wearing his broken heart on his sleeve (God, could it be his broken heart?) only made Tony’s guilt and shame that much worse.  More than once he caught Steve staring at him when Steve obviously thought he wasn’t looking.  Everything seemed so damn close to the surface.  It was awful and uncomfortable, but they didn’t talk about it.  They didn’t talk about anything more than what was strictly necessary to live and function.  It was maddening.  Tavin surely noticed the disquiet, but he didn’t say anything, and that only heightened how unreal and unnatural it was.

Christ, Tony should never have kissed Steve (or let Steve kiss him – he was still not sure who leaned in first, who kissed back, who wanted it more, God it felt so good).  Given how prone he was to overthinking and overanalyzing, it was a minor miracle he’d accomplished anything at all these last few days.  It felt like it was always right there, not just the awkwardness the kiss had wrought but the memories of it.  When the pain got to be too much, Tony let himself indulge, let him drift in those memories, in daydreams that he was letting himself acknowledge more and more.  These fantasies he’d always had of Steve being his were gaining strength, taking firmer root in his mind, heart, and soul.  Like that fleeting moment when Steve had held him close, pressed their lips together, opened his mouth to Tony’s desires…  It had fed the little whispers, making them into shouts and songs in Tony’s heart, and he couldn’t silence them now.  He didn’t want to.  Even if he wouldn’t – couldn’t – let Steve in further, he wasn’t strong enough to deny himself.  Therefore, those little fantasies were exploding, and they were quickly becoming a guilty pleasure, something that felt good.  Not as good as the kiss, but they were safe, because Steve didn’t know and they weren’t real, and because of that Steve couldn’t be hurt.

The sad thing was that Tony kept telling himself that it was Hell.  Hell was why this was happening.  It was this place and the horrors they’d faced and the nightmare they were living.  That was the reason he couldn’t let Steve close.  That was the reason he’d kissed him in the first place.  The lie was awfully convincing when he blinded himself to the obvious evidence, like those longing looks Steve kept surreptitiously sending his way.  Like the fact that Tony was goddamn incapable of having a serious relationship, and being stuck here in Hell really had nothing to do with it.  He’d fucked things up with Pepper.  He had.  And he’d spent years partying and sleeping around and doing whatever was necessary to keep everyone at arm’s length, like he could use nonchalance and arrogance and eccentricity as a shield.  Like he could use his money and his status and his smarts to hide how small and stupid and fallible he really was.

Well, everything he’d had had been stripped away by this place.  He had nothing here, nothing but his brain and his heart and his spirit.  Therefore, he had nothing to keep Steve back.  There were times he wasn’t even sure why he was trying.  Was this who he was now, someone completely incapable of loving and being loved in return?  Was that sort of vulnerability and trust beyond him?  He didn’t know.  All he was certain of was he picked a hell of a time to try and find out.

At any rate, things were difficult and awkward, miserable even.  Needs trumped emotional insecurities, however, and Tony finally went to ask Steve to help him.

So they were spending the day in Tony’s tiny workshop.  Tavin had gone to do his work, leaving the two of them alone.  Somehow that was making it all worse, because when their friend was there, they had an excuse not to talk.  Now…  The silence was damn well torturous.  There was only the briefest of directions shared, Steve’s questions mostly and Tony’s succinct answers.

“Am I doing this right?”

Tony sighed softly.  He’d been trying to keep his distance the last hour or so they’d been working together.  Well, trying implied some sort of conscious effort.  It was mostly an automatic reaction, how he didn’t want to get too close to Steve like being near to him would test his resolve too much.  He’d battled obsession before, so he knew how that went.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Only he couldn’t stay away and help Steve do this at the same time, so he leaned over the other man’s shoulder to peer at the delicate work he was doing.  “Yeah,” he said with an approving nod, trying to concentrate on the task at hand rather than Steve’s hands doing it, and Steve’s broad shoulders and Steve’s hair (that was long enough to cover his ears now and really filthy but even that wasn’t enough to keep Tony from wondering what it’d feel like to run his hands through it).  Even as chronically unwashed as he was, as they both were, the thought of being so close was still alluring, and yet again Tony couldn’t stop his mind from going back to the kiss.  Yes, obsession was a good word for it.  “Yeah,” he said again, clearing his throat.  “That’s good. A little bit less of the solder.”

Or whatever passed for solder down here.  Tony had been collecting random junk from the mechanics’ shops and other areas on the higher levels for weeks before, and among said junk was a soldering gun (which was laser-based and frankly a piece of shit compared to what he had back on Earth).  Steve was doing a decent job with it despite its imprecision, his hands steady as he pressed a long, extremely thin, purplish filament of solder to the tiny joint where they were trying to attach the chip to the speakers.  The substance melted when the laser hit it, and it settled into the connection, bridging the miniscule gap between the chip’s wires and the wires of the ear piece.  With the parts they already had, this was coming together nicely.

So that was one stroke of good luck.  Tony knew there’d been plenty more, the fact that they were both alive and well and crammed into this tiny closet not the least of them.  He shouldn’t be frustrated or upset or anything other than completely and utterly grateful that they’d survived thus far, that they were together, that Steve was here with him.  He shouldn’t be bothered by all the unresolved feelings and aching tension between them, but, God, he really fucking was, and watching Steve work stoked his insecurities.  His only purpose down here was this, his only value tied to fixing and inventing.  He couldn’t fight.  He couldn’t stand up to the brutes and bastards and monsters.  He couldn’t protect himself.  Hell, he couldn’t even really negotiate anymore, at least not as well as Steve had.  All he had to offer was his brain.  Even his fucking hands were useless at the moment.

God, he hated to be so despairing.  This wasn’t realism, as he’d often argued in the past.  It was pessimistic bullshit, through and through.  And he wanted Steve to tell him he was being ridiculous, that this place hadn’t defeated him or destroyed his worth.  He wanted Steve to console him.  He knew Steve would without a second of hesitation.

But Steve couldn’t read his fucking mind.  Tony would have to ask, to be honest about how he was feeling, and that was not now nor would it ever be a strong suit of his.  Thus he found himself trying not to pay attention to how desperately he wanted Steve’s touch and Steve’s kiss and Steve’s comfort.  How being this close was sheer torture.  How wanting what he wanted only made him feel worse, like he was tumbling down some sort of shame spiral.  This place and everything in it was making him feel shitty, and he still felt sick and weak and useless on top of that, which then in turn made him crave Steve taking care of him more, which then back-fed onto his doubts and depression, which only made him feel shittier, and on and on it went in an unending circle.  The whole thing was goddamn ridiculous and stupid as hell, but he couldn’t stop.

“Is this good?”

Tony jerked from his thoughts and made himself pay closer attention.  He’d drifted for a minute or two, and in that time, Steve had finished with the connection.  Shoving all that internal nonsense away, Tony focused on the earpiece.  “Yeah, that’s good,” he commented, inspecting the soldering work more closely.  The silence was so damn irksome that he felt the need to fill it.  “You’re a natural with a soldering gun, Cap.”

Cap.  He’d been calling Steve that a lot the last couple of days, like the nickname was enough to keep some metaphorical distance between them.  Steve was Cap, Captain America, Tony’s teammate and leader and acquaintance.  Barely even his friend.

Yeah, that, too, was bullshit.

Exhaling slowly, Steve picked up the earpiece.  “Not really.  Wouldn’t know what to do without you here to tell me.”  He turned and looked over his shoulder to smile at Tony.  “I’m just your hands until you get ’em back is all.”

That was at least only partially a lie.  Tony knew for a fact how damn smart Steve was and how fast he picked things up.  Some of that was the serum, of course, but a lot of it was Steve himself.  Back months and months ago, when the Avengers had first formed and things had been cooler between them, Tony had liked to think that Steve was stupid, a dumb, blunt instrument wielded by the people in power.  A pawn and a puppet.  Brawn over brains.  He knew back then that hadn’t been true, but over these last few months he’d come to appreciate just how sharp Steve really was.  It wouldn’t have taken much at all for Steve to have figured this out on his own.

And, yet again, that only served to make Tony feel worse.  Maybe Steve knew it, knew just how much he didn’t need Tony, and he just said what he said to make Tony feel better.  He just said exactly what Tony wanted him to say, only hearing it felt more patronizing and false than anything else.

“Tony?  You okay?”

And, yet again, he had to drag himself out of his thoughts.  He pulled away, getting out of Steve’s space.  “Yeah, I’m fine.  Here.  Hand it to me.”

Steve did carefully.  This was their only chance to solve Steve’s problem, and if they broke this second translator chip, there was no chance Steve would be able to function down here.  Tony took the device in his bad hand so he could use his right hand to slide the battery compartment into place.  Here goes nothing.  Or everything, he corrected himself bitterly as he hooked up the connectors to the battery.  Everything was so small and precise, and he could only pray he’d done the math right this time.

Apparently he had, at least on the surface.  Nothing shorted out like it had before.  Tony released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, sagging a bit in relief.

“So far, so good?” Steve asked, clearly looking to him for confirmation.

