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Captivated

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"Wait, wait, wait, you haven't heard the best part yet. You're gonna love this. Are you ready? It's going to be purple."

Steve almost choked on his hot dog. "Purple?"

Tony beamed with pride. "Yep. You'll be able to see it for miles."

"I'm picturing it now," Steve said dryly. "Tell me again why it has to be purple?"

"Because," Tony said with exaggerated patience. "Have you seen his costume? It's obviously our little archer's favorite color. And also because I'm a little bit of a dick that way. You know, I might promise to build you this totally cool sky cycle, but if you weren't thinking ahead enough to request your own color scheme, then it's not my fault that it's going to turn out purple."

"Of course it's not your fault," Steve said – but he couldn't help smiling a little. He offered his second hot dog to Tony. "Want some?"

Tony made a face and shook his head. "Are you kidding me with those? Do you even know what's in those things? On second thought, you really don't want to know. Trust me."

"Your loss," Steve said, and began wolfing down the second dog. He had eaten lunch earlier, but that was three hours ago, and he was hungry again.

They stood together in silence on the street corner, Steve finishing his snack, Tony surveying the pedestrians as they hurried past. Hidden behind designer sunglasses and a dark suit that retained its crisp lines even in the unusual autumn heat, few people even gave him a second glance. A slightly higher number looked at Steve, their brows creasing as though they tried to remember where they had seen him from, but no one connected the noble Captain America with the guy in the polo shirt eating a hot dog.

Steve was glad for the anonymity. He loved New York. He loved going out on the streets and just walking or riding the subway, his destination unknown until he actually got to someplace and he decided that this was it, this was where he ended up for the day. But even more, he loved when Tony came with him, and he got to share his mysterious journeys with the man he had fallen in love with.

It still amazed him a little when he thought about it like that, like he was taking that fateful step all over again. Six months ago he hadn't even known who Tony Stark was. But then, six months ago he had also never heard of Loki or the Chitauri or the Avengers.

A lot of things had changed on that terrible day when the Avengers had first come together. His entire world view had shifted, forcing him to accept that there were things in this world such as demi-gods from other realms and men who could turn into giant green rage monsters.

But it had taken another experience, a far more personal one, to reveal the truth about Tony Stark. For four long, terrible days on a distant planet called Ernor, where magic was the rule, not science, he and Tony had fought for their survival in a forest full of dangers. The Avengers had gone to that world to help the people prepare for an imminent attack by Thanos. Still new to the concept of being a team, Steve and Tony had argued incessantly the whole time, and the planet's Matriarch had not approved. In order to bind them to each other and force them to learn cooperation, a magic spell had been cast on them that had robbed Steve of his hearing and his ability to speak, while Tony had been blinded.

Even now, four months later, Steve still had terrible dreams about their journey through the Forest. Most often his nightmares took the shape of the beasts that lived there, feeding off the dark magic energy that thrived in those woods. Beasts that had nearly killed him and Tony, that would only stay dead if you believed they were dead, or else they would merely rise again, animated by magic and ready to tear your head off.

And now, as he did when he woke from such a nightmare, he found himself reaching out with one hand for Tony. Needing the reassurance of physical contact. During those four days in the Forest, touch was all they had had, the only means of communication, and the only way they had been able to stick together and stay alive.

He used it now, touching Tony's upper arm, then letting his hand glide down the sleeve of his suit jacket until his fingers brushed Tony's. For a moment they clasped hands.

Tony turned toward him. It was impossible to see his expression behind the sunglasses, but the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile.

Steve smiled back.

They leaned in at the same time. Just a quick kiss, standing there in the autumn sunshine on a New York sidewalk, but it made Steve feel a little funny inside, urging him to throw his arms out wide and shout his happiness to the entire world. He had never known he could feel this way, never known the power love could wield over him.

"If you just got mustard on my suit…" Tony said with a mock scowl.

Steve laughed. And that easily, the Forest was banished once more to the dark recesses of his memory. He saw again how bright and sunny the day was, silver spears of reflected sun bouncing off cars and windows alike. He balled up the wrapper his hot dog had come in, and tossed it into the nearest trash can. "Come on," he said.

"Where are we going?" Tony said. "If I could remind you, you came into my office and pulled me away from doing actual work for a change. Not that I'm complaining, because God knows any excuse will do, but still, I should make you be the one to explain my sudden MIA to Pepper."

"I'll tell her," Steve said. "Don't worry."

"Do I sound worried?" Tony said with a grin.

Steve never got a chance to answer. Far above their heads, something exploded.

Startled, he looked up. At first all he could see was a giant fireball and a huge cloud of smoke. As he stared, the fireball arced out from the skyscraper towering above them and into the sky over the street, where it exploded like a firework.

All around them, people began to scream and run.

"Steve!" Tony's body collided with his, arms wrapped about his chest. "Get down!"

Normally he couldn't be knocked down so easily, but he had been caught completely off guard. He was bowled off his feet, down and down, and as he fell, seeming to take forever, he had a crystal clear view of the debris raining down on them from the gaping hole torn in the skyscraper by the explosion.

He landed flat on his back, hard. The impact drove the breath from him with a whistling grunt. A split second later, Tony was on top of him, sunglasses gone, his face white with fear.

Steve saw it coming, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn't move, couldn't even find the breath to cry out a warning.

The stonework fell directly on top of them. There was a horribly loud crack.

Tony didn't make a sound. His entire body spasmed once, then he was still. He stared down at Steve, his eyes huge and horrified, and in that moment Steve saw that he was fully alert and aware. That he knew, long before anyone officially told him, what had just happened to him. Then he blinked, and his eyes glazed over with pain and incipient unconsciousness. He sagged against Steve's chest and did not move again.

Sirens wailed. High above them, something red and blue soared past and disappeared into the burning building. Seconds later, Steve heard the sounds of battle and destruction.

But he could only lie there, and do nothing.

Physically, he was not trapped. He could have moved. The once-decorative stonework that had toppled onto them had tumbled to the street and was no impediment to him now, and Tony's weight atop him was almost negligible. He could have joined the battle above and helped take out the villain who had caused this destruction.

Yet he dared not.

Lying there, he had a perfect view of the battle raging above. He saw a figure fly out of the skyscraper. The man was perched on a glider, and even at this distance, with smoke rolling into the sky, Steve thought he could see a green mask over his face. For a moment the flyer hovered in mid-air, then he took off, Spider-Man giving chase.

The wailing of sirens was louder than ever. Civilians were starting to come out from whatever shelter they had taken. Some of the injured people were shouting and begging for help. And lying draped across Steve's chest, Tony began to regain consciousness.

It took him a while. His eyelids fluttered and one hand twitched where it lay on Steve's chest. When he did finally wake up, it was with a sharp inhalation of breath – only to immediately tense up and cry out in pain.

Stuck here flat on his back, with Tony's head resting on his chest, Steve was not at a good angle to see much. He lifted his head up, craning his neck back, trying desperately to see what was happening.

What he saw was not encouraging. Tony's eyes were tightly squeezed shut, and he was deathly pale beneath his suntan. His breath came in short gasps; with every exhale, he made a small sound filled with such pain and fear that Steve could hardly bear it. "Tony?"

"Steve." Tony's hand scrabbled at his shirt. "Steve. I can't…ah God. I can't feel my legs."

Steve's heart constricted in terror. "Oh my God."

"No," Tony gasped. "No. God." He flailed with one hand, reaching downward, clawing for his leg. The abrupt movement nearly rolled him right off Steve's chest.

Steve lost all caution then. It might have been years since he had been at war, but he remembered his field medicine, and he knew that he could not let Tony move right now. Without thinking, he wrapped both arms around Tony – high up, though, across his shoulders, not his back – and held him still. "Don't," he said quickly. "Don't move."

"No!" Tony gasped. "I have to… Ah!" He cried out again.

"Don't," Steve said frantically. "It's okay, you'll be okay, but you can't move, Tony, okay? Just lie still, please. Please."

Tony did not seem to hear him. He struggled mindlessly against Steve's grip – which amounted to little more than desperate wriggling as he tried to get free. "Let go," he pleaded. "I have to… Please. Ah, God." He threw his head back, and now Steve could easily see the agony on his face. "Why… I can't feel my legs. Why does it hurt so much? Steve. Oh God, let go, let go, let go."

"I can't," Steve said in anguish. Maybe it wasn't too late yet. Maybe the numbness was just a result of the shock of injury, and it would wear off eventually. But if Tony thrashed around, there was no telling the damage that he might do to himself.

Maybe then it would be permanent.

People were yelling all around them. Steve looked around, trying to catch someone's eye. "Help! We need help here!"

"Steve." Tony's struggles weakened, but did not stop completely. "Steve. Please."

"I'm here," he breathed. "It's okay. I've got you. You're gonna be okay."

"No," Tony whispered. He was failing rapidly, his eyes closed, his breathing ragged and uneven. "Steve. Please."

"I've got you," Steve repeated, because he didn't know what else to do.

The scene at street-level was still one of chaos, but order was slowly being imposed. As Steve lay there, a man with broad shoulders came running up. "Hey," he said. He went down on one knee. "NYPD. Off-duty. Or so I thought. Are you hurt?"

"I'm not," Steve said. He wasn't actually sure, in truth, but he felt no pain other than a nagging soreness in his ribs, so he was fairly confident that he was all right. "But my friend is."

"No problem," said the cop. "I got ya." He reached for Tony's shoulder.

Immediately Steve lifted one hand and held him off. "No," he said. He glanced down at Tony, and saw that he was unconscious again. "Don't. Don't move him."

The cop stopped, and looked at him quizzically.

"You can't move him," Steve said again. "His back is broken."

****

The hospital was like a three-ring circus, with the media on one side, concerned friends and well-wishers on the other, and the Avengers in the middle.

Fortunately, no one seemed to expect Steve to play the role of ringmaster. Instead he watched gratefully as Natasha quietly and calmly took over.

She seemed to be everywhere on that long, terrible day. She was the one who met Pepper Potts and Colonel Rhodes when they arrived, less than half an hour apart from each other. She dealt with Director Fury and SHIELD. She fielded phone calls, directed visitors to a separate waiting room, and maintained a line of communication with the hospital staff.

Sitting apart from everyone, his hands clasped so hard they hurt, Steve envied her that ability to lose herself in activity in order to forget the pain. He had done it himself in the past, maybe a little too often, actually. But today he could not move. How could he throw himself into work when it was all he could do to keep breathing?

"You okay?" Clint asked as he sat beside Steve.

There was no real answer to this. Physically he was fine, with only an occasional twinge in his ribs. His pain stemmed from a different source, from something he could never hope to explain to anyone else.

So he said nothing.

"You know, Tony, he's a fighter," Clint said. "He's gonna be okay. You gotta believe that."

Steve did not look up at him. "He knew," he said. He kept his voice low, not wanting anyone else to hear. "I could see it in his eyes, right when it happened. He knew."

Clint made a pained noise. "Man, you gotta stop thinking about it. You'll drive yourself crazy that way." He paused. "Take it from someone who's been there."

"We've all been there," Natasha said as she walked up. Steve winced a little. He hadn't known she could hear their conversation. "Cap. Look at me."

Reluctantly he looked up. He couldn't really explain why he didn't want any of her attempts at comforting him. Maybe because he had seen how terrifyingly efficient she was at everything else. Part of him didn't want to be comforted. That part of him knew better.

He deserved this pain. This was his fault. They never would have been on that street if he hadn't pulled Tony away from his work at Stark Industries.

Natasha gazed down at him, her eyes soft with compassion. "What happened wasn't your fault," she said. "There was nothing you could have done about it. What's important is that you did everything you could once you had some part of it back under your control."

"Did I?" he asked softly.

"Yes, you did," Natasha said firmly. "And Clint is right. You have to stop beating yourself up, and wallowing in it. It's not going to do anyone any good, and it's certainly not going to help Tony."

"I don't know what else to do," he admitted. "All I can do is just…sit here."

"No," Natasha said. "You can go talk to Rhodes. He's been trying to get five minutes alone with you ever since he got here, but I've been putting him off." She looked at him consideringly. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that."

It wasn't an order, but Steve took it to heart. He knew full well that it was the only way he would get up off his ass and actually do something. And it was surprising how much better he felt now that he had something to do, even something as ordinary as this. "Where is he?"

"The waiting room on the third floor," Natasha said. "That's where all the rest of them are."

It took a moment for her words to sink in. He blinked. "All the rest of them?"

She smiled a little. "Maybe you forgot," she said, "but Tony Stark has a lot of friends."

"No, he doesn't," Steve said immediately.

Her smile thinned. "Exactly."

And suddenly he understood why she had sent everyone else down to the third floor, away from the real action. He didn't think people like Colonel Rhodes and Pepper should have been banished like that, but he wasn't about to question Natasha's reasoning. Not when she had done all this for Tony's sake, protecting him in the only way she could. Everyone here was desperate for news, but by keeping the Avengers separate, they avoided the frantic questions and rumors, and preserved some illusion of dignity.

He could have hugged her for that.

He stood up. "All right," he said. "I'll go. But if you hear anything…"

"Someone will come get you," Natasha reassured him.

"Thank you," Steve said. He walked toward the door, then stopped. "Um."

"Elevator's down the hall," Natasha said. "Turn left when you get off. The waiting room is a couple doors down."

"Thanks," he said again, and left.

****

The waiting room on the third floor was nearly full. Steve stood in the doorway, and in that first instant when no one had yet seen him, he looked around at all the people who had come, and his heart clenched painfully in his chest.

Pepper Potts sat in the center of the room, still dressed in a crisp business suit despite the late hour. She was clutching a Kleenex in one hand and talking on the phone. On her left, Happy Hogan glared at anyone who dared to get too close to them, narrowing his eyes as though he could keep them away by the force of his stare alone.

Reed Richards, his wife Sue, and someone Steve vaguely remembered as being named Hank were talking quietly. A short, dark-haired woman wearing a designer dress was on the phone as well, her free hand gesturing a lot as she talked away a mile a minute. A blond woman with a ponytail and a NASA insignia on her jacket was leafing through a magazine; Steve recognized her as the Stark Industries liaison with the space agency. Two SHIELD agents stood awkwardly in another corner, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the beige walls. A small cluster of men and women in business attire stood in the other corner; one of them was still wearing the laminated badge emblazoned with the SI logo.

And in an uncomfortable chair near the door, Colonel Jim Rhodes sat ramrod straight, staring right at Steve.

Steve cleared his throat.

Everyone looked up at once. "I'm going to have to call you back," Pepper said quickly, and put her phone away.

Suddenly realizing what they all expected, Steve said, "I'm not here to… I don't have any news."

Faces fell. The woman on the phone looked distressed; her name was either Jan or Joan, he remembered. Pepper sighed tremulously.

Steve looked over at Rhodes. "You wanted to see me?"

Rhodes stood up. "Yeah," he said. He walked over, and with a touch on Steve's shoulder, guided him out into the hallway.

They walked back nearly as far as the elevators. Then Rhodes said, "I want to know what happened. Why the hell wasn't he in the suit?"

Steve blinked. "Why would he?"

Rhodes gave him an astonished look. "Bad guy? Explosions? Tony might be reckless, but even he wouldn't go charging into…" He trailed off as comprehension dawned on his face. "Shit. It wasn't your bad guy, was it?"

Steve shook his head. "We weren't there as Avengers." It felt like days had passed since he had so cheerfully offered Tony his hot dog, not mere hours. "We were just…walking."

"Wrong place at the wrong time," Rhodes sighed. "Yeah, I get it." He dropped his gaze, visibly uncomfortable now. "Look, I, ah. This probably isn't my place, but you should know… Tony really loves you, man."

Steve's breath caught in his throat. He thought of lazy mornings in bed, and that killer smile that Tony reserved strictly for him. He remembered the baseball game and the way he had pressed Tony up against the glass of his private box, kissing him in front of everyone in the stadium. He remembered paint, swatches of bright crimson and gold on skin, Tony's eyes crinkling up with laughter as he tried not to laugh from the way the brush tickled. He felt the warmth as they lay together in bed, phantom letters traced on his back, spelling out words of love. "I know."

"No," Rhodes said. He looked Steve in the eye now. "You don't know, because you've only known Tony for, what, a year? Not even that. I've known him for over twenty years, and let me tell you, I've never seen him this way, the way he is about you."

The memories of happier times were shredded, vanished, as though they had never existed. Unable to speak, Steve just nodded.

"And this, if what they're saying is true…" Rhodes' eyes flashed. "This is gonna kill him. I can't even imagine it. So what I'm saying to you is, you better be there for him. You better be the man he thinks you are."

"I will," Steve said quietly. He didn't blame Rhodes for saying it. In the other man's place, he would have done exactly the same thing. But it was all right. He had every intention of being there for Tony, no matter what happened to them next.

"Good," Rhodes said. "Cause I'd hate to have to punch out an American icon." His expression lightened just enough to reassure Steve that he was – mostly – kidding.

There wasn't really anything to say after that. They looked at each other for a moment, shared a nod, and then Rhodes turned to go, heading back to the waiting room.

After a long moment, Steve walked over to the elevator and hit the up button. He didn't have long to wait before the car arrived, taking him back to the floor with the ICU.

He let out a slow breath and leaned against the back wall of the elevator. He hadn't known that Tony had discussed their relationship with Jim Rhodes, or with anyone, for that matter. Somehow he had never even thought about it, that what they shared might be a topic of conversation for someone else.

Of course, even before they had left Ernor and its magic behind, it had been obvious that the Avengers knew what had happened between them. He suspected that someone had walked in on them as they had been sleeping together, although he had never quite worked up the courage to ask.

But it hadn't mattered. The rest of his team had accepted his relationship with Tony without batting an eye – and if there had been any eye-batting, it had happened in private, where he had not seen it. And while the rest of the superhero community seemed aware of what they shared, the general public remained ignorant. Some things were better off as a secret, especially when they were such high-profile figures. All it would take was one villain to figure out that the best way to get at Captain America was to kidnap Iron Man, and nothing would ever be the same again.

The elevator doors dinged, and he stepped out into the hall. It was empty, except for a nurse at the far end, and a young man who was standing not too far away, his head down as he pretended to be interested in the ugly green tile of the floor.

Steve threw him an uneasy glance; he didn't like strangers hanging out around here. He started toward the waiting room, intending to ask Natasha if she knew who this person was. But he had only made it two steps when the kid called, "Cap? Captain Rogers?"

With an internal sigh, he stopped and turned around. "Yes?"

The kid had messy brown hair and he was wearing a faded T-shirt. He looked very uncomfortable, his shoulders hitched up around his ears. "I'm sorry... I just wondered… How is he? Is there any word?"

Steve looked at him, irrationally angry at being asked something so personal by a complete stranger. He wondered why Natasha hadn't thrown the kid out yet. "No," he said curtly. "And whoever you are, you shouldn't be up here."

The young man – and he really was very young – looked stricken, then he nodded. "Yeah. Okay. I'm sorry." He hesitated, and swallowed hard. "I am so sorry."

Something in the way he said it gave Steve pause. But before he could say anything, the kid had turned around and hurried away.

With a sigh, Steve returned to the room where the Avengers waited.

****

It was several hours before the doctor came out to see them.

Steve stood up as the woman approached. He was vaguely aware of the other Avengers taking up positions near him; Bruce on his left, Thor on his right, Clint and Natasha fanned out in front of him. He did not look at them, though. All his focus was for the woman who had finally come to give them the news they had waited so long to hear.

The doctor looked tired. She was still in surgical scrubs, her mask pulled down to sag against her chest. "Mr. Stark is out of surgery now," she said. "We were able to remove the shattered bones of the vertebrae and clear the spinal column. For the time being, we've done all we can."

It sounded like good news, but Steve was not at all reassured. Maybe it was the slump of her shoulders. Or maybe it was the way she kept looking at each of them quickly, never letting her gaze linger too long on any one of their faces.

"With spinal cord injuries, we don't like to give any kind of prognosis this early," the doctor said. "There are a number of factors that come into play, and several of them take time to develop before we can talk about the future with any confidence."

The doctor took a deep breath. "However, there is little room for uncertainty in this case. I am very sorry, but Mr. Stark will never walk again. He will be paralyzed for the rest of his life."

Chapter Text

"I know it's a lot to think about all at once," Dr. Baksha said. She stood up. "Take as much time as you need. If you think of any other questions, or if you need me for anything, let one of the nurses know and they'll page me." She gave them a small smile of sympathy, then left the office.

For a long moment they sat in silence. Steve could think of nothing to say. All his words had been swept away.

"I still can't believe this is happening," Pepper whispered.

Steve just nodded.

"It doesn't seem real," Pepper added.

Steve stared down at the brochures and pamphlets he was holding. The doctor's words had blurred together after a while, but here were the same words, waiting patiently for when he was ready to read them. Information on wheelchairs and ramps, bladder and bowel control, physical therapy, sexual function, and a terrifying condition called autonomic dysreflexia. All things that were now a part of Tony's life – and the lives of those people closest to him.

It would be at least another three months before Tony could come home from the hospital, but already Steve had started planning ahead. Everyone had agreed that at first Tony would return to the Tower, but Pepper was going to ready the Malibu house as well, just in case. It would be Tony's choice where he wanted to make his recovery, Pepper had said, and that too was something they all agreed on.

Jim Rhodes had been the first one to suggest – tentatively – that Tony could still continue being Iron Man. Feeling guilty that he hadn't been the one to say it, Steve fully and vocally endorsed this hope. He genuinely believed in it, too. Tony would have to make some major adjustments to the suit, but that kind of thing was right up his alley. There was no reason he couldn't do it.

But that day was far in the future. There could be no thinking about Iron Man or the Avengers or even Stark Industries. Not while Tony was still lying here in the hospital, in so much pain that he had to be drugged insensate most of the time. Twice now the doctors had explained his condition to him, but no one was even certain that he had been lucid enough to comprehend what they were saying.

Steve could have told them that they didn't need to waste their breath. Tony knew. He had known it from the moment that huge chunk of stone landed on him, breaking his back and crushing his spinal cord. Steve had seen it in his eyes – and would never forget it.

He forced himself to look over at Pepper and break the silence. "Did you want to ask her any questions?"

Pepper shook her head. For days now, she had been dealing with the constant barrage of questions from the media, and the strain was showing. "I can't… I can't think about this right now." She gestured to her own pile of brochures.

"I know," Steve said. "I need to read through all this first."

She sighed shakily. "Yeah."

Together they left Dr. Baksha's office and returned to the ICU. Clint and Bruce were already there, chatting in low voices as they played cards on a flimsy tray stand set up to one side.

Tony was asleep. In the midst of so many monitors and tubes and IV stands and assorted medical equipment, he seemed very small in the bed. His hair was lank and unwashed, his cheeks stubbled. A slender clear tube wrapped about his face, two prongs in his nostrils delivering oxygen; he was able to breathe on his own, but he wasn't getting enough air that way.

It turned out this was a known – albeit well-kept secret – consequence of the arc reactor. The hole in his chest was just too large, and the loss of so much lung capacity had left Tony with assorted breathing issues. In the normal course of events, this was not a problem, but after long periods of exertion, he sometimes had problems similar to the asthma Steve had once suffered from. Yet he had told no one. Even Steve, who had thought they had no secrets from each other, hadn't known. Only Pepper knew about the oxygen tank Tony kept deeply hidden in his lab, and she only knew because she had caught him with it one day. He had tried to pass it off as a piece of tech he was working on, but she had recognized it anyway and called him out on it. He had made her swear not to tell anyone – a promise she had faithfully kept until this week, when it had become necessary to break it.

"How'd it go?" Bruce asked quietly. Tony was so deeply drugged that there wasn't much chance of waking him up, but everyone still spoke in low voices when they were in this room.

Steve held up the many brochures he was holding and lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

"That good, huh?" Clint said. He set his cards down and stood up. "You can have my spot. I need to get some coffee anyway."

"Thanks for staying," Steve said. He wasn't even sure when they had settled into a kind of rhythm, always at least one person in the room, making sure that Tony was never alone, should he wake up. He was grateful to them all, though, for stepping up, for being here, for supporting Tony even when he didn't know it.

"You bet," Clint said. He tapped Bruce on the shoulder. "Coming?"

"Uh, yeah," Bruce said. He gathered up the cards and placed them in a neat pile off to one side. "You guys want anything?"

"No, thanks," Steve said. Behind him, Pepper shook her head.

Bruce followed Clint out. Pepper settled into the chair closest to the door and sighed a little.

Steve walked over to the bed. He stroked Tony's forehead. "I'm here," he said softly. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the spot his fingers had just brushed.

Then he went over to his chair, sat down, and began to wait.

****

"…need you to…tell JARVIS…Locked Up… Abroad protocol. Authorization is…four…f-four…nine two. Ah!"

"Easy," Steve soothed. "It's okay."

Tony squeezed his eyes shut; his hand bore down on Steve's, the pain giving him strength. He whimpered a little, then bit his lip, trying to stay silent.

Steve couldn't bear it. Seeing Tony in pain like this was the worst possible torment. He would have done anything to swap places, to bear that pain for Tony and spare him this ordeal. "Here, let me," he said quickly. He leaned over and reached for the morphine pump.

"No!" Tony opened his eyes and glared at him. "Not…yet. Have to…to do this."

"Okay," Steve said as he sat back. "Okay. Just go slow. Don't push yourself."

Tony gave him a look that almost qualified as an angry glare. A split-second later, he tilted his head back, breathing in harsh pants, riding out a new wave of pain. This time he couldn't stay silent, but groaned through clenched jaws.

Helpless and frustrated, Steve could do nothing but sit there and wait for him.

It had been six days since the accident. And far from getting any better, Tony remained in a state of terrible pain and weakness. The doctors were at something of a loss to explain it, and there was talk about scheduling a second surgery, if there was no change soon. They were trying a different blend of drugs today, but from what Steve had seen so far, the new ones weren't working any better than the previous mix had.

"The code," Tony said hoarsely, "is four nine…t-two alpha."

Steve jotted that down quickly on the little notepad resting on his lap. He had taken to carrying it with him at all times; there was so much information being thrown at him by so many doctors, and he didn't want to miss anything important. "Got it." He set down his pencil. "Locked Up Abroad?" he asked with a little teasing smile. "I always knew you liked that show too much."

Tony gave him a small smile in return, one that said he would have replied, had he been able to.

"So I'm guessing that locks down the suits," Steve said.

Tony nodded. He flinched, and his hand bore down on Steve's again.

Steve gestured with his free hand to the morphine pump. "Tony."

"No," Tony said furiously. He shook his head. "I hate it, I don't… No."

"I know," Steve said. "But you need to rest. It's the best way for your body to recover right now. You need—"

"No!" Tony all but shouted. Frustrated anger sparked in his eyes, and despite his unshaven pallor and the dark, bruise-like circles beneath his eyes, he looked more like himself than he had since arriving here. "You don't…tell me what I n-need. I don't want it. I'm tired of…not being able to think, of s-sleeping all the time."

"Okay," Steve said gently. A small part of him was pleased to see Tony getting this angry, finally displaying some spirit. But most of him worried about what the stress would do to his still-fragile body. "I understand. I do. But you shouldn't have to lie there in pain, Tony. That's all I'm saying."

Far from placating Tony's anger, this only served to amplify it. "Go away," Tony snapped. "If you aren't…going to help…then just go away. Find me s-someone who'll do…what I want."

Stung by the nasty words, Steve drew back a little. He told himself it was only the pain and the drugs talking, that Tony didn't really mean it. But it still hurt to be dismissed so cavalierly.

"No, oh no," Tony suddenly gasped. "Steve." And he realized that Tony had seen the look on his face, had seen that flash of hurt that he hadn't been able to hide. "I'm sorry," Tony said, stumbling over the words in his panic. "I'm sorry, Steve, I'm sorry. Don't leave me, please. Steve. Don't leave. I'm sorry."

Steve's heart twisted in his chest. The sight of Tony's fear was so much worse than seeing him in pain. "No no no," he rushed to say. "It's okay, it's okay. I'm not going anywhere." He squeezed Tony's fingers, and leaned in.

"Don't leave me," Tony was still pleading, just as Steve gently kissed him.

The kiss stopped Tony's terrified babble all at once. He reached across the bed with his right hand, the one with an IV line taped at his wrist, and clutched at Steve's shoulder, holding him tight.

Steve kissed his lips, then his cheek just below the line of the oxygen cannula. "I'm not going anywhere," he said again. "It's okay." With his free hand he reached up and brushed the hair off Tony's forehead. "I love you," he said. "I'll never leave you, I promise."

"Even if I never walk again?" Tony whispered, his dark eyes full of terrible fear.

"Even then," Steve said. "I'll always love you." He kissed Tony again, and again. Small, short kisses, sweet but full of love. "And listen to me. We will find a way. I know we will. Even if it takes years, we'll find a way." He believed it with all his heart, too. He believed it because he had to. Because he had never let himself give up hope before, and he would be damned if he did so now. He believed it because this was Tony he was talking about, his brilliant, beautiful Tony, who did not deserve to spend the rest of his life sitting in a wheelchair.

He gave Tony another kiss. "I'll always be here," he said. He could feel his throat wanting to close up as tears prickled at his eyes. "I'll never leave you. No matter where you go, no matter where you are, I won't leave you. I promise."

He blinked back the tears and pressed another kiss to Tony's lips. "We'll get through this. We will. Medical science has come so far. The things they've been telling us… And even if they don't find a way, you will. I know you will." He stroked Tony's forehead again, his fingers trembling. "And I'm going to be right there with you, every step of the way."

Horrified, he cringed as he realized what he had so thoughtlessly said, but Tony didn't seem to notice. Maybe it was too soon – words like "step" had not yet become taboo. Whatever the reason, he hurried on, hoping Tony would not remember his blunder later. "We're going to get through this, Tony. I swear it. We really will."

Another kiss, and Steve was crying now, and so was Tony, his emotions too raw to summon any real bravado about his situation, not when he was still hurting so much, when he had yet to truly accept what had happened to him on such a bright sunny afternoon. Steve wished he could climb into the bed and hold Tony properly, but that was impossible, so he did the best he could, holding Tony's hands, his cheek pressed to Tony's cheek.

Saying, I love you, I love you, in a choked whisper, over and over.

****

The next day found Steve alone in the waiting room down the hall. He was sitting in one of the chairs near the door, where he would be visible from the hall in case anyone needed to find him quickly but wasn't sure where he was. Both his feet were planted on the floor, his elbows were on his knees, his head was bowed in his hands.

Pepper and Jim Rhodes were with Tony, who was sleeping the sound sleep of someone heavily medicated. Earlier, Steve had been sitting with them. Not doing much. Just quietly talking. Rhodes had been telling them a story from when he and Tony had been at MIT together. It was a story Steve hadn't heard before, and at first he had been delighted by it, grinning as he imagined a much-younger Tony Stark and Jim Rhodes on their crazy midnight quest to run the bases at Fenway Park while totally naked.

But halfway through the story, it had suddenly stopped being funny, and his smile had vanished. He had realized that Tony would never again do such a thing. He would never run in Fenway Park, or anywhere. He was never going to run again, ever.

It had just been too much. The grief had overwhelmed him without warning. He had hastily excused himself, but not before Pepper had seen him desperately holding back the tears. She had laid one hand on his arm as he passed by her, but he had not stopped. He had just blundered out of the room and down the hall, until he found a place where he could be alone and cry.

He had no idea how long he had been sitting in here. He had finally stopped crying a little while ago. His eyes felt puffy and tender, a small pain he welcomed gratefully. It meant he was still human, that the serum hadn't undone everything he had once been. Before the experiment, there had been plenty of nights when he had gone to bed with this same soreness in his eyes, this same ache behind his skull and in his heart. It felt almost good now to experience those things again, short-lived though they might be.

But he was done crying, he told himself firmly. He had allowed himself to indulge in tears, but he had to put them aside now. He had the rest of his life to beat himself up over his role in crippling Tony, or disabling him, or whatever it was they said these days. The exact words did not matter. All that mattered now was what he did next.

"Captain?"

He picked his head up – and a moment later he was on his feet in surprise. "Thor."

In his cape and armor, Mjolnir in one hand, Thor stood out in the pristine hospital setting like a sore thumb. He nodded at Steve and approached at a rapid clip. There was just enough time to brace himself, then Steve was suddenly enfolded in a very strong embrace.

Hugging Thor was like hugging a tall, broad rock. There was the same sense of solidity, of unmoving mass. And he couldn't lie – it was nice to feel someone holding him back. All this week he had been on the receiving end of a lot of sympathetic hugs, but Thor's embrace was the first one that made him feel like he could truly relax and set down part of his burdens, even if only temporarily.

Thor's arms remained wrapped around him for a while. Then all at once he stepped back. "I came as soon as I could," he said somberly.

Thor had been there on that first day as they all gathered in the waiting room and counted the hours until they learned Tony's fate. After that, however, he had disappeared without a word. Steve and the other Avengers had just assumed that he had returned to Asgard, as he so often did. It had bothered him a little that Thor had left without even saying good-bye, especially when Tony was still so badly injured, but mostly he hadn't really thought about it. Like all of them, Thor did what he was required to do, when it was required to be done. It just so happened that most of his duties took him to a different world, not merely across Manhattan.

"It's good to see you again," Steve said honestly.

Thor studied his face. "You are distressed," he said. "Tell me what has happened in my absence."

Steve nodded, wondering where to begin.

"But first," Thor said, and he placed a hand on Steve's shoulder. "How do you fare, Steven? Are you well?"

Steve didn't know how to answer that. All during this long week, everyone around him had looked at him with sympathy. But to a man, they all expected him to bear up under the weight of his grief. It was assumed that he would be fine, that his broad shoulders would provide a source of strength for Tony. None of them knew that he, too, needed to lean on someone. None of them knew the extra burdens he carried, the guilt that hung heavy in his heart, the knowledge that he was to blame for Tony's condition.

"My friend," Thor said sadly. "I can see that you are not." He squeezed Steve's shoulder in a gesture of commiseration.

It was too much. Despite himself, Steve felt the tears return, streaking hotly down his face and clogging his throat.

Overcome by shame, he buried his face in his hands. And when Thor's grip on his shoulder shifted and tried to draw him in close for another embrace, he pulled back, refusing that promise of comfort.

"I'm fine," he wept into his hands. "I'm sorry. I'm fine." He pressed his fingertips into his eyes. It hurt, but the pain helped him regain control of himself. He was able to pick up his head and sniff back the tears. "I'm sorry," he said again, as he swiped at his eyes.

"There is no need to apologize," Thor said gravely. "Grief is natural."

He nodded and wiped the last of the tears away. He gestured at the chair nearest his. "You should probably sit."

Thor sat down, and Steve did the same. He took a deep breath, and then it was his turn to give out the information the doctors had told them just this morning, killing the last of anyone's hopes that this would have a happy ending.

"They still don't know why he's in so much pain," he said. "They're talking about doing another surgery. But they confirmed what we already suspected. His spinal cord was damaged too badly. They call it a complete injury. He's going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. He'll never walk again." He bit his lip. "The best they can do right now is keep him sedated and work on pain management. They can't even begin to talk about physical therapy or any kind of rehabilitation until they get that under control."

He looked at Thor, who was gazing back at him with so much compassion that Steve wanted to cry all over again. "I was in there earlier. He looked at me and he didn't even recognize me, they've got him so heavily drugged." He shook his head, unable to continue.

"This is the same news I first heard on the day of the accident," Thor said. "I had hoped to return to different tidings."

"I hoped I could give them to you," Steve said. He tried to smile, and was pretty sure he failed at it.

Thor nodded. "This is not unexpected, however. I was told even before I left that the diagnosis would most likely remain the same. That is why I returned to Asgard. So I might speak with my father, and mighty Heimdall."

Steve tried to connect these two ideas: Thor had known Tony would not recover, and Thor had gone to Asgard as a result. But his brain simply could not do it. "Why?"

"On Asgard, such an injury would not be permanent," Thor said. "We are capable of many accomplishments in the healing arts that you would call magic. I returned to beg my father to allow me to bring Tony Stark to Asgard so that he might be healed."

Steve's heart leapt in his chest. Asgard. That idea had never even occurred to him. He could hardly breathe for the sudden hope that rushed through his veins. "What did he say?"

"The heart of the All-Father is not given to kindness toward humans," Thor admitted with some reluctance. He did not look at Steve then, perhaps feeling ashamed of his father's failings. "Though I pleaded with him, he would not be reasoned with. I am sorry, Steven."

"It's okay," he said numbly. As swiftly as they had risen, his hopes died, to lay in ashes around him. He couldn't understand why Thor had told him this. Why hurt him this way? Why give him hope so briefly, only to take it away again? "I'm sure you did your best."

"Nay," Thor said heavily. "I did not. Not at first. I am ashamed to admit that I did not take my father's words well, and I gave vent to a high temper. But at last I remembered that the although All-Father is mighty, he is not the only one in Asgard who wields power." Now Thor looked at him – and he smiled.

"I am pleased to tell you," Thor said, "that my friend Heimdall has agreed to open the way to the world we know as Ernor."

In utter shock, Steve just stared at him.

Thor took his amazement for joy, apparently, for his answering grin split his face. "Yes," he said. "This is indeed a great honor. It is not often that Heimdall reverses his decision to cut off a world. But I spoke with him at great length and impressed upon him the severity of the situation, and he has agreed to grant us passage. He is ready for us at any hour. Only say the word, and we will take Tony to be healed."

Steve could not remain sitting for this. He rose to his feet, swaying a little with astonished shock. "You want us to go back to the planet where Tony and I nearly died?"

"It is a world of magic unlike any other I have known," Thor said. "They wield healing spells the likes of which I have never seen before, even on Asgard."

"And they also had spells that made me deaf and mute!" Steve snapped. "They made Tony blind! Why would we ever want to go back there?"

"Yes, they did those things," Thor said. "Let them now wield their magic on your behalf. I watched as they saved you both from certain death, restoring your life and your vitality as though your wounds had never existed. And I remember that before we left, you shamed the Matriarch and all her people. She will not be pleased to see us, but she will do this. The Avengers saved her world in spite of what you and Tony suffered. For that, she will help us now."

Steve had no answer for that. Thor made it sound so simple. Could it really work? Would it?

Deep in his heart, almost against his will, hope flickered to life once again.

It was certainly possible. The people who lived on that world known as Ernor were definitely possessed of incredible magic. Twice Steve had been the focal point of those spells. The fact that he was standing here now, alive and well, was proof enough of their power. When they had brought him back to the Citadel after his ordeal in the Forest, he had been bleeding to death from a terrible wound. Yet today no sign of that injury remained, not even the faintest scar.

And he agreed with Thor that the Matriarch would have no choice but to order her sages to perform the healing. She had been displeased by the way Steve had chastised her, bristling not just because she ruled an entire planet and was therefore above reproach, but because she had failed to see that she had done anything wrong. More importantly, though, she had been truly angry over Thor's declaration that Ernor would be cut off from Asgard, and therefore the Nine Realms. Once she learned that Heimdall had re-opened the bridge, she would probably do just about anything to remain in their good graces.

Including healing Tony.

"Thor…" He didn't know what to say. "Oh my God."

Thor stood up slowly, obviously unsure how to take his reaction.

It was like being bathed in a blaze of white light. He could scarcely believe that he was not radiating pure hope and joy like the sun itself, shining with the force of the emotion coursing through him. "That's it," he breathed. "You did it. You just saved him."

Thor smiled at him, tentatively at first, then with increasing happiness. "You approve, then."

"You bet I do," Steve said. He felt an answering smile stretch his face. After this past week of hell, it seemed almost alien to be smiling again, and to actually mean it.

"Then that is what we shall do," Thor said.

Chapter Text

They met in the enormous living room where they gathered for anything slightly less formal than a war council. Only the Avengers were invited to that meeting; Pepper and Rhodey were currently staying with Tony.

It was the first time Steve had voluntarily left the hospital for longer than the time it took to come back to the Tower, take a shower and change clothes. Even though it had only been a week, it still felt strange to stand there with everyone assembled, as though the routines of the last year had been erased and replaced instead by the last seven days.

After the past week of agony and uncertainty, it felt amazingly good to have a plan. He felt energized. Confident. Strong. Like himself again, as though the Steve Rogers who had wandered aimlessly through those hospital halls was just a pale reflection of the real man.

"I wanted to talk to you all," he said. "Thor has a plan to help Tony, and I've agreed. We're moving ahead with it."

Clint and Natasha were sharing the couch; Bruce was in an armchair on their left. All three of them sat up straight when Steve said he had a plan. They didn't know why he had called this meeting, and at his words, their collective attitude abruptly went from curious to hopeful.

He looked at them, wishing he knew how to thank them for their support during this terrible week. They had been there without fail for both him and Tony, handling the media, SHIELD, the other superheroes, and anything else that Steve could not bring himself to deal with. Uncomfortable in the intimate confines of a place as inherently fragile as a hospital, Bruce had spent most of his time in the lab, pushing the limits of his knowledge of medical science and striving for more. He had sworn that he would not rest until he had exhausted every possibility and explored even the slimmest of hopes of finding a cure for Tony's paralysis.

Clint had sat for long hours in Tony's room, bringing books and tablets and coffee and donuts for everyone – including Tony himself. When a reporter had managed to sneak into the ICU and attempted to snap some pictures, Clint was the one who had handled the situation, "escorting" the man off the premises. He had quietly arranged for SHIELD security to take up positions around and in the hospital, and made sure that sort of ugly incident never happened again.

And Natasha had been everywhere, talking to Fury, comforting Pepper, keeping an eye on Steve when it became clear that he was neglecting his own health in order to stay with Tony. She made him curl up on the waiting room couch and get a few hours of sleep. She insisted that he eat some of the food Clint brought. And she laid a hand of comfort on his arm or shoulder whenever she passed him in the hall, reminding him that he did not face this alone.

"Thor and I have been talking," he said. He gestured to Thor, who was standing to his right, Mjolnir in hand. "And we both agree that Tony is going to be all right. He will recover from this." He looked at each of the Avengers again, wanting to make sure they all saw his sincerity. "I know he'll be all right. I know it. I know Tony. All he needs is one chance."

"We all know that," Bruce said gently. "And believe me, we're trying to find that chance. It's not just me. We've got the top doctors in the world looking into it. But Steve, the science just isn't there yet."

Steve nodded. It was exactly the opening he had hoped for. "And that's why I'm not relying on science to solve this."

Bruce and Clint exchanged a long look. "Cap?" Natasha asked, her voice rising slightly in both a question and a warning.

"Not…relying on science," Bruce repeated flatly. "What did you have in mind then?"

"Take away science," Steve said. "What's left?"

"Am I the only one thinking I don't want to hear the answer to that?" Clint mused.

It struck all three of them at the same time. Bruce looked dismayed. Clint was openly skeptical. Natasha's lips pursed.

"You can't—" Bruce started.

"I'm not talking about what Thor can do," Steve said. He had to make himself speak slowly, to stay calm, even though every fiber of his being cried out for him to just take Tony now and go. "Or even what Loki can do. I'm talking about an entire planet where magic is the norm. And you all know it. Because you've been there."

Now it was Clint and Natasha who exchanged a tight look. Bruce got a particularly pained expression on his face. "You're talking about Ernor. The planet where you went deaf and Tony went blind all because of a magic spell."

Steve nodded. He had come out here wanting their approval, but at that moment he had to admit that he didn't really care if he got it or not. With or without their blessing, he was going to do this.

"I don't know that I'd consider that the best example," Bruce said.

"They fixed us!" Steve said. "I was dying, Bruce. My arm was ripped open and I was bleeding to death. Tony's leg was broken, and he was dying from infection. And they healed us both. They fixed us." He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. "Well, now they can do it again."

"You do know that they only did it the first time because they felt guilty, right?" Clint said.

There was also the tiny little fact that not even someone as arrogant as the Matriarch of that world could have let them die, not after the Avengers had saved her people. But Steve didn't want to be drawn into an argument about her motivations for what she had done. Not right now. "Well, maybe they still do," he said. "Either way, I'm doing this. It's our only chance. It's Tony's only chance."

"That's one hell of a big chance," Clint said.

To hell with being restrained. "What else am I supposed to do?" he shouted. "He saved me! He's out there right now, paralyzed and in agony because of me." Grief clutched at his chest, tightening his throat and making it difficult to speak. "He saved my life. How can I not do the same? How could I ever look him in the eye again knowing I had this chance, but I didn't take it?"

"What do you mean, he saved you?" Bruce said.

Steve took a deep breath. He hadn't told them this before because it hadn't mattered. And it still didn't matter, not really, except to explain part of his terrible guilt. "Tony pushed me out of the way. That's why the debris hit him. It would have hit me, otherwise."

Clint looked down. Bruce winced a little. Natasha said, "Nothing would be different if that had happened. We would still be sitting here, only it would be Tony talking to us, not you."

"No," Steve said. "Because I'd heal from it. Tony won't. There's your difference." He took a deep breath and glanced over at Thor. "Besides, even if he hadn't done it, this would still be my fault. That's why I have to do this."

"How is this your fault?" Natasha asked gently.

It was time to tell them the truth. To admit to his role in the whole affair. They might hate him for it, for nearly causing the end of the Avengers, but he had to be honest with them. After everything they had done for him, not just this past week, but since the very day he had met them, he owed them that much.

"Because," Steve confessed. He couldn't look any of them in the eye. "I'm the one who went to his office and made him leave." He would forever have that on his conscience, his wheedling smile, the way he had physically removed Tony's hands from the computer keyboard so he could press a kiss to each palm. He had straightened the knot in Tony's tie, too, even though it hadn't really needed it. "If I hadn't gone there, if I hadn't pulled him away from work, he would have been safe at SI when the explosion hit. He was only there because of me."

A long silence met this admission. Then he heard Bruce sigh softly.

"Jesus," Clint breathed.

"That's why I have to do this," Steve said. He looked up – and froze. Because they weren't looking at him with anger or disappointment. They were looking at him with sympathy. With compassion.

Thor walked over to him and set a hand on his shoulder. "The fault is not yours, Steven."

"He's right," Clint said.

"No," Steve said. He wished they wouldn't look at him like that. They made it harder to accept his responsibility. "This is my fault. But I'm going to fix it. I'm going to make it right."

"So that's why you're so determined to go back to the planet with the crazy people and the magic," Bruce said. "Because I gotta tell you, Cap, that's not the greatest plan. And I really don't think you're in the best place right now to be making that kind of decision."

Thor's hand tightened fractionally on his shoulder. Steve disregarded the warning. "Are you really questioning me on this?"

Bruce did not flinch. "Yeah," he said. "I think I am."

"Why?" Steve demanded. "Why would you deny Tony this chance?"

"That's not what I'm saying," Bruce said. He glanced at Clint and Natasha, neither of whom looked like they wanted to jump in and back him up. "But do you even know, Steve, what it was like for us on that planet? Do you even know what we went through while you and Tony were stuck in the Forest? Because I remember telling you, but now I'm not so sure that you were listening."

Steve looked briefly at Thor, who dropped his hand from Steve's shoulder. "I remember," he said.

"No," Bruce said. He spoke quietly, not belligerently. Which somehow made his opposition even worse. "I don't think you do." To his right, Clint nodded infinitesimally. Natasha just looked at Steve, her expression giving nothing away.

"We knew what happened," Bruce said. "The Matriarch never lied to us. In fact, she told us the truth the very same night the spell was cast. You guys probably hadn't even woken up yet, and we already knew what her magicians – her sages – had done."

Steve glanced away, not wanting to remember that first terrifying night. He had woken up lying on the beach, watching the waves roll up the sand – all in utter silence. From that moment on, he had not been able to make a single sound or hear anything, not until the spell had lifted and he heard Tony say his name.

"We were angry," Bruce said. "I may have even turned green a little. I don't really know. Clint hustled me out of there." He gestured with his chin at Clint, who nodded solemnly.

"As soon as it was light, we went out there," Bruce said. "All four of us." He paused and looked first at Thor, then at Clint and Natasha, who were now watching him. For a moment he was silent as they remembered their experience in the Forest. "We looked for two days, Steve. We never gave up, until Thanos's fleet showed up and we had no choice but to stop. But we never found you. We never even found any evidence that you were there. No tracks, no campsite, nothing. It was like you had vanished."

"Their magic concealed you from us," Thor said.

"I know," Steve said. "I do remember you guys telling me. And when I…talked…to the Matriarch after our return, I brought that up, too. So you were wrong. She did lie to you. She just used magic to do it."

Bruce gave him a weary smile. "You just made my point for me," he said.

Steve didn't want to hear this. "You think they're only going to pretend to heal Tony? That it'll, what? Go away when we get back here?"

"No," Bruce said. "I'm saying that magic can't be trusted. You and Tony were there in that Forest. But we never saw you. You were hidden from us. And Steve, magic can be undone. As you pointed out, you're living proof of that. If it couldn't, you would still be deaf and Tony would still be blind."

"I think what he's trying to say," Clint said, "is what if something happens down the road. Something like Loki again. Or someone else who can do magic. What if they undo that spell, and Tony ends up right back where he is now?"

"We can't not do this, just because of a 'what if' scenario that probably won't even happen," Steve insisted.

"Are you willing to take that chance?" Clint asked.

"More to the point," Bruce said, "do you even have the right? I know you guys are together now, but I don't know if that gives you the right to make this kind of decision for Tony. I mean, isn't this something we ought to be asking him?"

Steve had reached the end of his patience. "Look," he said. "I get it. You're a scientist. You don't trust magic. I understand, I really do. And if it makes you feel any better, I don't trust it, either. But I have to do this. It's our only chance." He made himself stop and take a breath, even as he tried to understand their stubbornness. "Tony would do it for any one of us."

Clint tilted his head. "Aw, man. You had to say it."

"I shouldn't have had to say it," Steve said tightly. "I thought we were a team."

"All right, enough," Natasha said. Everyone turned toward her, but she had eyes only for Steve. "There's no point in talking about this anymore, because you've already made up your mind. So tell us, Cap. What do you need us to do?"

Steve had never been more grateful to her in all his life. Because while he might not need their approval, he did need their help. "Thank you."

Thor stepped up to stand beside him. "The bulk of this plan rests on my shoulders," he said. "I cannot have Heimdall open the Bifrost in the midst of your hospital. So we must take Tony away from there."

Clint's eyes widened. "Um, he's not going anywhere. Not for three to six months, they're saying."

"No," Steve said. "We're doing this tomorrow."

"Of course we are," Clint sighed – but he didn't sound too worried about it. "All right. I'm in."

Steve glanced at Thor, then looked back at the Avengers. "Basically I need you guys to run interference for us. I'm going to go in there and talk to Tony, tell him what we're doing."

"And if he says no?" Bruce said quietly.

Steve bit off the quick retort that sprang to his lips. "Then we don't go," he said. Although he knew what Tony's answer would be. Tony never gave up, never accepted defeat. If seizing victory meant building a suit of armor in a cave, that was what he did. And if it now meant traveling to a planet where magic had once stolen their senses and nearly killed them, then that was what he would do. Without hesitation.

"But if he says yes," he continued, "then I'm going to need you and Natasha to keep the hospital staff out of our hair. We need enough time for Thor to take Tony and fly him back here to the Tower." He looked at Clint. "And I'm going to need you standing by with the Quinjet, to bring me back here quickly."

"While Natasha and I, what?" Bruce said. "Get arrested?"

"Hopefully it won't come to that," Steve said. "And I'm planning to let Pepper and Rhodey know. They should be there helping you, too."

"Is it wise to take him off the oxygen?" Natasha asked.

"Maybe not," Steve said. "But it shouldn't matter. We bring him here, Thor takes us to Asgard, and from there straight to Ernor. We see the Matriarch, and in a few hours at most, it's done."

Natasha looked at Thor, who nodded. "It can be done," he said. "We will make all haste. Tony will not be off the machines for any longer than is necessary. And while he is, we will tend to his every need."

"Gonna bring some morphine with you then?" Bruce said. He stood up, shaking his head. "I'm in, you guys know that, but I want it on the record that I strongly disapprove of this plan." He looked at Steve appealingly. "It's not just the magic," he said. "It's just…it's too soon. Wait a while. See if the doctors can find anything first."

"I know they're trying," Steve said. "But we all know they aren't going to be able to come up with anything. Right now there is no cure. Except for this."

"Have you thought about how you're going to explain it to the rest of the world?" Clint asked. "You know the media is going to be all over this. Why is Tony Stark so special? Why can't everyone with a broken back get cured this way?"

Steve let out a long breath. "I didn't say it was going to be easy. And those are legitimate questions, I agree. But we'll deal with them when the time comes. For now, our focus has to be on Tony, and getting him healthy again." He thought of something new and added, "For all we know, Tony himself will be the one to come up with a cure. But if we don't give him this chance, we'll never know."

"Easy, Cap," Natasha said. "You don't have to defend yourself to us."

"I'm not so sure about that," Steve muttered.

"You know Fury's going to have a cow over this," Clint said.

"I know," Steve replied.

"And the hospital will probably sue you for kidnapping."

"They can't sue me. I'm Captain America."

"No, you're right," Clint said, deadpan. "They'll just stick you in collections for ten years and ruin your credit rating."

Steve chose to ignore this. "Listen, guys, I can't do this without you. I need to know you've got my back."

Natasha stood up, her eyes flashing. "If you even need to ask that…"

He held up his hands, placating her. "You're right. I'm sorry. I just…" He shook his head. "I don't know what else to do. If any of you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them. But right now, this is all we've got."

"We're with you," Clint said, rising to his feet.

"Yeah," Bruce said.

Thor put his hand back on Steve's shoulder. "Then it is settled."

Steve took a deep breath. "Yeah."

****

To no one's surprise, both Pepper and Rhodey were in full support of the plan. Only Happy Hogan disapproved, for much the same reasons as Bruce had. He did, however, say that he would help out however he could, which was as much as Steve could expect from him.

After that there was nothing to do but wait. The rooftop was already prepared for their arrival. Clint had the Quinjet prepped and gassed up – he would be waiting for Steve on the hospital roof, where the medical emergency helicopters came and went. Everyone knew their roles and where they had to be.

That night lasted an eternity. Steve sat with Tony long after it was technically someone else's shift. He counted the seconds between each of Tony's heartbeats, and stroked his arm. Twice Tony woke up, but each time he slid back into sleep without doing much more than blinking dazedly a few times up at the ceiling. Steve didn't try to talk to him, but let him sleep.

Everything would be different this time tomorrow, he told himself. Everything would be back to normal.

****

The next morning dawned sunny but cool; autumn had finally arrived. Steve kissed Tony's slack lips and thought sadly if that if they didn't do this now, today, then the next time Tony got to go outside, it would be winter.

Thor arrived shortly before ten o'clock. By then Steve was almost frantic for the chance to talk to Tony. Waiting had never been so hard, not even on that terrible first day when Tony was in surgery for so long. He stood in the hall after the nurses shooed him out the room for their necessary medical business; they did their best to maintain the illusion of preserving Tony's dignity, while also making sure that Steve and his broad shoulders were not in their way. A little while later, Dr. Baksha came by on her rounds and greeted Steve with a smile before she disappeared into Tony's room.

Steve pointed her out to Thor. He had nothing but respect for her, and the knowledge that he was about to betray her lay heavy on his heart. But he believed that he was doing the right thing. This was the only way to save Tony.

After Dr. Baksha left, Steve was finally allowed back inside. Thor came with him, bearing Mjolnir, still looking incredibly out of place in his armor and cape.

Tony looked at them. "Hey."

"Hey yourself," Steve smiled. Tony appeared more alert and calm than he had in days; he was in that portion of his medication cycle when the pain was remote and he actually felt almost normal. Later in the day he would sleep more, but for now he was relatively lucid.

That was good. Because Steve wanted him to fully understand what they were about to do.

He took his seat in the chair beside the bed, where he had spent so much of the last week. He placed one hand on the freshly-changed sheets, and immediately Tony's hand was there, clutching Steve's fingers tight. There was nothing wrong with his arms, and his grip remained fairly strong.

Steve leaned in and gently kissed him. "I've got something for you," he said.

"Yeah?" Tony looked at Thor. "Hey, big guy."

Thor inclined his chin somberly. "It is good to see you again."

"Yeah, I bet," Tony said. He looked back at Steve. "What'd you bring? Please say coffee."

"Something better," Steve said. "A plan."

"A plan for what?" Tony's eyes narrowed somewhat. It was the most engaged he had been since the accident. He looked from Steve to Thor and back again, curiosity and the hunger for knowledge burning in his eyes. It was the look he gave Fury at their rare meetings at SHIELD, so impatient to be filled in that he almost always ended up interrupting and acting as though he had known the information all along.

Seeing that look in his eyes made Steve more determined than ever to fix this. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Tony's intellect. But Tony was also a man of action. It would be a crime of the worst kind if he were forced to channel that incredible mind into paths he could not walk down.

Steve took his hand now and turned it so his palm faced up. Then, as he had once done in a dark and dangerous Forest on a planet full of magic, he carefully took his fingertip and traced a single word on Tony's skin.

Tony inhaled sharply. His eyes widened with immediate comprehension. "Yes," he whispered.

Steve nodded at Thor. "We think it will work," he said.

Tony ignored Thor, and just stared at him. "Will it?"

"There's no reason for it not to," he pointed out. "They saved us once before."

Hope rose in Tony's eyes, swiftly subsumed by tears. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he fought not to cry. "When?" he whispered.

"Today," Steve said. "As soon as you're ready. I wanted to tell you first."

Tony nodded, and swallowed hard. "Yes. God. Do it."

"We can't open the Bifrost here, of course," Steve said quietly. "We have to take you out of the hospital. Thor will fly you to the top of the Tower."

Tony looked over at Thor, seeming to truly see him for the first time. He nodded again. "Okay."

"It's not going to be the most comfortable trip," Steve said. "I'm sorry about that."

"I don't care," Tony said fiercely. He grabbed for Steve's hand again, found it and squeezed tight. "You think I give a shit about flying first class right now?"

"I guess not," Steve said with a faint smile. "Okay, then. Let me call the others, make sure they're in place."

"They're here?" Tony asked.

Steve nodded. "They're all here. They know what to do."

Tony breathed in deep through his nose. He blinked back the tears and tilted his chin up. He was an utter mess, in need of a bath and a shave, wearing nothing but a cheap hospital gown, and yet Steve had rarely seen him so in command of a situation. "Then let's go," he said.

His hand twisted in Steve's. And without breaking eye contact, he copied the word Steve had written in his palm, tracing it now on Steve's skin.

Magic.

Chapter Text

Tony was silent and still as they unhooked him from the various tubes and monitors that surrounded his bedside. Steve removed the catheter himself, and although Tony shut his eyes and turned his face away in shame, he never even flinched.

At last the final IV line fell away, and Thor was able to lean down and hoist Tony into his arms. Tony gasped as he fought to remain silent against the sudden pain of being lifted.

And that was it. They were irrevocably committed now. Everything they did from here on out would only exacerbate Tony's injuries. There was nothing left to do but keep moving forward, and hope and pray that magic could do what science could not.

"We must hurry," Thor said.

Alarms would be going off at the nurses' station, alerting them to the fact that their patient was no longer connected to the heart monitors. Steve opened the door and poked his head out – and saw what he had hoped to see. Down by the station, Bruce Banner and James Rhodes were fanning out, forming a physical blockade with their bodies, preventing anyone from getting near Tony's room.

"Okay," Steve said. He turned around.

Thor was standing right behind him. He held Tony in both arms, his grip sure and strong.

At the sight of someone else carrying the man he loved, a wave of despair washed over Steve, making his throat close up.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

No one else was supposed to hold Tony. Maybe he had lost that right when he had put Tony in harm's way and got him hurt so badly, but even if that were true, he could not let himself believe it. This was his fault. This should be his burden to carry. Not that he would ever consider Tony a burden, of course. And he knew Thor did not think of him that way, either. But still, it bothered him immensely to see Tony lying there so helpless and alone – in someone else's arms.

For his part, Tony was clearly in pain, but trying hard not to show it. But although his chest heaved and his hands scrabbled at Thor's breastplate, his lower body was perfectly still. The hospital gown was short enough that it revealed most of his legs. They looked no different than before, with no obvious sign to indicate that he could not use them anymore. Yet he never kicked out, never once moved them at all.

"I am ready," Thor said, misunderstanding his hesitation.

Steve forced himself to remember where he was and what they were doing. "Okay," he said. "Come on."

He stepped out into the hall. Behind him, shouts went up from the hospital staff. Steve did not even turn around. He just kept going, leading Thor onward.

Natasha was in the waiting room at the end of the hall. The windows here had been flung wide open, granting Thor the access he needed. She went very pale when she saw Tony, but she did not say anything.

Thor placed one foot on the windowsill. "Go," he told Steve. "I will see you shortly."

Steve nodded, but couldn't bring himself to move. He only had eyes for Tony. So it was Natasha who hurried over to the elevator and slapped her palm on the up button.

It dinged right away, having been deliberately brought to this floor beforehand. Reflexively Steve glanced at the doors as they opened; when he turned back, Thor and Tony were gone, just a red fluttering of Thor's cape in the sky to show where they were.

The shouting in the hall behind him was growing louder. Hospital security was on the way. "Cap, you gotta go," Natasha warned.

Steve ducked into the elevator.

Clint and the Quinjet were waiting for him on the roof. As soon as his feet touched the ramp, it began to retract, and the Quinjet started to rise.

"We good?" Clint called from the pilot's seat.

"Yes," Steve said. "We did it."

****

The Quinjet set down on the landing pad atop Avengers Tower. Steve called a thanks to Clint and leaped off the ramp the moment it had extended enough to allow him room to exit.

Thor was waiting for him beside the disassembly arc that allowed Iron Man to become Tony Stark again with just a few simple steps. His expression was grave and full of doubt. "I fear this may not have been wise."

It was plain to see that even the short trip from the hospital to the Tower had taken its toll on Tony. His eyes were tightly closed and he was as white as a sheet. There was a pained whine to his breathing that made Steve suspect that it was taking all his willpower not to start screaming.

Guilt twisted in his chest, a stabbing sensation that was almost a physical pain. He hated this, hated having to hurt Tony in order to save him. But there was nothing he could do except stick to the plan. They had come too far to turn back now. "We keep going," he replied. He hesitated for a moment, then added, "We don't have a choice."

Thor just nodded, accepting this without protest.

Steve stepped closer and said, "Hey, Tony. I'm here." At this point he wasn't even sure if Tony could hear him, but it was worth a shot. "It's okay."

Tony's eyes fluttered open as Thor gently laid him in Steve's arms. But he wasn't seeing Steve, or Thor, or anything at all – Steve was certain of it. His eyes were glassy with pain, and his gaze had turned inward. In a horrible way it was like the clock had been turned back, like they were already on Ernor, and Tony was blind again.

The irony was inescapable. He had once thought he would never be caught dead on that planet where he and Tony had suffered so much. Yet at this moment, all he could think of was how quickly they could get back there.

"It's okay," Steve said again. "Just hold on a little bit longer."

He looked up at Thor, who was holding the overly large coat they had left up here, waiting for this moment. The temperature was chilly out, but more than that, Steve knew that Tony would never forgive him if he made the trip to an alien planet wearing nothing but a hospital gown.

Together they managed to get Tony into the coat. It was not easy; at one point Tony cried out loudly, flailing at him with one hand. "Steve!"

"I'm here," Steve said. "I'm here, Tony. It's okay."

For a moment the mists of pain cleared in Tony's eyes. He looked up at Steve, then at the sky all around them. "What? Where are…?"

"We're on the roof," Steve said. He turned around so Tony could see the top floors of the Tower rising behind them. "We're ready to go to Asgard now."

"Asgard," Tony repeated. He moaned quietly, low and in the back of his throat; his eyes slid closed again.

Steve looked up at Thor. "We gotta go."

Thor nodded and stepped toward him. He wrapped one arm about Steve's waist, then cast an uneasy glance at Tony. "You have experienced this before. You know this is not a kind way to travel."

Yes, he knew that. But so did Tony, and he hadn't let that stand in his way. He had said yes when they had told him their plan, and that was all that mattered.

"We'll be okay," Steve said. He had to believe that. Anything else was unacceptable. He canted his upper body backward, enough that Tony's head fell onto his chest, and firmed up his grip. "Just do it."

Thor aimed Mjolnir at the heavens. "Hear me, Heimdall!" he exclaimed. "Open the bridge!"

White light enveloped him in a rush. There was a sensation of immense pressure over his entire body, but strangely, not one of movement; he felt as though he were merely standing still. Then the pressure released him and the light died away, and he found himself standing at the Bifrost, in the heart of Asgard.

He looked down. Tony was still in his arms. His eyes were closed, his lashes wet and spiked with tears.

"Hail, Odinson," Heimdall said in his deep voice.

Thor nodded to him, then looked at Steve and Tony. "We cannot linger," he said. "My father might not have Heimdall's sight, but little happens in his kingdom that he is not aware of."

"I understand," Steve said. A second trip coming so soon after the first would be even less pleasant, but it was better to get it out of the way. And the longer they waited, the worse things would be for Tony in the long run. It was best to just do it.

"You have my thanks, Heimdall," Thor said. "Complete our journey now. It may be some time before I call upon you again. I suspect we shall require some time to rest once we reach our destination."

Heimdall nodded once, just a magnificent incline of his head.

Steve braced himself for it. The pressure and the roar of light returned. It lasted no longer than the previous time, thankfully. And when it subsided and he could see again, he found himself standing on a snow-covered slope. Directly ahead of him lay the many towers and arching bridges of the Citadel. Behind him and to his left, the trees of the Forest stood tall on the horizon, silvered and icy with winter's grip, but no less ominous for all their beauty.

They had done it. They had reached Ernor.

Their current location, however, left a lot to be desired. Steve had barely had enough time to look around when several voices rose on the air. "Halt! Stay where you are!"

Instantly he dropped down to one knee, hunching his upper body over Tony as best he could, trying to protect him. In his arms, Tony was oblivious to their arrival – he was deathly pale and shaking uncontrollably.

"It's okay," Steve murmured. "We made it. We're here."

"Hold," Thor called. He seemed completely unfazed by the hostile reaction to their sudden appearance. "I am Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard. I have been here before. Surely you must remember."

The Citadel guards paused; every one of them had their weapons aimed at Thor and Steve. They wore the same uniforms as they had four months ago. Back then it had been early autumn, now it was clearly winter. The Citadel itself looked unchanged, the pale stone enduring as always. The place where he knelt had once been a great lawn sloping down to the flatter ground below. His last sight of it had been of earth charred black by the ferocity of Thanos's attack. It was impossible to see beneath the snow cover, but he was willing to bet that there was no new grass yet.

"What are you doing here?" asked one of the guards. He had an insignia on his sleeve that marked him as an officer. "How did you get here?"

"I have brought two of Midgard's finest warriors with me," Thor said. "One of them is gravely injured."

All eyes went to Tony. Steve hunched forward a little further, as though he could shield him from their curious stares.

"That does not explain your presence here," insisted the officer.

"We seek an audience with the Matriarch," Thor said. All around them the guards stiffened in outrage at this cavalier demand; a few tightened their grip on their weapons.

Thor ignored all the others, and gazed at the officer. With his hair and cape fluttering in the wind, dressed in his battle armor and wielding Mjolnir, he looked every inch a prince then, his very posture defying the guards to deny his request.

"We saved this world once from the hands of Thanos the Mad Titan," Thor proclaimed. "And now we have come here asking for your help."

****

The interior of the Citadel had not changed. The ceilings were still vaulted, the floors still tiled. The guards took them through quieter halls that avoided the worst of the high-traffic areas, but there were people present nonetheless. All of them stared in shock, their already wide-set eyes growing even wider when they saw the three strangers and their armed escort.

Steve kept his gaze averted, and focused on Tony. During his previous time here, he had not interacted much with any of the people except for the Matriarch's advisers and those high-ranking military officers who had been given the task of helping the Avengers protect this world. He knew very little about Ernor itself, in fact, beyond how to defend it from attack.

Well, that and he knew about the Forest.

"Tony," he said quietly. "Look, Tony. Look where we are."

He hadn't really expected to get a response, but to his surprise, Tony opened his eyes. His gaze darted about, looking at everything but seeing nothing. He was still shaking very badly. "Steve?"

"We're here," Steve said reassuringly. He firmed up his hold on Tony's shoulders, propping him up just the tiniest bit to ease his strained breathing. "It won't be long now."

Their escort led them into a round elevator; it too was tiled, but in a different pattern than the one that covered the walls of the Citadel. As they began their ascent, Tony clawed at Steve's shirt. He got two fingers hooked on a button, and clutched at the fabric. "No," he pleaded. "I can't… Steve." He looked at one of the guards, then back up at Steve. "I can't go back there. Please."

Steve hoped like hell that his face didn't give away how much those words hurt him. He had known, of course, that Tony still had nightmares about their ordeal in the Forest, just as he did. He hadn't realized though that in Tony's current state, so weak and in pain, coming here would bring those nightmares that much closer to reality.

"We're not going to the Forest," he said. He smiled, trying to be encouraging. "We're going to help you, Tony. We're going to make you better."

"I don't want…" Tony sighed. Abruptly he cried out, his face contorting with pain, his hand tightening in Steve's shirt.

The Citadel guards – three of them, all young and strong – shifted uncomfortably. With both arms occupied, there was nothing Steve could do. It was Thor who reached out and stroked Tony's hair back, a gesture of such kindness that Steve's throat closed up in a sudden rush of emotion. "Hold a while more," Thor said, his voice gentled. "You can do this, Iron Man."

Tony went very still at this. "I'm not," he whispered. He stared up at the ceiling, all the fear of this past week shining in his eyes. "I'm not him anymore."

"You will be," Steve vowed. "Just hold on a little bit longer."

Tony's lips moved, but no sound came out. Still, Steve was pretty sure he had just said it again. I'm not.

The elevator came to a halt. One of the guards stepped out first, followed by Thor, Steve still carrying Tony, then the last two guards.

Steve recognized these halls. They were in the area of the Citadel where the Matriarch dwelled. Her spacious living quarters were located here, but there were also numerous libraries, music rooms, audience chambers for speaking with special delegations who had traveled here from across the planet, and elegant guest rooms for those favored few who met her standards.

The Avengers had been housed in this wing of the Citadel, just four months ago. In these very halls, he and Tony had stood and argued back and forth about how necessary their presence was on this planet. Looking back on it now, Steve thought he would probably never know which fight had been the tipping point, what had made the Matriarch decide that she needed to step in and take action.