Tony swallowed his pounding heart and nodded.  “Yeah.  Try it on.”

Very carefully, Steve did.  Tony had built a bit of a curled shell onto the ear piece since the device itself wasn’t exactly designed to fit in a human ear.  Steve stuck it into his right ear all the same, gingerly trying to get it in place in his ear canal.  Then he put the shell over the top of his ear, situating it with a wince that was more from worry than anything else.  Tony watched him, not daring to breathe again.  After a few excruciatingly long seconds, he asked, “Well?”

“I can hear you,” Steve said, absolutely deadpan for a moment.  Then he smiled wryly.  “Fantastic test.  Works like a charm.”

Tony couldn’t help but smile himself. “Guess we need to wait for Tavin to get back.”

“Yeah.  It’s… crackling though?  So there’s definitely some power getting to the speaker.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.”

This was probably the longest conversation they’d had in a couple days.  Just noticing that made Tony feel uncomfortable anew.  He swept Steve’s hair back from his ear before he even noticed what he was doing, peering closer to see how the device was fitting.  It was decently positioned, and Steve’s hair was long enough and thick and shaggy.  It’d probably do a decent job at hiding it.  Still, the whole thing was a risk; the device wasn’t small, and it wasn’t by any means invisible.  If one of the guards (or, hell, just some random asshole) saw it, who knew what could happen.

But it was the best they could do.  It was all they could do, so it’d have to work.  “This is going to be a pain, but I’d try to unhook the battery at night.  Or maybe I can find some way to put a switch in…  Point is, I have a few of these battery packs, but they’re all used.  I have no idea how much juice each one’s got, or if I can find more when I…”  Go back to work.  The thought was pretty terrifying.  Tony swallowed down another lump and forced himself to keep talking.  “Anyway, it’s better to conserve.”

Steve nodded, feeling at his ear with that wince on his face again.  “Another pleasantry of Hell,” he muttered.  Then he sighed, puffing out his lips a bit as he did, and turned to Tony.  Tony was staring.  He couldn’t help it.  Not one bit.  “Thanks.”

Despite all his doubts and insecurities, it felt good to hear that.  “You’re welcome.”

They didn’t move.  Like a vulture swooping in to pick at a carcass, the silence came back.  Silence and awkwardness.  Steve frowned, his eyes never leaving Tony’s face.  “You look pale.  Are you okay?”

Was he?  The pain in his chest hadn’t gone away much.  He was still coughing all the damn time and weaker than he’d like to be.  He’d almost died, and he could feel it every minute of every day.  With the shit conditions, he wondered if he could even bounce back from how sick he was.  “More or less,” is what he finally said, because Steve knew all his troubles.  For God’s sake, Steve was listening to him hacking up a lung all night every night.  And it hurt so much more now when Steve hesitantly touched him and rubbed his back or his chest.  The tenderness was still in his hands, of course, but it was distant, and the certainty was gone.  That hurt.  Tony had fucked everything up.

“What can I do, Tony?”

Tony turned to Steve and found blue eyes staring at him.  They were always so deep with concern now, concern and other things Tony wasn’t still not letting himself see.  “Nothing,” he said quickly, more curtly than he intended.  “You’re doing it.”  There it was: that hurt flashing across Steve’s features again.  God, he could look like a kicked puppy when it suited him.  Tony sighed, more annoyed at himself than anything else but automatically taking it out on Steve.  Again.  “Just lay off, alright?  I don’t need you fretting over me.  I’m as okay as I can be down here.”

“Tony–”

“Are you any better off than me?  Are you okay?”

“I haven’t been moping around like I’m licked,” Steve said.  The words could have been much sharper than they were, but there wasn’t much heat to his tone.  Even still, Tony winced.  That hit too fucking close.  Up came the walls, the self-defense mechanisms that were so damn ingrained in him that they were automatic.  He turned and limped right out of the tiny closet.

Not that he could escape.  There was nowhere to go.  Tavin’s place was as small and cramped and claustrophobic and dark and dirty as everywhere else down here.  It was an endless nightmare of small and cramped and dark.  Being trapped.  There was no way he could outrun Steve, even if there was some place he could go.  Still, he was a stubborn asshole, so he kept stalking away, even as Steve called after him.  “Tony, wait!  Wait!  Come on!  Is this about before?”  God, no.  They were not addressing before, not the kiss or anything that came after it.  Not now.  Not ever.  “Do you want to talk about it?  Because if you want to we–”

“I don’t want to!” Tony hissed.

“Come on!  This doesn’t help either of us!  We can’t do this if we aren’t honest with each other!” 

Tony whirled, anger spiking inside him.  “What do you want from me, Rogers?  Huh?  To be honest?  Is that what you want?”

Steve stopped.  The vitriol in Tony’s voice obviously bothered him.  It didn’t dissuade him, though.  Tony was starting to wonder if anything ever could.  Stupid, noble, perfect fucking asshole–

“I want you to trust me to help you,” Steve simply said.

“You can’t help,” Tony returned.  “You can’t!”

“So we’re back to this again?  To you pushing me away?  Treating me like I’m a burden?”

Christ, that was all backwards.  “You’re not a burden, for fuck’s sake!  I’d have roasted to death down there with all the shit and garbage and…  I’d be dead without you!  Xeran would have killed me.  Kar would have killed me.  Fuck, I wouldn’t have made it one second that first day without you there to fight my battles!” Tony yelled.

Steve paled.  It was quiet for a moment or two.  Then he clenched his jaw and shook his head.  “You’re not a burden, either.  And that’s not true.”

“Oh, come off it!  I can only handle so much bullshit optimism.  Since that first damn day that’s all you’ve had to offer: bullshit optimism.  Think about the situation we’re in.  It’s not fixable, not at all.  No matter how lucky we get, no matter how well we can pull the wool over Kar’s eyes, I can’t get us out of this.  You can’t get us out of this!”  Steve was stony.  Stoic.  Glaring, but not because Tony had hit a nerve.  It was because Tony didn’t believe him.

Tony felt his temper fray further.  “I screwed up!  I keep telling you over and over again, but you don’t listen!  Or you don’t care.”

Steve shook his head.  “I do–”

“I’m dead, Steve.  I’m a fucking sinking ship.”

“Jesus, Tony, you are not!”

“I can’t do what I promised to do!” Tony screamed.  “I can’t fucking do it!  I told him I could.  You told him I could.  He thinks I can, but I can’t!”  Steve shook his head, but Tony thundered on before he could speak.  “You think Kar is going to be happy when he comes knocking tomorrow or next week or whenever and finds out I haven’t accomplished anything?

“We’ll figure that out!”

“We can’t.  Not you.  Not me.”  Steve clenched his jaw even harder.  Tony was spinning out of control, but he couldn’t stop himself.  He wanted Steve away in every sense of the word.  Physically.  Emotionally.  It was too hard to feel this unsettled and weak.  Too terrible.  “I want you away from me so I don’t take you down with me.  Without me, maybe you can still have a chance.”

“What chance?” Steve gasped, shaking his head.  “What chance?  What am I going to do without a tattoo?  With no way of understanding anyone?”

Flustered, Tony stammered.  “I don’t know!  I don’t know!  Hide!  Find some way to get by!  I don’t know!”  He sighed, trying hard to get some semblance of control over his voice.  Anger always helped.  Anger was tried and true.  He jabbed a finger at Steve.  “All I know is if you’re here when they come for me…”  He couldn’t stand the thought.  Maybe it was illogical, but Steve getting hurt because of him…  That was his worst fear right now.  “You’ll die, too.  That’s it.  That’s the truth.”

Clearly it wasn’t to Steve.  No, Steve just stared at him evenly, still undaunted.  Still absolutely undeterred.  Seconds passed, and Tony wanted to wither under the power of his gaze.  Finally, Steve spoke again.  “I want you,” he said slowly, “to stop acting like we’re finished.”

“We are finished!” Tony raged.  “This is case in point, by the way.  You don’t fucking listen!”

“No!  Stop it, Tony!” Steve snapped.  “For God’s sake, stop!  We can’t give up!  We can’t!  There’s no goddamn choice!  We have to keep trying!”

Tony rounded on him.  “And why is it that exactly?  Huh, Cap?  What are we trying for?”  Steve’s nostrils flared.  He was grinding his teeth even harder.  Tony could see it from the way his jaw muscles flexed and twitched.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the last however many days we’ve been here…  Twenty.  Thirty.  Forty!”  He was losing control of his breathing, losing control period, but he didn’t stop.  He couldn’t stop.  “We have spent every day since we got here fighting just to stay alive.  Just to survive.  It’s been one goddamn disaster after another.  Barely surviving those first nights in the cell block.  You getting hurt and starving.  The way they tore up your throat, the way Xeran harassed me, what he did to me…  It’s been all we can do just stay ahead of all that.  And maybe it seems like we’re making headway.  We’re someplace better and we have stuff we didn’t have before.  But, in the end, it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter one fucking bit, because up there?”  He jabbed the thumb of his good hand toward the rocky ceiling.  “Up there is still as far away now as it was the day we got here.”

“You want to escape?” Steve asked tightly, and fuck all if that wasn’t the stupidest question ever.  Then again, it wasn’t said like he was actually asking Tony.  It wasn’t like he had ever asked him.  Escape had always been this thing lingering in the background, this logical goal but one so fucking impossible and far away that there was no sense in considering it.  Of course, Tony had once or twice.  Or more times.  He was willing to bet Steve had, too.

And he was willing to bet Steve was taunting him now, challenging him, goading him in continuing the argument.  Tony didn’t answer, because he knew where this was headed.  He could feel it, and it was ridiculous that Steve was going where he was going.

But there he boldly went.  “You want to escape?  Fine.”  Steve was still staring at him, all unending hope and faith and strength.  “Fine.  Let’s come up with a way to escape.”

Goddamn it.  “Jesus Christ, Steve, that’s–”

“What?  That’s what, Tony?  Stupid?  Crazy?  Too simple and too naïve?  More bullshit optimism?  More of me not listening to you hate on yourself and tear yourself down and run yourself into the ground because you seem to think you have to face all this alone?”  Steve raised his hands in exasperation.  “I have to ask you the same thing you asked me.  What do you want from me?  Really?  Is what you just said what you really want?  You really want me to turn my back on you?  You want me to – to give up on this?  On you?  To walk away from you?  Run and hide and try to save myself?”

Tony couldn’t answer that.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t want that, not at all, never, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.  Steve went on.  “I can’t save myself.  Not without you.  And you can’t do this without me.  We need each other.  We have since we got here.  How is you being in trouble now any different from the serum making me starve?”  Tony opened his mouth to argue more, but he couldn’t.  He couldn’t because he knew Steve was right.  “It’s not.  It’s a problem we handled, and we handled it the best we could.  And, yeah, the way we did has caused more problems.  Nothing has been easy.  We have been doing everything we can just to stay ahead of the game down here.  You think I don’t know that?  You think I don’t see how bad off we are?  You think I don’t know the odds are stacked against us?  Believe me, I know.”  Steve shook his head.  “But that doesn’t change the fact that we have two choices: we can either give up and die on their terms or fight and die on ours.”

Hearing that was so damn powerful, like a punch right to Tony’s gut.  It sucked the wind right out of his sails, and suddenly he couldn’t manage his ire anymore.  He closed his burning eyes and looked down, ashamed of how low he felt.  Ashamed of everything, in fact.  How he’d been acting.  What he’d said.  The goddamn defeatism and pessimism.  His perceived short-comings.  Everything.

He felt Steve sigh and step closer.  “You’re right.  Nothing’s changed.  We’ve been here all these days, fought like mad just to get by, and it’s as awful as it was the day we got here.  But you know what?  We’re still alive.  We’re still together, and we still have our wits about us.  We still have our heads and our hearts and hope.  That’s all we have, all we’ve ever had.  We had it when we got here, and we still have it.”  Steve put his hand on Tony’s good shoulder.  “Don’t throw it away.”

It took a lot for Tony to meet Steve’s gaze.  Steve was watching him, and that hint of confident tenderness was back in his eyes.  He didn’t come closer, didn’t touch him beyond that friendly hand, but that was there, undamaged by all of Tony’s attempts to dismiss it or destroy it.  It was such a relief that Tony couldn’t help the tears that filled his eyes.  “Okay,” he murmured.

“Okay,” Steve said.  A look of pain crossed over his face, and now he hesitated a second.  “And as for…  Well, as for what happened before…”  Before.  Tony grimaced and sank deeper.  “Listen, I don’t know…  I don’t know what’s going on between us now.  I’m – I’m sorry that I kissed you.  I really am.”  No, please…  “I just can’t stand you being angry about it or at me for doing it or… or whatever’s got you so upset.  I–”

“If you two are finished bickering,” Tavin said sharply from behind them.  Tony whirled to see him in the entranceway to the kitchen, and he was glaring at them both.  “We need to talk.”

Steve swallowed stiffly, embarrassed.  “Alright.  Sorry.”

Tavin frowned sternly before turning and heading to the kitchen.  They both followed.  Obviously Tavin had been here for more than a couple seconds; he had already started making them a meal.  He was clanging his pots and utensils a little louder than normal.  Apparently making a show of your displeasure by banging shit wasn’t just a human characteristic.  “Sit,” he coldly demanded.

Christ, he heard everything.  Tony glanced at Steve, and Steve still looked rather mortified.  He nodded all the same and pulled out a chair for Tony before sitting in another one.  It was quiet for a terrible moment or two aside from the disgruntled noise Tavin was making.  Tony wanted to crawl out of his skin.  Then Tavin said, “I take it you were successful at fixing Rogers’ translator.”

He was a perceptive creature, that was for sure.  “Yeah, I can understand you again,” Steve declared with a sheepish nod.  He pushed his hair back from his right ear to display the new unit.  “Thanks to Tony.”  Tony didn’t care for the not at all subtle attempt to fluff his ego.  Tavin wasn’t any more enthused or relieved.  Steve cleared his throat.  “You’re back early.”

“I am, and not with good news.”  God, not more.  Tony closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, just waiting for metaphorical punch to the face.  The mediocre amount of comfort Steve’s words had created was dashed just like that.  After a couple more torturously long moments of silence, Tavin slammed something.  Tony practically jumped, opening his eyes again and cringing.  The little alien whirled at the counter and glared murderously at them.  “You foolish idiots!  You realize everyone could hear you arguing!”

Steve didn’t defend them.  He frowned, eyes wide with fear.  “What happened?”

Tavin stared at them, his weird eyes unreadable aside from his disapproval, and then he sighed and sagged a bit against the counter behind him like he was submitting to something.  Inevitability.  “Kar sent his men to me and told me to tell you he is assigning you a monitor.”

“A monitor?” Steve said.  He hadn’t caught on yet.

Tony already had.  “Ah, shit,” he whispered.  No, no, no.

“The creature’s name is–”  The next word didn’t come out right, like the translator couldn’t handle it and so was hastily throwing in its best approximation (which was still indecipherable).  “He’s Kar’s… accountant, I suppose you could say.  He’s shrewd and greedy and…”  Tavin sighed.  “He’s as bad as everyone else.  He’s supposed to report back to Kar on your progress.”

“When?” Steve asked tensely.

“I do not know for certain!” Tavin sharply replied.  “He might come any day.”

Tony’s elbow hit the rickety table with a thud.  He buried his face into his hand before roughly raking through his hair with his fingers.  What he’d said before about Kar coming knocking…  He hadn’t actually anticipated it happening so soon.  “Jesus Christ…  How the hell am I going to fake this?”

Neither Steve nor Tavin said anything.  Frankly, there was no answer.  Tony knew it in his core.  Steve’s optimism – bullshit optimism! – wasn’t going to matter now.  He really was fucked.  Well and truly.  With Kar’s watchdog all over him, he wasn’t going to be able to hide that he couldn’t do a damn thing to change or recreate the tattoos.  And this increased the chances that Kar would find out that Steve was the one who had what he wanted.

Eventually Steve broke this new painful silence that had come.  “We need to get out of here.”

Tavin scowled before turning around to fill a pot with water from his bottles.  “I am sorry my accommodations are no longer sufficient.”

“No, no, I mean…”  Steve eyed them both with nothing but steely determination.  “We need to escape.  All of us.”

If Tony had had more energy, he probably would have laid into Steve again.  Tavin did it for him.  “Are you insane or simply monumentally naïve?  No one escapes.  I told you that!  You know that!”

Steve seemed to be on a stubborn kick today, even more than usual.  “I know people have tried.  I know they have.  I’ve seen it.”

That gave Tavin pause.  “You have?”

Tony focused, raising his head from his hand.  Steve met his gaze and nodded.  “Up where the loaders work.”  There was a sudden flash of light in Steve’s eyes.  “There are ways out up there.  Ships that come and drop things off.”

With everything that had gone on over the last week, Tony had completely forgotten that.  Steve had been reassigned to work as a loader.  Loaders unloaded supplies arriving for the penal colony.  Steve had done that, seen that.  Gone all the way up the central pillar.  Been that close to the surface.  Steve’s been up top.

And just like that, that fleeting touch of hope was back, a jolt of electricity to Tony’s spirit.  “Ships?” he asked.  Steve nodded.  “What did you see?”

Steve frowned, like he was realizing he was misrepresenting things in a way that would lead to disappointment.  “I – I’m not sure yet.  I was only up there once before everything went south.  Getting to the ships isn’t going to be easy at all, but–”

“What about getting out to the surface?” Tony asked, a little breathless and not from the damage to his chest.  “What about that?”

Steve’s frown got deeper, more troubled.  “I don’t think it’s possible to go that way.  I don’t know.”

That was dismissive and strangely so.  There was clearly something Steve didn’t want to say.  “It’s not possible?  Why?  What happened?” Tony pressed.  “What did you see?”