The ironic thing was that without her intervention, he and Tony might still be pacing in circles around each other, hackles up, building a wall between them of ugly words. So while he could not agree with her methods, a part of him would be forever grateful for her magic spells and their dangerous trek through the Forest. Without those things, he would never have discovered how much Tony meant to him, never had realized that his flustered hostility masked the far deeper emotions of trust and love.

The royal chamberlain was hurrying toward them from down the hall; a dark gold sash across one shoulder proclaimed his status. He stopped when he was still some distance away, looking unaccountably flustered. "They told us you were coming."

"We must speak to the Matriarch," Thor said.

"She is in audience right now, my lord," said the chamberlain. Like all the people of Ernor, he was tall and thin, and he had the utmost respect for Thor and Asgard.

Steve looked at the man, remembering his face from his first visit here, but not his name. "Then you need to interrupt her," he said.

The chamberlain's eyes went very wide. "We do not," he breathed.

Thor fixed him with a steady stare. "Do you remember us?" he asked.

"I do, my lord," said the chamberlain. He swallowed hard, glanced at Steve, then at Tony. He winced a little, then looked back at Thor.

"Then you remember that we were the ones who turned the tide in the battle against the Mad Titan," Thor said. "Even though our numbers were reduced that day." His expression did not really change, but there was no mistaking his displeasure. "Now, summon the Matriarch."

"I am sorry, my lord," the chamberlain said. He fingered his sash nervously in one claw-like hand. "But I cannot."

"You know what? It's fine," Steve said. "We don't need her. We just need her magicians. Or her sages. Whatever they're called."

"The royal sages act only on the Matriarch's behalf," replied the chamberlain. "They will not see you unless ordered to do so."

"Then summon her!" Thor snapped. He raised Mjolnir a little; the chamberlain's gaze went to it immediately. So did all three of the guards. Although they made no overt move toward Thor and the hammer, they were now visibly on edge. "Or I will. And you will not like my methods."

"Steve." Tony's voice was barely audible. The hand he had tangled in Steve's shirt clutched tight.

"It's okay," Steve soothed him. "It's okay." He looked up at the chamberlain. "Please," he said quietly.

The chamberlain hesitated, clearly torn. It went against everything he was to help them now, but still Steve prayed that he would do the right thing.

He had no idea what he would do if the man did not.

At last the chamberlain bowed his head. "Very well," he said. "I will try. Come with me."

Steve's shoulders sagged with relief. He set off down the hall, following their escort, now grown by one, toward the Matriarch's private chambers.

"We did it," he said to Tony. "Almost there."

Tony said nothing. He stared blindly upward, very pale against the black coat enveloping him, his eyes glassy and unseeing. He was shaking again, too.

"Almost there," Steve whispered.

****

The Matriarch's quarters had not changed. Steve had expected that. What caught him off guard was the sudden rush of anger and loathing that swept over him as he first set foot in her private audience chamber.

He had been ambushed by a magic spell right here in this room. He had never seen it coming, never even guessed at what awaited him when she invited him to join her on that fateful night. He had arrived after dinner, unsure what to expect, never once suspecting foul play.

He remembered being surprised to see Tony here as well. Until then, he had not known the Matriarch to lower herself to speak to any of the Avengers except Thor, due to his own royal status, and Steve, as leader of the team. But on that night she had spoken to both Tony and himself, chastising them for their continued arguing before announcing that she had used magic to look into their future.

My sages have assured me that in you two they have seen the potential for much greatness. Not only within your team, but for yourselves.

That prediction was right, as it turned out, but it had taken four days of hell to discover that. Four days Steve would never forgive these people for, no matter what they might do for Tony now.

The Matriarch herself, ruler of all Ernor, sat on a tall chair that was so ornate it could have been a second throne. Which was, of course, the point. Only a privileged few would ever be allowed into these private chambers – but even those who were granted that rare favor would require a visual reminder of who they were speaking to, so that they remembered their place.

She did not look happy. "I did not expect to see you again," she said coolly. Her gaze swept over them; if she felt anything at seeing Tony lying so still in Steve's arms, she did not let it show on her face.

"I didn't expect to return," Steve admitted.

"The bridge between our worlds was sealed," she said to Thor.

"It has been opened again," Thor replied.

Her chin lifted at that. "I see. And what need has brought you here, that is so important my own chamberlain has resigned in disgrace after being forced to summon me from an audience?"

"We are in need of your healing magic," Thor said. "One of Midgard's finest warriors has fallen."

The Matriarch's eyes narrowed slightly. "I was given to understand that Asgard was a realm full of wondrous magic."

"And it is," Thor said. "But we have come here."

Steve steeled himself to beg. He had really pissed her off the last time he had seen her, when he had made no secret of his anger over what she had done to him and Tony. He had told her that the Avengers would not help her or her people ever again, and added that when they returned to Asgard, Thor would ensure that the bridge between this world and that one was forever closed. She had not cared about his righteous anger, but she had been displeased to hear about Asgard.

Now the bridge was open again. Would that be enough to placate her? Or would she want Steve to humble himself first? She had not seen anything wrong in what she had done to them, a fact he had never shared with Tony. And now here they were, just four months after declaring boldly that they would never return to this world, asking for her help.

The Matriarch gazed at him for a long moment, then she looked at Tony. A shimmer seemed to pass over her eyes, and she nodded. She pointed with one hand; the nails were long and ornately jeweled. "Set him down."

Steve followed her gaze, and saw a long chaise longue against one wall. Like most of the furniture in these chambers, it was upholstered in a rich red fabric. It looked comfortable, which was all he could hope for; at least if he had to let Tony go, it would be on something soft.

He didn't want to set Tony down. Stupid as it was, he had the strangest feeling that it was only his protecting arms that were keeping Tony safe. Which was ridiculous and unwarranted. It wasn't as if they were in any danger here.

Then again, he had thought they were safe here once before, and look what had happened.

There was no choice. If he wanted Tony to be healed, he had to do this. He made himself walk over to the couch, moving slowly and carefully. Tony's eyes fluttered open as Steve bent down, and he gasped sharply when he was placed on the couch. The black coat fell open, exposing the hospital gown and his bare legs. "Steve?"

"It's okay," Steve told him. "I'm here." He closed the coat over Tony's legs again, trying to preserve his dignity. Carefully he sat on the very edge of the couch, then took Tony's hand and held it between both of his. "I'm here."

Tony's gaze tracked across the ceiling. "What…? Steve?"

The Matriarch drew near. She gave Steve a look that was clearly meant to make him move, but he refused to budge. He would not abandon Tony now, not when they were so close to achieving their goal.

"Steven," Thor said quietly.

He ignored this warning. He was not moving, and that was final.

Obviously displeased, the Matriarch came to stand beside him. At the edges of the room, the guards who were standing so discreetly in the shadows all came to attention as their ruler placed herself so near these rude strangers.

The Matriarch looked at Tony for a long moment. Then she leaned down and spread the fingers of one gnarled hand in the air above his face. Again that silvery shimmer passed over her eyes.

"You," Tony breathed.

The Matriarch's head twitched. Her hand closed into a fist. Now her annoyance was almost anger.

Tony stared up at her. He was breathing heavily, pale and in pain – but his eyes blazed with fury. "You," he said again. "You bitch."

The Matriarch uttered a short sound of extreme displeasure. She backed away and turned toward Thor. "This will not be tolerated."

"He is out of his head with the pain," Thor said. "He cannot be held accountable for what he says."

"I know…what I'm saying," Tony said through clenched jaws. He stared up at the Matriarch with darkest hate. Then he bore down on Steve's hand and moaned.

Steve didn't know if he should be amused or horrified by Tony's reaction. The Matriarch had still not officially said that she would help them, and this might be the excuse she needed to refuse them. And yet part of him couldn't help wanting to laugh. Because it really was funny, in an awful kind of way, a dark humor made even funnier by the knowledge that it really shouldn't be so amusing. But only Tony Stark could lie here with a broken back, on the verge of being healed by magic, and insult the person who was supposed to help him.

It was an immense relief, too, which was something else he could never admit to. Tony had spent so much of the past week insensate from heavy doses of painkillers, and when he was conscious, he was weak and in terrible pain. It made Steve feel amazingly better to know that Tony's mind hadn't been affected by the hell he had endured, that he was still in there, still fighting.

The Matriarch looked at Steve. "You are responsible for him," she said.

Steve nodded, all humor quickly forgotten. "Yes."

Her lips curved in a thin smile. "As it was seen."

Only the fact that she still had not said she would help kept Steve from making an angry retort just then. Making him wait like this was her little vengeance on him, and she was going to milk it for all it was worth.

Still he might have said something, might have thrown caution to the wind and reminded her just how much she owed him and Tony. But just as it was occurring to him that there was a very real chance of this turning into a disaster, Thor spoke up.

"We require an answer, Matriarch," Thor said. "Can you help the Man of Iron, or must we seek assistance elsewhere?"

She bristled at the word require, but she met Thor's gaze squarely. "I have already performed the spells that revealed his injury to me. It is severe, but it can be healed."

It took everything Steve had not to let himself react to her words. To hold himself still and not leap up with wild hope, or sag with relief. He just looked up at her, fully aware that she could probably see the truth of his emotion in his eyes. He didn't care either. Let her see. Let her know just how important this was to him. Maybe it would help his cause if she could see just how accurate her sages' prediction had been regarding him and Tony. "And will you?"

The Matriarch nodded. "I will."

There was no holding back then. He uttered a short sound of relief, of hope, of desperate gratitude. Hot tears filled his eyes, and he looked away quickly before she could see, even though he knew it was already too late for that.

"Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you."

"I thank you," Thor said somberly.

Steve looked up, blinking back the tears, a smile on his face. "Tony? Did you hear that?"

Tony hadn't. It was easy to see that; he was white and shaking again, his eyes closed against the pain. Steve let go of his hand and reached up to touch the side of his face. "Tony?"

"Release him," the Matriarch said. "You must stand aside."

Bewildered, Steve looked at her. "You're…?"

An arrogant tilt of her head had her looking down at him, even more so than usual. "Did you think I became ruler of this world through a stroke of luck?" she snapped. "I was the one who healed him after your return from the Forest. I know this body and its anatomy well. Now stand aside, Captain."

Steve just stared at her. He had the ridiculous urge to laugh in her face. She knew nothing. She didn't know Tony. She didn't know the taste of Tony's lips or the feel of his skin. She didn't know the way Tony trembled after a nightmare, his breath coming fast and hot, his heartbeat rapid and erratic. She didn't know the way Tony fought for breath sometimes, one hand pressed to the arc reactor, his shoulders thrown back in an effort at expanding his ribcage and making it easier for his diminished lungs to function. She didn't know the way Tony smiled with his entire face when he was truly happy, laugh lines crinkling about his eyes, long lashes shadowing his cheekbones. She didn't know about Tony's hands, so quick and agile, so sure and strong, so beautiful as they traced over Steve's body.

But she was the only one who could save him right now. So Steve did not argue with her. He just stood up and asked, "Can I do anything to help?"

The Matriarch looked at him sharply, then relaxed somewhat when she saw his sincerity. "There is nothing you can do," she said. "Now be silent."

Steve moved over to stand beside Thor. He clasped his hands behind his back, feet spread, his upper body stiff and his shoulders up. He was just a soldier then, waiting to be given his next command and learn his next move.

The Matriarch spread her hands in the air above Tony's body. Steve wasn't sure what to expect. A few elaborate gestures, maybe, or some chanting. The spell that had turned him deaf and mute had only needed a single word to make it happen, but surely this was a more difficult task, something that required…more.

In the end, though, it proved simple. She closed her eyes and uttered a few words in her native tongue that did not translate. Brilliant blue light enclosed Tony for a moment, so blinding it effectively hid him from sight.

And then the light was gone. The Matriarch lowered her hands and stepped away. "It is done," she said.

Tony continued to lay on the couch, his eyes closed. But even from a distance, Steve could see that he was at peace now. The lines of pain were gone from his face, and some of his color was already returning. His entire body was relaxed, not in the dull unconsciousness that resulted from heavy drugs, but with the quiet rest of true sleep.

"Is he…?" Steve glanced up at the Matriarch, then moved in to stand beside Tony again. He needed no more permission than the space created for him when she had moved aside.

"He sleeps now," she replied. "A necessary result of such a deep healing. You have experienced this yourself."

He nodded. He didn't remember being healed after their rescue from the Forest. He had been dying of blood loss then, the world around him gone hazy and indistinct. He recalled nothing at all between passing out on board the craft that had picked him and Tony up and brought them back here, and the moment when he woke up to find himself fully healed, Tony asleep in a chair beside his bed, having failed at keeping vigil while he slept. To this day he didn't know how much time had passed between their rescue and that waking. It had never really mattered before.

"How long will he sleep?" he asked anxiously as he lowered himself to one knee beside the chaise longue. He smoothed Tony's hair back, and then he didn't know what to do anymore.

"Hours," the Matriarch said. She walked away from them, toward the ceremonial chair where she had been sitting when they first arrived. "Rooms have been prepared for you. Of course you are free to stay as long as you like. Ernor is honored to have the Prince of Asgard and the Avengers as guests once more."

One of the guards who had been standing near the door came forward, ready to escort them. Steve stood up straight and came to attention. Eyes front, he saluted. "Thank you," he said.

The Matriarch made a non-committal sound, but he could tell that she was pleased, nonetheless; even though she knew nothing of Earth customs, she clearly recognized a gesture of respect when she saw it.

"Follow me," the guard said. "I will take you."

For what he fervently hoped was the last time, Steve bent down and slid his arms about Tony, then carried him from the room.

****

The quarters their escort led them to were very familiar. In fact, within five seconds, Steve was certain that this was the very same room he had stayed in the last time he had been here. Located within the same wing as the Matriarch's private chambers, the room was large and luxurious, and filled with everything a guest could possibly need.

He wasn't sure what message the Matriarch was sending with this ploy. She could have been saying that all was forgiven, that Steve and the Avengers and all of Earth had been granted their status as honored guests again. Or she might have wanted them to remember what had happened last time they were here, subtly reminding them that she could revoke their privileges at a moment's notice if they continued to displease her. It was impossible to know for sure what she meant. All Steve knew was that he was damn glad to be there.

On his request, Thor left to nose around a little, see if he could find out the general feeling in the Citadel about their return. Until they knew if it was common knowledge that they had threatened the Matriarch – and followed through – with cutting this world off, Steve figured it was better for them to lay low. After everything that had happened this past week, the last thing he needed was for some ordinary citizen to attempt to avenge the wrongs done to their leader. He also asked Thor to determine how far the people had come in their recovery efforts since Thanos's attack; if need be, he could suggest that the three of them pitch in and help as a way of showing their gratitude for what the Matriarch had done.

Waiting for Tony to wake up was agonizing. The first hour passed quickly as Steve took advantage of their hosts' generosity to give Tony a bath and wash his hair, things that the hospital had not been able to do except in a very limited fashion. He ran a straight razor over the stubble on Tony's face, and clothed him in the loose garments that were also familiar from their last visit. He made sure Tony was lying comfortably in bed, a single blanket pulled up over his chest.

After that, though, there was nothing to do but wait.

It had been a horribly long week, and he had not slept much; eventually he had to actively fight against the urge to sit in one of the rather uncomfortable chairs provided and rest his eyes. He had to be here when Tony woke up. He had to stay awake.

He paced back and forth. He jogged in place, then dropped to the floor and did push-ups. Any light exercise that could be done without equipment, he did. He helped himself to some of the food that had been laid out, but not too much. He paced some more, crossing the room with long strides – and eventually he looked up and saw that Tony was stirring.

Immediately he hurried over to the bed. He felt curiously weak and trembly all over, almost as though time had rolled back, returning him to his pre-serum state. All his strength was gone; he slumped onto the edge of the mattress and just sat there, unable to go any further.

On a normal day, Tony was slow to wake up, refusing to let go of sleep until he had no other choice. He would lie there, frown into his pillow, and sigh a lot. And when he did finally consent to open his eyes, he just kind of glared at nothing for a while until at last full lucidity forced him to acknowledge that he was awake.

This was nothing like that.

Tony opened his eyes, and they were instantly clear and focused. His head moved in sharp little twitching motions, first to the left, then to the right, stopping when he saw Steve.

"Hey," Steve said. Every nerve of his body was thrumming with desperate hope, with the need to know if it had worked, if Tony was all right…

"Hey," Tony said. He shifted beneath the covers, first one hand rising, then the other, pushing the blanket down his chest a little.

Steve held his breath.

Tony was looking at him now with a mixture of bewilderment and suspicion. "Steve?"

"Yeah," Steve said. He could feel the beginning of a smile on his face, and his heart was still racing. But it was all right. It had worked. He had no proof yet, but he didn't need any. He knew it had worked.

He believed it.

Tony looked down at himself, then around him, looking past Steve to the room they were in. He frowned, obviously recognizing it, but not seeming to know what to make of it. "What is this?"

And in one fluid movement he sat up, still looking around. "Are we…?"

Abruptly he stopped talking. He looked down at himself, at the sitting posture that just yesterday would have been impossible. His eyes went very wide as memory came flooding back. "Oh my God."

It was real then. It had really worked. This was really happening. And at last Steve let himself accept it. The sheer, utter joy of it brought a lump of emotion to his throat – and made him grin from ear to ear.

"What did you do?" Tony breathed. He laid a trembling hand on his thigh, inhaled sharply, then clutched at his leg. "Oh my God, what did you do?"

Chapter Text

In a perfect world, Tony would be able to say that he didn't remember the accident, that he didn't remember lying there on the street, his heart racing in terror, fully aware that he was about to be crushed by falling debris. In a perfect world, he could say that he didn't remember the agonizing pain, or the terrifying knowledge that he could not feel his legs.

Then again, in a perfect world, he wouldn't have been hurt in the first place.

"What did you do?" he asked, so full of wonder that he could barely give voice to the words at all. His hand shook as he set it on his thigh.

Even through the blanket, through the shapeless grey clothing he remembered far too well from their last adventure here, he could feel it. Pressure from the touch, warmth of flesh, the slight weight of fabric and blanket.

He could feel it.

He dug his fingers in, clutching at his leg almost painfully. And it was the most amazing thing he had ever felt in his entire life.

"Oh my God," he breathed. "What did you do?"

Steve was grinning widely, his eyes full of joy. "I fixed you," he said.

He had done something all right, that much was undeniable. Tony really didn't like the word miracle, but, well…

"Yeah, you did," he said gruffly. He leaned forward a little.

Apparently that was all the invitation Steve needed. He threw both arms around Tony and clung to him tightly. And Tony returned the favor with all his strength, holding Steve the way he had wanted to during those long terrible hours when he had been flat on his back, trapped and helpless in a body that didn't want to work anymore.

"I can't believe you," he said into Steve's neck.

"I love you," Steve groaned. "I love you so much. I had to."

Tony let go of him and sat up straight. "But to bring us here?"

"I asked you if it was okay. You said yes." An anxious little frown line appeared between Steve's brows. "You might not remember it."

He did, now that Steve mentioned it. Very vaguely, the way he remembered most of the last…well, however long it had been. That memory, like all the others, was really just a blur, though. Mostly what he remembered was just unending pain, and the terror of facing a future where he would never walk again.

"Yeah, but…" He glared at the chair beside the bed, and the table past it where food had been laid out. It had been a few months, but he was pretty certain that this was the exact same room where he and Steve had first had sex. It wasn't the kind of detail he was likely to soon forget. "I guess I didn't think you'd really do it."

"There were no other options," Steve said simply. He lifted his chin. "Besides, they owe us."

Well, that was certainly true. He made a derisive hah! noise. "You could say that again. Still, I'm surprised they went for it."

"Actually, there was no 'they' involved," Steve said. "It was all the Matriarch."

Tony recoiled a little at the thought of those claw-like hands touching him. That seemed to happen a lot on this planet. These people liked to dress him in their own horrible fashions. But then again, he did feel clean for the first time in ages, which was a plus. A big plus. Especially since he was pretty sure – or at least he hoped – that Steve was responsible for the bath and the clothes this time around, and not some unnamed civilian.

"And anyway," Steve continued, "it wasn't just me. Thor told them if they did this for us, he would have Heimdall open the bridge to their world again."

So Thor was here, too. That wasn't surprising. Yet Thor wasn't present right now, tactfully allowing them this moment together. It was such a sweet, unexpected gesture that Tony found himself feeling stupidly on the verge of tears just thinking about it.

And that was simply unacceptable. To cover his near-lapse, he shook his head and rolled his eyes theatrically. "Upstaged by Heimdall yet again. I'm gonna get a complex if this keeps up."

Thankfully Steve didn't notice how close he had just come to bursting into tears. Or maybe Steve did notice, but chose to pretend that he hadn't. Either way, Steve took hold of Tony's chin in one hand and kissed him lightly. "Don't worry," he said. "I would never dream of doing this with Heimdall."

"You damn well better not," Tony said, and kissed him back – and this kiss was anything but light. He cupped the back of Steve's head, holding him steady while he swept his tongue over Steve's lips, then dipped into the warmth of Steve's mouth. He wanted that kiss to last forever, to perpetually delay the moment when he would have to give up the sensation of Steve's lips on his.

Of course nothing lasted forever. Not even a spectacular kiss. And this time when Steve sat back, he looked slightly anxious. "How are you feeling? Everything okay?"

"Yep," Tony said briskly. "Right as rain. I don't remember saying you could stop kissing me."

"Guilty as charged," Steve said. "But you didn't really answer my question." He made a vague gesture toward Tony's legs. "I half-expected you to be running around the room by now."

"Yeah," Tony said, somewhat lamely. He looked away. "You'd think."

Steve's silence was more telling than any words. And when Tony risked a glance up, sure enough, Steve was staring at him in horror.

"No, it's not what you're thinking. It's fine. Everything's great. I feel fine. Look. See?" He wiggled both feet beneath the blanket.

Steve looked only slightly reassured by this. "Then what is it?" he asked.

"It's nothing," Tony said, a little too loudly, a little too defensively, because he really hadn't wanted to open up this can of worms so soon. It would have happened eventually, of course, because he couldn't sit here all day even if he wanted to. But he didn't want to deal with this right now, not when he was still trying to wrap his brain around the idea that just six hours ago he had been paralyzed and looking at a life spent in a wheelchair.

"Clearly it's not," Steve said. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Tony said. He flung the blanket back, kicking at it irritably when it got bunched up about his feet. And it was awesome, it was beyond awesome that he could do that, but still.

He scooted over to the edge of the bed, then stood up. The sound his bare feet made when they hit the floor was gorgeous. It had only been a week or so, but already it seemed novel to view the world from a standing posture. "There. See? Nothing's wrong."

Steve stood off to one side, that slightly anxious furrow between his brows again. "You know, you're not exactly convincing me here," he said.

Tony shot him a look. "Fine," he snapped.

He fully intended to set off at a brisk pace, to walk to the end of the room and come back again, maybe strutting a little, maybe flouncing arrogantly. But it was as though his feet were encased in cement blocks. He couldn't pick them up, couldn't bring himself to take that first terrifying step.

It pissed him off. He had to get over himself, right fucking here and now. The spell was not going to wear off. He was not going to get halfway across the room and fall down. He was going to be fine.

Just fine.

So he took a deep breath and he just…did it. Threw himself into motion like he had never had any reservations at all. Head up, shoulders back, the very picture of confidence.

The first step was the hardest. Like he had forgotten how to walk, how to make his feet and legs move. Then his body swung forward and his other foot hit the floor, and that was it, he was walking, hell, he was striding across the room. All bluff and bluster and arrogant ego – and pathetically grateful that Steve was behind him so he couldn't see him quickly blink back the tears.

At the far end of the room he stopped and put one hand on his hip. He looked back over his shoulder, a smoldering pout pursing his lips. "Like what you see?"

For a moment longer Steve looked at him with some degree of worry. Then laughter lit up his eyes, and he grinned. "Oh yeah," he said.

Tony turned around. "Yeah?"

Steve came toward him, and Tony met him halfway. It was the easiest, simplest thing in the world to walk over, and he had been an idiot to ever think differently. "I didn't…" Steve's smile slowly fell away. "I didn't really let myself believe that they would do it."

"Well, they did," Tony said. "Or she did. Whatever."

"Yeah," Steve breathed.

Steve had that look on his face now, the one that practically oozed sincerity and earnestness, a look Tony was ill-equipped to deal with even when he was at his best. And right now he was miles away from his best, not to mention feeling way too emotional himself.

So he did what he always did at times like these. He deflected. He distracted. He turned on the charm, whipped up a rakish smile, and said, "So now what? Want to go for a picnic in the Forest?"

And Steve, thank God, fell for it. He dropped his head to the side in a gesture of fond exasperation. "Ha ha. Very funny."

Tony smirked. "What? You don't wanna jump right on that?" He lowered his voice. "Or maybe you can think of something else to jump on?"

"I can," Steve said. "I'm just not sure if that's such a good idea right now."

"It is," Tony said. "Trust me. It's a very good idea."

"Is it?" Steve murmured. He slid a step closer. He still seemed a little bit worried, but Tony was confident that the danger had passed.

"It absolutely, totally, 100% is," Tony said. He moved forward, and now there were maybe only two inches between them, and he had to tilt his head back in order to look Steve in the eye. "But you know, all scientific theories need to be tested before they can be proven as fact. So we should really get started on that. The testing, that is."

"You seem to have thought of everything," Steve said. He cupped Tony's face in both of his hands.

"Genius, remember?" Tony said.

"How could I forget?" Steve said, and kissed him.

It was a sweet kiss, soft and gentle. It was also the last thing Tony wanted right now. Since that bright explosion over Manhattan, his life had been nothing but an unending, agonizing nightmare.

He wanted to wake up.

He knocked Steve's hands off his face, then wrapped his arms about Steve, laying his hands flat on Steve's back between his shoulder blades. He sank his teeth into Steve's lower lip, hard enough to draw blood.

Steve flinched and made a small sound into his mouth.

Tony backed up toward the bed, pulling Steve with him. In between deep kisses, his breath came in short gasps.

Steve moved with him, matching him kiss for kiss, smearing blood on their lips and chins, hot and coppery. "Tony?"

"Don't," he begged. No words. He couldn't handle words right now. No words. No feelings. All he wanted was what he had at this very moment, Steve's hands settling on his hips, Steve's erection pressed to his belly, Steve's solid strength held in his hands.

The bed was there. He turned, and Steve turned with him, willingly lying down on his back, Tony on top of him, his knees straddling Steve's thighs.

His kisses grew more frantic. He could still taste blood in the back of his throat. His chest hurt; it was difficult to breathe, although he couldn't quite understand why. He was on his hands and knees, sucking at the soft skin of Steve's throat just above his Adam's apple, marking Steve for everyone to see. Steve's hands slid up from his hips and slipped beneath the loose tunic he wore to stroke lightly up and down his back.

Too gentle. Steve's hands were too gentle. He needed to feel, damnit. He uttered a low growl of frustration and need, and bit down on Steve's collarbone, hard.

Steve yelped. For a moment his embrace tightened, his hands bearing down on Tony's back painfully, crushing him to Steve's chest.

It was exactly what he wanted.

Immediately though, Steve released him, his hands lifting, his eyes widening in horrified shock. "Tony… Oh my God. I'm so sorry."

"No," he whispered thickly. "No. Don't." He bowed his head so he wouldn't have to see that look in Steve's eyes, and pressed his forehead to Steve's chest. He could feel the hectic rhythm of Steve's heartbeat, and it made him want to shout and swear and maybe blow something up. If the pulse of Steve's touch had even come close to matching the pulse of his heart, there wouldn't have been any issues here. Everything would have been just fine, just what he wanted.

But no. Steve had to be so kind and considerate and gentle, and he simply couldn't handle that right now.

"Tony?" One of Steve's hands ran down his back again, following the line of his spine.

He shuddered.

It was no good, no good at all. He couldn't do this anymore, couldn't pretend that he was all right. Steve surely felt the wetness of the tears on his skin even before Tony finally surrendered, collapsing to lie fully on top of him.

"I've got you," Steve whispered.

Tony nodded, clung to him, and tried to remember how to breathe.

****

The deep rumble of Thor's voice woke him some time later; until then he hadn't even realized he had fallen asleep.

He lay still, though, not moving from the circle of Steve's arms. It was almost certainly too late to go on pretending, but he hoped Steve would let him maintain the illusion that he was still sleeping.

"It's okay," Steve said. He was whispering, keeping his voice down the way you did when you didn't want to wake someone up. Tony could have wept all over again with sheer gratitude for the deception. "He's all right. I think it was just too much for him."

"That is understandable," Thor said. He too made an effort to speak softly. "I am relieved to hear that the spell worked. I will let the Matriarch know. She has requested that we join her for dinner."

"Oh," Steve said.

"I will make your excuses," Thor said, and Tony could hear the smile in his voice. "She will understand, I'm sure."

"I wouldn't count on it," Steve muttered.

"I will see that she does," Thor replied. "Also, that a meal is sent up to you."

"Thank you, Thor," Steve said.

"Then tomorrow," Thor said, "we will celebrate properly."

Steve's arms tightened fractionally about Tony. "Yes," he said. "We will."

****

Waking up again to Steve's fingers warm and gentle, drawing little circles on his leg just above his knee. It almost tickled, and he shifted a little. Not quite pulling away, though. Because it was wonderful to feel that tickling sensation, to be able to feel anything at all.

Steve's fingers paused, then resumed their tracing motion. Not circles this time, but shapes with lines. An H. Then an I.

His eyes still closed, Tony smiled sleepily. "Hi," he mouthed.

More writing, a longer word now, followed by a question mark. Hungry?

He supposed he ought to be. But at the moment, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. He couldn't remember the last time he had just…slept. Not the exhausting unconsciousness that came from heavy painkillers, but real, honest sleep.

He shook his head and burrowed his face into the pillow.

Ok, Steve wrote.

He meant to respond. He wanted to respond. Instead of words, though, he managed a soft sigh, and then he was gone again.

****

"Uggghh. I thought you said this stuff was good."

"It was. Five hours ago when it was still warm."

Tony pushed his plate aside and gave Steve an irritated glare. "Well, at least some of this stuff was still edible."

"We could always ask for –"

"You know what? It's okay. It's fine. There's no need to call anyone. I ate, you ate, now we both know to avoid the green stuff when it's cold. It's no big deal." Tony stopped when he caught the look Steve was giving him, and sighed a little. "I'm fine, Steve. Really."

Physically it was true. He had slept, he had eaten, he had taken such a long shower that he was actually a little surprised someone hadn't come running and demanded that he stop using up all the hot water. He wasn't in any pain. In fact, his body felt pretty damn good, all things considered.

And so what if he kept scraping his heels on the floor as they sat at the table and ate? What did it matter? The constant reassurance that he could move his feet, that he could feel, wasn't hurting anyone. And he would get over it, in time. He knew he would.

Besides, he figured if anyone was entitled to a minor freak-out, he was. It wouldn't last, of course. These things never did, mostly because he didn't let them. But still, he felt entirely justified in indulging himself in a little strange behavior.

If Steve had noticed the foot-rubbing thing, he was choosing tactfully not to say anything. "Okay," he said. "I believe you."

Anyone else would have said it with a healthy dose of snark and/or disbelief. But Steve meant it. And Tony loved him for that. Not for being gullible (because Steve wasn't), or for letting him get away with shit (because Steve didn't), but for that honesty, for actually saying what he meant and not hiding behind words and petty lies and sleights of hand. In Tony's experience, that kind of earnest sincerity was easily faked – and almost never real.

"So what happens now?" he asked. He curled his toes under, once, twice. "Not that I'm not grateful, but I'm pretty sure everyone back home is probably freaking out right now."

"Well," Steve said, in that slow tone that meant he had been doing a lot of thinking and he already knew what his answer was going to be, but he was going to pretend that he was making it up as he went along. "I was thinking we could check on their recovery efforts from the battle with Thanos, see if we were needed anywhere."

"Not interested," Tony said. He drained the contents of his glass – some kind of blue fruity concoction – and set it down. "Next?"

"And also," Steve said, "I remember last time we were here, you said you wanted to look at their satellite tech, and they wouldn't let you. After everything we did for them, I'm wondering if they might have a change of heart."

"That I wouldn't say no to," Tony said swiftly. He pointed at Steve. "Also, field trip."

"What does that mean?" Steve asked.

"Means a trip," Tony said helpfully. "To the field." He couldn't help smirking a little at Steve's Really Tony? look. Everyone he knew had some version of that look, but on some of them it looked cuter than others. On Steve, it looked fucking adorable. "In this case, to their mountain observatory. That's where all the good stuff is. Or so I couldn't help overhearing last time."

"Do I want to know how you 'couldn't help overhearing' that?" Steve asked.

"Probably not," Tony said. He didn't add that as soon as the Citadel's scientists had told him it was forbidden for an outsider to visit the observatory, he had vowed that he would find a way to head out there on his own and check it out anyway. He would have done it too, if fate in the form of a magic spell hadn't arranged a little detour through an enchanted forest instead. "Point is," he said, "that's where I'm headed. With or without their approval. That's not up for negotiation."

"I see," Steve said somberly.

"I'm serious," Tony said.

"I know you are," Steve said.

"Okay then," Tony said.

Steve smiled a little. "Okay then."

Tony tipped his head back. All night long Steve's overly solicitous behavior had set him on edge, just enough to keep him uneasy as they sat and ate their meal. He hadn't been able to figure it out at first, to realize just what exactly was bugging him. Now he finally knew. "Are you just humoring me?"

"I would never," Steve said, still fighting that little smile.

"Right," Tony said, completely unamused. "Cause you stand for truth, justice and the American way. Which, by the way, is one of the greatest contradictions ever stated in a single sentence, because the American way is to lie through your teeth, so, you know…"

"I'm Captain America," Steve said. "Not Superman."

He couldn't have asked for a better opening. "Oh, I'm sorry," Tony said, and went in for the kill. He cupped his ear and turned his head toward Steve like an old man. "What was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the I told you so currently shouting in my brain."

Steve looked vaguely perplexed now, like he wasn't sure if Tony was joking or not, if he should be amused or angry. "I don't even know what that means."

"It means," Tony said, "that you just admitted you aren't perfect. Which is only something I've been trying to get you to believe for months now."

"I don't think I'm perfect," Steve protested.

"That's up for debate. But you also think that everyone else thinks you're perfect," Tony said, talking kind of in a rush so Steve wouldn't interrupt. "So you keep trying to live up to this enormous imaginary ideal that you think everyone has in their head about you. And you beat yourself up when you fail. And let me just tell you, and I speak from personal experience here, you pack a mean punch. So in order to make up for your failures, you do wild and crazy things like agree to kidnap people from hospitals and take them to entirely different planets so someone can cast a magic spell on them in order to save them."

Steve lowered his eyes.

"I'm not saying you were wrong," Tony said. He scraped his heel along the floor and curled his toes. "Hell no. I'm just saying, you need to stop beating yourself up over what happened."

"Even if it was my fault?" Steve asked quietly, his words aimed at the tablecloth.

"It was Norman Osborn's fault," Tony said. "And when we get back, first thing I'm going to do is authorize the SI Mergers and Acquisitions Department to do whatever they have to do in order to buy out Oscorp and bury that fucker. After I take all his tech, of course." He could have happily dwelled on that little revenge fantasy for ages, but he could see that he was in danger of losing Steve, so he hurried it along.