For a couple seconds more, Steve hesitated.  Then he sighed, shaking his head.  “I saw them bring in a body.  This was the day before Xeran attacked you.  The guards said it was someone who tried to escape.  I have no idea how the guy got out there, but…”  He grimaced.  “Whatever happened to him was pretty gruesome, and I don’t think the Kree were the ones who did it.”

That sounded rather ominous.  “Gruesome?”

“It looked like something ate him,” Steve quietly explained.  “I – I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Tavin was horrified.  Frankly Tony didn’t feel much better.  “It has been said there’s no way off of this moon,” the alien emptily declared, his freakish gaze darting between the two humans.  “I’ve heard rare rumors of prisoners who somehow escaped the prison itself.  Gossip, truly, for it seems so impossible to reach the top, but… the land beyond is a hellish nightmare like none other, a prison all its own.  Getting to the surface means nothing.”

“Seems that way,” Steve softly agreed.  “There are doors out, but even if we could get through them, I don’t think we can get anywhere, not without suffering a similar fate to the dead prisoner they brought in.”

Christ.  “And this is supposed to make us feel better how?” Tony asked in annoyance.  The frustration welled up inside him all over again.  Every time hope returned only to be yanked away, it got harder to keep it at bay.  “I mean, this place looked like a barren wasteland of dehydration and heat stroke when we flew in, but now you’re telling me that that’s not even the biggest problem.  Should we even make it to the surface, that is.”

Steve sighed.  “Something like that.  I know it’s bleak.”

“What the hell else is new,” Tony muttered bitterly.  “And I don’t know that it matters since we can’t get up there.”

Now Steve looked irritated.  “It does matter.  Just because we can’t go out that way doesn’t mean we can’t get out at all.”

“Oh, come on, Steve–”

“Stop, okay?  Just listen.”  Steve leaned forward.  “It’s a longshot, but if we’ve got a foot in the door up there, maybe we can find a way.”  Tony wanted to argue, but he just didn’t have the energy.  He turned to Tavin, angry and resentful enough to want to share some sort of dubious look with him, but their friend was actually listening to Steve.  “Just the fact that I can get up there to look around is so much more than we have way down here.  Maybe there’s something else.  Maybe…”  Steve’s eyes glazed with a sudden thought.  “Maybe the way out is to go up higher.”

“What do you mean?” Tavin asked, narrowing his eyes.

It was pretty obvious Steve was pulling this out of thin air, just making shit up as he went.  It’d be admirable (and even cute) if it wasn’t for the topic matter and the horrendous circumstances.  “Where do the pillars lead?” he asked.

Tavin squinted in confusion.  “The pillars?  The central lift?”

“Not that one.  Well, not just that one.  I mean where they’re sending all the shards.  There are four huge pillars that go up from the surface.  We flew around them when they brought us here,” Steve reminded, looking at Tony.  “You saw it.”

Tony had.  The four massive structures, climbing into the clouds as their prisoner transport had descended through the mountains.  Vaguely he recalled seeing massive boxes moving up and down the pillars, and the boxes glowed blue.  “They are sending all the shards up there,” Steve said.  “They have to be.  Nothing else makes sense.  The main elevators go all the way from the pit to just below the surface, but there has to be another room near the loading bay where they’re moving the shards.”

“How do you know that?” Tavin asked.

“Because none of the ships bringing supplies or people took anything,” Steve said.  “The load teams just unload.  We don’t move anything onto the ships.  We don’t even see the ships.  The system they have is specifically designed to prevent prisoners from having any chance to escape that way.  You’d have to get past even more scanners and guards and sentries.  That’s why I said going through the ships won’t be easy or maybe even possible at all.”  He sighed, shaking his head to his own thoughts.  “No, those four pillars must take the shards up.  The Kree are bringing hundreds of tons out of that mine every day.  Where else could it all be going?”

That was a good question and one Tony had pondered before.  The shards were used for energy; they powered almost everything in Hell through the generator system.  Tony didn’t know much about it other than hearing a few Kree engineers now and then grumble about how inefficient it was and how little fuel they were given to operate it.  Most of what was mined went up for sale or refinement or who knew what.  Up in the sky.

Steve said exactly what he was thinking, eyes glazed as he worked through it.  “They have to take the shards at the top and reload them for transport off the moon.  Those pillars outside take them higher, and there must be something up top, like a… a processing center.  They take the shards in and send the empty transports back down.  Somebody owns this place and is using the shards or selling them.  There has to be someone up there.”

The Kree Warlord.  This amorphous, unknown threat that loomed over everyone.  Tony hardly knew anything about this creature other than he existed and everyone feared him.  Their struggles down below were so devastating and intense that it was difficult to even consider that there could be something worse above.  Someone stronger than the gang who’d hurt Steve, than Xeran, than Kar, than all the guards who stood between them and freedom.  Someone more dangerous.

But there had to be.  There was a system beyond the pit, one that apparently extended through the clouds and into the sky to whatever was above them.  And Steve was suggesting…  “So let me get this straight.  You want to…”  Tony threw up his good hand in exasperation.  “What?  Find a way to sneak past Kar’s thugs and the guards and the scanners?  Get onto the main elevator without anyone noticing and somehow make it take us to the top?  Past all the levels with the guards and the barracks and who knows what else?  And then you want to break into this mystery room where you think they might be dumping bucket A into bucket B, throw ourselves in with the shards they’re shipping out, and hitch a ride up to whatever’s on the other end of those pillars?”

It was meant to be incredulous, maybe even insulting, but Steve’s eyes only widened, like Tony laying out the would-be plan had made it materialize before him.  Like somehow this equated to Tony supporting it.  Confirming it.  “Maybe that’s exactly what we need to do.”

This was getting beyond ridiculous.  “Steve, come on…”

“Tony, just think about it, okay?  Listen and think.”  Steve kept saying that like it could do something, like it could be that simple.  His eyes were so intense, so full of faith.  “If we can recreate my tattoo–”  Tony choked out a bitter laugh.  “No, no.  Come on.  If we can get my tattoo back, I can get back up there.  Do some reconnaissance.  See what I can find out.”

“Even if that’s possible, it doesn’t get us anything!” Tony insisted, dropping his face into his hand once more.

“Yes, it does.  And – and when the serum erases the tattoo again, we can put on another one.  Any one we want.  Any one we need.  God, Tony, don’t you get it?”  Steve reached across the small table to grab Tony’s wrist and hold tight.  To force him to stop and look up and listen.  “Kar wants you to control the system for this very reason.  If you can decode and recreate the tattoos, you can go anywhere.

Tony stared into Steve’s eyes.  Steve honestly believed this was possible.  Of course, it was in theory.  And, of course, Tony had thought of it off and on over the last few days.  The serum erased Steve’s tattoo.  That meant they had a blank slate, in effect.  A chance to experiment.  If they could figure out the tattoo system, they could change Steve into any class they wanted.  Miner.  Engineer.  Cook.  Maintenance.  Whatever they wanted.  That, in turn, meant Steve could go anywhere they needed.  They didn’t need to infiltrate the control center or gain control of the scanners or fight the guards or anything of the sort.  No, all they needed was enough samples – enough skins – to decode the symbols, and they’d be in business.  Steve was exactly right; this was the very reason Kar wanted such power.

If they could create it, why not use it themselves?

Tavin broke what had become a heavy silence, one wrought with the breadth and gravity of what Steve was proposing.  He turned to Tony.  “Can you do this?” he asked softly.

It was a serious question, and Tony actually considered it, actually let himself truly think about it without being so dismissive.  He looked away from Tavin to stare at Steve, at the place on his chest just below his left collarbone.  His shirt was covering it, but he could almost picture it, the smooth, unblemished skin there.  “Maybe.  I don’t know.  We’d need… God, we’d need a lot of skins to study.  And a way to extract the tattoo ink or whatever the hell it is from them.  And a way to get the tattoo back on you.”

Steve winced, clearly a little repulsed, but he nodded.  “Yeah.”

“But maybe I can use your blood to help extract the ink,” Tony mused.  His mind had started racing, whirring to life with the lure of a problem to pick apart and solve.  “Maybe.  It’s not likely to work on everything, but maybe we can get it function enough that I can store up a supply of it.” Maybe.  That was the key word in all of this.

“Yeah,” Steve said, and there was no hint of doubt in his voice.

“This… serum in your blood,” Tavin began hesitantly, like he was still wary of engaging in this for fear of disappointment.  Aren’t we all.  “It will continue to degrade any tattoo placed in your skin?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered.  “It’s what heals me so fast.  If we can get the tattoo back on there, it’ll take it off again, no doubt about it.”

Tavin didn’t look certain, though ironically that was the one thing that they could count on.  He cocked his head.  “And it does not run out?”

“It doesn’t run out,” Steve assured.  He looked back at Tony.  “Not as long as I have enough to eat.  And I can spare the blood.”

Tony wasn’t all that sure about that, but he didn’t argue.  He was too busy considering what Steve had suggested.  If there really was a way to get up, to get out, this…  Perhaps this could get them there, or at least give him a chance to find out for sure if there was any hope at all.

 A chance to escape.  Steve was absolutely right.  Any chance was worth taking.

Tavin’s eyes were narrowed.  There was a look to them that hadn’t been there before.  It was emerging from beneath the stoicism, beneath the pragmatism.  Faith.  Hope.  “Can you do this?” he asked again, asked both of them.

All the sudden, the haze went away.  The shame and doubt and fear.  Tony’s mind jolted into motion, and he met Steve’s gaze evenly.  “I’m going to need a better place to work.”


Two days passed.  In that time, Tony managed to rig up an intravenous method of collecting Steve’s blood using the medical supplies they had.  It wasn’t the prettiest, but it was fairly simple.  They had needles and tubing and the empty bags that had once had the nutrient solution they’d used to save Steve’s life.  It was a damn good thing Steve couldn’t get sick because sterilizing everything properly was pretty much impossible.  At any rate, without much fuss or effort spent at all, Tony had a bag of serum-enhanced blood.

That probably should have been more disturbing and disgusting than it was, but there was no time.  Tony had to work fast with it because they had no way to store it, at least not in a manner that kept it preserved.  Of course that meant figuring out how to use it exactly.  Extracting the serum out of Steve’s blood was impossible.  Filtering it was also impossible.  People had been trying for decades to recreate Erskine’s formula to no avail; he certainly wasn’t going to accomplish what was equivalent to climbing the Mount Everest of biochemistry and genetics without the proper resources and equipment.  Not that he had the smarts to do that, either.  Tony was no slouch in these fields, but if Bruce Banner had spent years striving to unravel the secrets of the super soldier serum with only the Hulk to show for his efforts, Tony knew he had no chance to succeed.

The thing was, though, he wasn’t sure he needed to.  He just needed to get the serum to dissolve the tattoo in other tissue samples.  They needed a supply of the metallic substance they used to create the tattoo.  The ink.  They could get that without knowing how the serum was doing it.  It wasn’t as if Steve’s blood was some sort of elixir, though.  They couldn’t just pour it on someone else (or on a skin) watch it raise the ink from the flesh like magic.  The serum was in Steve’s cells, in his DNA, and it had altered his body on a molecular level, flooding his tissues and enhancing his biochemistry.  His body produced its own supply, so Tony hoped that his blood would be potent enough to get at least some of the job done.

So far, that hadn’t been the case so much.  The lot of skins he had on hand didn’t seem to react much with Steve’s blood.  That wasn’t unexpected; he was, in effect, mixing one substance he didn’t understand with another he didn’t understand and praying for a favorable chemical reaction.  The serum had forced the tattoo out of Steve’s skin, but that might have just been because it was Steve’s skin.  These were skins from a dozen different aliens, some flaky and some leathery and some scaly.  Some thick and some thin, some more… aged.  Some beyond description.  It was crazy to think Steve’s blood could change any of them, that it could work miracles.

As…  Well, as fucking sick as it was, when Steve hadn’t been looking, Tony had wiped just a bit of the blood against his own tattoo.  This had been during one of his more exhausted, depression, and punch-drunk moments.  It felt like dousing himself in poison, like he was doing something really, really wrong, because it was really, really wrong.  And of course it did nothing.  Of course.  He did know some things about the serum, and it wasn’t some miracle elixir.  It was utterly insane to believe otherwise even for a second, and he couldn’t excuse it with thinking he needed to experiment and verify.  Washing it off as fast as humanly possible had been the only thing he could do to keep his stomach from rebelling.

There was some good news, though.  With some thorough, careful soaking and washing, they’d managed to salvage most of the silver ink from the rags Steve had saved.  Now they had a small supply of it.  Well, perhaps supply was a generous term.  It was hard to tell how much of it had been lost when the serum had dissolved Steve’s tattoo, if they had enough to put it back.  Point was they needed more.

Thus there he was, trying to get more.  Tony felt something like a mad scientist in his makeshift workshop, with beakers boiling over hot-plate like burners and tubes everywhere and flasks full of liquids and experiments running left and right.  It was pretty shocking (and disturbing).  And it wasn’t like any of it mattered.  This one small vial of silver liquid was so far all he had to show for his efforts.

“He’s here.”

Tony looked up from another skin sample he was boiling.  Heat seemed to have some positive effect on the tattoos; depending on the skin itself, after exposing it to Steve’s blood, extracting at least some of the substance became easier.  Filtering it from the bloody water afterward was producing a bit of a positive result.  The substance definitely had at least some metallic component because passing current through the solution helped turn it into sediment.  That was probably why it reacted to the scanners in the first place (or was at least detectable by them).  The process he’d developed was akin to electrolysis, only he hoped to God he was not fundamentally altering the substance of the tattoo on a molecular level (who knew what sort of trouble that might cause).  What was left when he was done simmering and zapping it was usually nothing more than a slight film crusted on the beaker, but there might be a couple of bigger crystals if Tony was lucky.

This time there was a fuck ton of nothing, and Tony tore his gaze away from the disappointing sight to Tavin.  “Who’s here?”

The little alien was in the entrance looking tense and unhappy.  “The monitor.”

For a second, that didn’t register with him.  Then he remembered.  The asshole Kar is sending to keep an eye on me.  An image of a dweeb with glasses and a safety patrol vest flashed across Tony’s mind.  Or, God, what was his name from Monsters, Inc.?  The purple, polka-dotted, conniving, sneaky little shit with the glasses.  Randy.  Maybe that was what Tony would call him, since his name seemed to be pretty much unpronounceable to humans.

Picturing him like that made the fear more tolerable.  Tony sighed.  “I guess he should… come back here?  Look around?”

Tavin didn’t look certain (or pleased, which of course he wouldn’t be), but he nodded.  It wasn’t like there was much choice.  Tony just prayed that all this stuff around him looked like progress (and that Randy didn’t catch wise to the fact that he didn’t intend to give one iota of whatever he managed to do to Kar).  Tavin’s gaze fell to the bags and vials of Steve’s blood on the counter, and Tony jerked, hastily returning them to the dented, crud-covered box they were using for storage.  Randy didn’t need to see that or inquire as to what it was.

Once Tony was done hiding things, Tavin asked, “Should I wake Rogers?”

Steve was asleep in their room.  For all his bravado about being able to spare the blood, donating so much was taking its toll on him.  Maybe Steve was acting now as if he was well and unhindered by Hell, but the fact that a blood draw was leaving him tired, dizzy, and weak was pretty fucking strong evidence that he wasn’t suddenly invincible in the presence of food and water.  Bullshit could only take you so far.  “No,” Tony said, tidying up a little more.  “We don’t need him.  Plus, knowing him, he’ll somehow dig us in deeper with his big mouth.”

That wasn’t exactly said sharply or despairingly (more fondly than anything, in fact), but Tavin still frowned.  Tony could practically hear his rebuke though he didn’t actually say a word.  You’re one to talk.  Then he shuffled off to bring their visitor in.

In the couple of minutes that followed, Tony tried to steel himself.  Summon some mettle.  He was going to have to lie, put on some sort of dog and pony show for this guy and make it convincing.  He’d done it before, done it for Kar, so how hard could it be?

There was a shuffling sound behind him and a voice Tony didn’t recognize.  He turned and saw Tavin out in the hallway, and pushing forward from behind him was Randy.  He wasn’t purple, didn’t have polka dots, and wasn’t particularly lizard-like.  The guy’s presence matched pretty spectacularly, though.  He was mostly humanoid, small and spindly with gray, waxy skin and a round, bald head.  His eyes (there were three of them, an additional one lodged above the bridge of his nose) were black, beady, and overly shrewd.  He was shorter than Tony, but he had an aura to him of sorts, one that seemed oily and smart and more than a tad sinister.  Cold and calculating, maybe, but subtly so.  This was the archetypical villain’s dangerous sidekick, not the muscle of a henchman but the cunning, possibly even more evil tone of a master planner putting his boss’ diabolical schemes into effect.

“Terran,” Randy greeted evenly.  He had pointed, hideously black teeth underneath wormy lips.  Tony didn’t know if that was a result of living in Hell for so long or if he was naturally that way.  Either way it was gruesome.

“I take it you’re my babysitter,” Tony said.  He did nothing to mask his displeasure at that, which was probably risky; he had no idea what kind of a temper this fucker had, if he was quick to anger or be insulted.  Physically, Tony was pretty sure he could best him even sore and weak as he still was, but it likely wouldn’t take much to have Randy running back to Kar and his big, muscly Kree bodyguards.  Thus, instead, Tony gestured to his workspace in a clear invitation.  “So go ahead and babysit.”

Randy looked annoyed, glaring at Tony with those tiny, freakish eyes of his.  “I’m here to ensure that you’re making progress,” he declared, boldly venturing deeper into the tiny area.  One large step was all it took, and then his tiny, slimy (yeah, Tony could see now that his skin was wet all over) body was right beside him.  He gave Tony a sidelong glance.  “And to make certain you’re not attempting to falsify your results.  Tricking Kar would be very unwise.”

 No shit.  “Which is why I’m not,” Tony assured.