"Steve, it wasn't your fault. And I can only say that once, because these kinds of conversations give me hives. Which is also not your fault. But I really need you to stop moping around. Also to stop looking at me like I'm about to break in two at any moment, cause it's kinda creeping me out, and also kinda pissing me off."

Steve just stared at him.

Tony winced, abruptly aware that – as usual – he had probably gone too far and come across as a complete dick. "I'm just saying—"

"I think I know what you're saying," Steve said, a bit stiffly.

"I really don't think you do," Tony said.

"I do," Steve said, louder that time. "Okay?"

"Okay," Tony said. He spread his hands and sat back in his chair.

Steve sighed a little.

"Wait," Tony said. He leaned in again. "Did we just have a fight?"

"No," Steve said immediately.

"Well, can we say we did?" Tony said. "Cause, you know, make up sex is always fun."

"Do we have to?" Steve said with a wry face.

Tony thought about this for about half a second, then he nodded. He rubbed his heels on the floor and said, "You know what, you're right. I take it back. Fighting here only gets you a one-way trip to the Forest, check your senses at the door." He stood up. He didn't want to talk anymore. He was never very good at it anyway, especially when it came to things like his feelings. He had said what needed to be said, letting Steve know that none of this was his fault. He couldn't be blamed if Steve didn't believe him.

He held out his hand. "Can we just…?" He glanced over at the bed.

Steve started to speak. He really only got the first sound out, but it was enough for Tony to know exactly what he had been about to say. Are you sure?

Tony curled his toes and told himself that he was not going to get pissed off at Steve's concern, because after all Steve only meant it in the best way.

It was okay. It really was. The very first time they had had sex, it had been in this room. They had both been so eager to prove that this world hadn't broken them, that they could overcome the horrors they had endured. In silence and in darkness, they had come together, affirming the truths they had realized in the Forest. It had been good but not great, but that hadn't mattered. Just doing it at all had been victory enough.

And now today, waking up in this same room after a week of lying in a hospital wracked with pain, knowing that he would never walk again. Of course he had been freaked out. Of course he had tried too hard, acting like he was fine and pretending that it didn't bother him. But he was okay now. He was okay and he was dealing and Steve was here, standing right in front of him suddenly, putting both arms around him and kissing him.

Together they walked – walked – over to the bed. Steve sat on the edge of the mattress, but Tony remained standing, smirking a little.

"Now," he said. "Let me show you how thankful I am."

Yeah, life was good.

Chapter Text

The Matriarch gazed at him. "So you admit then that I was right?"

It was their second day on the planet. Tony was probably driving the Citadel's engineers crazy somewhere; he was determined to get someone to take him to their mountain observatory. Thor was checking the defenses of the great castle itself. Only Steve had been invited to this audience. He had been surprised at first to receive that invitation, for he had fully expected the Matriarch to want nothing more to do with him. After some thought, however, he had decided that she must not have wanted to miss this last chance to rub things in his face.

So instead of rising to the bait, he took a moment to frame his answer. "I admit that you were right about Tony and I," he finally replied. "You said you saw a potential for greatness in us. On that you were right. When Tony and I are together, we… Together we are far greater than what we are individually."

Off her rather smug look, he added, "But I also believe that your methods were wrong. I believed it then, and I still do."

She looked annoyed now. Bejeweled nails tapped on the arm of her chair. "Yet you cannot argue with the results."

"I can't," Steve admitted. "But that doesn't matter. Have you ever heard the saying, 'the ends do not justify the means'?"

She waved her hand at him, brushing his protest aside. "If you desire a certain result, you must do what it takes to achieve it. Surely you know this. You are a soldier. A warrior." She fixed him with a hard stare. "If you have the power to achieve your goal, you use it. It is that simple."

"No," Steve said. "You have…" He forced himself to stop. He didn't want to get into an argument with her, but he needed her to understand his point. "The magic in this world is amazing. You have so much power here. You really have no idea how incredible it is. But you use it in the wrong way."

"Do you think so?" the Matriarch said softly. Her eyes narrowed. "That we have power?"

He thought of Tony, and his excitement over the tech he had seen so far. They mix science and magic in ways I can never recreate. But that's what the workaround was invented for, right? And I'll have you know that I am brilliant at coming up with those.

"Don't you?" Steve countered. "You can heal sickness and injuries. You have magical animals out there that don't require food or water to survive. You have an entire Forest that repels outside attack and protects itself."

"Ah," she said. "We do have those things. But do you imagine that this kind of power does not come without a cost?"

He shook his head. "What do you mean?"

"Yes, we have power," she said with scorn. "Magic, you call it. Do you think this makes us safe? It does not! It makes us a target. That is the whole reason you and your Avengers were here in the first place. To defend us from Thanos. For our power, Captain, my people are hunted down and enslaved. My world is continually attacked. We are not safe. We are nothing but an object of conquest."

Steve didn't know what to say to that. He understood now why she had been so upset by Thor's announcement that the bridge to this realm would be closed. She respected Asgard, it was true, but she was more concerned about keeping her people safe. And against some enemies, safety might very well lay in being able to threaten to call in her allies in Asgard.

He could respect that. She was the ruler of this planet, and as such her priorities were right where they needed to be – protect her people at all costs.

"I do not expect you to understand," the Matriarch said coolly. "Nor will I explain myself to you."

"No," he said quietly. "I understand. You don't have to."

"You understand nothing," she responded, but her tone had warmed somewhat. "But at least you try. You are not like the others."

Steve fought the instinctive urge to spring to Tony's defense, and instead kept the conversation on a general level, whether or not she had intended it that way. He would not be provoked into talking about Tony. "That isn't actually true," he said. He remembered what Tony had said, how he believed that everyone else thought he was so perfect. He knew that wasn't just his imagination, unfortunately, but he hadn't been able to say that, not then, and probably not ever. Some things were better off unspoken. "I'm no better than anyone else on Earth."

"That is not what I am told," the Matriarch said. She eyed him thoughtfully.

"I'm really not," Steve insisted. He only wished he could make everyone else believe that.

"I am sure you are wrong," the Matriarch said. "Now…"

Steve knew when he had been dismissed, even with just a single word. He stood up and inclined his chin, not really bowing, but according her the respect she deserved. "Thank you for seeing me."

"I hope you will be comfortable for as long as you remain here," the Matriarch replied formally.

"Thank you," Steve said again. "I'm sure we will."

****

"Not that I'm not grateful," Tony said, his head bent over his drawing, "because I am, I really am, I mean, how often do I get a chance to steal alien tech? But the next time you take me to a planet where I, you know, get a chance to steal alien tech, could you at least bring along a StarkPhone so I can just take pictures of the damn stuff?"

Steve looked up from his own sketch and smiled. "I don't know," he said, pretending to think it over. "I think you're doing great."

Tony made a rude noise, scowled at the page, tapped the end of his pencil on the table, then attacked his drawing again.

"The da Vinci of our time," Steve said indulgently, remembering a quote about Tony he had read once. It dated back to the years before Tony had experienced his wake-up call in Afghanistan, before he had become Iron Man. As far as Steve was concerned, though, it still held true today.

"I don't paint," Tony said absently, his focus still for his drawing.

"But you draw," Steve pointed out. "And pretty well."

"Please," Tony scoffed. "This is nothing compared to what you can do."

"No, it's not," Steve agreed. He looked down at his own drawing; the paper and pencils were on loan from one of the many libraries in the Citadel. The sketch was only half-completed, with Tony's left side barely penciled in yet. It was clear what it would be, though, this portrait of a man absorbed in his work, his eyes dreamy and yet focused. "Anyone can look at a tree and draw it. But only someone like you can look at a piece of alien spacecraft and be able to take it apart and draw it so well that you'll be able to rebuild it later."

"Well," Tony said, still speaking to his drawing, "you're not wrong there." He looked up. "Still. Da Vinci? You don't think that's a bit of a stretch?"

Steve held up his thumb and forefinger, separated by half an inch. "Maybe just a little."

"Atta boy," Tony said approvingly, as he began to write in neat capital letters in the margin of his page.

Chuckling, Steve took up his pencil again.

****

He woke up in the middle of the night to find himself alone in the bed. For a moment he panicked, then he saw a dark silhouette standing at the window.

He threw back the covers and padded barefoot over to where Tony stood. "Everything okay?"

"Sure." Tony did not look at him. His gaze remained fixed on the view outside the window. There wasn't much to see, just a faint shimmer of light from the snow cover – and a dark line on the horizon where the Forest began.

"Come back to bed," he said. The glass was thick, but he was still cold standing here.

"Aren't you curious," Tony said flatly. He continued to stare out the window.

"Not really, no," Steve said.

"Liar," Tony said, but with slightly more animation in his voice. He heaved a sigh and turned around.

"You should wake me the next time you can't sleep," Steve said.

"I was sleeping just fine," Tony said. "It was that extra glass of Ernorran wine I had before going to bed that woke me up." He began to walk away from the window, and Steve followed, keeping pace with him. "By the way, I disagree with Thor on this one: I think that stuff might actually manage to overwhelm even your metabolism and get you drunk."

Steve shook his head. "No deal. Besides, you think I don't know about your bet with Thor?"

"I'm insulted that you would even feel you need to pretend you didn't know about my bet with Thor," Tony replied.

They climbed back into bed; Steve burrowed gratefully into the warmth that lingered on the sheets where his body had just been. He slid one arm beneath Tony's shoulders, and Tony came willingly enough, rolling onto his side and resting his head on Steve's chest.

"Don't think about," Steve said.

"Hard not to," Tony said.

"I could distract you," Steve offered.

"You could," Tony said. He ran his hand over Steve's chest, fingers toying with the blond hair there. "In fact, you should. I approve of this plan."

"I think you're still a little drunk from that wine," Steve said.

"I think you might possibly be right," Tony said. "But the fact of the matter remains. I approve of the distracting plan. Stamp of approval. And all that."

"Okay," Steve said with a small smile.

"I can't help but notice," Tony said, "that you haven't begun the distracting yet. Not that your body by itself isn't a perfectly good source of distraction, because it kind of is, but I was sort of expecting you to take a slightly more active role in this."

Steve just laughed. "Well, maybe if you gave me more than two seconds."

"Now you're just making excuses," Tony said. He tugged – not gently, either – on Steve's chest hair.

"Okay, okay," Steve said. In one swift move he rolled over so Tony was flat on his back and Steve loomed over him. "Is that better?"

Tony grinned up at him and set both hands on his waist. "Much better."

Steve leaned down and kissed him. "Good to know," he murmured at Tony's mouth.

"Less talk," Tony said. "More distracting."

It was hard to kiss someone when you were smiling widely, but Steve managed it anyway.

****

Morning dawned clear and bright. Steve was already up, of course, by the time Tony finally gave up pretending to be asleep and grudgingly consented to roll out of bed. He groaned and grumbled his way through a long shower, and emerged to find that Steve was dressed and ready. Moreover, Steve just happened to be wearing some of the warmest clothing that their hosts had provided for them; it was still gray and shapeless, but made from heavy fabrics.

Tony took one look at him and nodded.

They didn't talk about it as they walked the length of the Citadel to the hangar where a multitude of ships stood waiting. No one stopped them as they took one of the smaller flyers, something that resembled the Quinjet in size and shape, but which flew on much more advanced tech. Tony wondered if Steve had cleared this all in advance, then decided that he didn't really care.

It was a short flight to the Forest. Steve set them down just beyond the treeline, on a patch of pristine snow that was starting to melt under the day's sunshine. He lowered the ramp and they walked outside, and then there they were.

About half the trees still retained some kind of snow cover; the rest were a smudgy dark green. Up close, there was a palpable sense of power about the place, an almost physical aura designed to keep people out.

Hand in hand, they walked into the Forest. Immediately a claustrophobic closeness descended about them. There wasn't much snow on the ground here, except in a few isolated patches at the base of some of the taller trees. It even felt warmer, with the canopy and the trees themselves serving to insulate the space.

Tony gripped Steve's hand tightly, and Steve returned the favor. For a moment he had a crazy urge to break into a run, to shout and wave his arms, maybe stoop down and pick up a fallen branch and throw it against one of the trees. But even to think such a thing seemed almost like blasphemy, as though doing it would tempt fate into bringing one of the beasts down on them. So instead he just clung to Steve's hand and he walked forward at a slow, stately pace, and he tried to tell himself that he was cool with this, that everything was just peachy.

Evidently Steve was feeling just fine, too. They stopped walking after only ten minutes. Then they simply stood there.

Tony's memories of the Forest were not visual in nature. He remembered the eerie lack of birdcalls and the sound of small animals moving through the trees. The burble of running water. The smell of wet trees and earth and of cold crisp water. The undergrowth scraping at his legs, pebbly-rough tree trunks beneath his hands.

The enormous roar of the beasts that lived here. Their thick, foul stench. The way the ground shook when they charged.

The feel of Steve's hand in his, guiding him onward, holding him up as they ran in fright, reminding him that he was not alone.

"So," Tony said. "This is what it looks like."

Steve jumped a little, and he remembered that Steve's memories of the Forest were ones of utter silence. Rain and rivers he could not hear, leaves moving silently, tree branches and undergrowth bending and rustling without a sound. Steve had looked upon the terrifying creatures that had nearly killed them, and watched as they roared and bellowed in soundless fury.

Steve just nodded, silenced once again, without words.

Tony squeezed his hand. "Whose bright idea was this, anyway?"

He tipped his head back and peered up at the sky. There wasn't much to see; treetops obscured most of the view. Despite the fairly cloudless day, the light in here was dim. It would have been different four months ago, when the seasons of this world were just slipping into autumn. He wondered how much brighter it had been then, when Steve had taken him by the hand and led him blind and frightened through the trees and on toward what they both hoped was safety.

"It seems so different," Steve murmured.

"Yeah," Tony sighed. Slowly he closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of the trees, the hard winter ground, the occasional patch of snow.

Instantly vertigo assailed him. He bore down on Steve's hand, using it to anchor himself to reality. But when Steve took a tentative step forward, and then another, he did not open his eyes. He just let himself be guided in whatever direction Steve chose, trusting Steve utterly not to lead him into harm.

Steve stopped walking, and so did he. He felt his hand picked up and turned over. Then Steve's forefinger traced words onto his palm: I love you.

During their first sojourn here, those written words were all they had. Even now, it was something they still did from time to time. Other couples might have inside jokes, but they had an entire system of communication, a way of speaking without actually saying anything. They had survived four days of hell in this place, and although their physical scars had been erased by the same magic that had healed their wounds, there was no erasing the marks the Forest had left on their souls.

The first time they had slept together, they had done their best to recreate the conditions in the Forest; turning off the lights, forbidding themselves speech or any sounds. Tony had no interest in doing that now. He opened his eyes, looked around and saw that they were standing very near a tall tree whose lowest branches were still two feet above their heads.

"I came," he said, paraphrasing the famous words. "I saw – and heard. I conquered. Also." He took Steve's hand in his own and wrote, I love you on Steve's palm.

Steve gave him a small smile. "Ready to go back?"

"Not yet," Tony said. "I just realized something. We didn't actually come." He looked over at Steve and grinned.

One of Steve's eyebrows shot up. "It's cold out."

"It'll warm you up," Tony said.

"And if one of those beasts decides to wander by?" Steve said.

"I think we've proven that we can handle ourselves," Tony said, knowing full well that for all his bravado now, if one of those horrors really did come by, he'd be running so fast he'd be back at the Citadel within minutes.

"Well," Steve said slowly, "you've convinced me."

Steve was right, though. It was awfully cold out, even with the added warmth from the Forest. In the end it was quick and almost furtive, as though the great eye of the Forest was watching them with disapproval. They found themselves up against a tree, still fully clothed, their hands clasped about each other's cocks as they moved together. Their breath mingled in clouds of steam, and Tony nearly got a splinter embedded in his palm when he grabbed at the tree as he came.

After, his knees wanted to weaken, but Steve slipped one arm about him, bearing his weight. He had one bad moment where the steely strength of Steve's arm, hard against his spine, made him almost shudder, but it quickly passed, and he was able to relax into it without any further anxiety.

Steve bowed his head, his hair brushing Tony's temple. "We win, right?"

Tony made a faintly questioning noise. He wasn't feeling quite up to speech just yet.

"We win," Steve murmured. His eyes were closed, his lips almost touching Tony's ear.

"Yeah," Tony breathed. "We do." He cupped the back of Steve's neck and shifted over slightly so that their foreheads touched. "We always do."

He nuzzled lightly at Steve's mouth, gave him a tender kiss. "I'm supposed to be the futurist, right? I mean, that's one of my major claims to fame." He kissed Steve again. "But I never saw you coming."

Steve uttered a little sound, like he was going to reply, so Tony kissed him again, silencing his words. Longer this time, opening his mouth to the kiss, sucking gently on Steve's full lower lip. "Somehow you got to me," he said. "And I don't know if you've noticed, but that's pretty hard to do. I even wear armor."

"I noticed," Steve said quietly. His head was still bowed, but his eyes were open now, so close, so brilliantly blue.

No one else had eyes like that. He had been with a lot of people in this world, looking up or down at them in bed, sitting across from them in executive boardrooms or luxurious seats on private jets. He had spent years hiding his own eyes behind designer sunglasses and flashy smiles. Three times he had dared to open his heart and let someone in. One of those people had tried to kill him. The other two had managed to remain his friends in spite of everything he put them through.

But those friendships had taken many long years to cultivate. Steve, with his amazing blue eyes and his steadfast sincerity and his quiet unassuming strength, had found the path into Tony's heart in mere months. He would never understand how that had happened, but he was incredibly grateful that it had.

It was cold and he was growing steadily less thrilled about staying here in the Forest, but some things still needed to be said out loud. There would probably never be another chance for something like this, another time when his defenses were well and truly down. "Well, whatever your secret was," Tony said, "I'm glad it worked."

"Me too," Steve whispered, and hugged him tight.

Tony closed his eyes and rose slightly on his toes, the better to hold Steve with both arms. Giving himself this moment on a cold alien world, this moment when he held someone and let himself be held in return, when he savored the irony that it was only here, in this place where he had once run in terror for his life, that he felt safe and warm in a way that would probably never happen again.

Life, he thought with a secret little smile, was just full of surprises.

****

It was bitterly cold the next morning, with achingly clear skies. Steve resisted the urge to burrow under the blankets and sighed theatrically. "I can't believe you. Blowing me off for alien tech. I should have known where I stand with you."

"Aw, honey, don't be like that," Tony said with a little smirk. It was one of those rare occasions when he had risen first and taken a quick shower even before Steve had woken up. Now he was fully dressed and on all fours, looming above as Steve lay flat on his back, still in bed.

Tony pressed a kiss to Steve's collarbone. "Besides, when you think about it." He kissed a spot on Steve's chest, a little lower. "It would be irresponsible of me not to go check this out." Another kiss, a bit lower. "We could use a Thanos detector of our own, wouldn't you say?" Another kiss. "So in a way I'm actually doing the Earth a favor and saving all our asses." His mouth closed over Steve's nipple and sucked hard.

That was playing dirty. But it worked. Steve couldn't help groaning as his fingers twined through Tony's hair. "God."

Tony lifted his head. "I promise I'll make it up to you later," he said in a sing-song wheedling tone.

Steve sighed. He knew when he was beaten, when the lure of sex right now could be passed over for the even brighter temptation of new science and technology. "You better," he said. Then he frowned. "Thanos detector? I'm assuming that's not the official name for it."

Tony shrugged as he sat up. "Probably not."

"I could come with you," Steve offered as he propped himself up on his elbows. He wasn't too thrilled with the idea of spending another day without Tony. It wasn't the first time and it probably wouldn't be the last – depending on how much longer they stayed here – but he had hoped to find something they could do together today.

A particular pained expression crossed Tony's face. Steve knew it well. It was the one that said he was battling his first, selfish instinct and trying to remember to not be an asshole. "You know," Tony said with a wince, "you'd just be bored. It wouldn't be very fun."

"Mmm-hmm," Steve nodded.

"And I'd end up forgetting you were there and ignoring you and then I'd feel like a jerk and then you'd feel like even more of a jerk for making me feel bad, and you know, this just, it won't end well." He took a breath. "So you should really just stay here."

Steve had raised his eyebrows at Tony's assertion that he would feel like a jerk, but now he just shook his head a little. "All right," he surrendered. "I should have known I can't compete with alien technology."

"That's not, that's, wait." Tony tilted his head a little. "Are you giving me a guilt trip?"

"Maybe just a little one," Steve said. Try as he might, he couldn't keep from smiling as he said it.

"Wow," Tony said. "Low blow."

"Not quite the kind of blow I had in mind," Steve said, and now he was outright grinning – and he didn't even care. They had had a lot of sex over the past several days, and he was perfectly cool with that. He wondered if he should be concerned at how often Tony made everything about sex, but he told himself not to worry. Tony had just spent a hellish week trapped in a body that didn't work. It was only natural that now he should want to celebrate his new lease on life. And since they were both reaping the rewards, Steve had to admit there was even less of an incentive to fret over it.

Tony raised his eyes heavenward at Steve's lame joke. "I've created a monster."

"You should do something about that," Steve suggested. "Capture the monster. Keep all these innocent people safe."

Tony groaned. "You're killing me here. I would, I really, really would. But I've got a ride waiting on me. I really do have to go."

"All right," Steve surrendered. "I know. But then tomorrow we go home."

"Tomorrow we go home," Tony agreed. "Where I get to hold the mother of all press conferences. Standing up." He grinned.

"I'm definitely not missing that," Steve said. He could picture it now, reporters and cameras all over the place, the stunned amazement, the single most important question being repeated over and over: How did you recover so fast and start walking again?

"Okay, I'll see you tonight," Tony said as he got out of bed.

"Wait, tonight?" Steve said, sitting up. "Where exactly are you going?"

"Some village named Stellnerwhatever-I-can't-pronounce-the-rest-of-it," Tony said. "That one I told you about? In the mountains?"

"The observatory," Steve said. He did remember now. Tony had been eager to visit it ever since he had first learned about its existence. "So you finally get to go."

"I finally get to go," Tony said, rather smugly. "Anyway, I guess it's quite a trip. Takes a while to get there and back."

That really wasn't what Steve wanted to hear right now. "And why did they have to put their 'Thanos detector' all the way out there?"

"I imagine for the same reasons astronomers put their telescopes on mountaintops," Tony said as he pulled on his borrowed coat. "Get away from light pollution and all that. Plus, us scientists and engineers, we don't do people so well, or hadn’t you heard?" He smirked.

Steve smiled back. "I don't know. You do me pretty well."

Tony crossed back over to the bed, leaned down and kissed him. "Well, there's always an exception to every rule."

"You don't get away that easily," Steve said. He set his hands on Tony's shoulders, and kissed him again, using his tongue and his lips to thoroughly explore Tony's mouth. One of Tony's hands tangled in his hair, the other he rested on the bed to keep his balance as he leaned over. It would have been a simple thing to drag him down and keep him there, and Steve was sorely tempted, too.

In the end, though, he let the kiss turn sweet and soft, and finally he released Tony altogether. "You should go," he said, somewhat huskily.

Tony had to clear his throat as he stood up. He touched his mouth, looking amused as he discovered how wet and swollen his lips were. "Well," he said. "That's one way to let everyone know what I've been doing."

"Somehow I think you'll survive," Steve said.

"I think you might be right," Tony said with a wink. He backed away from the bed. "Okay. I'll be back tonight. And I will make it up to you, I promise. And when have you known me to break my promises? Wait, don't answer that. Still." He pointed one finger at Steve, the meaning behind the gesture abundantly clear.

"I'll hold you to that," Steve said.

"You got it," Tony said. He glanced around the room, checking to make sure he had everything. "Well, I'm off to go steal some more alien tech. Wish me luck."

Steve chuckled. "Good luck."

Tony paused in the doorway, and turned around. "Oh, and ah, if you want to be naked in here when I get back, I wouldn't say no to that."

"I'm naked now," Steve pointed out.

Tony shook his head fondly. "You're killing me. You really are." He gave the doorway a loud thump. "Okay, I'm off. Keep the home fires burning and all that. I'll see you tonight."

"See you," Steve said.

Tony gave him a mock salute, and then he was gone.

****

Tomorrow they would be going home, stopping first in Asgard, then arriving on Earth. There would be a banquet tonight after Tony returned from his visit to the observatory. It was a chance for select members of the military, the royal court, and the magicians to say they had once dined with the mighty Prince of Asgard and the heroic Avengers of Midgard.

Steve was not looking forward to it.

Until dinner, though, his time was his own. He wandered around the Citadel for a few hours, and eventually found himself in what he had come to think of as the War Room. He had spent a lot of time in here on his first visit, working to help these people defend their world from Thanos. Small and dimly lit, it reminded him rather poignantly of the similar rooms he had spent time in during the war. There were major differences, of course; for all their magic, the people of this world employed greater technology than the Earth did – especially in 1945.

Feeling somewhat useless, he stood off to one side and watched the soldiers as they went about their business. It was a bit like watching the SHIELD agents at work on the bridge of the helicarrier; each person here had a specific duty to attend, and they let nothing get in the way of performing it.

"We could continue our tour of the Citadel's defenses," Thor suggested.

Steve looked over at him. Without being asked, Thor had made himself scarce for most of their stay here, a silent gesture designed to grant him and Tony a chance to be alone together as much as possible. Steve was grateful to him for his discretion, although he didn't really know how to say that.

"I don't know," he said. "I think you've already seen it all. Twice." Thor had used his time alone to fly across much of the planet, checking on the line of satellite stations and other defenses Ernor had mounted to warn them of impending attacks. He didn't sound too enthusiastic about visiting them yet again, and Steve could hardly blame him. There were only so many guard posts you could see, after all, before they all started blurring together.

"It's okay," he said. "I'm good. But you don't have to stay if you don't want."

Thor glanced at the monitor that took one up most of one wall, lit up with glowing dots that represented the major cities across the planet. The Citadel itself was in the center of the main continent, its dot a reassuring gold glow on the screen. "Do you think to see when Tony arrives at the observatory?"

Unable to deny it, Steve lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Maybe?"

Thor clapped him on the shoulder. "Ah, my friend," he said with a smile. "You have been bitten hard, have you not?"

Steve couldn't help smiling back. "I think I have," he confessed.

"Love is truly a grand thing," Thor said. His eyes shone with warmth and good humor. "Is it not?"

"It really is," Steve said, laughing a little. "I never knew—"

A strident alarm began to sound. In the enclosed confines of the room, it was piercingly loud.

In that first moment, Steve thought it was Thanos again. "What is it?" he asked. "What's happening?"

No one paid him any attention. Soldiers and civilians alike leapt into action. Orders were given, messages were dispatched. Everyone was talking at once, but even so, he heard someone say, "Where?"

The answer was a long name Steve had heard just this morning.

Some village named Stellnerwhatever-I-can't-pronounce-the-rest-of-it. That one I told you about? In the mountains?

On the map, a dot previously colored green turned an ominous dark red. And though he didn't know it yet, not for sure anyway, Steve's world had just ended.

The bottom fell out of his stomach. He stared at that red dot in numb horror. All he could think about was Tony.

The observatory was under attack. And Tony was there right now.

****

The Ernorrans were quick to put together a response team – but they were still too slow for Steve's liking. Nor were they interested in his offers of help. In fact, nearly everyone ignored him and his increasingly frantic attempts at finding out just what exactly was going on.

"I can help!" he said for the third time, trying to get someone's attention.

"Steven!"

He spun around as Thor stalked up. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen such an expression on Thor's face; far off, he seemed to hear thunder.

"We must go," Thor said. "Now."

"What is it?" Steve said. Already Thor was walking away, and he hurried after him. "What's happening?"

Thor did not reply as they moved quickly through the Citadel. The moment they stepped outside, he began to swing Mjolnir about. "Hold on tight," he said.

Steve wrapped his right arm about Thor's waist. "What are you not telling me?" he asked.

"I only hope we do not arrive too late," Thor said grimly, and then he raised Mjolnir to the sky and they were flying.

Steve had flown with Iron Man before, of course, but this was far different. Both Tony and Thor could fly much faster without a passenger to worry about, but today Thor did not let that affect the speed of his flight. He remained fairly close to the ground, rising only with the earth itself, as the hills to the north became actual mountains; but it was still cold out, and the rushing wind created by their flight chilled Steve even further. By the time the observatory and its surrounding town came into view, he felt half-frozen.

What he saw there only completed the process. Chilled and numb with horror, he stumbled as Thor touched down and his feet hit the ground. He heard himself make a terrible noise, a wordless sound of denial, but he couldn't move at first. He could only stare.

The town was in flames. Everywhere he looked, fires rose into the winter sky. The observatory itself was still standing, but over half of it had collapsed into piles of white stone rubble. A few bodies lay in the streets, but not many. Other people wandered around, shell-shocked and dazed. And far overhead, a streak of white light split the sky as the ship carrying the ones responsible for the destruction fled into the depths of space.

Thor went up to a woman who was quietly weeping. "What happened here?" he asked.

The woman looked at him uncomprehendingly. She was not dressed for outdoors, and she was shivering. Or maybe it was something other than the cold that wracked her. "They came," she said. "They took my son… We were supposed to be protected. Why didn't anyone save us?"

"Save you from whom?" Thor asked. "Who did this to you?"

The woman stared at Thor with dead eyes. "The Kree," she said. "The Kree slavers."

Steve had heard enough. He started to run forward, deeper into the destruction. That was where he would find Tony, helping these people, the way he always tried to help. He just needed to find him. That was all. Just find him, and everything would be all right. "Tony!" he shouted. "Tony!"

"Is that the name of the other human?" the woman asked.

Steve skidded to a halt and spun around. "Yes," he said. "Have you seen him?"

The woman tilted her head slightly. She looked a little bit like the Matriarch, with the same wide-set eyes and dark hair. "I am sorry," she said. "He is gone. They took him. Along with my son."

All the breath rushed out of Steve's lungs. Fear grabbed him by the throat, so that he could barely speak. "What?"

"The Kree took him," the woman repeated. "He is gone."

"Gone where?" Thor asked. He looked up, maybe trying to spot the ship that they had seen when they first arrived. If so, it was a futile gesture; the ship was long gone by now.

"To be a slave," the woman said.

Chapter Text

Tony woke with a groan to a pounding headache, a laboring heart, a babble of incoherent noise, and the sick sense that he was somewhere he absolutely did not want to be.

His last clear memory was of running for his life, surrounded by the scientists and astronomers who worked at the mountain observatory. They had been pleased and proud as they showed him around the facility, but when the attack came, they had devolved into sheer terror. Yet they had still managed to herd him into the center of their little group as they fled, trying to protect him even at the last.

He hadn't even known what they were running from.

But standing around wondering about it would only have gotten him killed. So he had run with the others, sharing in their fear, wishing futilely that he could call upon JARVIS for the suit. They had gone down several flights of stairs, apparently aiming for an underground bunker where they could hide. They had just reached the main floor when doors had flown open, revealing an alien species Tony had never seen before outside of the SHIELD database. His startled brain had supplied their name – Kree – and then the ceiling had started to collapse.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Wherever he was now, the noise was intolerable. Knowing that he was going to regret it, Tony opened his eyes and sat up.

The scene that greeted him was almost indescribable. He was in a fairly large room with the kind of sleek silver walls that he instantly associated with a spaceship. Nor was he alone. All around him were people of various alien species. Some of them were talking, a few were crying, and one or two even seemed to be praying. None of the languages sounded remotely like anything he knew from Earth; and Tony himself was the only human present. The only language he could understand was the somewhat guttural tongue of the Ernorrans. That comprehension had been a gift from the Matriarch's sages on the Avengers' first day on Ernor four months ago, when magic had cleared the way for mutual understanding.

Well, magic definitely wasn't going to help him now.

He looked around again, taking his time, assessing the situation more carefully. The Ernorrans were obviously the newcomers here; they were the ones crying and making the most noise. The other aliens – who all seemed to be male, interestingly enough – barely looked at the Ernorrans. Not one person offered a comforting word or even a friendly gesture.

Two tall men stood beside the room's only door. They were both armed, and their blue-green faces were impassive. Tony had never seen anyone like them before, but he recognized them nonetheless – and not just from that quick glimpse in the observatory. Among the many things Thor contributed to his membership in the Avengers was his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the greater universe. Things he took for granted were often completely unknown on Earth. He had spent hours with SHIELD agents, helping them compile an enormous database that expanded their understanding of the Nine Realms and the universe itself.

And so thanks to Thor, the Kree were familiar to Tony, although they didn't really look anything like the hand-drawn picture in the SHIELD database. Clearly Nick Fury needed to fire his artists and find new ones.

"Anthony Stark." The voice that whispered his name was hoarse and low, but he still nearly leapt out of his skin at the sound. He whirled around and saw one of the Ernorran astronomers who had been at the observatory sitting close by. He vaguely recognized the man as being part of the group who had been giving him the grand tour of the place, but couldn't remember his name.

"What the hell's going on?" he whispered. He didn't move his lips when he spoke, a skill he had honed long-ago in a cave in Afghanistan.

"We have been taken by Kree slavers," said the astronomer. His wide-set eyes were red and swollen, as though he had recently been crying.

"Slavers?" Tony was shocked into silence. That couldn't possibly be right. Nothing in Thor's information on the Kree had said they used slaves. And even if he had known about it, he still would not believe it. This kind of thing did not happen. Especially not to him.

It couldn't happen to him.

He looked over at the Kree soldiers again, this time much more critically. He tried to remember what the database said about them. They were a militaristic people, ruled by a being called the Supreme Intelligence. They were ruthless in their desire to conquer the universe, were perpetually at war with another alien race called the Skrulls, and they took no shit from anybody.

His mouth twisted into a bitter smile. Well. They could say that. But that was only because they had never met Tony Stark before.

He looked up at the corners of the room, knowing from past experience that this was where the cameras would be. He saw nothing to indicate any viewing or listening devices, though, which momentarily threw him. And while he was still searching for them, two of the aliens nearest the door made their move.

Compared to the Kree, both men were short, but they looked heavily muscled even through the thick clothing they were wearing. They must have discussed their plan ahead of time, because they moved without hesitation. In unison, they charged the two guards, going for their weapons.

Every single person in the room went rigid with tension – Tony included. But no one jumped in to help.

It probably wouldn't have made a difference, anyway. Within seconds, the two Kree had brutally subdued their attackers and shot them both dead.

The effect on the room was electric. Several men began to cry and wail. Others began to plead with the guards. Two others even stood up and ran at them – and were shot for their troubles.

Tony sat very still, hardly daring to move. He watched in horror as one of the Kree began to move around the room. This guard shot four more men, including two Ernorran civilians who were crying and carrying on almost hysterically. While he did this, his partner remained by the door, waiting to see who might try his hand next at escaping. The first guard finished his grisly business, then moved calmly back to rejoin his comrade.

It had all happened very fast. Frozen in shocked disbelief, Tony was still staring at the guards when a light touch on his arm nearly made him jump out of his skin. A wave of dizziness washed over him as he twisted to one side to see who had touched him. "Do not move, unless you wish to die," whispered the Ernorran astronomer.

He had forgotten all about his buddy. He was grateful for the man's presence, although part of him rebelled at the thought of going through yet another captivity with a stranger helping him out. He would be damned if he let this man – or anyone – become another Yinsen. "Don't worry. I'm not planning on it," he replied.

"There is no shame in dying now," whispered the astronomer. He stared at the dead bodies; the Kree didn't appear interested in removing them just yet. "Choose, as those others did."