Randy appraised him a second more, staring like he could see through Tony’s skin.  For all Tony knew, he could.  Maybe he had x-ray vision or infrared or who the hell knew what.  He shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny before Randy went back to examining the spread before him.  “So you have deduced a way to extract the ink from the skin?”

Tony debated how much to tell him.  “More or less,” he said after a beat.  “That apparatus that’s bubbling over there?”  He pointed to his shitty excuse for an electrolysis system and the wires and batteries surrounding it.  “Sometimes I can get a bit of the ink out that way.”

“How much?”

Tony didn’t want to show him the vial he’d obtained.  Not at all.  “Some,” he said pathetically.

That wasn’t enough, of course.  “Show me.”

For a second, Tony did nothing.  Randy was glaring at him, waiting.  Demanding.  There was no choice but to comply.  Maybe that’d be okay.  Maybe it was better to have the bastard believe he’d managed to collect all that ink even though most of it had come from Steve’s tattoo itself.  Randy wouldn’t know the difference, and displaying some results would keep him from asking why or how.  So Tony reached behind the little curtain he had thrown over the boxes and pulled out the vial of ink he’d managed to collect.  It was maybe a couple hundred milliliters, not much in the grand scheme of things but equivalent to liquid gold at the moment for how valuable it was.  He wanted Randy to touch it even less than he’d wanted to show it to him, but out came stumpy fingers almost instantly.

Randy didn’t seem too overly impressed, but it was hard to tell what he was thinking as he grasped the glass vial, as he took it from Tony.  As he pulled it closer to him.  Christ, if he spilled it…

He didn’t.  He eyed the ink, lifting it to scrutinize it more carefully like there was better light a few inches higher (there wasn’t).  Tony was holding his breath.  This was torture.  Sheer, fucking torture.  Randy shook the vial gently, swishing the liquid around, and Tony’s heart practically gave out on him.  Finally the alien handed it back.  His face was still inscrutable.  “What do you need?”

That question seemed to be a good sign.  Tony slowly and softly exhaled.  He couldn’t help a snide answer.  “Freedom would be nice.”  Randy scowled, and it was ugly as hell, and Tony bit his tongue and rushed into some actual requests.  “Skins.  I need more skins.  As many as you can get me.  This technique I’ve developed to extract the ink doesn’t work on some of them.”  Most of them.  Almost all of them.  Randy didn’t need to know that.  And it was fucking disgusting to be negotiating for flesh from other people’s bodies in bulk, but needs must and all that.  He had to be numb about this.  “So that’s a priority.”

Randy stared at him again, like he was trying once more to see beneath his skin.  Tony just stared back, refusing to give an inch even if he was scared.  “Alright,” the alien conceded.  “Is there anything else?”

“More medical supplies,” Tony said without a second thought.  If they were negotiating again (and it seemed like he had the upper hand), then he was going to go for it all.  “And more time.  That I need most of all.”

Randy wasn’t pleased.  “You’re asking for a lot.”

Tony tried to be nonplussed.  Cool and confident as a cucumber.  “I always am.  This takes time and resources.  The big guy knows that.”  Randy’s frown got even deeper at the casual mention of his boss.  “Bring me what I asked for, and it all goes faster.  This?”  He lifted the precious vial of ink and shook it slightly.  “I can gather it more efficiently and start working on actually making tattoos if I can get what I need.”

Another moment passed in which Randy stared and Tony tried not to blink.  Eventually, Randy nodded and turned away.  “I’ll see what I can do.”  That was all he said, and then he was gone.

Tony stood very still, like sudden movement would tempt fate into stealing away what seemed like another victory for them.  As the seconds slipped by, it seemed like he’d escaped disaster again, saved by another lie.  Sighing in relief, he carefully returned the vial of ink to its safe spot before sagging against the workbench.  “Fuck,” he whimpered, rubbing the heels of his palms into his aching, exhausted eyes.  “Just fuck.”

There was a quiet shuffling sound from the doorway.  Tony knew it was Tavin; they’d been living together long enough now that he could recognize the way the other moved.  Another deep sigh nearly had him coughing, and he choked a little before reaching for a canteen of water.  He took a few sips and got control of his breathing.  “Dodged a bullet,” he eventually said.  He looked around at his work, at the still simmering flasks and tubes and the pile of used skins and those he had yet to work on.  Jesus.  “Wonder how many times I can manage that.”

“He will catch wise to the fact you are not making progress,” Tavin softly concurred.  Tony closed his eyes against the headache pulsing behind his brow.  “Or that you are trying to deceive him.”

“Damn it all,” he whispered.  He reached for the box with Steve’s blood in it and pulled it free and the lid open.  Staring at the vials of ruby liquid, he darkly shook his head.  “If he’s going to be coming around, I don’t know how I can hide this.”  Tavin was smart and read between the lines.  He’d been more comforting the last couple of days, ever since he’d come to understand how important Steve was in this whole equation, and how afraid Tony was of that being discovered by Kar or anyone else.  They wouldn’t just lose any chance they had at escape.  Tony closed his eyes tighter again, fighting against an unbidden image of Kar fucking draining Steve dry, exsanguinating him to just have a chance at changing the tattoos…  Or making Steve do his evil for him.  Using Tony as leverage to get Steve to be his slave, forcing him to do the things he wanted…

The awful possibilities were endless.

“We can’t let Kar find out,” Tony said, gathering himself.  He opened his eyes and stared at vials anew.  “We just can’t.”

“It will be difficult here.  Therefore, I have come up with an alternative location.”  That had Tony turning again and staring at Tavin in surprise.  The alien seemed calm, pleased.  Given his slightly upturned mouth, perhaps he was even smiling.  “You said you need a better place to work.  I think what I have in mind will suffice.”

Chapter Text

Day 39 

As it turned out, Tavin’s mystery spot wasn’t much of a mystery at all.  They’d been there before in fact, during a time only slightly less distressful and desperate.

Despite that, Tony was still surprised (and not entirely enthused) when Tavin finally took them there the next day.  “The pantry?” he said, appraising the unfortunately familiar location.  “You want me to do this in the pantry?”

Tavin gestured to the space around them.  It was still a bit dark.  There were those racks, just as loaded with various and exotic grocery stuffs as they had been before, and the table upon which Steve had languished and Tony had tried to coax some water and food into him.  Tony tried not to look at that because the harrowing memories were still fresh even weeks removed, though he had a sinking suspicion that was about to become his new work area.  “I fail to see any reason why this is not ideal.  You have access to the refrigerator, which can keep Rogers’ blood samples and any other organic material chilled.  You have far more space than you did in my storage closet.  Furthermore, no one aside from myself will come in here, so there will be privacy.  I made certain of that.”  He seemed very pleased with himself and whatever deals he had brokered on his own to make this happen.  “Is there a problem?”

Honestly, Tony couldn’t see one.  It just seemed weird, to be working next to food that Tavin undoubtedly prepared and served to Kar and his ilk.  Or the guards.  Six of one, half dozen of the other really.  “I guess not.”

“No, no, Tony,” Steve said, looking around like he’d never fathomed such a clean, well-organized place could exist in Hell.  He probably didn’t remember being here.  “This is great.  We can segregate everything.”  There was unbridled excitement in his voice as he quit his gawking, turned back to them, and appraised Tony evenly.  “This guy who’s keeping an eye on you doesn’t know about this.”

“Not likely,” Tavin smugly said, obviously pleased with his plan.

“And that means you can show him your fake progress at Tavin’s place and do the real work here,” Steve declared.  That was fantastically stating the obvious, but maybe the obvious needed to be stated, because even though Tony of course knew that, it really wasn’t sinking in, that this could be the answer to at least some of their problems.  What Steve said was true; he could keep the sensitive materials and projects here and put some fake crap in Tavin’s place to make it appear like he was getting somewhere with his task.  They could bring Randy there, have him look it over, have Tony spew some technobabble bullshit, essentially pull the wool over his eyes while they worked toward what they needed to escape…

“It’s perfect,” Steve said, looking to Tony for agreement.  The expression on his face suggested he wasn’t going to tolerate Tony’s pessimism and bad-mouthing this time.

Tony didn’t feel like it.  Not now.  Yeah, they had a mountain of difficulties ahead of them, but at least they now had a spot to deal with them.  “Yeah,” he said on a long breath.  He found himself nodding, more to himself than either Steve or Tavin, as he kept looking around.  “Yeah, this’ll work.”

It took the better part of two days to surreptitiously move all their equipment to the new location, even as meager as it was.  They were both supposed to be working, so roaming around the City of the Damned and the caverns around it during operating hours was risky.  Tavin could only do so much, sneaking what he could to the pantry when he left for his shift.  Upon his return, they could all transport things together, but even still it was a delicate procedure.  Just venturing out into the darkness of Hell was a major endeavor for Tony.  He hadn’t even realized how fucking terrified he’d be until he was doing it.  With arms full of his tubes and vials under their ratty blanket for protection, he’d looked around with wild, frantic eyes, expecting Xeran or Kar or any one of the thousand monsters surrounding them to come barreling out of the shadows.  The attack thankfully never came, and he was only mostly sure that was because Steve was with him.  Throughout each and every trip from Tavin’s place to kitchen, Steve was always at his side, strong and stalwart with a watchful, warning eye over everything.  If that hadn’t been the case, he would have never been able to manage going out at all, let alone traversing what felt like miles for his anxiety.

God, was he really becoming so dependent on Steve?  On his protection?  On his nearness?  All his insecurities and fears and doubts and self-abhorrence rushed back to the surface with every step they took across the filthy city, with every shallow breath Tony hauled in when he was crushed by fear.  He was small and weak and easy pickings without Steve.  He was nothing without Steve.

At any rate, as slow and tedious as molasses they managed to move everything they needed to the pantry.  They took the most precious of it all – the supply of Steve’s blood and the vial of ink – last, when Tavin went out to work one morning.  Steve was particularly hypervigilant for that trip, his form tense and his gaze sharp as he carried the box.  If they lost this, they were essentially back to square one.

But they didn’t.  Somehow they managed to get everything transferred to their new place.  Tavin had to unlock the pantry for them; that was the major drawback of this plan, that only Tavin could get them through the scanner there and into the pantry.  It might turn into a serious problem later, but for now it was tolerable.  “I need to work now,” Tavin said as he ushered them inside.  “It might be best if you were to stay until I can escort you back.”

That meant a whole day locked up in here.  Steve shared a look with Tony, and Tony couldn’t help but wonder if he was also concerned with the prospect of hours cooped up together.  With all the unresolved issues between them of late, it’d be awful for sure.

But there wasn’t anything to be done for it.  Tavin was gone without a goodbye, and the two of them were left with their silence and tension.  Tony couldn’t bring himself to look at Steve.  For his own part, Steve seemed willfully oblivious to just how uncomfortable things were.  Or purposefully ignorant.  He was examining the shelves, thoughtfully scanning the items.  “Well, we won’t starve,” he commented.  “And it’s nice that this place…  Well, at least it feels safe.”

Tony grunted, wincing.  “Hurrah.”

“Come on.  You could at least pretend like this is a good thing.”

“Considering the long hours I spent here dripping water into your mouth and spooning food into you and praying to God it’d be enough to save your life, you’ll have to forgive me for being a little freaked out,” Tony snapped.  Under the perpetual layer of dirt on his face, Steve frowned deeply.  His eyes filled with regret and shame, and Tony couldn’t stand it, not the guilt he felt now nor the idea of rehashing that pain.  He stepped forward and grabbed one of the crates they’d used to bring their supplies over.  “Alright, let’s get set up.”

They worked in silence for a bit.  Tony focused on wiring his hot-plates into the power box that was behind one of the shelving units while Steve organized their beakers, flasks, tubes, boxes, and other paraphernalia.  Pretty soon they had the electrolysis system set up again, and things were back to bubbling and simmering and soaking and hopefully freeing the metallic ink.  Tony was particularly careful with the bags of Steve’s blood; those he stored in the refrigerator, grateful to have method to preserve it at last.  That and the skins.  Thankfully most of the skins were dry and fairly free bodily fluids before they got them, but it wasn’t always the case, and the smell could be unbearable. 

Lastly, Tony set the vial of ink onto the workbench.  Steve had their little logbook they’d procured open.  Tavin had bartered for one a couple of days ago, and they were using it to keep track of the skins.  First, Steve had of course sketched the tattoo itself, making note of every symbol.  Each brand contained a dozen or so, and they were all very different.  Steve had also numbered the different types of skins in something like a catalogue, describing how long they boiled the skin or otherwise tried to soften it, how long they soaked it in Steve’s blood, how well the electrolysis procedure worked.  How much of the ink they managed to obtain (which was usually nothing more than a few milliliters).  As gruesome as it was, Steve was finally trying to keep track of skin itself, the thickness and qualities of it, the color and texture and whether or not it had hair or scales or something else.  That was the only way they could differentiate them.  That and cutting off a bit, numbering it, and storing it for future reference.  This was terrible, terrible work.

But Steve had been and always was right at his side, handling it with him without complaint.  Thankfully Randy had delivered on Tony’s request for more skins yesterday, so they had nearly a dozen new samples to try.  Frankly, Tony didn’t have much hope for any of them.  If what the serum had pushed out of Steve’s body could be considered the average amount of ink in any given tattoo, they were collecting only a miniscule fraction of that amount.  Maybe they’d get lucky and using one of these skins would be akin to hitting the lottery, but the odds were probably about as good as winning the actual lottery.

“When do you want to try to put my tattoo back on me?”

After so long a silence, Steve’s question was absolutely booming.  Tony looked at the younger man where he was sitting beside him.  They’d pulled over a couple of crates for chairs, and Steve was finishing up with the latest notes in their macabre logbook.  He set down the sorry excuse for a pencil and met Tony’s gaze.  “We have to try,” he said given Tony’s lack of response.

Tony sighed and wiped his grimy hands on a rag.  “Not sure we should risk it,” he plainly said.

“We need to at some point.”  Tony opted to pretend to not hear that, narrowing his eyes as he fiddled with the batteries for a few of his tools.  He was going to need to find at least a couple new ones, and that meant going up to the workshops and sneaking around.  The prospect made his heart race.  “Tony?”

He didn’t know why he didn’t feel up to this.  His emotions were all over the fucking place.  And that, of course, led him back to the same shit that had been stewing for days, weeks.  He was supposed to be Iron Man.  He was supposed to be an Avenger, a hero.  But here he was, moping or whatever the hell he was doing.  “I don’t know.”

Steve sighed.  It wasn’t with his normal aplomb.  He was rattled, perhaps wearing thin too.  “We are never going to escape unless I get my tattoo back.  There’s a chance you can get up to the loading bay to sneak around, but with that tattoo?  I can stay there, Tony.  Every day I can really have an eye on things.  Figure out where the guards are, what their shifts and rotations are, what our options are.  Maybe even what ships come when.  Figure out if going through that door to the surface is as deadly as it looks, or if we can even get to the elevators up and out with the shards–”

“I know,” Tony said.  It wasn’t as sharply as he wanted.  “Just…”  He sighed and reached for the vial of ink.  “This is all we have.  If we’re lucky, maybe we can get some more from all our…”  He winced as he looked at the stack of skins in the box Randy had brought them.  “…experiments.”  Steve grimaced, too.  “But that’s not likely.  Which means if I fuck this up–”

“You won’t.”

“But if I do, Steve, you’re…”  Dead.  “Either you’re stuck at Tavin’s or locked in this place.”

Steve didn’t say anything to that.  Of course he had to realize all this.  This grand (and extremely premature and ill-defined) escape plan he had was all predicated upon them being able to recreate his tattoo.  If they couldn’t, they weren’t going anywhere, and him only being trapped inside was sadly the best outcome for him.

“Well, like I said, at least we won’t starve,” Steve finally said.  Tony focused on him, wanting to glare at the crass remark, but it was obvious Steve was teasing.  His lips were turned in a little grin, and his eyes were light.  He shrugged.  “We could stay here, hang out in this little room and wait for the others to rescue us.”

Tony chuckled.  He hadn’t thought about rescue in ages.  “Might be waiting a while.”

“Eh.  We could find ways to pass the time.”

Holy shit.  Was Steve actually flirting with him?  It sure seemed like it.  And it was hard to see because the lighting was poor even here, but it looked like Steve was blushing.  Blushing with embarrassment but trying hard not to show it.  Holy shit, Tony thought again.  If Steve was flirting, it was probably the worst flirting Tony had seen in a long while, but, damn, it made him feel good.  It changed the air between them entirely.  That earnest light in Steve’s eyes, the faux confidence of his voice, the rosy flush on his cheeks, the sweetness of it here of all places…

“I trust you, Tony,” Steve said after that charged beat of silence.  “I do.  So let’s make this our goal today.”  Goals.  Rather than just scraping by and trying to survive.  That seemed crazy.  “Worse thing that happens is it doesn’t work, right?”  Steve shrugged again.  “My body will push the ink back out, and we can just collect it again.”

There were times when Steve’s unerring optimism and unceasing ability to cut to the simple heart of things was a godsend.  This was one of them.  Over the next few hours, he helped Tony rig a poor man’s version of a tattoo machine.  Tony knew in theory how one worked, and he was able to put together the essential pieces.  Some of his better options for repurposed parts were back at Tavin’s, but he could make what he had work.  He also had a couple hypodermic needles from the medical supplies.  They weren’t strong enough to really handle this, thin and a little flimsy, so he’d have to proceed slowly, gently, and with caution or they might break.  Still, they were better than nothing at all.

After a while with Steve’s steadier hands doing the more delicate parts of the process, they had a sorry excuse for a tattoo gun.  Tony held it with a doubtful frown.  Honestly, he couldn’t really remember the tool the Kree had used to stamp the tattoo into his skin that first day, but he was pretty sure it was significantly more powerful and precise than this.  Christ, there were so many unknowns here.  How deep did he need to go into the skin?  How much ink should he use for each prick to ensure he had enough to complete the entire tattoo?  What was the resolution of the scanners?  That would dictate how dark and accurate the symbols had to be.  Would the ink spread in the skin?  Had he changed or damaged the ink by doing what he’d done to it?