"No thanks, I'm not actively suicidal," Tony snapped. He kept his voice down, but it was difficult to do. He was more rattled than he cared to admit, now that he knew those dead men had deliberately brought about their own deaths rather than submit to their fate.

It was such a waste, too. There was always another way. Always a way out. Suicide was never an option. Sometimes it took longer to see what you had to do, but sooner or later, the way ahead always presented itself. Time and again he had staked his life on that belief, and he had not been proven wrong yet.

So was he going to kill himself? Hell no. But was he going to meekly submit to being someone else's slave? That too was a hell no.

No, he was getting out of here. The only questions were when and how.

"Can't you just…magic us…back home?" he asked. His chest ached dully and he was starting to feel almost light-headed in spite of the fact that his body seemed to weigh more than it usually did. He spread one hand over the arc reactor and pushed on it, grateful that his thick winter clothing hid the glow from view. The pressure from his hand did absolutely nothing to ease the constriction in his chest, but it managed to make him feel a tiny bit better anyway. He knew that sensation of relief existed only in his mind, but he didn't care; he welcomed it all the same.

"I am no sage," replied the astronomer.

Tony bit his lip to keep from making a snappy retort and clutched at the arc reactor as though he could somehow (magically, ha ha) pull it from his chest and ease his breathing. It figured that he would get kidnapped by slavers alongside one of the people on the planet who couldn't do magic.

"Were we the only ones hit?" he asked. "Did they attack the Citadel, too?"

"The Kree do not attack us there," replied the astronomer. "Only smaller towns. It is easier for them."

Not the Citadel. Which meant that Steve and Thor were still safe. And if there was one good thing to come out of this whole miserable mess, that was it.

He thought back to the SHIELD database entry on the Kree. "Where are they taking us? Hala?" The Kree homeworld had a higher gravity than Earth did, along with a greater concentration of nitrogen in its atmosphere. Both of which were very bad for someone who possessed an already-damaged heart and a host of respiratory issues. They probably also went a long way toward explaining why he felt so light-headed and out of breath. The Kree ships would have an atmosphere identical to their planet, of course. To hell with anyone who couldn't cope. After all, there were hundreds of worlds out there, and plenty more slaves where they came from.

"Yes, if we are intended for their own use," said the Ernorran astronomer. "If not, we will be sold. And that could happen anywhere."

Sold. Jesus Christ. Tony did his best not to think about that. Even if that awful fate lay in store for him, there was nothing he could do about it now except keep his eyes and ears open, and wait for his chance.

Well, that, and hope and pray that this ship was bound for Hala. Anything that would make it easier for Steve and Thor to track him and find him.

Because they would, of course. They were probably already out there, kicking ass and taking names, hot on his trail. And while he wasn't too fond of the idea of being their damsel in distress needing to be rescued, he certainly wasn't going to say no to it. Escaping on his own was all well and good, but whatever got him out of here the quickest was the far better choice. He sure as hell wasn't in any position to be picky.

"So, ah." He glanced around, trying to calculate how many different species were in this room. "Does this happen to you a lot?"

His new friend looked at him sadly. "It happens all over the galaxy. The Kree constantly expand their empire. It is only a matter of time before they find your world."

"Yeah?" Tony said. He looked at the two guards, at their impassive blue faces, their cold eyes. "Well, let them come. I think they'll find that Earth is no pushover. We'll be ready for them."

The astronomer shook his head. Tears glimmered in his dark eyes. "The other Avengers might fight. But you will not be among them. You will never see your world again, Anthony Stark. Nor I, mine. We are lost. We must accept that now."

Tony lowered his hand back to his lap – but he did not remove his gaze from the Kree guards. "You only just met me, so I'm going to let that one slide. But you should know, I don't ever 'just accept' anything."

"Then, my friend," said the astronomer, "I am sorry for you."

****

"The Kree took him. He is gone."

"Gone where?" Thor asked. He looked up, maybe trying to spot the ship that they had seen when they first arrived. If so, it was a futile gesture; the ship was long gone by now.

"To be a slave," the woman said.

Steve just stared at her. The words echoed in his brain, devoid of any meaning. He could not connect them to Tony, could not make himself accept the truth.

It was impossible. It couldn't be true. They had just been through hell. They had earned their happily ever after. That was supposed to be it. The end. No more suffering. No more nightmares.

"No," he said faintly. "We have to…" He didn't know what they had to do. He didn't even know what they could do. The ship was gone. Tony was gone.

But he had to act. And he had to do it fast. With every passing moment, Tony slipped further and further away from him. Every second counted now. Standing around in panicked indecision was not going to get Tony back.

"All right," he said. "We need to start interviewing survivors. Find out if anyone saw any distinct markings or symbols on that ship, so we can track it. Also, if anyone heard the Kree mention their destination."

"Likely they are going to Hala," Thor said. He too was pale and shaken, but recovering quickly.

"Likely?" Steve demanded. "Or certain?"

"I could not say," Thor said.

"Well, we need to be certain," Steve said. Already he felt a tiny bit better, just knowing that he was taking steps to find Tony. Even if those steps were infinitesimal ones, at least he was finally acting and doing something instead of just standing there.

Shouts rose, and people turned to point. Steve looked up and saw an official ship from the Citadel arriving. The sight of it did nothing to ease his mind.

As it turned out, he had every reason to be anxious. The soldiers took charge immediately, gathering all the survivors together and setting up stations for tending to the wounded. A unit of armed men went into the ruins of the observatory to ensure that there would be no looting. Steve approved of all these measures, but he was not needed for any of them, which only added to his frustration. So he was more than a little angry when he asked if he could interview the survivors, only to be told brusquely that the priorities were taking care of those left behind and getting the observatory and its satellite network rebuilt as swiftly as possible.

"And the ones who were taken?" he asked tightly. "Do you have any plans for them?"

The officer who had been tasked with answering his insistent questions did not look pleased. "They are lost, Captain. You must accept that."

Steve shook his head. It was bitterly cold up here in the mountains, and he had folded his arms across his chest to keep warm. The posture helped him keep his emotions in check, too, as though he could physically restrain them this way and remain calm. "I would never accept that if this happened on my world."

"And if it had happened on your world a dozen, two dozen times?" the officer asked. Anger sparked in her eyes. "There is nothing we can do, so we move on. We focus on rebuilding, and the future."

Horrified, Steve stared at her. These people had been attacked by slavers two dozen times? Why had nobody ever told him?

And like a distant memory, he heard the Matriarch's voice in his mind.

Magic, you call it. Do you think this makes us safe? It does not! It makes us a target. That is the whole reason you and your Avengers were here in the first place. To defend us from Thanos. For our power, Captain, my people are enslaved and hunted down. My world is attacked continually. We are not safe. We are nothing but an object of conquest.

She had told him. But he had chosen to ignore it, thinking that she exaggerated in order to make her point. He had heard her words, but he had not listened. It was no wonder the Matriarch had chosen to strike him deaf with her spell the first time they had been here.

Four months later and nothing had changed. He still didn't listen.

And now Tony was gone, paying the price for his sins.

"I don't get it," he said. "You can defend your world from Thanos and his armies, but not from a group of slavers?"

The officer's gaze hardened. "You would not understand," she said. "And I do not have the time to waste on you. Return to the Citadel immediately if you would make yourself useful."

There was no way in hell that was happening, and Steve was about to tell her as much, when Thor put a hand on his shoulder. "Steven."

He whirled around; in his urgency to find Tony, he had practically forgotten about Thor. "What?"

"Let us return," Thor said. "There is nothing we can learn here."

"You're wrong," Steve insisted. "Someone might have seen something—"

"There is nothing we can learn here that we cannot learn at the Citadel," Thor said. "All that matters is the ship and its destination. Its position would have been charted at the watchtower in the Citadel. That is where we must go."

It made sense, but Steve was still deeply reluctant to leave. These people were the last ones to see Tony. He couldn't leave without finding out what had happened to him. He needed to know if Tony had tried to fight back, or if he had been hurt. Or maybe Tony had left him a message somehow, something at the observatory that only he would recognize as having any meaning.

"I can't," he said. "Not yet. I have to know…"

Thor frowned. "My friend."

"You go," Steve said. "I'm staying here." He looked around at the fallen ruins of the observatory, at the people still wandering around in varying stages of shock. "I need to know."

Thor looked like he wanted to protest, so Steve added, "Besides, you can go there and come back again quicker without me, and we both know it." He surveyed the destruction and said quietly, "And I can help here."

"Aye," Thor said with a soft sigh. He firmed up his grip on Mjolnir. "I will return as soon as I can," he promised.

Steve nodded. Together they could hopefully come up with enough information to give them a good place to start in their search for Tony.

Because if not, then he didn't have the faintest idea how they would ever find him.

****

Within moments of returning to consciousness, Tony made two very unpleasant discoveries. The first was that he was naked. The second was that he was currently being held by two very strong sets of hands.

He shouted out loud, but only once. Anything else was just a waste of breath. As the bright tang of fear flooded his mouth, he dug in one heel, kicked out with the other, and fought with every dirty trick Steve and Natasha had ever taught him.

He might as well not even have bothered. There was maybe a single instant when he almost got one arm free, but then his captor on that side redoubled his grip and that was it, he was caught again, going nowhere.

The Kree had gassed them. He remembered that now. The ones sitting nearest the walls – and the vents – had keeled over first, and panic had spread among the rest of the assembly. A few of the men had turned around in vain, looking for somewhere to hide. Tony had refused to demean himself by wasting his energy on pointless attempts to escape. Instead he had just glared daggers at the two guards standing beside the door, both of them utterly unaffected by the gas and the fear they were witnessing.

He wondered how long he had been unconscious. He still had a headache and his heart and lungs were still laboring away, so he assumed they hadn't left the ship yet, but that meant almost nothing. It didn't really matter where they were. The ugly truth was that he was in a very bad spot.

The room he found himself in now was cold and small; counting himself, there were four people in here, making it feel close and confining. Or possibly that was because two tall Kree soldiers were currently holding his arms and dragging him toward a third one.

The soldiers on either side of him looked virtually identical, but the one in front was set apart by his greater size, his dour demeanor, and the color of his armor. His helmet looked more like a cowl, and his armor was a deep shade of green, as opposed to the dingy white the other two wore. More ominous, he held a slim metal circle in his hands. It looked like it was made out of gold, and there was a flat disc set in one curving arc. Tony had no clue what it was, but he suspected he was about to find out.

His captors forced him down to his knees. In spite of himself he struggled then, throwing his weight from one side to the other, trying in vain to break their hold on him. The third Kree, the one with the cowl helmet, spoke then. His voice was deep, and his words were unintelligible.

"Just so you know," Tony said. He had no idea if they could understand him, but he figured it was worth a shot. Also worth a shot? Threats. "I'm really good friends with Thor, the Prince of Asgard. If anything happens to me, he's going to be really pissed off. And trust me, you do not want the god of thunder pissed off at you."

The big Kree spoke again. His expression was as impassive as all the others, but his displeasure was nonetheless apparent. Tony didn't know if that was because Mr. Helmet here didn't like being threatened, or because the threat was about Thor and Asgard – and frankly he didn't care. Whatever the reason, it seemed to be working.

"So how about you just let me go, and we'll forget this whole thing ever happened, okay? I don't hold grudges, and you clearly have enough going on here to keep you busy for a while, so—urk!"

One of the soldiers put a hand on the back of his head and shoved it down, exposing the back of his neck. Before he could do much more than gasp in pained surprise, the Kree in the cowl slipped the metal band about his neck and closed it with a sharp snapping noise.

The collar was a snug fit. It wasn't so tight that it choked him, but there was no escaping its presence; the metal pressed up against his throat, the disc lying flat on the back of his neck. Tony uttered a furious, wordless howl of protest and tried once more to pull free from his captors.

The big Kree said something, his deep voice rumbling. Tony struggled futilely against the soldiers' grip, swearing loudly in a mixture of anger and fear. Right up until the second the collar closed about his neck, he had been able to pretend that this wasn't really happening, that something would intervene at the last second and spare him from this degrading, horrible fate.

But this was all real. It was really happening, and unless he did something quickly, it was going to be too late.

Sharp pain stabbed the back of his neck. It was so shocking and unexpected that he cried out with it, unable to help himself. The pain was like fire, traveling down his spine and sinking claws into his head. His imagination conjured up a picture of his skeleton, his skull and spine glowing red-hot along with the disc on the collar. The mental image was so horrifying that he surged forward, trying desperately to escape it – and very nearly managed to get to his feet, pulling his captors with him.

The Kree soldiers shoved him back down to his knees. The pain ebbed, then went away altogether, except for tiny pinpricks in the back of his neck, right where the disc lay. It was attached to him now, he realized sickly. Whatever it did – and he was probably going to find out, real soon – it wasn't coming off or going away any time soon.

The two soldiers let go of him and stepped aside. Immediately Tony climbed to his feet. He absolutely refused to stay on his knees. They could call him a slave if they wanted, but he would be damned if he behaved like one.

"What species are you?" asked the Kree in the cowl.

Tony blinked in shock. He could understand them now. Maybe that was the function of the disc on the back of his neck. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't a bad thing.

Still, he wasn't about to tell them anything. Not when they had attacked a peaceful planet, killed anyone who tried to stop them, and kidnapped him with the intention of making him a slave. So he just looked at the big blue guy and said nothing.

"Answer the accuser, or be punished," said one of the soldiers.

At once a wave of pain washed over him. It didn't hurt much, but he still gasped aloud with the shock of it. The pain wasn't very sharp, more like the low throbbing of a headache – one that was spread out over his entire body. Just the sheer fact of it, though, was terrifying. They could hurt him anytime they wanted, and he was pretty damn sure that there were multiple levels of that pain, all of them just waiting to be discovered.

And yep, he was a fucking idiot for thinking there could be anything good about having a collar around his neck.

"You know, maybe you didn't understand me before," he began, "but I'm good friends with Thor of Asgard and—"

"You belong to the Kree Empire now," interrupted the tall accuser. And what a wonderfully laughable title that was. "You will be taken to Hala, where you will serve the soldiers of the empire in any capacity we deem suitable."

"Sorry," Tony snapped. "No can do."

This time the pain was much worse. He seemed to glimpse a flash of white light, then it suddenly felt like his whole body was set on fire. He couldn't stop himself from crying out, his back arching, hands flying up and scrabbling uselessly at thin air.

Thankfully it did not last more than a few seconds. He slumped when the pain subsided, breathing harshly, his knees weak. His heart raced, laboring more than ever to keep beating, making his chest hurt all over again.

"You will remain silent. You will not speak," said the Kree accuser. "You will answer my questions now, and any put directly to you during your time of training, but beyond that, you will not speak. You will remain silent."

This was so horrifying that Tony couldn't even bear to think about it all and what it meant. There was only one way he could respond, though, and so he braced himself for the pain and said, "Then we're gonna have a problem."

This time the agony sent him to his knees. He managed not to cry out, but he couldn't stop himself from reaching up and wrapping his fingers about the collar, trying to ease the strangling tightness, to pull it away…

As soon as he touched it, another shock of pain coursed through him. He did cry aloud that time, yanking his hand away like the collar had burned him.

"You will not touch the collar," said the accuser. "At any time."

Reality was closing in around him, stark and terrifying, penning him in like the bars of a cage. And still Tony denied it. It was 2013. This was the civilized world. This kind of thing just didn't happen. It didn't. And it especially didn't happen to Tony Stark.

He climbed to his feet and glared at the Kree, absolutely refusing to let them see how frightened he was. "I'm not your slave."

Again the disc fired, white light he could just glimpse out of the corner of his eye, making him crash to his hands and knees. In the higher gravity, he fell much faster than he was used to, the floor rushing up incredibly fast, the impact jolting painfully through his joints.

"You will not look a Kree in the eye. The Kree are superior in every way. You are fit only to serve."

He said nothing to that. He couldn't really speak, anyway, because he was too busy trying to get his breath back. Far worse, a terrible, gibbering panic was settling into the back of his brain, wanting to rise up and overwhelm him. Because this was real, this was fucking real, this was happening to him right fucking now, and if he didn't get his shit together, he really was going to end up on his knees as somebody's slave.

"Rise," commanded the accuser.

Two years ago he had nearly died in a dark cave in Afghanistan. He had almost lost his mind then, gone completely around with the bend with the horror of waking up to find a huge hole in his chest and a device embedded there that was tethered to a car battery. But he had forced himself to stay focused, to keep moving forward, to fucking soldier on, as a certain someone would say. And it had worked. He had stayed sane, and he had survived.

So now he thought about Steve, latching almost desperately onto those memories in an effort at keeping his mind off the true horror of his situation. Steve, who had told him once that he had always risen to his feet after being beaten down by bullies. I could do this all day.

He would do the same. No matter how excruciating it was to talk, to argue, to defy them, he would do it. He was no one's slave. He would not give in.

"No thanks, I'm good down here," he gritted out.

Knowing it was coming did not make it any easier to endure, did nothing to lessen the pain. It burned through him like fire. He slammed his fist on the floor in an effort to remain silent, and wondered if maybe he should be pounding his head there, instead. If he even could.

That was a horrible thought. That golden disc on the back of his collar was connected to his central nervous system. What if it wouldn't even let him pass out?

"You will obey," said the Kree. "You are a slave. You will obey any command given to you. Or you will be punished. Now rise."

He wouldn't. He wouldn't. The pain was so bad this time that he keened with it, his entire skull hurting from how tightly he clenched his jaws trying not to scream. He let it carry him down, too, to lie prostrate on the floor. Down, not up. Normally, he would have stood, and done so with pride. Shown them that he wasn't beaten. But to stand up now would be to obey the Kree's command, and that was the one thing he absolutely could not, would not, do.

In the end the two soldiers had to pick him up and set him on his feet. Then, and only then, did the pain stop.

"Disobedience is punished," said the accuser. His impassive expression had not once changed. There was no flicker of emotion in his eyes, not one ounce of compassion. "Obedience is rewarded with a cessation of punishment. Now, what species are you?"

Tony said nothing. He slumped in the soldiers' grip, unmoving. Except for the ache in his chest, he didn't hurt anymore – there was no lingering aftershock or the bone-deep pain he associated with electricity. But he was not going to make this easy for them. If they wanted to make him into a slave, they were going to have to work at it.

The Kree accuser studied him for a long moment. Tony stared back and the disc came to life, not a fiery jolt, but that low-grade throbbing that pulsed all throughout his body.

"Do all members of your species have this device?" A gloved finger pointed to the arc reactor.

Tony went very still. Reflexively he looked down at the reactor. The moment he dropped his gaze, the pain stopped. "No," he said.

He had tensed up in anticipation of the pain, but there was none. The single word was allowed, apparently; the disc did not fire again. And of course it didn't, he thought sickly. He was answering a question. He was obeying.

"What is it?" asked the accuser.

No matter what he did, this was going to end badly. Either he told them the truth now, or they took it from him by force – along with the arc reactor itself.

"I need it," Tony said sullenly. "To live." He hated having to explain himself, call attention to the arc reactor and admit to his greatest vulnerability. But the way he saw it, he didn't have a choice. If he didn't tell them now, they would rip it right out of his chest, and then he would have about one minute before he went into cardiac arrest and it was game over.

The accuser's eyes narrowed slightly, the first sign of emotion he had displayed so far. "It cannot be removed?"

"No," Tony said. And he looked directly at the guy.

Immediately the pain was there, reminding him that this behavior was not allowed. He didn't give a shit. Once, long ago in a cave, he had learned to lower his eyes when his captors walked in – and he had hated himself for it, every single time. He had vowed that he would never again display such abject submission to anyone, no matter who they were.

He would be damned if he broke that promise now. So he sank his teeth into his lip and rode out the pain, forcing himself not to look away.

"What species are you?" asked the Kree.

"You're so superior," Tony snapped. "You figure it out."

And then he was on the floor, screaming. He wouldn't have thought it possible, but the pain somehow grew even worse then. The tiny part of his brain that was still capable of logical thought recognized that the collar was punishing him for making so much noise, but he couldn't stop. It hurt too much.

Eventually the Kree accuser took the pain away. Not through any act of mercy, Tony knew, but because he couldn't make himself heard over all that screaming.

"You will learn to obey," said the accuser.

He lay still for a moment, gathering his strength, relearning how to breathe. He knew he shouldn't answer, but he couldn't help it. Every fiber of his being cried out against surrendering. Maybe his defeat was inevitable, but he was sure as hell going to go down fighting.

"I hate to break it to you," he said. He couldn't help groaning at the pain that swept through his entire body, but he didn't stop talking, either. "But my own dad couldn't teach me that lesson. I don't think you're going to do any better."

"You will learn," the Kree said again, calm and impassive, and it struck Tony suddenly that the guy wasn't saying it as a warning, or even as a threat. To him, it was merely a statement of fact. Something so inherently true that there was absolutely no disbelieving it.

Cold chills shivered through him that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. "And if I don't?"

"You will learn," the accuser repeated. For a moment he looked at Tony consideringly, actually seeing him for the first time since this whole farce had begun. His eyes narrowed a little, then he said, "Only the most well-trained slaves are worthy to serve the Kree. The rest are sold."

Sold. God. Tony couldn't suppress another shudder at the thought. Sold to whom? Where would he end up then?

How would Steve find him if he ended up halfway across the galaxy?

He couldn't stand to even think about that. And with dawning dismay, he realized that there was only one thing he could do now. He was still planning to make his own escape – although unfortunately that was starting to look rather unlikely – but if he couldn't manage it, he would have to wait for Steve to find him.

And that meant he had to play their little game.

Well, he could do that. It would suck, but it wasn't like it was anything new. He'd been doing it all his life, fitting himself into roles already scripted for him – dutiful son, responsible businessman, reckless playboy. He could do this, too.

He had to do this.

Carefully keeping his eyes lowered, he said, "You got a name?"

"Not for the likes of you," said the Kree. And he lashed out with one open hand and struck Tony square across the face.

The blow dropped him to the floor, again far more rapidly than he was accustomed to. He cried out at the unexpected shock and pain – and the collar answered in kind, jolting him with further pain.

"You must endure in silence," said the Kree. "The pain will stop when you do."

It took everything he had to muffle his cries; he jammed his wrist into his mouth and bit down hard. For his pains – literally – he was rewarded with the collar going quiescent again, and the pain disappearing.

The accuser nodded. "You learn."

Tony climbed slowly to his feet. He bit his lip to hold back the nasty retort he longed to make, and kept his eyes lowered. Pride was all well and good, but it wasn't going to bring him anything except pain and possibly a date on the auction block. So it was time to ditch it.

He could do this. He could fake it. He had done it in the cave, after all, and fooled them all (except for Yinsen, but then, Yinsen had always been able to see right through him). He would feign submission, and he would bide his time, and he would wait for his chance. It would come. He knew it would. It always did. And even if it didn't, well, Steve and Thor were out there, and they would find him soon enough.

So. Yeah. He could do this.

Besides, it wasn't like he had a choice.

Chapter Text

It was two hours before Steve saw the lightning that heralded Thor's arrival, and by then he had managed to put together the story of what had happened out here.

It was not a pretty one.

For years the Kree had terrorized this world, attacking and enslaving the people. Never enough to prompt an all-out response, and rarely striking the same place more than once. They did not kill, except when necessary, and then they ruthlessly crushed any attempt the people made at fighting back. Usually they only took men, but occasionally they stole women as well, although never any children. They operated with the spare efficiency of soldiers who had been working together for a long time, and they came and went so quickly that it was all but impossible for the Ernorrans to mount any kind of defense against them.

The Kree had never struck at the observatory before, and although the people here had a plan in case of an attack, they had nonetheless been caught completely off guard. The women who had survived the attack all described it the same way. The Kree ship had been cloaked and shielded; by the time the Ernorran satellites detected its presence – at the instant when Steve witnessed that green dot turning red on the map at the Citadel – it was already too late to do anything about it.

"There is a bunker beneath the observatory," said one of the survivors. She was pale with shock, a blanket draped over her shoulders. She was bruised and battered, and there was a long gash across her forehead, but she would be all right. According to her, two of the Kree had run right past her, but they had never even glanced her way.

"We all knew what to do in case of an attack. Everyone headed for the bunker, but few of us made it." She looked at Steve. "I saw the astronomers running. They were coming down from the upper levels. The other human, the one called Anthony Stark, was among them."

Steve nodded. Despite the cold chill in the air, he had refused all offers of a coat. The cold had settled deep in his bones the moment he arrived here to find Tony missing. Nothing would warm him up again but to find Tony and bring him safely home.

He had no idea yet how he was going to accomplish this, though. He was still trying to piece things together, to learn what he could about the Kree and their style of fighting. He had read about them back on Earth, but those were just words on a computer screen. This destruction, this loss of life, these innocent people abducted and enslaved, this was all horribly real.

One of the soldiers had told him that today's attack was nearly identical to others over the years. Having been prepared for this event, the Ernorrans had known what to do, but all their drills and plans had availed them nothing. Even so, by all accounts, the people here had done everything they could to keep Tony safe, trying to take him to the shelter with them. And Tony, for once, had not argued or dragged his heels, but gone without complaint.

"The observatory was under fire from the ship. They wanted to drive us out into the open, to make it easier to take us. I fell, and I saw the Kree enter." The woman shuddered. "Two of them ran right past me as I lay there. I watched them aim their weapons at my people, and your friend. Then part of the ceiling collapsed, and your friend fell down, along with some of the astronomers."

When the ceiling had collapsed, nearly a dozen men had been caught beneath it. Most of them had died. Even now their bodies lay under the rubble. Only a couple had lived, and those survivors had been taken by the Kree – including Tony.

That was bad enough, but worse was the matter-of-fact manner in which more than one survivor had told Steve that the men who had died were the lucky ones.

The woman's eyes filled with tears. "I thought they might take me, too. So I put my head down and closed my eyes. I pretended to be dead. Some of the debris bounced and struck me, but I didn't move. I was too afraid. When I dared to look up, they were carrying Anthony Stark and two of the astronomers away. They were unconscious, and one of them was hurt and bleeding."

"But not Tony," Steve said.

She shook her head. "No. He did not appear injured."

This was another detail everyone agreed on, thank God. It was bad enough that he had lost Tony, but to think of him captured and enslaved while also hurt and wounded was too much to bear.

"Will you be all right?" he asked her.

She looked at him tearfully. "No."

He wished it was within his power to help her. In between gathering stories about the attack, he had been assisting with the recovery efforts, lending his strength to the teams who were removing the debris, trying to clear the area and reach the fallen. There was still a slim hope that there might be survivors beneath the rubble, badly injured and possibly dying, but still alive. Steve hoped that was the case; these people needed all the hope they could get.

Lightning lit up the sky to the southeast, and Steve stood up straight. "Thank you for talking to me," he murmured.

He walked out to meet Thor. His friend alit in the center of the destruction, his red cloak rippling in the wintry wind. He looked very solemn. "Steven."

"What did you find out?" Steve asked.

"The Kree ship was shielded," Thor said. "The shields failed when it descended low enough for the soldiers to disembark, but it was too late. There was not enough time for the people to respond."

Steve nodded. "That's what they told me, too."

"This is the closest they have ever come to the Citadel," Thor said. "Normally their depredations are on the other side of the planet, where the people must rely on local defenses that are often slow and ill-timed. There is no pattern to the attacks, with regard to either timing or location. The ships they use are ordinary Kree warships, with no markings or symbols to set them apart from any other warship."

Steve stared blindly at the fallen observatory. Another two feet to the left, and Tony would be lying in there now, crushed once more beneath falling debris. Only this time he would be dead. "They tried to save him. People saw him. He was with the astronomers when they ran for shelter." He shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold.

Thor laid a hand on his shoulder.

He felt like a soldier giving a report to his commanding officer. He forced the same emotionless tone into his voice that he would use in that situation. "The ceiling collapsed when the upper levels were destroyed. Most of the group was caught beneath the rubble. Only Tony and two others made it out."

Thor's grip tightened a little. "Was he injured?"

"No," Steve said, and it was impossible to hold onto that lack of emotion then. He couldn't help slumping a little with relief. "But they took him. Him and the other two men that survived." He watched the crew of Ernorran soldiers as they shifted some more of the debris to one side, trying to uncover the bodies buried beneath. "The Kree took him, and no one knows where."

"How many were taken altogether?" Thor asked.

"Six or seven," Steve said. "There are conflicting reports on that. One of the astronomers was badly hurt in the collapse, and no one is sure if he was taken on board with the others. The rest were civilians from the town."

Thor removed his hand from Steve's shoulder. "All were men?"

Steve looked at him, not sure that he liked the way Thor asked the question. "Yes," he said. "Why? What does that mean? They say that's usually what happens when the Kree attack."

Thor's expression darkened. "I am not sure," he said. "I have heard many things about the Kree, although I have not been to their world myself."

"What are you thinking?" he asked. If Thor was upset about this bit of news, he was sure it did not bode well for Tony.

"I must find out more first," Thor said. "I do not wish to alarm you."

"You're alarming me now," Steve said. "Tell me."

Thor looked at him. "It will make it harder for us to find him, but it will be better for Tony if the Kree ship is bound not for their own empire, but for a world where slaves are bought and sold."

"And if it isn't?" Steve asked breathlessly.

"Pray that it is," Thor said. "Hala is a cold and hostile world, and the Kree are not known for their mercy or their compassion. They live their entire lives with only one desire: to expand their empire. Anyone who is not a Kree is considered beneath them, deserving only of conquest." He paused, seeming to choose his next words carefully.

In those few seconds, Steve knew exactly why he was concerned. There was no way that someone like Tony, who reacted badly to even the faintest hint of anyone trying to exert control over him, would fare well in such a situation. And if the Kree were anything like he suspected, they would not hesitate to kill one recalcitrant slave rather than waste their time trying to make him learn his place.

"We must be quick," Thor said at last. Steve had the distinct impression that he was not saying everything he knew, but he decided to let it go. He had had enough bad news for one day. Whatever it was, Thor would tell him when the time was right.

Until then, he had enough to worry about.

****

Questions came next.

Lots of questions.

On his knees like a proper slave, still naked and cold, Tony answered as best he could. He was fully aware that the Kree would catch him in a lie and punish him for it. That didn't stop him from taking advantage of his freedom – however limited it was – to speak.

"What is the name of your planet?"

"Earth."

"What is the name of your galaxy?"

"The Milky Way."

"There is no galaxy by this name."

"Says you."

The collar immediately sparked to life, sending a jolt of pain through his body. After an initial sharp cry, he managed to clench his jaws and endure it silently – and was rewarded with the cessation of the pain.

"What is the name of your galaxy?"

"The Milky Way."

"Answer truthfully, or be punished."

"That's what we call it!" He dared to glare at the accuser, in spite of the low-grade pain that washed over him when he did. "It's not my fault you guys call it by a different name. You can't expect me to know what you call it."

For his impertinence, he was shocked again, worse this time. Tony slumped forward, folding over his knees and pressing his forehead to the floor. It hurt, Christ, it hurt. But once again, his silence was rewarded, and the pain let up.

"Point out your galaxy on this map." He picked up his head and saw a star chart hanging in the air in front of him. Nothing on it looked familiar.

He shook his head. "I don't…"

"Answer or be punished."

Already he feared the pain so much that the fear of it was starting to rule his thoughts – much to his disgust. He wanted so badly to play it cool, not just blurt it out the way he did. "I don't recognize any of this!"

The image shifted. "Point out your galaxy on this map."

Once again nothing looked familiar. He had always enjoyed star-gazing, but looking at constellations from the safety of Earth was far different from staring at a meaningless cluster of stars. All spiral galaxies looked the same. How the hell was he supposed to know which one was the Milky Way?

"I don't know what it looks like," he said. "Happy now?"

"Answer or be punished," the accuser said in the same even tone that he always used. Nothing Tony said or did phased him one bit. If it weren't for the fact that he was pretty certain the Kree did not use robots, he would have wondered if the accuser was even a flesh-and-blood man at all.

"I don't know," he said.

"Do not think to save your world," said the accuser. "Should the Kree decide it belongs in our great empire, nothing will stop us. Now point out your galaxy on the map."

Tony could have laughed. The accuser thought he was being noble, but in reality saving the Earth had been the furthest thing from his mind. Some hero he was. "I don't know."

He knew what was coming; even while he was speaking he squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. But knowing it and feeling it were two very different things.

The pain this time was so bad he nearly screamed. Instantly it grew even worse, as the collar punished him for daring to give voice to his anguish. He crumpled to the floor and curled up, writhing weakly. He knew he needed to endure in silence, but some things were just unbearable.

But since he was going to break down screaming anyway, he figured he might as well make it count. "I don't know!" he yelled. "I don't know! We don't do space travel, I don't know!" After that forming words became impossible. He could only lie there and scream with the pain, white light glowing so bright on the disc of his collar that he could see it even with his eyes closed.

It stopped eventually, the light going out, the pain vanishing. As before, there were no lingering after-effects, no slowly dwindling hurt. One moment his entire body was on fire, and the next, it wasn't.

Not that this mattered much to his galloping heart, which was already laboring under the increased gravity and nitrogen content of the atmosphere on this ship. Even the thought of sitting up again seemed like far too much exertion. And since it was only a matter of time before he found himself back again in this same spot, Tony decided to stay right where he was, huddled on the floor.

"You were found on Planet 64259, designation: Ernor. Explain this, if your species does not have space travel."

Tony opened his eyes. He had an excellent view of the accuser's boots from this position. They were very clean, as though their owner rarely ventured outside and got dirt on them. "I told you," he said dully. "I know Thor."

"Who is Thor?"

"Prince of Asgard. We traveled on the Bifrost." He glared daggers at the nameless accuser. The collar reacted, sending a wave of pain through him – but like all minor punishments, this was easily tolerated. "Actually, it was his buddy Heimdall who sent us to Ernor, if you want to get technical about it."

Abruptly the pain spiked. Tony gasped and sank his teeth into his lower lip, shaking all over with the effort of remaining silent. And the pain went away.

Black hatred welled up within him. He was Tony fucking Stark. He was Iron Man. He was nobody's slave. Yet here he was, naked but for a collar around his neck, already learning the rules of obedience and submission. And though he learned those things purely for the sake of survival, so that he would one day find – hell, create it, if he had to – the opportunity to escape, that didn't make it any easier to bear.

The accuser was silent for a while, no doubt considering his explanation. Tony lay still, occasionally flicking his gaze upward, checking out the situation. He told himself he was testing the collar, seeing what he could get away with, how long of a glance was too long, how quick he had to be before the collar activated and punished him for daring to look a Kree in the eye.

He had pretty much figured it out when the accuser spoke again. "What was your role on Earth?"

What the hell did that mean? His heart raced in sudden terror. If he asked for clarification, he would be hurt. If he answered wrongly, he would be accused of lying and be hurt. If he didn't answer at all, he would be hurt. There was no way he could win here, no way to avoid further pain.

It was hideously, horribly unfair. And in a rush of relief, anger came to his rescue, giving him the courage to kneel upright again, his head held high – although he refrained from actually looking at the Kree. "If you're asking what my job was, I was an engineer. An inventor. A scientist. A businessman." And to hell with it. He looked the guy square in the eye. "I was a fucking hero, you son of a bitch."

Worth it, he thought, as he fell over screaming. Totally worth it.

****

The Matriarch was not unsympathetic to their plight. "Of course you may borrow one of our ships," she said. "You shall have a crew, as well."