He had a thousand questions, all paramount to the situation, and he couldn’t answer a single one.  And he couldn’t stop staring, shaken to his core in what felt like every way imaginable, as Steve stripped off his ripped, ruined tunic and carefully hopped up on the table where they’d cleaned and cleared their equipment to make room for him.  He turned around, wetting a rag from the jug of water and scrubbing at the skin of his chest, and now Tony could really see that he still wasn’t entirely well.  His ribs were too prominent, his muscles not nearly so defined as they had been before they’d been brought here.  It was more obvious than when Tony had seen and felt it before, but even with that…  Even like this, filthy and probably just shy of starving with his hair too long and his beard nearly unruly again…

Even like this, Steve was beautiful.

And that only made Tony feel worse, even more unworthy, even more uncertain.  “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said on a weak breath, holding his makeshift tattoo machine close to his chest with his stronger hand.

Someone else would have been irritated with his constant pessimism.  Steve had been before, but now he just smiled softly.  There was nothing but honest faith in his eyes.  “Sure, you can.”

“If I can’t–“

Just like before, Steve interrupted him.  “You can.  We can.”  He set the rag down, took the vial of ink, and handed it to Tony.  Tony carefully loaded it into the machine where some thin tubing and a small suction pump would draw the liquid up and into the needle at a hopefully steady rate.  “We have to.”

Tony sucked in a slow, long breath.  He stared at the cleaner skin right about Steve’s left pec, where the tattoo used to be.  Steve reached into the box they’d used to bring over the ink and pulled out his sketch of the tattoo.  Thank God it was crisp and well-detailed, though Tony didn’t think that’d be worth much considering how much his hands were trembling.  “Fucking fate and all that.  You should be doing this.  You’re the artist,” he said, trying to find some modicum of composure.

Steve’s brow furrowed in confusion as he held the drawing up for Tony to see.  “How’d you know that?”  He seemed surprised but almost touched as well, as if he hadn’t anticipated Tony caring to learn something more personal about him.  Then his face fell a bit.  “Oh.  You read the profiles for the team before the Battle of New York, right.”

“Wrong,” Tony said, a little affronted (even though that was true.  And he might have studied Steve’s a little closer than the others, considering this was the man his father had never shut up about, the man for whom his father had spent his childhood searching).  He tested his machine a little, pressing on the button he’d installed with his thumb just to see if it would pipe the ink to the needle.  It did with a little hum.  Steve moved fast to grab another flask, catching the precious bead of metallic liquid just as it dripped from the sharp tip.  Tony whispered, “Thanks.”  His voice was sheepish.

Steve kept the spare flask on hand just in case there were more drips (or spills.  Or catastrophic mistakes.  Just fuck).  Tony exhaled, lowering his contraption to Steve’s chest.  God, his skin was warm and smooth and firm.  This wasn’t even close to the first time he’d touched Steve, but somehow this was far more intimate. Somehow.  Like there’s any question as to why. 

He swallowed down his racing heart and focused.  “Hold still,” he softly ordered.

Steve nodded.  Tony could tell he was holding his breath, too.  “Go ahead.  You won’t hurt me.”

“That’s not what I’m most afraid of, no offense,” Tony said with a wry, tight smile.

“None taken,” Steve replied with a weak smile of his own.

There was no sense in hesitating any more.  Steve was right; they had to try this.  Had to do it.  So Tony gently inserted the needle.  Steve’s skin was as serum-enhanced as the rest of him (hence his concerns about the needle breaking), so he needed more pressure to puncture it.  Once he felt he was deep enough into the dermis (not that he had any data or experience by which to judge it), he pressed the button once.  Then he pulled the needle out.

Sure enough, there was a small spot of silver under the skin.  Squinting in the poor light, Tony gently rubbed a fairly clean cloth over it.  The dot didn’t seem to move, safely beneath the surface.  Tony sighed, unsure of whether or not to be relieved.  “Is it working?” Steve asked, looking down with his lips pursed.

“Seems to be.  We have one dot.  One of who knows how many.”

Steve grinned like that tiny (but noticeable) speck was the biggest accomplishment ever.  “See?  Told you we can do this.”

Tony didn’t think this was worthy of even that much celebration, but he couldn’t deny the spike of pride rushing through him.  Then he looked at the sketch and then the full vial of ink.  “This is going to take a while.”

“Keep going then,” Steve advised.  “Slow and steady wins the race.”  He grinned weakly, ashamed of his own lame comment, and shifted as Tony put his fingers back on his skin.  Tony rubbed more firmly, checking the ink more.  It wasn’t budging.  It wasn’t seeping or leaking out.  Awesome, he thought bitterly, and then he noticed Steve fidgeting more.  His movements seemed nervous, like Tony’s touch was just a bit electrifying.  Like Tony wasn’t the only one who found this strangely intimate and was more than a little uncomfortable because of it.

Satisfied and encouraged (and not just because of a damn dot), Tony took a deep breath and put the needle to Steve’s skin anew.  Another puncture and another button press produced another dot.  Then he did it again.  And again.  After a few minutes of tense silence, he felt like he was getting the hang of it, getting the feel of how deep to go and how much ink to use.  He was still worried they weren’t going to have enough, but there was no choice at this point but to keep going.  He kept glancing at Steve’s sketch, following the lines of the symbols.  “God, did they have to make these so freaking curvy and complicated?” he griped as he worked through the first one. 

“What did you mean before?” Steve asked quickly like he was afraid he’d lose his nerve if he kept quiet longer.  Tony glanced up, but he couldn’t meet Steve’s gaze and Steve didn’t seem capable of meeting his.  “When you said I was wrong about how you knew about me being an artist.”

Even though they’d just been talking about that minutes before, Tony was so scatter-brained he’d forgotten.  “Oh.  Uh…”  He finished outlining the symbol and double-checked his work, brushing his palm over Steve’s skin to make sure everything was staying put.  It was.  “I just notice things.”

Like Steve sitting in the common room of the Tower, alone with his pencil scratching on paper.  Like Steve’s eyes, which seemed a million miles away as he sketched.  Tony had seen that a couple times in the dead of night when he’d been wandering to the penthouse from his workshop.  He’d stood in the shadows just beyond the living area, watching Steve on the couch as he’d put his memories to paper.  He’d been so lost in the past that Tony didn’t think he’d ever noticed he’d been there.  “You’ve got that sketchbook.  The old one?”

Steve flushed.  “It’s not that old.”

“Well, it looks beat-up.”

“Because I use it a lot.  It’s not…”  Steve sighed, clearly embarrassed.  “I could buy more, I guess.  Hard to remember that sometimes.”

“Remember what?” Tony asked, hunkering down to fill in the symbol more.

Steve looked sheepish.  “That there’s… stuff.  And money to buy it.  You know, you fill up a sketchbook so you go buy a new one.  You don’t need to find ways to keep using the paper or draw in the margins or stuff loose scraps in there…”  He gave a weak grin.  “Here and now, you can always get more.”  He caught himself with a little chuckle, looking around the pantry ruefully.  “Well, not here and now specifically, but you know what I mean.”

Tony did, in theory.  He’d never wanted for anything in his life (at least, in his normal life – Afghanistan was a stark contrast), though, so it was hard for him to understand.  Not being able to buy whatever he desired the second he desired it…  Living impoverished.  Struggling to find ways to be creative and explore his hobbies.  He had no idea what that was like.  “Yeah.”

The silence crept back.  Steve sighed again.  “I wanted to be one.”

“An artist?”

“Yeah.  Back before the war.  I had it all planned.  College.  Art school.  Bucky and I had a place together, and we were doing okay.  You know.  Making ends meet.”  There was a wistful quality to his voice.  This was quickly becoming of the many times that Tony came to realize how very little he really knew about Steve.  Sure, Steve was correct; he had read his file from SHIELD.  And, as he said, he did notice things.  But that wasn’t much, when he really thought about it.  Like about Steve’s hopes and dreams.  Who Steve had been before he became Captain America.  The life he led.

The people he loved.  Tony knew about Bucky Barnes, of course.  Howling Commando.  War hero.  Captain America’s best friend and right-hand man.  Died in 1945.  Howard had talked about him a lot, too.  Then he was asking before he could stop himself.  He figured it was safe to ask, since the kiss (kisses, really.  Multiple) pretty much solidified the idea that Steve was okay with intimacy with another man.  “You and Barnes…  You guys were… together?”

Steve seemed a little startled.  He blushed again and shook his head.  “No.  No, not like that.  Buck and I…  No, never.  He was always looking out for me.  Taking care of me when I got sick, when I got myself into situations I couldn’t handle…  Pulling me out and punching them back and patching me up.  He was like a big brother to me.  We grew up together.”

Relief was so insufficient a term to describe how Ton