"We thank you," Thor said. He bowed a little.

"Anything else you require shall be yours as well," the Matriarch said. Her usual aloof demeanor was showing signs of strain tonight, although Steve was not fooled as to the reasons why. He knew she didn't care about Tony. What she really worried about was whether Thor would close the bridge to this world yet again, in retribution for losing Tony.

Steve didn't care one bit about her motivations. Shortly after leaving the observatory, he had sunk into a state of numb shock. Without anything to occupy his hands and his thoughts, he found himself worrying exclusively about Tony and what he was going through right now, wherever he was.

It had only been six hours or so, and the odds were high that the Kree hadn't even reached their destination yet. Nonetheless, his imagination insisted on conjuring up terrible images of Tony in chains, in pain, frightened and alone. He pictured Tony stubbornly defying his captors, only to be brutally beaten in retaliation and afterward lie there in a heap on the floor, bleeding and cursing Steve for bringing him to a place where things like this could happen to him.

If he had known something like this was possible, would he still have done it? Or would he have taken his chances with Earth's medical science, and pinned all his hopes on someone finding the cure for Tony's paralysis?

He would never know.

"We could use some guidance in where to look," Thor said. "I do not know the Kree as well as your people surely must."

The flattery was barely enough to restrain the spark of anger that lit the Matriarch's eyes. "Yes, we know the Kree," she said curtly. "But none of my people have ever returned from their bondage. I could not tell you where they were taken."

"I apol—" Thor began.

She continued speaking as though he had not said anything. "But I would suggest you begin on Kree-Lar, which is the capital of their empire. Their soldiers are trained there. My people are most likely sold there, as well." Her nostrils flared in fury.

Thor nodded. "Thank you," he said. He bowed to her. After an awkward pause, Steve inclined his head in a bad imitation of Thor's formal gesture.

They departed the throne room together. Steve didn't know where they were going, and he didn't care. He let Thor guide him through the Citadel with one hand resting on his shoulder; he went through doors and stepped into lifts without protest. It made no difference to him where they ended up. Wherever their destination, Tony would not be there, and that was all that mattered.

They stopped walking and Thor said, "Now then, Steven," and he blinked and looked around and saw that he was in the room that had been assigned to him as a favored guest of the Matriarch. Just this morning he had lain in that bed and teased Tony about not being important to him. He had kissed Tony good-bye and his last words had been so bland that even though he tried his best, he couldn't remember what he had actually said.

He did remember, though, the way Tony had smiled at him and given him that little salute, just before he had turned around and walked through the door and disappeared, not just from sight, but from Steve's life completely.

He looked around the room. Even on an alien planet where they had brought nothing of their own, there were signs that Tony Stark had lived here. Clothing tossed haphazardly on the chair. Mechanical drawings of various pieces of alien tech, done not with computers, but freehand, based on memory. A knobby twig with a few sparse needles clinging to it, a relic of the Forest that Steve hadn't even seen him take, but which lay now on the long dresser where their borrowed clothing was stored.

That piece of the Forest was irresistible. He walked across the room toward it, his eyes never leaving it. He heard Thor call his name, but ignored him.

He picked up the twig; it could not be more than six inches long. He wondered when Tony had picked it up and pocketed it, what his reasoning had been. Maybe it was meant to be a tangible reminder of their victory over the Forest. Or maybe Tony just wanted to take it home and study it, see if he could distill science from whatever magic might lie hidden within the wood.

"I found him on this world," Steve said quietly. The twig blurred in front of him as his eyes filled with tears. "And now I lost him here. And it's all my fault."

Slowly he bowed his head. He closed his eyes and let the tears come. He told himself that he was allowed this indulgence just this once, and then never again. He did not deserve it.

"I never should have brought him here," he wept.

"You did not know," Thor said. "You cannot blame yourself."

Steve shook his head. "I should have been there. I could've… I could've saved him."

"If you had been there, you would be dead right now," Thor said quietly.

That was probably true. He would never meekly allow anyone to take him captive, and he would have fought back to defend not just Tony, but the innocent people in the observatory. For that the Kree would have killed him, judging him too dangerous to be made into a slave.

The knowledge only made him feel worse. He couldn't even lie to himself and imagine that he could have protected Tony. He had to admit that even if he had been there, the outcome still would have been the same.

"It's all my fault," he whispered.

"Nay," Thor said heavily. His broad shoulders were slumped, his eyes lowered. "If anything, the fault is mine. We would not have come to this world had I not suggested it."

It would be so easy to accept that, to say that yes, it was all Thor's fault. But Steve couldn't do it. He wiped at his eyes and blinked rapidly, forcing himself to stop crying. "No," he sighed. "It's not your fault. I was so desperate to fix him that I would have thought of bringing him here sooner or later."

"That may be," Thor said. "Or you may merely be trying to assuage my guilt. But the fact remains, we cannot fall into this trap. Standing here attempting to find fault and lay blame will not help us find Tony."

"How are we going to find him?" Steve asked. Already the question drove him. He feared it would drive him insane if he couldn't find an answer – and swiftly.

"I do not know," Thor said somberly. He looked into Steve's eyes. "But I know this. We will find him, my friend."

He nodded, accepting Thor's conviction, even if he could not believe it himself. "Where do we start?"

"That is the question we must answer," Thor said. "Before our meeting with the Matriarch I would have urged that we make all haste to Hala. That is the homeworld of the Kree, and they have many military cities there. However, her words have given me pause. She is correct when she says Kree-Lar is the capital of the Kree empire. It stands to reason that they would take new slaves there, to be dispersed throughout their empire as needed."

Steve bristled in outrage at the thought of Tony being handed out to some "needy" planet. "So we go to Kree-Lar?"

"I do not know," Thor said. He looked troubled. "This is not something I can decide."

Steve waited for him to continue, and suddenly realized that Thor was not going to say anything else. Thor had made his arguments, and now it was up to Steve, the leader of the Avengers, to decide their next move.

He lacked enough knowledge about the Kree to choose one world over another. But every minute they stood here dithering, every minute when they were not actively searching for Tony, was another minute when Tony was taken further away from them.

As revolting as it was, he tried to put himself into the mind of the Kree. If he were a slaver, if his job was to go out and attack innocent worlds and capture some of the people there, what would he do with them? Would choosing the slaves' ultimate destination even be his call to make? He thought not. Any man tasked with collecting slaves would see his duty end when he delivered them to the ones whose job it was to determine their fate.

Which meant there was really only one place they could go.

He looked at Thor. "We go to Kree-Lar," he said. "And we leave tonight."

****

When they had exhausted all their questions – about Earth, about humans, about his skillset – the same two soldiers who had been there the whole time took Tony to another room. This one was larger, more like the first room where he had woken up. There was one major difference, though. He no longer felt like his heart was struggling just to beat, and his limbs didn't feel so weighted down anymore. For whatever reason, the gravity in this room was more like that on Earth. He didn't know why this should be, but he was grateful for it, nonetheless.

His Ernorran friend was here, along with the civilians from the observatory town. There were several green-skinned beings with pointed ears and chin folds; Tony recognized them from the SHIELD database as Skrulls, eternal enemy of the Kree. Other aliens were thinner and seemed to have feathers instead of hair. Some had red skin, and some had blue. All together, there were an even dozen of them.

There were no Kree guards here. Only slaves. All naked like himself, all fitted with a collar. Tony found himself a patch of floor near the back of the room and made himself as small as possible.

Nothing happened after that. Literally. No one spoke or even moved. They were just twelve prisoners waiting for their fate to be revealed.

And that was how it went for the next several hours. Even though he was sitting fairly close to his astronomer friend, Tony did not dare to speak to the other man. He just huddled up at first, trying to hide himself as much as possible. But no one looked at him. No one paid him the slightest bit of attention. And after a while, his nakedness stopped bothering him and he let himself relax a little. No one else cared, so why should he?

Only once did something happen to break the monotony, when one of the Skrulls rose to use the toilet set in one wall. Tony turned away, his nose wrinkled in disgust. There was no privacy to be had, no way to close his ears or his nose, nothing to do but pretend that he was anywhere but here.

The Skrull finished his business and walked back to his place on the floor. Tony glanced up at him, looked around the room for the thousandth time, and glowered back down at his feet. He curled his toes a few times, thought of three different ways he could increase the power output on Natasha's weapons, then mentally rewrote a portion of JARVIS's coding. He rubbed absently at a spot on his arm where the Kree had injected him with something before depositing him in this room. He had demanded to know what it was, and received only a painful shock for a response.

He tried not to think about what Steve and Thor were doing right now.

After a time he became aware of the heavy weight of a stare aimed his way. Looking at other slaves was not forbidden, so he had no qualms about looking up.

One of the Skrulls was staring at him.

Defiantly, Tony stared back.

The Skrull's upper lip lifted. Green eyes narrowed. For one terrifying second, the alien features blurred and shifted until the face staring back at him looked almost like Steve – but even when those eyes turned blue, they retained their own innate cruelty.

Tony's breath caught, and he looked away so fast he nearly gave himself whiplash.

Of course it hadn't really changed into Steve, he told himself furiously. The Skrulls' shape-shifting abilities were surely rendered inert by their collars. And no creature from halfway across the universe could know what Steve Rogers looked like. It was nothing but a nightmare vision brought on by his own fears and the fact that he had just been thinking about Steve. And in fact when he risked another glance upward, the Skrull was merely itself again, tall and green and utterly alien.

Still, the sight had shaken him more than he cared to admit, and with a gloomy sigh Tony had to admit that maybe the Kree were on to something when they demanded that their slaves not be permitted to make eye contact.

About an hour later, something finally happened.

The door opened and three Kree soldiers entered. Two of them carried a short stack of what looked like covered trays. The third one gestured curtly to the man sitting closest, who hastily stood up and shuffled forward, his eyes lowered. When he drew near enough, he held out both hands. The Kree took one of the trays off the stack his buddy was carrying and gave it to the man, who took it with a nervous bob of his head before shuffling back to his spot.

Apparently it was feeding time.

Pride warred with the sudden twist of hunger that knotted Tony's stomach. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten; he had left the Citadel in such a hurry that there hadn't been any time for breakfast. He knew he should eat, but the very idea of going up there and humbly receiving his dinner tray from his beneficent new masters made his skin crawl. It wasn't just the thought of letting them hand him the tray. It was the knowledge that if he did this, if he let them command him with just a simple gesture and the promise of food, he would be lost forever. Taking food from them was tantamount to accepting his fate.

And he did not. He absolutely did not accept this. Not on any level. He was playing along for now because he had no choice. But the moment he went up there and took something from them voluntarily, he stopped playing and it became real.

And he couldn't do that. He just couldn't.

One by one the slaves – yes, call them what they were, those cowardly bastards – went up to claim their dinners. And then, as a tall feathered alien was taking his turn, one of the Ernorran civilians suddenly sprang to his feet and ran for it.

Tony's jaw dropped. It was beautifully executed. He was envious that he hadn't thought to try it himself, even while he silently cheered the guy on.

All three Kree soldiers were occupied; two of them holding the dinner trays, the third handing one to the man with the feathers. There wasn't a thing they could do as the Ernorran bolted past them for the door still standing open. Nor did they even bother. Not one dropped what he was holding or went for a weapon. They just let it happen.

It was that utter lack of concern that first clued Tony in. And sure enough, just as the Ernorran reached the door, the disc on the back of his collar glowed white, and he cried out in sudden agony. Tony winced in sympathy for him.

And still the Kree did nothing.

The fleeing slave passed through the door. The instant he did, the light from the disc went from white to a deep red.

The Ernorran screamed. He stumbled and fell to his knees. His hands whipped up to clutch at his head. Blood began to run from his nose and wide-set eyes.

Cold with horror, Tony just stared.

The doomed man's screams rose in pitch and volume. He fell facedown onto the floor. His entire body convulsed, lifting up in a violent seizure before slamming back down.

Two of the Kree glanced briefly over their shoulders at the dying slave. The third had eyes only for the feathered alien, who looked like he was about to throw up.

One final scream rose on the air, then it was over. The red light on the disc went out. The Ernorran lay still in the hallway, blood covering his face and spreading out on the floor around him.

The Kree in front swept his cold gaze around the room, daring anyone else to try to escape. After all, the door was still wide open. They were welcome to try.

Not one of the slaves moved. No one made a single sound.

In unison, the Kree turned around and left. They took the last of the dinner trays with them. The door slid shut behind them, mercifully blotting out the sight of the dead man.

Slowly, the feathered alien walked over to his spot on the floor. He set his tray down, but did not eat.

Tony closed his eyes and lay down, curling up tight. He didn't want to see any more.

****

Time had no meaning when the lights never went off and there was no way to differentiate night from day, but he was pretty sure that he spent three days in that room.

After the initial rush of fear and dread wore off, the hours passed for the most part in a haze of boredom. The only break in the silent tedium was when someone rose to use the bathroom, or the soldiers brought them food. When they came a second time, Tony found that pride, in fact, took a back seat to hunger. A distant back seat. Like all the others, he accepted his dinner tray with lowered eyes, not wanting to risk losing his first meal in days because of his own arrogant stupidity. Instead he waited until he was sitting back down again, the food safely at his side, before looking up and deliberately giving the soldier a death glare. It hurt, but he welcomed the pain gladly.

Twice the door opened to admit another slave to their ranks. One was a Skrull. The other was a species Tony did not know. The newcomers conformed to the rules just like everyone else. Nobody tried to escape. Nobody spoke, or made any overtures of friendship toward anyone else.

For his part, Tony tried at first to catch the eye of the Ernorran astronomer, but the other man refused to look at him. Eventually he gave up, and accepted that he was truly in this alone.

It was a sobering, terrifying thought. Even in Afghanistan he hadn't been alone. He did not do well with only the company of his own mind. It was why he had surrounded himself with robots from the moment he figured out how to build them and give them minds of their own. It was why he had spent so long giving JARVIS a personality and a sense of humor and the ability to hold his own in a debate. It was why he had turned to Tiberius, to Rhodey, to Pepper, to Steve. He needed someone else, someone to hold the darkness at bay.

And now there was no one.

The days dragged on. Tony huddled on that same spot of floor and did every mental exercise he could think of. Anything to keep his thoughts off what awaited him when the ship landed. He rubbed at the fading needle mark on his arm and tried to imagine what they had injected him with. His first guess would have been some kind of sedative to keep him subdued, but that hardly seemed necessary given the circumstances. In the end he decided it had been an inoculation against alien diseases, a prudent measure when surrounded by all kinds of new species. He supposed he would never know, though.

He ate when the Kree brought food, forcing himself to overcome his aversion to being handed the tray. He got up to use the bathroom when he couldn't hold off any longer, and stared steadfastly at the floor when others did, granting them that small modicum of privacy. He had fantasies about a hot shower and a shave, and scratched at the growing stubble on his face. He slept even when he wasn't tired, seeking refuge in sleep, not just as a way to pass the time, but as a means of escaping the horror of his situation. Asleep, he wasn't a slave. In his dreams he was still Iron Man, still Tony Stark.

And when he was awake, he tried not to wonder where Steve was, what Steve was doing, if Steve was going out of his mind with worry or if Steve was so focused on finding him that there was no room in his head for anything else. He knew Steve would blame himself for this, for taking him to a planet where slavers attacked at random intervals, for not knowing about that just-so-slightly-important fact ahead of time.

Steve was out there, he told himself ten, fifty, a hundred times. Steve was out there looking for him. Thor, too. Hell, maybe even all the Avengers. Maybe Thor had used the bridge between worlds to return to Earth in order to gather the rest of them. And any moment now, he was going to hear the extremely welcome sound of thunder shaking the ship.

It would happen. It would.

It had to.

He managed to believe that, too.

Right up until the moment they landed on Hala.

Chapter Text

One of the worst things about being on a huge spaceship was that there was no sensation of movement. By the time two Kree soldiers came into the room and ordered them to get up, they could have been docked for hours or days even. There was no way of knowing.

After days spent sitting on the same patch of floor, Tony was pathetically grateful for the chance to stand up and stretch his legs. He bowed his head just enough to appear submissive, and shot darting little glances at the soldiers whenever he could get away with it. He knew just how long he could let his gaze linger before the collar activated, and he was good at it, too. Some of the other slaves weren't so quick, and the discs on their collars sparked and glowed as they forgot themselves and looked directly at the soldiers, only to receive a painful shock for their efforts.

Tony had no sympathy for them. If they couldn't learn the timeframe, couldn't figure out how to make things work to their own advantage, then they deserved to suffer. It was every man for himself now. He couldn't afford to worry about anyone but himself.

Instead he focused on the two Kree. They were both armed and wearing full armor. Only one of them spoke, however, giving orders in an imperious tone that indicated he fully expected to be instantly obeyed. The other stood to one side, looking critically at the slaves as they formed into a single-file line, ready to leap into action if anyone tried anything.

Not that anyone would. Tony had never seen a more dispirited group of people, and that included the Avengers the day they had run out of coffee at the Tower. He took a place near the end of the line, but made sure he was not dead last. Blending in with the others, doing nothing to call attention to himself. Behaving like a good and proper slave should.

When they were all lined up, the guard said, "You will now be taken to Sector 571-B8. There you will have the privilege and honor of serving the Kree elite squadrons. Obey them, or you will be punished."

Tony wanted to laugh. Loudly. Hysterically. As though they were special somehow, all because they had had the bad luck of being captured and enslaved. Next thing he knew, the Kree would demand that their captives thank them for the honor of being their slaves.

But he didn't let any of those blasphemous thoughts show on his face. He stayed quiet and calm, his eyes lowered, and he walked through the ship where the Kree led him without looking around or displaying any overt curiosity about his surroundings. Outwardly he was the model slave – but inside he nurtured his anger and hatred, using those feelings to push his fear aside and shore up his determination to make it through this ordeal with dignity. They could do what they wanted to him and he had no choice but to accept it. He knew that now. But they did not own him, he didn't care what they said. He was still Tony Stark, still Iron Man, still a goddamn hero.

They exited the ship down a long ramp that was about three times the size of the one on the Quinjet. Tony walked slowly down the ramp, trying to dawdle as much as possible without holding up the line and getting zapped. In spite of his best efforts, the fear he was trying so desperately to hold back was growing ever stronger. He knew it was stupid, but he wished like hell that he could stay on board the ship. He couldn't escape the thought that setting foot on Hala would make it all real. Horribly, inescapably real.

His heart began to pound, laboring painfully in his chest. He recognized the symptoms of exposure to Hala's higher gravity, but he had to admit that he was also just downright terrified. No amount of angry posturing – even if it was only inside his head – could cover that up. He was naked and alone on an alien planet with a collar around his neck that was directly wired into his central nervous system. How the hell could he not be scared out of his mind?

The scene outside the ship was something straight out of science fiction. Dozens of spacecraft of varying shapes and sizes were gathered here. Kree were everywhere, white-armored soldiers, civilian maintenance crews in drab gray. A few accusers were present as well, their green armor standing out amid all that gray, white, and silver.

Low-grade pain rolled over him, reminding him sharply not to stare, to keep moving. He stumbled a little, and his breath caught on a groan that he barely managed not to utter. He had to remember to keep quiet or the collar would activate and the pain would only become worse.

The line of slaves was led across the hangar. They seemed to be aiming for another ship, a smaller craft that looked like it was meant for inter-atmospheric travel only, much like the Quinjet.

No one looked up as they walked past. Not one Kree so much as glanced their way. No one cared about thirteen alien men, naked and collared, being loaded onto a ship like cattle.

Tony felt himself shrivel up a little at that realization. All the anger he had been clinging to so tightly evaporated away, leaving nothing but fear and a sick, trembling dread in its place. He had spent his entire life being someone special, someone important, someone. Even his captivity in Afghanistan had happened because of who he was. But here, he was nobody. He wasn't even a person to the Kree. He was just a slave now, so completely beneath their notice that he didn't even merit a bored glance.

He was actually glad to step on board the shuttle. It was taking him to his final prison, and the two guards might stare and order him around, but at least they looked at him.

It was almost funny, in a way that made him want to cry. Occasionally throughout the years he had wondered – a bit wistfully sometimes – what it would be like to be anonymous. To walk down a street as just another person, not Tony Stark but an average, ordinary guy. To make his way through a crowd and not be recognized or singled out, not have people gawk and stare and whisper his name.

And now he knew.

It was horrible.

The slaves were led into a small hold that forced them to get a bit cozy in order to all fit inside. Tony found himself sandwiched between one of the Skrulls and a tall man with a square-ish head and red skin. Neither one of his new neighbors looked at him. They simply stood there, humbled and cowed, looking exactly how Tony felt.

He stood very still, and tried to focus on breathing. Between Hala's atmosphere and his own fear, his chest was really starting to hurt. He was afraid that the physical stresses of this planet would cause long-term health problems. He was scared to death of what awaited him at the end of this last journey. He was afraid of the Kree and their ruthlessness, the way they could hurt him without lifting a finger, all because they had locked a collar about his neck that knew when he was being disobedient and punished him accordingly. He was afraid of never breaking free, of never making an escape, of never looking up to find Steve and Thor standing there, having come to rescue him.

But most of all he was terrified of the role he had chosen for himself, of discovering that what was just an act now would gradually become his truth. It had happened before, with the empty one-night stands and the media's insistence that he was nothing but a charming yet vacuous playboy. How long would it take for the role of submissive slave to become his new reality?

Never, he vowed desperately. No. Never gonna happen.

Please God, no.

****

The trip across the planet lasted maybe three hours. Maybe four. It was impossible to tell for sure. Long enough that by the time they landed, his back and feet hurt badly from standing in one place for so long. His mouth was dry with thirst, and he had developed a headache to go along with the persistent ache in his chest.

But at least he hadn't fallen as low as one of slaves who had feathers instead of hair. That poor guy hadn't been able to wait any longer and had pissed himself, much to the disgust of everyone around him.

They were led off the shuttle into a bright afternoon – and Tony got his first look at Hala.

The city was nothing but buildings as far as the eye could see. There were very few green patches where grass grew, and those were rigidly enclosed in tight rectangular areas. Tall spires rose into the sky, which was a reddish-pink color. These buildings stood not on the ground itself, but on raised platforms. The "ground" in fact, appeared man-made, formed of a material that was much smoother than asphalt, and of the same golden-brown tint as the buildings themselves.

There were no signs. No vehicles. There weren't even any people. Tony had no idea if this little slice of Hala was indicative of the rest of the planet, but he felt chilled all over just to look upon it, and even smaller than he had back in the hangar. The SHIELD database entry said the planet was virtually one large city, where nothing grew that was not deliberately planted, and even the "natural" desert landscape was actually man-made and used as training arenas for the Kree soldiers.

Looking at it all now, it was easy to see how these people could be so cold and ruthless. Everything they did, down to the design of their entire planet, was in service of the military, and the expansion of their empire. It was no wonder they had such disdain for the slaves that came from people they considered to be inferior species.

Tony couldn't help shuddering. He looked up at that reddened sky, where even now in the daylight, stars were visible. Somewhere out there, Steve was looking for him. He believed that absolutely. He had to remember that, and hold onto that.

Steve was coming. He just prayed it would be soon.

****

They were led into a large, low building set in the center of those tall spires. Once inside, they were met by several more soldiers in the dingy white armor the Kree favored. Some of them had round insignia set in their chestplates of differing colors; Tony guessed that those colors probably signified various ranks within the militia, but he had no clue what those might actually be.

One of the soldiers stepped toward him. His first reaction was a nasty jolt of fear, and instinctively he did what he always did when he felt threatened – he stepped right into it and faced the fear straight on. He lifted his chin and stared at the Kree.

Immediately the collar reminded him why he should not do this. Sharp pain stabbed at him, and he flinched and cried out in surprise and dismay.

He had forgotten. This was not permitted. At once the pain intensified as he was punished for daring to make a sound. He doubled over, his fists clenched and pressed to his mouth, trying to physically hold back the pained noises his body insisted on uttering.

His silence was rewarded with the disappearance of the pain. He started to straighten up, then shied back as he realized the Kree soldier was standing directly in front of him. Before he could do more than register this fact, the soldier had snapped a leash onto his collar, and then backed away two steps.

In his outrage, Tony forgot himself yet again. He glared at the Kree holding the leash – then hissed in pain as the collar activated for the third time. The pain stopped when he looked away, but by then he was practically shaking with fear and anger and the terrible sensation of walls closing in around him, cutting off all means of escape and trapping him in this horrible situation with no way out.

The Kree soldier began to walk off down a long hall. Tony had a split second to decide his next course of action. He could either follow along meekly, or stand his ground and be dragged forward anyway by the leash – in addition to enduring another round of pain.

He followed the soldier.

It was hard to get a feel for the place with his gaze lowered, but he did his best in spite of that. None of the halls were labeled with signs of any kind; there was nothing to denote where they were within the facility, or what lay ahead. The walls and floor were all the same sleek silver, and everything was meticulously clean.

They did not see anyone at first, but as they went deeper into the heart of the base, they began to encounter other Kree. As before, none of them even glanced at Tony, or seemed to see him at all. Instead of making him feel small though, now he felt only a strange sort of relief at their lack of attention. After all, they couldn't punish him when they didn't even see him.

And then at last, he saw his first slave.

It was an unpleasant sight. The man was Ernorran, and clearly had been here a while. Like all slaves, a thin gold collar encircled his neck. He was wearing a short tunic that reminded Tony of an old Roman costume with its short sleeves and a hemline that reached just above the man's knees. He looked thin and worn, and he quickly scuttled past them, his bald head down and his shoulders hunched up about his ears.

And that, Tony thought sickly, was what he had to look forward to.

He had naturally slowed his step as the slave neared, and now the Kree soldier gave his leash a sharp tug. The sudden yank on his neck jerked him forward, accompanied by one of those low pulses of pain that quickly spread throughout his body, and he gasped as he hurried to catch up.

His journey finally ended in front of a metal door. There were no markings on it, nothing to set it apart from the others they had passed that looked just like it. But the Kree soldier opened it and then walked up to him, reaching for his collar. This time Tony steeled himself and quickly looked away, and the soldier unsnapped the leash.

He did not wait for the command. He just walked inside his new home. The door clanged shut behind him, and that was it. He was alone for the first time since he had been captured.

Tony closed his eyes. Uncontrollable shivering seized him; he wrapped his arms around himself and sank his teeth into his lower lip so he would remain silent. The metal band about his neck seemed tighter than ever, choking him, making it difficult to breathe.

He gave himself up to the fear then. It was impossible not to. He just stood there, shaking and shuddering, and maybe he cried a little, it was hard to say for sure, even when he buried his face in his hands, because his whole body had gone as numb as his brain, and he couldn't think and he couldn't seem to feel much of anything at all and he honestly couldn't see why he would ever want that to change.

After a while, though, he felt his brain come back online, and he was able to think again. He became aware of what he was doing and how he was standing, and he forced himself to lower his arms back to his sides and open his eyes. If they were watching him, he would be damned if he gave them a show.

His cell was small and cold. A toilet and sink stood in one corner. That was it. There was no other furniture, not even a bed. In the center of the floor was a folded, gray tunic. No shoes, no underwear. There were no cameras that he could see, no listening devices. Nothing broke up the smooth metallic surface of the walls and floor.

Somehow the thought that they weren't watching was even worse than the idea that they were. If they weren't watching, that meant they were so confident in their slaves' submission that they felt they didn't need to keep an eye on them.

Slowly he walked forward until he stood just in front of the tunic. He bent down and picked it up. The fabric was thick and felt like wool, but without the scratchiness. He hesitated a moment longer, then pulled it over his head.

The tunic was too short to do much of anything against the cold air of the room. And instantly he wished he hadn't put it on. Voluntarily wearing it was just one more step toward accepting his fate and giving in.

But then, it wasn't like he had much choice. Sure, he could continue to walk around naked, but what would that accomplish? He'd still be a slave, but now he would be naked and cold and humiliated, too. There didn't seem to be any stigma attached to walking around naked here, but still, it wasn't an experience he was eager to perpetuate. And anyway, this was assuming the Kree would even let him refuse their gift of clothing. For all he knew, they would force him to wear it if he didn't put it on himself.

And it wasn't worth it, he told himself. He had to pick his battles from here on out. He would give himself away if he refused to wear what they gave him. He couldn't do that just yet, not when he was supposed to be a model slave, meek and submissive.

Which reminded him. He looked around again, trying to find the cameras that simply had to be there. Again, he found nothing. So he turned around and faced the door. He took a deep breath and held it, then laid his hand on the knob.

Nothing happened. Emboldened, he firmed up his grasp.

No one had told him he could not leave. That meant it wasn't technically disobedience, right? And he hadn't heard the door lock. Maybe he could just walk right on out. He could blend in with the other slaves, scuttle alongside them. He could put on a new act, like he belonged here. It was something he had done many times throughout his life. Only this time instead of strutting arrogantly, he could shuffle his feet and keep his head down and move around quietly until he found the exit.

Sometimes the best plans were the simplest ones.

He turned the doorknob.

Immediately he saw white in the corner of his vision. Fire seared through his entire body; his hand felt like it had been thrust into those flames. He jerked back with a howl of pain, and right away the pain increased as the collar punished him for that cry. He swallowed back the scream that wanted to burst from his throat, and clutched his hand to his chest, leaning over and breathing heavily through gritted teeth.

As soon as he fell silent, the hurt went away all at once, with no noticeable diminishing. One moment he was fighting not to scream. The next instant the pain was simply…gone. He felt weak all over, trembling a little as he picked up his hand and stared at it. There was no actual injury there, incredibly enough. It was hard to accept the evidence of his eyes, though – the pain had been so intense.

With a heavy, but silent, sigh, he accepted that he was not going to leave this room. Not on his own, anyway. For the time being, he was stuck here.

Since there was nothing else to do, he retreated to the rear of the cell. He used the toilet and washed his hands. He took a long drink of water, cupping his hands so the water could pool there, then raising them to his mouth. It was messy and it took a long time before his thirst was satisfied, but that hardly mattered. Time was the one thing he had plenty of, after all.

He moved over to the opposite wall and sat down. It was an immense relief to finally get off his feet. He let out a slow breath, winced at a twinge in his back, and stared at the closed door.

So this was his new home. It seemed so pointless, the solitary confinement an unnecessary cruelty. The collar enforced a rigid obedience to the rules. All slaves wore them, so what harm could there be in allowing them to live together? After all, it wasn't like they could huddle together in groups and whisper about rebellion.

The solitude would get to him eventually. That was inevitable. But for now, he almost welcomed it, grateful for this chance to marshal his strength and let his guard down a little. He was aware, too, that it was easier to breathe now, that his heart wasn't racing so much anymore and his body didn't feel so heavy. In fact, ever since the shuttle had landed, the physical stresses of Hala's environment hadn't been a problem for him.

He thought back yet again to the SHIELD database, and the information Thor had given them about this world. Everything the Kree did was in service of their empire. Expansion was their main goal, conquering and enslaving worlds at a rapid pace. The military was all-encompassing and all-powerful, and none more than the elite squadrons of men who trained day and night to lead the first assault on the planet next in line for conquest.

They built themselves biospheres, Tony remembered now. Within each dome the atmospheric conditions of various types of planets were faithfully recreated, and the elite teams lived here, acclimating themselves to the stresses their bodies would encounter when they landed on their targeted world. This then must be a replica of planets like Earth, or Ernor, or the Skrull homeworld. Planets with a lower gravity than Hala, and less nitrogen in the atmosphere.

He supposed he ought to be grateful. Too much time under Hala's extra gravity would have seriously damaged his heart, and possibly even killed him. But instead all he felt was a terrible, creeping fear. If the Kree went to this much trouble to keep their slaves healthy and alive, that did not bode well at all for his future. It meant he was here for the long haul.

Or at least, until he could find a way out.

Because he was going to make it through this, the same way he had made it through all the other shit in his life. He was going to survive, and he was going to be here for Steve and Thor to rescue, because he knew they were out there, they hadn't been captured, and they were coming for him.

He had to remember that. He had to think about Steve. More importantly, he had to stay alive for Steve's sake. If Steve finally found him, and he was already dead, either by his own hand or through the cruelty of the Kree, the repercussions were beyond imagining. Fueled by grief and anger, Steve would do terrible things to the Kree. And while Tony himself wouldn't mind seeing that, it would destroy something in Steve's soul to become so horrible and mindlessly violent. Tony couldn't have that on his conscience, not even in death.

So he would live. And he would wait.

And he would hope.

****

It felt like two hours elapsed before anything happened. By then he was hungry, stiff and aching from inactivity and the cold, and so keyed up with fear and tension that he was almost eager for a confrontation.

His anticipation dried up in a hurry, though, when he saw the same soldier as before standing there with the leash. Apparently this man had been assigned to him as a handler, a lovely thought that Tony immediately wished he hadn't had. But even if the man standing there had been a stranger, it wouldn't have mattered. There was nothing he could do except stand still and let it happen. So when his handler hooked the leash to his collar and led him forward like a dog being taken for a walk, Tony followed quickly and obediently.

He kept his eyes downcast and his head bowed slightly. Just enough to give the appearance of passive servility. He did his best to keep his fear from showing, and he thought he did a good job of it, too.

His handler took him to a long room that had the look of a medical setting – if any doctor's office had ever had a chair with shackles built into it.

Three Kree soldiers stood around the chair. He absolutely did not want to sit in that thing. But he was led right up to it and so he sat, and they closed the shackles about his wrists and ankles. He tried to look around and see everything at once without looking any of the Kree directly in the eye and getting shocked for it.

When he saw what they had, though, and what they intended, he couldn't help jerking back and trying to escape the shackles. The collar activated, sending a sharp jolt through him, enough to make him sink his teeth into his lower lip in order to keep silent.

It didn't matter, he told himself fiercely as one of them draped a sheet over his shoulders. It didn't matter. It was just hair. It would grow back.

None of his reassurances meant a damn thing, though, when the clippers touched his head and his hair began to fall away in large swathes. He hated it. He hated the Kree. He wanted to leap up and hit them all in the face with a repulsor blast. But there was nothing he could do, and so he sat perfectly still and he seethed with rage and hatred and humiliation and he vowed that he would kill them all for this.

It wasn't just the loss of his hair and beard. It was the further eroding of his identity, the loss of one more piece of himself. He could see the inevitable end to all this: his complete submission as a slave. He wouldn't be a human being anymore then, and certainly not Tony Stark. He would be just an object. A thing to be owned and ordered about.

And there was nothing he could do about it.

When they were done shaving him, one of them stepped forward and stuck a needle in his arm. He knew better than to ask what was in it, though. He accepted it as meekly as he had accepted everything else they had done to him so far.

One of the Kree undid the shackles and the soldier who had led him here took up his leash again. He stood and followed the man without hesitation. They walked through the long, empty halls, and Tony felt the cool air on his bare head and wondered hopelessly what new humiliations lay in store for him.

His next destination was a small room where one of the green-armored accusers sat. He thought it might be the same one from the starship – and an involuntary pang of fear shot through him at the realization.

His handler unclipped the leash, gave a cursory nod to the accuser, then left. Tony waited somewhat awkwardly in front of the accuser, who stood before him, huge arms folded across his chest. Too late, he realized he was staring, and the collar jolted him just as he remembered to drop his eyes. The pain did not last long, thanks to his vigilance, but it still made him gasp out loud.

The accuser made a quiet rumbling noise in the back of his throat.

In sudden terror, Tony stared fixedly at the floor. He had just screwed up royally. He had nothing to base that assumption on, but like all his sudden bursts of inspired genius, he knew it was absolutely correct.

"You have disobeyed," the accuser said.

With just those three words, Tony's nerve snapped. All his plans to hold out, to play the game, went right out the window. He didn't care anymore about appearances, or pretending, or anything else except getting out of this hell. He managed to keep his gaze lowered, but that was the only rule he followed. He took a deep breath, braced himself for the pain, and said, "Please will you let me explain?"

It hurt like hell, the fire racing through him as soon as he uttered the first word. The accuser did not respond, and he dared to look up – and was immediately punished with greater pain.

"Please," he choked out. "You're making a mistake."

The accuser's impassive expression did not change.

Tony reached one hand toward him in desperation. "Listen! Ah!" Every word he spoke only made the pain worse – but he couldn't stop. He had to make this one last attempt at ending the nightmare before it went any further. "You don't know who I am. Thor of—of Asgard is my friend. Ah!" Instinct made him want to reach for the collar and yank at it, do whatever he had to do in order to free himself from it. He wasn't so far gone yet, though, that he did something that stupid. He let himself hunch forward with the pain and balled his hands into fists over the arc reactor, but that was all he permitted himself.

"Listen to me!" he shouted. Every word was an effort now, not only to speak it, but not to give in to the screams that wanted to take their place. "You can't do this! I'm an Avenger! I fought Thanos! And Loki!"

The list of his vanquished enemies apparently meant nothing. The accuser continued to stare blankly at him. It felt like molten fire was running through his veins now. His blood must surely be boiling, the pain was so bad.

He couldn't hold it back any longer. He screamed, and only at the last did he manage words. "You can't do this!"

It was too much. He fell to his knees, screaming out his pain and fury and desperate terror. White light seared the edges of his vision as the disc on the collar responded, the agony rising in a crescendo with his screams. He couldn't believe he was still conscious, that he hadn't passed out yet, or failing that, had a heart attack--

And then something…short-circuited…deep within his brain. The white light blossomed to cover the whole world. A convulsive shudder wrenched through him. Everything. Just. Stopped. His fear. His ability to think. And at last. Even the pain. Was. Just. Gone.

Like rebooting a computer, his body and brain slowly resynced themselves and resumed their normal functions. For a long while, though, Tony just lay there in a loose heap on the floor. Unlike the previous assaults on his nervous system, there were aftershocks this time, tiny twitches that stole his breath and made him gasp and tremble. He became aware that he was crying and that his nose was bleeding, tears and snot and blood mixing in a disgusting mess on his face. He didn't hurt, not anymore, but he knew that the pain would be back eventually, because it always did, and the fear of it made him tremble harder.

"You will submit," said the Kree accuser.

Tony uttered the faintest of whimpers. Through some miracle, the sound must have failed to register with the disc, for there was no corresponding pain. He refused to open his eyes. He didn't want to see. He just wanted to lie here and cry and pretend that this was not happening.

"You will submit," repeated the accuser. "Or you will die."

He believed that. How close had he just come to an aneurysm, to cardiac arrest? The disc was connected to his central nervous system – it knew just when to cut off, when to stop punishing him and keep him alive. How many more close calls could his body take before he died anyway?

"Arise," said the accuser.

Tony shook his head. No. Please no. He couldn't do this. He knew that now.

"Obey, or you will be punished."

The pain returned, reminding him of the consequences for disobedience. It was only that low throbbing ache, but it was more than enough motivation. In sudden terror, his eyes flew open and he scrambled to sit up. If he was quick enough, maybe it wouldn't get any worse, maybe this would be all he had to suffer…

He stood on wobbly legs in front of the accuser, and the pain subsided. He remembered to keep his eyes lowered. He bit his lip and tried his best to remain silent.

The accuser lashed out with one large hand. The blow caught him high on the cheek, spun him around, sent him crashing to the floor. It hurt, and he yelped with the pain – only to cry out in earnest as the collar responded with a nasty jolt of fire.

If it weren't for the collar, he might have almost been glad that it had come to this. He could handle a simple beating. He was used to that. Punches and kicks were a normal part of his world experience. It was these other terrors, so horrible and new, that left him cold and shaking with fright.

"Arise," said the accuser.

Sick dread twisted in his stomach. He knew where this was going then – and there was nothing he could do about it, not unless he wanted to drive himself to the verge of another stroke. And he couldn't do that. He had already chosen to live, to survive.

Already braced for the next blow, he got to his feet.

This time the accuser hit him on the other side of his face. He managed to stay silent that time as his head snapped to one side and he fell.

"Arise," said the accuser.

He searched for a flippant remark, for sarcasm, for bravado – and found none. There was only a terrible cringing fear as he stood before the accuser and waited to be struck again.

The next punch split his lip and sent blood splattering to the floor ahead of him as he fell. He cried out miserably, was jolted with pain, clenched his jaws and swallowed back the rest of the anguished sound, along with some of his own blood.

"You will submit," said the accuser. He still sounded perfectly calm; his arms were folded across his chest once more. "Or you will die. The Kree do not waste time on those who cannot learn. Choose now."

He had to live. He had to. Steve... And he couldn't give in. He couldn't.

"Arise," the accuser said. "Or die."

Shaking, crying, please don't hurt me, Tony climbed to his feet. The accuser drew back one huge fist, and he cringed back, turning his face away, his hands rising in a feeble attempt at protecting himself. He knew it wasn't allowed even as he did it, but he couldn't help it, he couldn't stop himself, he was so goddamn scared—

"You must submit," ordered the accuser. "Lower your hands."

In another lifetime he would have had a snappy comeback. He would have—

"Lower your hands."

Slowly, silently crying, he lowered his hands. He couldn't bring himself to turn and face the accuser again, but that was all right. He hadn't been ordered to do so.

For a long moment nothing happened. The accuser drew his hand back again. Tony flinched and steeled himself for it, but made no move to defend himself. He just stood there, too broken and cowed to do anything else. He feared being struck and the resulting pain, but he feared the agony of disobedience even more.

And so he obeyed.

The accuser hit him, and he fell. He struck his head hard when he landed, and the world sort of mercifully grayed out for a little bit.

When he came to, he was still huddled on the floor and the accuser was speaking.

"Your injuries will be healed. The Kree do not expect you to work while injured. You will be returned to your cell. Tomorrow you will begin your duties. Obey, or you will be punished."

The accuser walked out, and he was left alone, weeping into his hands.

Chapter Text

Steve had never seen pictures, but Kree-Lar looked exactly as he had imagined it must. As capital of the Kree Empire, the entire planet was devoted to showcasing the glory and might of the Kree themselves, and their eternal quest for conquest and expansion. Everywhere he looked, there were tall statues commemorating fallen Kree soldiers. On Earth he would have called them war memorials. But here the statues remembered soldiers who had fought not for freedom, but to conquer innocent worlds and enslave their people, and so the sight of the statues filled him with nothing but revulsion.

It had taken them a full week to reach the planet, but only six of those days had been spent in travel. On the first day, they had gone to Asgard.

He and Thor had discussed it – maybe argued was the better word – for quite some time. Steve had wanted to go immediately to Kree-Lar and start the search for Tony. But Thor had refused, saying that first they must send word back to Earth and let the Avengers know what was happening. "They will already be worried by our prolonged absence," Thor had said, and Steve had known he was right, even as he cursed the added delay.

So Thor had called upon Heimdall, and the bridge had been opened, and in a rush of light, Steve found himself in Asgard once again.

There was no question of actually returning to Earth and bringing the rest of the Avengers along on the search. None of them could do anything that Steve and Thor weren't already doing, and Steve knew he could not face them just yet. Not until he had Tony safely at his side.

"Wait here," Thor said. "I will return as soon as I can."

"Where are you going?" Steve demanded. He didn't worry about being left alone on Asgard, but he didn't want to stand around doing nothing. He needed something to occupy his thoughts, or he would end up brooding about Tony and worrying about what was happening to him.

"I must find someone to carry our message to Midgard," Thor said. A smile touched his mouth. "And I know just the right person for it." He raised Mjolnir and began to swing it. Moments later he was airborne, heading due north.

There had never really been much time to explore the Bifrost before, so Steve took advantage of his chance now. It was also something to do, wandering about the great observatory and glancing every so often at Heimdall, wondering how the whole magic thing worked. Until the spell on Ernor that had forcibly convinced him of its existence, he had never really given magic much thought before.

Now he knew better, of course. Magic was very real, and very powerful. Here in Asgard, they used it on a daily basis, although it went by the name of technology. People like Thor accomplished things that Steve would have called impossible, had he not seen them for himself. Or Heimdall, who—

He suddenly became aware that he had been given an opportunity here unlike any other. In Asgard Odin was known as the All-Father, but Heimdall was the All-Seeing. Capable of seeing anything or anyone in the realms.

Seeing anyone.

"Heimdall." Steve walked over to where the tall guardian stood at the edge of the Bifrost. "You can see everything, can't you? You know why we're here. What happened to us on Ernor."

Heimdall acknowledged him with only the briefest of glances.

It was enough for Steve. "Can you see him?" he asked. He tried not to sound as desperate as he felt, but he didn't really care if he succeeded or not. "Can you see Tony right now?"

At first there was no response to his question. Heimdall did not even look his way. But Steve saw something flicker in his eyes, an almost metallic glint that was there and gone again so fast he almost thought he imagined it. Then slowly, Heimdall shook his head. Just once, but it was enough.

"He is not within my sight," Heimdall intoned.

"That's not possible," Steve protested.

Heimdall did not reply.

"How can that be?" Steve insisted. "You can see everyone!"

Panic clutched at his throat. He could think of only one reason why Heimdall could not see someone, and that was the one thing he could not admit, even to himself.

It wasn't true, he thought wildly. Tony wasn't dead. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't be.

"No," he said. He nearly put a hand on Heimdall's arm, but a sharp look from the sentinel made him draw back again. "No," he said. "That's not true. He's there. I know he is. You're just not looking hard enough, or not in the right place. But he's there! He's out there and I need you to find him!"

"There are things that I even cannot see," Heimdall said.

Steve was about to protest again – he simply could not accept Heimdall's answer – when he heard the crash of thunder that presaged Thor's return. He hurried out of the observatory and onto the rainbow bridge just as Thor alit there.

The god of thunder was not alone. The woman who accompanied Thor was tall and very beautiful. She had long dark hair pulled back from her face, and she wore lightweight red and white armor. She looked down at Steve and her features softened with compassion. "Captain."

He had the strangest urge to drop to one knee before her. He had never met anyone so regal before – and that was including the Matriarch of Ernor. He settled for bowing his head low. "Ma'am."

Thor looked pleased with himself. "This is the Lady Sif," he said. "She is my most trusted friend. She has agreed to bear our message to Midgard."

"Thank you," Steve said with heartfelt gratitude. As much as he chafed against this delay, he knew Thor was right to have brought them here. It was cruel to make their friends suffer in ignorance, wondering what was happening to them. As horrible as it was, he owed the truth to Pepper and Jim Rhodes and the other Avengers.

"Heimdall will send Sif to Stark Tower," Thor said. "If you have anything you wish to add to her message, now is the time to tell her."

Caught off guard, Steve couldn't think of a single thing to say. He blinked at her for a moment, then finally said, "Just tell them that we won't stop until we find him. We'll bring him home."

Sif nodded. "Good luck," she said. She laid a hand on Thor's arm for a moment, then she turned and walked into the observatory.

Steve watched her go. The light that shot forth from the Bifrost was stunningly beautiful; the sight of it stole his breath. This was what it looked like when he used it, he realized, and he was filled with a greater appreciation than ever for Thor and all of Asgard.

Thor chuckled a little. "Ah, my friend," he said expansively, "I see that even you are not immune to the lovely Sif."

Steve decided not to let Thor know what he had really been thinking. "How could anyone be?" he asked.

"I have never yet met anyone who was unmoved by her," Thor said. "Even my brother was touched by her beauty."

"I should have thanked her for doing this for us," Steve said. He took a single step forward, hoping that Thor would fall into step beside him.

"It is all I am able to do, unfortunately," Thor said. He did not look amused anymore. "Asgard cannot afford to count the Kree Empire as an enemy. We will find no help here, either from my father or anyone else."

Steve just nodded. He had expected as much.

"This also means we must approach our arrival on Kree-Lar not as an invasion," Thor said, "but as a reconnaissance." He hesitated. "And while we are there, we will have to practice subterfuge and outright deception. I am sorry, Captain. I know this goes against your beliefs, but we must lie to the Kree. And we must do it well."

"Believe me," Steve said tightly, "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get Tony back. And I have no problem at all with lying to the Kree."

"Hear my plan first," Thor cautioned, "before you say that."

Now, one week later, finally on the planet Kree-Lar, Steve recalled that conversation and thought grimly that it wouldn't have mattered what Thor said. He still would have agreed to it.

"Are you ready for this?" Thor asked him quietly.

Steve reached up and touched the gold band that encircled his neck. "Yes," he said.

****

It was cold in his cell.

There was nothing to do but sit in the corner and shiver, and wonder what was going to happen to him tomorrow. Nothing to do but begrudge the loss of body heat through his shaved head and curl his knees in tighter to his chest. Nothing to do but close his eyes and wish that shutting out reality was as easy as shutting out the sight of the empty cell.

The injuries he had sustained at the hands of the Kree accuser had all been healed. His handler had taken him to a very cold, very sterile infirmary. He had still been softly crying as a tall medical officer had touched a silvery device to the disc set in his collar.

The accelerated healing process didn't hurt exactly, but it was not comfortable, either. He had felt a heated sensation of pins and needles in the injured areas, but as the healing had become more thorough, the prickling had faded away. Mostly what he had felt was a hazy terror at knowing that they could do anything they wanted to him because the wounds could be so easily healed, allowing them to start all over again.

Fortunately, the healing had not lasted long, and within minutes he had been up and walking again, following his handler through the halls on the way back to his cell. Already he was starting to think of the cell as a place of refuge. Even just a few hours ago that would have bothered him, but now he accepted the knowledge without railing against it. It was just easier to go with it.

And after all, it was true. Why fight it?

Together the silence and solitude of the cell worked to soothe his jangled nerves. Little by little he relaxed, until at last fear gave way to dull boredom. Unlike on the ship, he found it difficult to distract himself with thoughts of other things. Math and engineering problems were no good to him now – he couldn't concentrate enough on them anymore. His failure to focus only made him grow agitated all over again, and he reached up in an instinctive gesture to pull at his hair in frustration. But he had forgotten. His fingers encountered only smooth skin and not his hair, and he recoiled with a whine of revulsion that the collar promptly punished him for.

Even here, where there was no one to hear or bear witness to his disobedience, he was not allowed to make any sound.

Panic rose within him, thick and choking. The horrors just kept coming and he didn't even know what was going to happen to him tomorrow or how he was going to endure it all. If it was even possible to endure. They had already taken nearly everything from him. What would they take next?

In the end the only thing that calmed him down again were thoughts of Steve. He sank into those thoughts with utter gratitude. He had four months of memories to linger on, from the first time they had slept together after their ordeal in the Forest, right up until their last morning together. Slowly, deliberately, he remembered everything, recalling it all in exquisite detail, trying to prolong each memory and make it last.

He was still lost in memory when the cell door opened. There had been no warning, no approaching footsteps; the door was just thrown open, revealing his handler.

Tony reacted without thinking. Before he was even really aware of what he was doing, he scuttled backward, trying to shove himself still further into the corner. Anything to get away from this latest threat. All the while thinking: No, not again, what now, no, please, no.

The tall soldier walked two steps into the cell, bent down, and placed a tray of food on the floor. Then he backed out and left, closing the door once more. The entire time, he never even glanced at Tony, supremely confident in his safety, perfectly aware that he was in no danger of being attacked.

Until he saw the food, he had forgotten that he was hungry. Here, alone, where he was all but certain that he wasn't being observed, there was no room for pride or something as stupid as a hunger strike. He made himself stand up and walk the two short strides to the tray, rather than crawl or scoot on his knees. He sat down beside the tray, cross-legged, and he ate.

It did not take long. The meal consisted of two patties that looked almost like hamburgers, but which were utterly tasteless. He supposed they contained all the nutrients a good slave needed, and nothing more. When he was done he drank some water from the sink, then returned to his corner and sat down.

Not ten minutes later, the door opened again. The soldier who had apparently been assigned to deal with him came in and took his tray away. Tony knew beyond a doubt that even if the food had still been on it, the tray would have been removed; he was glad he had eaten when he had the chance. There was no telling when his next opportunity would be, and he had to follow that old cliché and keep his strength up. This place was a literal fortress. Any rescue would be violent and difficult. He had to stay physically ready for anything.

With thoughts of Steve and rescue on his mind, he curled up in his chosen corner and closed his eyes. He pillowed his head on one arm and tried to recall how it felt to stand under a sweltering New York City summer sun, how it felt to be so warm that he was sweating and complaining about the heat.

It took a long time, but eventually he fell asleep.

****

In a place this big – and Tony didn't kid himself, he knew at least half of it had to be underground – there were all kinds of jobs just waiting to be performed by barely-dressed subservient slaves. All the menial chores of cooking and cleaning up after a hundred Kree elite soldiers. What must be a massive laundry. Building maintenance and upkeep.

Weapons repair.

If ever he had needed proof that God, should he even exist, had a sick sense of humor, Tony had finally found it. Out of the thousand and one jobs he could have been ordered to perform, he had been tasked with repairing the weapons and equipment the Kree soldiers used in their daily training exercises.

He wasn't the only one, of course. There were eight other slaves in the shop with him, along with the Kree quartermaster who oversaw the inventory. The large room where he was now sitting wasn't anything remotely like his own workshop at home. The computer systems and technology were wildly advanced from what he was used to, and there were no bots to help out. But it was the closest he was going to get to anything familiar, and he knew it – and he was so grateful for it that he could have wept.

He could do this. He understood this. Even if the tech itself was beyond him, even if he had to watch the other slaves around him in order to figure out some of the steps involved, he could do this. And it wasn't like he was building weapons. He was only repairing them, fixing broken triggers and crooked sights and faulty firing mechanisms. It wasn't the same thing. It wasn't.

And even if it was, well, what could he do about it?

The day so far had not been as bad as he had feared. He had already been awake and ready when the door opened and the handler stepped aside so he could walk out into the hall. A double line of slaves had stood there, their heads bowed, their eyes downcast. Without waiting to be told, Tony had taken his place at the end of the nearest row, and the line had shuffled forward to the next cell on down.

Their final destination had been a large dining hall. It had reminded Tony depressingly of a high school cafeteria, with the huge kitchen at one end and the rest of the room given over to tables lined up in neat rows. The only difference was instead of ugly tile, the floors were gleaming silver, and there were no teenaged cliques, no laughter, no talking. No one made a sound as they ate swiftly, eating the food the Kree soldiers had left behind from their morning meal.

After breakfast they had been divided into smaller groups and put to work. Slaves had to earn their keep, after all. So Tony sat at his assigned workstation and he learned how to use the tools and the tech they gave him – and he worked. After yesterday's pain and humiliation, the promise of a simple, steady routine was immensely comforting. This was his life now and he had to accept that, but maybe he could at last find some equilibrium.

He threw himself into his assigned tasks with a readiness that bordered on unsightly eagerness. He didn't care. He was so damn glad to have a chance to exercise his brain and escape the horror of his situation, even if it was only for a few hours. It was work he knew, work he understood, work he could excel at. He wasn't stuck in a corner of that enormous kitchen, peeling potatoes and waiting for all the soldiers to eat so he could then serve the slaves whatever was left over. He wasn't on his knees scrubbing floors or outside pulling weeds in that meticulously maintained grassy lawn. He was doing what he knew how to do, what he was good at.

He never forgot where he was or why he was there, but those first few hours were almost soothing, in a strange way. Although the solitude of his cell had been a relief at first, he was already over it; spending time now with others made for a welcome change. Even the complete silence was not too bad. He often talked to himself or JARVIS and the bots when he was working, but he was equally as likely to spend hours in silent isolation, so focused on the work that there was no need for speech. Surrounded by others just like him, the worst of his fear was eased, ignorance of what lay ahead replaced by a reluctant acceptance, and an increased confidence that he could indeed survive this – and without having to give too much of himself away.

****

Lunch was late. Very late. So late that Tony was starting to think there simply wouldn't be an afternoon meal. But eventually there came a buzzing tone that seemed to fill the entire room.

After the hours of near-silence broken only by the sounds of work in progress, the alarm scared the crap out of him. He jerked, and nearly dropped the screwdriver he was holding. He managed to hang onto it, however, only to quickly set it down as he saw everyone else halting their work at once. One unlucky slave in the back was a little bit slower than the others, and from the way he flinched, the disc on his collar let him know it, too.

Tony winced a little in sympathy.

He joined the others as they filed out of the repair shop and through the halls. They all seemed to know where they were going, and he did his best to learn the route, although there was absolutely nothing to set the corridors apart from each other. No signs, no distinguishing markings, nothing but endless silver walls.

They ended up in the dining hall again. Very little had changed from the morning. The same slaves who had served up breakfast were still here to dole out lunch. The Ernorran astronomer who had come so close to being his friend was among them, but when Tony passed in front of him in order to receive his two patties of tasteless nutrition, he didn't even glance up.

Not that Tony could blame him.

Breakfast felt like it had been a full day ago. He was very hungry, but even more thirsty; there was a bathroom in the repair shop but it had no door, and the Kree quartermaster could see inside. He had gone in there once, but hadn't dared to use the sink for anything except washing his hands. The cup of water he got with his meal wasn't nearly big enough to slake his thirst, though. He told himself it was for the best, that if he used the bathroom too often it would only draw attention to himself. He would be accused of being lazy, and if that happened the best he could hope for was that he would get transferred to the kitchen where he could spend his days cooking nutrient patties for everyone else.

They were not given long for lunch. After that it was back to the workshop, but now everything felt different. For some reason he could not define, Tony found it harder to concentrate and lose himself in the work. There was a strange tension in the air too, that had been lacking this morning. He could not explain it, but every time he glanced up at one of the other slaves, he could see it in the set of their shoulders and the tight line of their mouths.

Yet nothing happened to justify their behavior. The afternoon passed as the morning had, in silent work. When the buzzer went off, they were released, and they left their work in whatever stage they were at, standing up and filing quickly out into the hall, where they formed up in a double line.

A dour handler led them through the training center and back into those far-off halls where they were quartered. One by one the slaves left the line and returned to their cells. Before long, Tony found himself back in his solitary little corner with nothing to do but huddle up and brood.

It was cold in here; he kept tugging uselessly at the too-short sleeves of his slave tunic, trying to cover his arms a little bit more. He got up a few times to drink some water and walk around aimlessly, pacing off the small dimensions of the room. He wondered how dinner was served and if the Kree in charge of his little group of slaves liked his job, or if it was considered demeaning to have to deal with pathetic slaves all day long. He imagined Steve and Thor riding the crest of a wave of righteous fury aimed at this place, ready to come to his rescue. He felt Steve's arms around him, and the warmth of Steve's body pressed up against his, holding him tight.

They would come for him, he reminded himself. They would.

He just had to be patient.

****

He had no way of measuring the time, but it felt late when the door opened and the handler stood aside to allow him to step out into the hall. Tony went immediately, although not without a pang when he saw that the hallway was empty. He told himself that this would only be the final trip of the day to the large dining hall – but he didn't really believe it. Not anymore.

He really hated being right.

The handler clipped the leash to his collar and led him deep into the facility, into areas that felt hostile, which was stupid, but that was just how it was. With every step Tony's heart grew heavier, and dread crawled over his skin.

This journey ended in a room that at first glance seemed no different from any other; small, cold, so clean it was almost sterile. But that was where the similarity ended. Directly ahead was a long silvery curtain wall that blocked off the back half of the room.

He absolutely did not want to see what was on the other side of that curtain. It was a dull gray color, and it hung from a long slender pole on small rings, rather like a shower curtain. It looked heavy, and it looked old, but the worst thing about it was that he couldn't see what lay behind it, and the horrible fate that awaited him.

The handler kept walking, even though Tony had stopped dead, and the leash grew taut for a moment. He was seized with a sudden fear of what would happen to him if the handler had to drag him along like a dog that didn't want to go outside. So he hurried after the man and he finally saw what was on the other side of the curtain, and he drew up short again with a muffled exclamation.

The collar shocked him for that, for daring to voice his denial and fear and horror. He clenched his jaw and hissed in a sharp breath, and the pull on his neck grew stronger, and there was no choice, no choice at all but to walk forward and submit.

What did I do? he wanted to ask. What did I do wrong? Tell me so I don't do it again. Please!

They were going to beat him, he thought dully as he was forced to walk right up to the shining steel behind the curtain. He had done something wrong and now they were going to punish him, and he would probably never even know what he had done to deserve this.

The framework was three feet off the ground, bright light reflecting off the polished steel. It was shaped like someone had designed the letter H, then pushed it over so it lay flat. There were two long bars set parallel to each other, and a shorter one connecting them. The Kree handler put a hand on Tony's back and shoved him forward so he was standing up but bent at the waist, the nearest bar flush against his hips. His arms were extended along the length of the second bar and shackles closed about his wrists, holding him firmly in place. His chest rested along the shorter connecting bar, putting uncomfortable pressure on the arc reactor and adding to his already panicky gasping breath.

The handler stepped back and Tony bit his lip to keep from begging him to explain what he had done wrong.

Metal rattled behind him, and he lifted his head and twisted his neck to see what was happening. It was the curtain being wheeled closer, steel rings jingling as it was moved into place so the pole was overhead and the gray material hung directly on top of him. The handler draped it across his lower back, neatly dividing his body in two, and Tony's terror escalated sharply.

The handler disappeared on the other side of the curtain. As soon as the man was out of sight, Tony struggled uselessly against the restraints. He felt horribly vulnerable and exposed, completely unable to defend himself from whatever punishment was about to befall him. Given his position, he expected a whipping, but it didn't really matter. Whatever they were going to do to him, it was going to hurt, and he was going to have to endure it in silence.

Helpless terror made his knees go weak, so that he was almost grateful for the bars and the shackles; without them to hold him up, he would probably be on the floor right now.

Footsteps walked away. The door opened and closed, and Tony was left to ponder his fate.

He didn't know how long he waited. He let his head hang low, because it hurt his neck and shoulders too much to hold it up. The muscles in his legs began to ache and tremble from the strain of his position. Bent over as he was, the too-short tunic had ridden up, and he was horribly aware that on the other side of the curtain, he was totally naked.

At last the door opened again, and there were approaching footsteps. The tread was measured and heavy. Their owner stopped on the other side of the curtain. "First!" a deep voice called.

A second set of footsteps drew near. Tony picked up his head, tried to peer behind him, but the curtain was too thick and there was nothing to see.

A heavy hand settled on his left hip, pinning him in place. He nearly leapt out of his skin, fear jolting instantly into pure panic. A booted foot kicked his legs apart. There was a slightly fumbling touch behind him, then two fingers were suddenly shoved inside him, liberally coated with something slick and cool. He drew in a shocked gasp, too stunned to move. He knew then what was about to happen but his brain rejected it as flatly impossible, because no no no no no and then the fingers were removed and the Kree soldier was pushing inside.

In that first, terrible, bewildering moment all Tony could think about was Steve, because Steve was the only person he had ever allowed to do this to him, and the sense memory was so strong that for a single instant it blotted out even the horror of his reality.

Then the pain hit, the burn of being uncomfortably stretched and filled, and he cried out. The collar punished him for this transgression, the pain of the shock momentarily dimming the pain of being raped.

The Kree held him now with both hands on his hips, preventing him from rocking forward too far with each thrust. There were no sounds from his assailant, not even a single grunt. All he could hear was his own panicked gasping, each breath edging perilously close to a whimper.

It did not last very long, and yet it seemed to go on for hours. The soldier's weight drove him forward as the man came, crushing his hips against the bar and adding painfully to the strain on his wrists and shoulders.

Tony clenched his jaw and fought to remain silent, refusing to add to his punishment. For this was a punishment, of course. It had to be. He didn't know what he had done wrong, but he would never ever do it again, please God, never ever.

Still half-hard, the Kree slipped out of him. It hurt, and he caught his breath and let his head sag downward, trying not to cry.

Footsteps walked away. The same deep voice from before spoke. "Next."

Next? Next?? Cold horror swept over him. A new set of footsteps approached. He pulled desperately against the restraints, glanced wildly over his shoulder. There was nothing to see, just the dull gray curtain that came down to his back.

Hands gripped his hips. "No!" he cried.

The collar sparked to life immediately, punishing his disobedience. The pain made him cry out again – and the resulting shock was stronger this time.

The second soldier thrust in deep, in one slick push.

Tony screamed. Not with any sound, no, not anymore. Just an agonized exhalation of breath that rose in his throat with its own keening edge. In his head, though, where no one could hear it, he never stopped screaming.

"Next."

How many? His thoughts whirled and gibbered in terror. They had to be Kree soldiers, members of those elite teams he was supposed to be so proud to serve. How many soldiers per unit? He tried to remember, but the words from the SHIELD database blurred and ran together in his mind's eye.

Six. Was it six?

Please God, let it be six. No more.

"Next," and oh God it hurt, he was making helpless noises now, but either he had grown immune to the pain of the punishing shocks or the collar wasn't activating like it should.

"Next," and it felt like he was being torn apart and his arms were slowly being pulled from their sockets and his hips were one massive bruise and he could hardly breathe from the pressure on the arc reactor and the terror that it would never stop, that they would just keep coming, six, twelve, eighteen, all one hundred of them, until he was dead.

"Next," and he was silent now, beyond crying. The pain was starting to recede. It was as strong as ever, but eerily distant, like his body didn't belong to him anymore. It didn't mean anything now.

"Dismissed!" Footsteps walked away. A door closed.

He was left alone.

****

When the handlers came for him, he was barely conscious. Tears of gratitude rose in his eyes as they undid the clamps about his wrists and picked him up off the steel bars.

His entire body felt bruised and battered. Cramps knotted his lower belly, and the pain between his legs was sickening. He couldn't walk. They must have anticipated that, because they had sent two of the Kree for him instead of just the one. They gripped him by the arms as they half-dragged, half-carried him through the halls. His head hung low, giving him an excellent view of the disgusting welter of come and blood slowly sliding down his legs.

Please tell me what I did wrong. Please. I won't do it again, I promise. I won't. I won't.

They did not speak to him.

They took him to the same long, echoing room where they had healed the damage from the beating he had received at the hands of the Kree accuser. With dull wonder he saw that he was not the only one here. Much like a hospital emergency room, there were small stations set up throughout the room – and at many of them, a slave was currently being tended by impassive medical personnel.

So it hadn't been just him. It hadn't been a punishment.

He spotted one of the Skrulls who had been in the workshop with him today. For a moment he just stared, latching onto the familiar, trying to make sense of it all while the two Kree continued to drag him through the room.

And everything suddenly clicked into place.

They had known this was coming. The other slaves. All of them. That was why the tension had steadily grown throughout the afternoon, as the hour approached.

They had known. Which meant this had happened before. That it happened on a regular basis, on some schedule he did not know yet.

And it would happen again. Maybe next week. Maybe in three days.

Maybe tomorrow.

Oh God. He couldn't do it. Couldn’t go through that again.

A tiny whimper escaped him, the barest breath of sound.

The handlers stopped beside a steel examining table. They picked him up and laid him down flat on his back. A doctor stepped forward and spread his legs. Gloved fingers touched him, then slipped inside, assessing the damage. Tony closed his eyes and sank his teeth into his lower lip and willed himself not to cry.

He got it now. He knew what his true purpose here was. He should have known it from the moment he realized that all the slaves were male – but how could he have guessed at this kind of horror? How could he have ever imagined it?

This was the real "privilege and honor" of serving the Kree elite. They were here to provide a release for the soldiers. Nothing more. It had nothing to do with being human or having the bad luck of being on Ernor when it was raided. It was all about the Kree and their glorious army, and making sure the soldiers-in-training channeled their natural aggression and energy onto the right paths. So like three square meals a day, the soldiers were given sex at night. Male slaves only, so there would be no unwanted pregnancies and none of the messy hassles of the female reproductive system.

They were just bodies. Nothing more. The labor they did during the day was an added bonus, a way for the Kree to get more for their money, in a manner of speaking.

The doctor made a faint sound as he pulled his fingers away, and Tony opened his eyes. The bright lights overhead made him squint, and it took a moment to realize that the doctor was actually staring down at him.

He looked away quickly so the collar would not punish him, but he had seen enough. And he wanted to die of humiliation. Since his capture, he had been waiting for one of the Kree to look at him, to truly see him, and now he finally had his wish – but in the worst way possible. The doctor was staring down at him, it was true, but the look on the man's face was mingled impatience and disgust. There would be no compassion from him, and he would not be an ally. Repairing a slave's injuries was just another chore for him, and judging by his expression, probably the part of his job he enjoyed the least.

I'm sorry, he wanted to say. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry.

The doctor palpated his belly, checked the bruises on his hips, the patches on his wrists where the shackles had rubbed his skin raw. The exam was cold and impersonal, and Tony managed not to react to it until the doctor frowned down at the arc reactor and ran a gloved finger over the rim. Then he tensed up in sudden terror, bracing himself for the inevitable pain as he rushed to explain that it could not be removed without killing him.

But the doctor did not touch the arc reactor again. He just reached for that silvery device that Tony recognized from his last visit here. The doctor touched it to his collar, and there was a brief burst of white light from the disc. Then the healing process began.

It took longer this time. The uncomfortable prickling sensation was stronger, more like pain, and he curled his hands into fists as he fought to remain silent. At last it began to fade, until it was gone completely, and the device was removed from his collar. The doctor gave him one last look, then moved away, already focused on the slave lying on the next table.

One of the handlers who had brought him here – not the usual guy – stepped forward. At a curt gesture, Tony sat up and slid off the table. The movement brought him no pain, and his body moved easily, with no lingering aches or strains.

He was led to the far end of the room, where several shower cubicles stood in a row. "Wash. Five minutes begins now."

He stepped into the shower, already counting down the time in his head. He didn't want to be punished for tardiness. And counting was good. The logical and orderly progression of numbers was something to think about instead of reality, something to focus on as he scrubbed the dried blood and come off his skin with shaking hands.

There were 28 seconds to spare when he was done.

They gave him a clean tunic, which he put on gratefully. There was a meal too, dinner finally served, three patties of that tasteless food, this time accompanied by a square of what looked like bread. His stomach was churning too much to eat, but he didn't dare refuse. Food meant the ordeal was truly over. If he turned it down, they might decide that he could go another round with six more soldiers.

So he ate, and when he was finished, the leash was hooked back to his collar, and he was led from that long room and through the halls of the base. Back toward his cell, and he hurried his steps, praying that he could wait until he got to his room before he threw up all over the place.

And he did manage it. Barely. The door had just closed when his stomach revolted. He ran toward the toilet and fell to his knees and was violently ill.

Blissfully alone, he curled up in the corner, crying helplessly. In silence, though – the shock he received after just one loud sob was enough to remind him that even this would not be permitted.

He tried to think about Steve, to find solace in the memory of happier days, the way he had yesterday, but he couldn't do it anymore. Thoughts of Steve inevitably led to thoughts of sex with Steve, and the idea of anyone – even Steve – touching him in that way now made him shudder violently and feel like he was going to be sick again.

He couldn't do it.

So he didn't think about anything at all. He just lay there, staring blankly at nothing.

Eventually he fell asleep.

****

He spent the next day in a haze of sick dread and fear. He barely touched the morning and afternoon meals. And when he felt the growing tension in the workshop as afternoon bled into evening, he wanted to moan out loud.

As his handler was taking him back to his cell, he thought about offering himself up to the man. Just dropping to his knees and going for it. I'll do you, I'll make it good, whatever you want, just please God please don't take me back there.

But of course he didn't. Wouldn't, either. Not while he still had a crumb of pride left.

Not that it felt that way when the door opened later that night. All pride vanished in a heartbeat then, subsumed by stark terror.

"No," he gasped. "Please."

Immediately the collar emitted its warning pulse. He ignored the pain, desperate to make his point now, while he still could. "Please don't."

The disc on the collar came to life then, a glow he could just see out of the corner of his eye. The pain sent him crashing to his knees, and he gritted his teeth to keep from crying out.

The handler stared down at him as impassively as always, eyes slightly narrowed.

"I can be useful," he pleaded. With every word, fire coursed through his body, making him want to scream. "Please. Just listen. I built weapons. On Earth. I can do that here. Please. Just let me…"

The handler did not even blink. He just reached down and clipped the leash to Tony's collar. And for the first time since his capture, Tony fought back. In blind panic, he shoved hard at the Kree. "No! Get off me!"

The collar reacted, punishing his disobedience with a fire far stronger than anything he had felt yet. He couldn't scream, couldn't even draw in a breath. He was paralyzed as his body burned to blackened ash. On and on it went, the agonizing fire consuming him, until he was certain he would die in the flames.

And he was glad then, because death was better than this.

Then just like before, everything simply…stopped. Including himself.

When his brain at last consented to work again, when he finally had to accept that he was still miserably, terribly alive, he realized that he was lying on the floor. Twitching and shuddering, but silent.

He stood up when the handler ordered him to his feet. He kept his eyes lowered as he was led from his cell. He followed obediently along as he was taken back to that room with the heavy gray curtain and the steel framework. He didn't fight anymore, and he didn't pull against the shackles.

The next evening, he began to cry when the door opened and the handler walked in. Silently, of course, but still crying. He couldn't help it.

By the fifth day he had stopped crying. He did nothing at all. Except what he was told to do.

Chapter Text

"Ho!" Thor hailed the slaver and stalked over imperiously, ignoring the fact that the man was clearly wrapping up business with a pair of Kree soldiers. "I require your assistance. I am in search of a slave."

The slaver continued talking to the soldiers. Not one of them so much as looked at Thor.

"Did you not hear my words?" Thor said loudly. He placed himself at the slaver's right hand. "I am in search of a slave."

It was the same story, the one Thor had been telling for weeks now. The exact wording might vary a little, depending on the situation, but the basic facts remained the same.

"I am Falder," Thor said. "I seek another human slave. Like this one." He gestured to Steve.

Steve stood still, his head bowed, his eyes downcast. He knew how to behave like a good slave, knew what was required of him. Even before they had gone out on their first day, as they had been putting their story together, Thor had taught him what he must do.

Most Kree slaves were either naked or wore short tunics that reminded Steve of the Romans. Thor had purchased such a tunic for him; the sleeves barely came over his shoulders, and he had to fight the urge to pull on the short hem so it would cover his ass. His feet were bare, and a silver belt was buckled about his waist, made of the same silver discs that ornamented Thor's armor. It signified ownership, Thor had told him, and Steve had just nodded.

The real mark of his pretend slavery, though, was the gold collar around his neck. It was not tight enough to restrict his breathing, but it lay snug against his skin, never permitting him to forget its presence. At night when they returned to the ship and he could finally remove it, he often found himself bent over, one hand pressed to his chest while he breathed in deep, his shoulders heaving as though he would never get enough air into his lungs again.

Part of that was Kree-Lar's atmosphere, he knew. After spending a day breathing in the higher nitrogen content in the air here, he felt light-headed and almost dizzy. By contrast, the increased gravity added weight to his limbs and dragged down his step. Thor had asked him with some concern how he was faring, and he had answered truthfully. The serum in his blood mitigated the worst of the effects, but he was not completely immune to them.

It frightened him to think of what Tony must be enduring under these conditions. How long could his damaged heart continue to beat under such strain? How long before he fell ill beyond recovery, his body overtaxed and fatally weakened?

"I am no Asgardian!" Thor bellowed.

So they had reached that point in the story. Steve could not understand the Kree language, so he had to rely on Thor's half of the conversation to know what was going on. Sooner or later, they always got here, when the Kree slaver they were talking to pointed out with some suspicion that Asgardians did not keep slaves.

"I was exiled from my realm," Thor said stiffly. "I am an Asgardian no more, and as such I do as I please. And it pleases me to be served by those of a lesser race." He pointed at Steve again. "Therefore I seek another one such as this."

Between continuous immersion in the language and the repetition of their story, Steve was starting to learn some of the words. He understood just fine when the slaver asked, "What is he?"

"He is called a human, from the realm known as Midgard," Thor responded. "He is an inferior member of that species, however. He lacks their most distinctive trait – a glowing disc set in their chest. That is the type of human slave I now seek. Have you any for sale?"

Day after day, hour after hour of hearing how inferior he was, and Steve was ready to believe it. After all, what had he accomplished lately? It was Tony who had saved him during the Green Goblin's attack in New York at such terrible cost to himself. And when Steve had finally found a way to help him, it had led to Tony being captured and taken into slavery. How could anyone in their right mind think he was capable of being a leader, of being someone to look up to?

The Kree slaver looked him up and down, then shook his head. "No," he said, followed by a long string of words Steve didn't understand.

Despair gripped him by the throat. They had been at this for weeks now, and they were no closer to finding Tony. Kree-Lar was densely populated and Halasine City, where they had landed, was the size of New York City.

At this rate they would never find him.

He was careful not to let his thoughts show on his face, though. He was supposed to be a slave now, his mind empty of everything except serving his master. He had no thoughts of his own, no wants, no needs. He existed only to obey.

That was what the Kree believed, Thor had told him as they planned their story. "They lack the ability to place themselves in another man's boots."

Steve had sighed unhappily. "Tony would never go along with that."

"Not willingly," Thor had agreed. "But a man will do almost anything if it means his survival."

Steve had not answered him, knowing that Thor was right. The very fact that Tony was alive was proof of that, the shining light of the arc reactor all the evidence anyone would need that Tony Stark would never surrender, never give in.

Tony was out there somewhere. Steve was certain of it. Playing the part like Steve himself was. Biding his time for the right moment.

He had to be. Please God, let him be out there.

Hold on, he thought desperately as he obediently followed Thor across the market, to another slaver this one had pointed out as possibly being able to help them.

Just hold on, Tony. We're coming.

****

Nothing set one day apart from any other.

Tony lived. Not from choice – what he wanted had long since ceased to matter. He lived because the Kree had said he must, and to disobey them was unthinkable.

They had punished him once, for getting it wrong, for disobeying, for breaking the rules. He had worked very hard to push that memory away, banishing it to the far corners of his mind where no lights ever shone. But he still knew that it had happened, and he would do anything to avoid it a second time.

So he obeyed, and he lived, and he gave them no reason to notice him. He was silent and submissive. He did not look them in the eye. He did not even cry anymore.

He was very good.

****

Mornings were the best. He worked then, methodical and precise, but not too slow. He did not make any mistakes (that was not allowed, no, not ever, not ever again…)

In the morning he could lose himself in the reassuring rhythms of salvage and repair. Head down, eyes lowered, hands moving in the rhythms that were muscle memory now, requiring no active thought and thus exceedingly welcome.

When the alert came, announcing that it was time for lunch, he set his work down immediately and moved out into the hall with the others. Head down, eyes lowered, shoulders rounded. Not a man, not a person, nothing to see here, please move on, please, please.

That break in the routine changed everything. In the space of a few seconds, he was forcibly reminded of what time it was, and what lay ahead for him. Sick dread settled into the pit of his stomach then, making it difficult to eat the afternoon meal. He always forced himself to do it, though. He obeyed the rules and he did not draw attention to himself.

Although he ate when he was supposed to, he was losing weight. He could see it in the spindly appearance of his wrists, feel it the hard ridges of bone wanting to push through his skin when he scrubbed away the touch of the Kree soldiers every night. He never really felt warm, and sometimes his hands shook so badly that he feared his work would suffer as a result and the collar would activate, frightening him even further.

He was afraid of the collar and that disc attached to his neck. Afraid of the pain they brought. Afraid of the Kree and their cold stares. Afraid of failing, of disobeying, of breaking the rules. Afraid of being punished again.

The fear was always there, a part of him now. He had learned to live with it, though, the way he had learned to live with constant nausea, twisting anxiety in his chest, and a headache that never went away. Sometimes that pain was dull and throbbing. Other times it was sharp and cutting, making him squeeze his eyes shut and press the heel of his hand to his forehead. But it was always there, from the moment he woke up to the moment he finally fell asleep at night.

Still. He lived. He obeyed. He was good.

****

Nights were spent waiting.

Huddled in his cell at first, every line of his body taut and shuddering with fear and dread, counting down the seconds until they came for him. Numbers were good. Numbers were a solid line to reality, holding him there even when he wanted to run from it and hide in the same dark corners of his mind where he had hidden those things he did not want to ever look at. Numbers kept him here and present, made sure he obeyed, kept him alive.

He counted the footsteps to that room with the silvery curtain and the steel bars. Shackled there, listening for approaching footsteps, he counted off the seconds. It was never less than six hundred, never more than nine hundred.

It was hard to keep counting when the soldiers came and reduced him to nothing but a body. Only one number mattered then, and some nights it was six and some nights it was eight, while that other number, the one that lurked in the darkness deep in his mind, went up and up, sometimes by six and sometimes by eight, but no matter which one it was, it just kept on climbing.

No counting then. Just enduring. Silence came so naturally to him now that maintaining it was the easiest part. All that was left then was to wait for them to finish, for that last call of Next!, for them to leave him alone, bleeding and shaking with pain but alone, blessedly alone.

Other numbers came and went. Footsteps to medical. Seconds ticking away during the cursory examination, but look away, always look away, be good, don't look the doctor in the eye and see his disgust and hatred, be good, be good, for the love of God be good. Five minutes of hot water and soap and the sharp ridges of bone beneath his shaking hands. More footsteps, walking away, almost scuttling, back to the safe refuge of isolation.

And then finally locked away in his cell for the night, his last meal of the day vomited up, clean skin shuddering against the hard floor, eyes squeezed shut, trying to sleep. While numbers paraded through his head by sixes and eights and one day blurred into another so that he lost count but that was good, that was very good.

He waited to fall asleep.

He waited for the new day to start. Just like the one that had come before.

He lived. He obeyed. He was very good.

****

"Steve?"

"Mmm?" He did not look up from his contemplation of the bulkhead.

"Captain."

The use of his title was rare anymore. His attention fully engaged now, Steve looked up. "What is it?"

Thor was not the kind of man to lurk in doorways. He strode forward now, looking at Steve with concern. "I think we should find a new way to continue our search."

"What?" Just like that, his lethargy vanished. His heart suddenly racing, Steve rose to his feet. "Why? Why would you say that? We've been over this. There's no other way to find Tony."

His bedroom on their ship was small, and with Thor standing between him and the door, it suddenly seemed much smaller. He glanced over Thor's shoulder, needing to see the outside corridor. He couldn't even explain why he did it. He just had to.

Thor saw him look. "Aye," he agreed somberly. "But I fear we will lose you along the way."

Steve stiffened. He knew what this was about then, why Thor looked at him with such worry. "I'm fine," he said. "It's just an act. I know that. I'm fine."

But he knew he wasn't. Day after day, standing there with his head down, silencing the questions he longed for answers to, hearing himself disparaged – and he was beginning to believe the role. It was in danger of becoming his reality.

He couldn't think about himself now, though. That was selfish, and it was just plain wrong. He needed to think about Tony, and no one else. Tony had no release at all. He was never able to take his collar off and lift his head, never able to speak to another man as an equal, never allowed to forget that he really was just a slave.

Steve shuddered.

Thor saw this, too, of course, and his frown deepened. "I really must insist."

"I'm fine," Steve said firmly. "It's not… I was thinking of Tony." He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "You and I, we get to stop pretending. He doesn't have that."

Thor nodded. He seemed about to speak, then changed his mind.

Steve did not miss that hesitation. "Go on," he said. He was pretty sure he wouldn't want to hear what Thor had to say, but he wanted him to say it anyway. This was no time for sugar-coating the truth.

Still looking deeply troubled, Thor said slowly, "You are right. It is not pretend for Tony. This is his life now, and it is very real. You must prepare yourself for that. He will not be the same man as the one we knew before all this happened."

Steve's first instinct was to bristle defensively and say that he knew that, of course he knew that. But the honest truth was that he hadn't thought about what would happen once they found Tony. He was too focused on the search itself, waiting for that moment when they heard the words they longed to hear and they finally were given direction.

It wasn't that he didn't want to think about it; deliberate ignorance had never been his style, and it never would be. In the beginning it had been all he could think about. He had tried to get some detailed information out of Thor about what the life of a Kree slave was like, but Thor had seen through him, and refused to say too much. His imagination had filled in the blanks, though, and for almost a week he had woken from horrible nightmares where he saw Tony collared and chained in a row with other slaves, working under brutal conditions to make the Kree empire glorious.

After the sixth day in a row when he had woken up with a scream, he had realized that he had to stop obsessing over it. He could not help Tony right now. All he could do was keep up the search, refuse to give up hope, and continue looking. Constantly brooding about it was not doing either of them any favors.

So he had stopped thinking about it. He had deliberately put those awful thoughts from his mind, and told himself that he was not to imagine it anymore. When he thought about Tony at all, it was in the abstract, as a goal to be reached. Anything else was just too painful.

Standing there, though, Thor between him and the escape of the doorway, he recognized the truth of Thor's words. Steve had the luxury of not thinking about the hell Tony was going through. Tony didn't have that option. He was living it.

He looked down. He nodded, biting at his lip.

"But we should not give up hope," Thor said, his voice heavy with kindness. "I have never known another human with such tenacity and determination as Anthony Stark. If it is possible for a man to endure such trials and conquer them, he will be the one to find a way."

Tears burned at Steve's eyes. He still did not trust himself to speak.

Thor drew in a breath as though he meant to say more, but again must have decided against it. He did not say anything else. He just quietly walked away, leaving Steve alone with his grief.

****

Nothing set one day apart from any other.

Until something did.

It was early morning, hours since he had been brought back to his cell, his body healed, the blood and come washed away. Hours that he had passed in deep, dreamless sleep at first (he didn't dream anymore, his sleeping mind as shut down as his waking mind, and he was grateful, so damn grateful).

For some time though, he had been awake, slumped in his corner, staring dully at nothing. He wasn't even counting. In a place where the lights never went off and he never saw the sun or a view from a window to measure the time, he was still perfectly aware of the hour. And right now there were a lot more empty seconds to get through before he could begin his next countdown, waiting for his handler to come for him and take him to the dining hall for the morning meal.

The explosion took him completely by surprise.

It was distant enough that the sound was muffled, but there was no mistaking what it was. His entire cell seemed to rock, the walls shaking briefly before settling down again.

Tony reared back in shock, his eyes wide.

In the utter silence that followed, he could almost hear the frantic pounding of his heart. He began to shake all over.

They were here.

They had come for him. Steve had come for him.

Far off, he heard another distant boom.

He lurched to his feet, one trembling hand braced against the wall. He stood there, swaying a little, hardly daring to breathe for fear that he would miss the sound of another explosion.

He wanted to run to the door and beat on it. He wanted to shout for help, for rescue – I'm here, I'm here, please I'm here!

But he couldn't do it. His fear of the collar and the pain it dealt was too strong. If he did those things he would be breaking the rules. He would be disobeying.

And he couldn't do that. He couldn't.

He thought maybe he heard another booming explosion, this one even further away than the last. It might just have been his own thumping heart, though. It was difficult to say for sure.

The minutes dragged out, eternal, agonizing. Afraid to move, he just stood there, fingers white where they pressed against the wall, his whole body trembling with an explosion he hadn't even heard, one that sent wild hope through his veins with every desperate heartbeat. He stared at the door, willing it to open. He counted each second a hundred times as he pictured Steve and Thor moving through the halls, encountering resistance every step of the way. They would handle it all perfectly, though. They would find him.

Please God, please let them find him.

Steve. Steve…

Please.

Time passed. There were no more explosions. Nothing happened. No one came.

Eventually he realized this and he let his gaze slide off the door that remained closed. Little by little, he crouched down. He tipped forward until his knees hit the floor, then his hands. He folded in on himself and closed his eyes.

It wouldn't have mattered, he told himself. The explosions had been so far away. It might not even have been this particular facility that had fallen under attack. Even if it was, standing at the door shouting would have availed him nothing, and only brought him pain and further punishment.

He shuddered.

Once upon a time, he wouldn't have wasted a single moment. He would have been at the door and yelling within seconds.

But he hadn't even tried.

Tears burned his eyes, scalding, terrifying. He had been numb for too long. He had forgotten how to cry, and worse, forgotten how to cry in silence. He jammed the back of his wrist against his mouth and wept from failing hope and the terror of knowing that he was going to spend the rest of his life here.

Because no one was coming.

****

Their morning meal was delayed. Not that Tony cared. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt hungry; his stomach was always twisted in knots of fear and dread.

He didn't know how long he had lain on the floor, silently crying. Eventually the tears had dried up. For a long time after that he had just huddled there, rocking a little sometimes when the pain threatened to overwhelm him again. And finally, at last, he had regained that numb state where nothing bothered him anymore.

Numbers ticked past in his mind again. Seconds and minutes and hours and he stared at the wall and he didn't think about anything. Not about the explosions or his door that remained closed or the image of the Kree dragging away the dead bodies of the ones responsible for those explosions or his own cowering silence. Those things had happened and they were gone and he could not (would not, no, not anymore, not ever) think about them.

As always, there was no warning. The door just suddenly opened and his handler was there.

The day was finally underway.

He followed his handler with the same swift obedience he always showed, head down, eyes lowered. He did not look at the other slaves in the hall, and they did not look at him.

The dining hall was as silent as ever. Tony moved through the line, got his food, and sat down. He sat in the same seat he always did, not because it had been assigned to him or because he wanted to, but because sitting there was part of his daily routine, and he was a creature of habit now.

There was an empty seat at the table across from his. He ate mechanically, grimacing a little as he swallowed the tasteless food.

No one spoke. Nothing was different. Nothing set today apart from yesterday or the day before or the weeks and months before them. Nonetheless, a strange undercurrent of anxiety filled the room, communicating itself in a way that required no words. When the slave sitting next to him nudged him slightly, Tony looked over at him while keeping his head down.

Keeping his hand in his lap, the man gestured to the empty seat, where just yesterday a tall man with red skin and an odd, almost square-shaped head had sat. Then he pointed up. His lips parted in a gesture that could almost have been a smile.

Up. Not down. Not dead then.

Rescued.

As he passed the information on to the slave on his left, repeating the same gestures, Tony felt that inexplicable hope suddenly rise within him again. He didn't want to hope, didn't want to feel this terrible lifting of his spirits, this surge of life within him once more, especially after he had worked so hard to stamp it out. But it was there all the same, and he could not deny it.

So what if it hadn't been for him. So what if it hadn't been the Avengers. It was still a rescue. One man's people had come for him. They would come back soon for the others. No one could look upon this place and let these injustices continue.

They would come back.

He just had to be patient and wait.

They would come back.

****

A few of the handlers came for their slaves, leading them out of the dining hall and out into the base, to whatever tasks they performed. But only a few. Tension rose in the large room, and Tony found himself sitting with his hands clasped tightly in his lap, his shoulders hunched and his head bowed. Whatever the reason for the delay, he knew it was not good.

His suspicions were confirmed when one of the green-armored accusers entered the room. A silent quake shivered through the slaves who remained behind, and Tony quivered right alongside them. He kept his eyes desperately lowered as the accuser moved through the dining hall, his nerves twisting into a tighter knot with every heavy, approaching footfall.

The accuser stopped in front of him. "You."

Tony's heart stopped. A torrent of words he didn't dare give voice to lodged in his throat, choking him, making it hard to breathe. What no please no why I didn't do anything please don't punish me again please why why why me?

He closed his eyes briefly as he swayed to his feet. The accuser began to walk away, and Tony followed obediently. Anything else was unthinkable, even though his legs kept wanting to give out and he could feel himself shaking with fright.

The accuser led him to a room down the hall that looked like an office. Two Kree soldiers were already standing there, waiting. The accuser moved to stand between them, and all three of them stared at him.

Tony just stood there, too terrified to even cry.

"Remove your clothing," ordered the accuser.

The room grayed out. Blinded by terror, there was nothing but the patch of floor he was staring at. He reached up and grabbed at his tunic, pulled it over his head. He held onto it for a moment, taking refuge in the feel of cloth in his hand. They wouldn't like that, though, he knew that already. They wouldn't want him to have even that small comfort. So he let the tunic drop to the floor, and then he just stood there, light-headed from a lack of air as his breath heaved in his chest, shaking and stuttering in his lungs.

please don’t please don't not you too not you I can't I can't I can't

The Kree did not fuck him, though. They just stared at him and stared at him, and at last one of them said, "It is not enough."

The accuser made a quiet humming noise of dissatisfaction.

"It can still work," said the other officer.

The accuser grunted.

"Can you brighten that light?" asked the first officer, and it took Tony a moment to realize that it was directed at him.

It had been so long since anyone had spoken to him that he floundered, unsure how to respond. What should he do? What should he say? What wouldn't get him shocked?

He started to panic. The question made no sense. At first all he could think about was the white light that glowed on the disc attached to the back of his neck, the one that activated the collar when he did not behave. As the silence drew out and he felt the weight of their displeasure, he instinctively bowed his head and hunched his shoulders to appear more submissive – and he saw the light they were talking about.

The arc reactor.

The silence continued to lengthen and oh God they had asked him a question and he had to respond or the collar would shock him. And if that happened he would start to scream from sheer terror if nothing else, and so he forced himself to swallow hard and whisper, "Yes."

Immediately he cringed, because speaking was not allowed, making noise of any kind was not allowed. He knew it was acceptable now, because they had asked him a question and that meant he was not only permitted to answer but that he must answer, but he still couldn't stop himself from tensing up in dreadful anticipation of the pain.

"How?" asked the Kree.

He told them. Because he had to, because he had no secrets from them, because the arc reactor didn't really belong to him anymore, but to the man named Tony who had designed it and built it and given it life. He told them, and the sound of his own voice had become hateful, something to fear. He told them, and he could feel their dissatisfaction mounting, and his heart raced painfully and in spite of the cold and trembling fear, he felt nervous sweat break out on his brow and in his palms.

God. He was saying it wrong, doing it wrong. He began to talk faster, raising his hands so he could make gestures as he explained. For the briefest second, the cold sterile walls fell away and the Kree disappeared, and he could see the blue light of the 3D display turning delicately between his fingers, a familiar, accented voice responding to his prompts while Steve sat off to one side smiling fondly at him as he worked, and no no no don't think about it don't think about it don't think.

"Enough," rumbled the accuser. The command was accompanied by a wave of that low, aching pain that swept over his entire body. Tony froze, inhaling sharply. He lowered his hands to his sides, banished words to the back of his mind again, resumed being just a slave.

"We do not have time for this," said one of the officers. "The work must be done now."

A short silence fell. Tony stood there sweating and trembling, and waited for them to decide his fate.

"Put it to work," said the accuser. "The light will be of use."

****

Whoever had attacked the compound in order to free their companion had done so with incredibly powerful weapons. One entire section of the building was demolished. Rubble was piled high, and dust lay thick in the air.

The power was off in that section of the building. On the outer edges of the destruction, this did not matter. Due to the damage, the compound was open to the sky, and sunlight streamed in, illuminating the scene. As he passed through the light, Tony found himself ducking his head, wanting to skitter away from it. He didn't want to look up at that alien sky, that unknown sun. Beneath the open sky, he felt far more naked and vulnerable than he already was.

Groups of slaves worked in the semi-darkness, hauling away debris and clearing the area. Because he was his own flashlight, Tony was ordered deep into the heart of the destruction. Here some of the walls were still standing, and the destruction was more localized and clearly related to weapons fire. When he first saw the damage, he caught himself staring, trying to puzzle out what had caused it, only to wrench his head around quickly so he wouldn't look, wouldn't be caught standing there doing nothing, wouldn't be shocked as punishment.

In another life, he might have been scared by the darkness, and the close confines of the looming, mangled walls. It could have been too much, clawing at tangles of debris in this space that was eerily reminiscent of the cave where his life had begun.

Instead, he felt nothing. That sense of might-have-been, that fear belonged to another man, the one who had built the arc reactor.

No, he knew what true fear was, and it was not darkness and cave walls. It was bright lights and silver walls, it was a pair of eyes resting on your bowed head for longer than a second, sizing you up, judging you. It was unseen footsteps and impersonal hands, and a shining band of gold.

It was everywhere.

****

He worked all day, with only one break for a meal of the usual tasteless patties and some water. Then it was back into the darkness.

The hours drew out, long and quivering. He was weak now, no longer accustomed to physical labor. More and more often as the day passed, he fumbled and dropped the heavier chunks of debris. His hands were slashed and bruised. Twice he stood up and was assaulted by a wave of dizziness that sent him staggering down to his knees. Each time, only the fear of being shocked got him up and moving again.

He breathed in great gulps of air. His heart struggled to keep up with the demands placed on it. The glow from the arc reactor remained steady, though. He focused on the light and pushed aside the throbbing in his head, the trembly ache in his muscles, the blood on his hands. Those things weren't important. They didn't matter. He couldn't let them matter.

He lifted and pulled and strained and dragged debris from the darkest corners of the damaged sector, and always the light was there. The man who had created that light, the man who might have been frightened by the cave-like nature of this area, would have been worried about the arc reactor. He would have been thinking about what it meant now that the Kree were more informed about it. He would have been thinking about the symbolic nature of that glowing circle, and the steadfast light it emitted.

Tony worked, and he did not think about those things. If the Kree meant to take the arc reactor, they would. He could not stop them.

That, though. Something hid in those words, in that thought. Something dark and terrifying, yet seductive.

Not the Kree taking the arc reactor. More like…the concept of it being removed.

What came after.

That was a thought to file away. Something to consider. For later.

If it became necessary.

****

He worked.

He looked at the debris he hauled down the hall to where other slaves waited to cart it away, and he thought about the people who had created it. The Kree soldiers who trained for battle here, who came by sixes and eights every night to release their aggression on his helpless body.

Alien men and women who had come to rescue one of their own.

He staggered beneath the weight of a jagged chunk of ceiling, and wondered how long it would be before they came back. How long for them to reach safety after yesterday's rescue, ascertain that their companion was all right, and return?

Back and forth he walked under the comforting glow of the arc reactor, and he wasn't counting anymore. He had progressed far beyond counting, into realms of pure speculation and guesswork. He knew he shouldn't be thinking about these things, that it was dangerous and stupid, but he couldn't help it. The questions came fast and furious in a brain that leapt at the chance to function again. How fast could their ship go? What if their vessel had sustained damage from Kree weapons? How many of them had been here? How many had died, creating those grisly dark stains on the floor that he had to step around?

They would come back to avenge their dead, if nothing else.

One way or another, they would come back.

They would come back.

****

They returned him to his cell, still naked. He washed the blood from his hands and drank some water and huddled in his corner. He closed his eyes and tried to will the throbbing pain in his head to settle down. Still not counting.

He was waiting. He was thinking.

He was hoping.

What did their ships look like? How many were there? How many passengers could each one carry? Where was their home planet? Had they ever heard of Earth? Of Asgard?

What if they ran into Steve and Thor? What if they joined forces?

How much longer before they returned?

The door opened. Lost in fantasy, for half a second he looked up and thought that they had finally come. Hope blazed within him, burning brighter than the arc reactor could ever be. Then he saw that it was only his handler, and he swiftly looked away before the disc could activate and the collar shocked him for his careless disobedience.

Frantic terror rose in his throat, choking him, snuffing out all hope. They couldn't. They couldn't.

No no no not tonight no please not tonight.

He had worked so hard all day. Didn't he get any kind of reward for that? Couldn't he have one night, just please God one night when they didn't chain him down, when the soldiers didn't force their way into his body, when that awful number in the darkness inside his head didn't go up by six or by eight?

Just one night, please.

Stumbling, numb with dread, he followed his handler through the halls to that room with the steel bars and the silvery curtain. The shackles closed tightly about his wrists, making him feel more helpless than ever before as he lay there listening desperately for another round of explosions, for something to signal that the rescuers had returned.

No one intervened, though. And when the door opened (it took seven hundred and sixty-two seconds), it was only to admit the soldiers. The pain seemed sharper tonight, the hands on his hips more bruising than normal as one by one they tore him apart.

Later, after, when the doctor attached the healing device to his collar, he lay shaking and gasping on the cold table beneath the bright lights and squeezed his eyes shut until helpless tears ran down his face.

Still later, alone in his cell again, wearing a fresh tunic, the light from the arc reactor covered up, the sour stink of vomit lingering in the air, (eight, eight, add eight), trying not to think about that Kree sky and the ships that were out there, please they were out there.

They were turning around any second now, they were coming back, they would not let everyone else stay here like this, they were coming back.

They were coming back.

****

The next day it was as though nothing had happened. The repairs were finished, that hole in the compound erased completely in just one day. A reminder to the slaves that they could not escape their fate so easily. That life went on as it was meant to. That they were here to stay.

There were six soldiers that night.

When it was over, Tony lay on the floor of his cell and stared dry-eyed at the blank silver wall.

He knew the truth now. He should have always known it.

No one was coming.

Not the alien rescuers. Not the Avengers. Not Steve. The promise Steve had made him in the hospital, the promise he had held onto for so long, was just empty words.

I'll never leave you. No matter where you go, no matter where you are, I won't leave you. I promise.

But Steve had lied. Steve had lied. He wasn't coming.

No one was coming.

Chapter Text

Nothing set one day apart from any other.

He lived. He obeyed. He worked.

The other slaves did the same. Nothing changed at all. Surely they had to know what had happened, yet not one of them gave any sign of it. There was nothing to indicate that two days ago they had come so close to rescue. There were no rebellions, no subtle signals and gestures among them, no communication at all. No one looked longingly out into space as though they too were waiting for a rescue that would never come.

Maybe they had all been through this before. Maybe they all knew the truth. Maybe, if they knew how desperately Tony had hoped, they would laugh at him.

He had never really wondered about the other slaves before, these Skrulls, these men with their feathers, these members of alien species he would never know the names of. He had never thought to question how long they had been here or what they had seen.

And he didn't want to think about them. He couldn't let himself think about them. They meant nothing to him. They couldn't help him. He couldn't help them. It was best to forget all about them, to turn his back on them.

He needed to find that place he had been before those explosions, before hope had lived so briefly within his chest.

He needed to not feel again.

And he had to remember what he was. Where he was. And why.

If all he had left was being a slave, then that was the only thing that mattered. This work he did. The rhythm of his hands moving, repair weaponry that was damaged but still salvageable. The pulse pistol he was staring at, currently in pieces atop his workstation, fried circuits needing to be replaced.

There was no warning light from the disc. The collar simply activated, sending a painful jolt through him. Tony gasped, his entire body surging forward in his seat. A split-second later, his hands shaking, he got back to work.

He had been so good, he hadn't done anything to deserve a shock for so long, that it terrified him now more than anything else could have. He kept his head down like a good slave, not wanting to see if the Kree quartermaster was watching him carefully, looking for signs of disobedience, for an indication that he needed to be punished again.

The thought of being taken away, of being thrown screaming into the void again, filled him with terror. No no please don't I'm working I'm obeying I'm being good please god don't.

And he was. He worked very hard that day.

He was very good.

****

At night, alone in his cell, he sat in his usual corner and slid one hand beneath the tunic that was so inadequate for covering his body or keeping out the eternal cold. He laid his palm flat over the arc reactor, then let it rest there. He didn't look down at it, though. He just sat there, staring dully at the sleek wall the way he always did.

It would be so simple. So easy. Just a quick grab and twist, then one pull. Then he would only have to wait. He could even count down the seconds if he wanted.

There wouldn't be many of them.

He should do it now, he thought. While he still could. They had taken everything else from him. This was the only choice that was still solely his to make.

Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark?

The voice rose in his memory, ancient and dusty. A voice he hadn't heard in years, part of the past he had tried so hard to put behind him. A voice belonging to a man who was all but forgotten now.

Yes, he thought. He felt amazingly calm. Yes, it is.

He pulled the arc reactor out.

It was just as easy as he had known it would be. He let his hand fall to his lap, still holding the device. The light shone steadily, reflecting brightly off the silver walls.

The first pain knifed through his chest, a prickly heat that quickly spread to his neck and then down his left arm. He arched up off the wall, gasping soundlessly.

It was growing harder to breathe.

Pain stabbed at him again, and he had to clench his jaws to keep from crying out. It hurt, God it hurt, but he had to do this silently or the collar would activate and he would die screaming then, and he didn't want to die like that, oh God he didn't want to die at all what was he doing what was he thinking…

Terror surged through him. He scrabbled at the tunic, yanking it up over his head and throwing it to one side in his panic. With a breathless sob, he slammed the arc reactor back into the socket. His hand was shaking so badly that it skittered uselessly over his chest as he slumped back against the wall.

He reached up with his other hand to cover his eyes as he wept, using his forearm to press his trembling fingers against the arc reactor as though to hold it in place.

I'm sorry I'm sorry Steve I can't do it I can't do it.

Steve did not reply, of course. Steve was not there. Steve was gone, long gone. There was only himself, and the terrible knowledge that now he truly did have nothing left.

****

"We're leaving," Steve said. "Tony isn't here. We've already wasted too much time on this planet." He looked at the Ernorran crew. He had never once heard them complain about how futile their search was, or about being kept away from their homeworld for so long. He felt bad now asking them to give him more time, but not bad enough to let that stand in his way. "We're going to Hala."

It was probably cheating to do this in front of the crew instead of talking privately to Thor first. Steve didn't care anymore. He was done waiting.

He knew now that they should never have come to Kree-Lar. Tony wasn't here. Had probably never been here. He had made a grave mistake in choosing this planet as their destination when they left Ernor.

And Tony was the one paying the price for that mistake.

Thor did not question him in front of the crew. He had the decency to wait until later, after they had left Kree-Lar and set a course for Hala. "Why now?" he asked. "I do not disagree that we will not find Tony here, but what made you decide that the time is now?"

"Because it is," Steve said.

What he didn't say was that he couldn't handle one more day of putting on that collar, of bowing his head and pretending to be a docile slave. He knew he would have to do it again once they arrived on Hala, but he needed a break. For a few days at least he needed to just be Steve Rogers again.

Nor did he say that he could almost feel Tony slipping away from him. He had woken up this morning from a terrible dream where Tony had tried to kill himself by taking out the arc reactor. He had watched it all happen, but he had been helpless to intervene and make Tony stop. Though he had screamed and shouted, he hadn't been able to move or get near him; it had been like standing behind an invisible barrier that prevented him from reaching Tony. He had beat on it with his fists, but Tony hadn't heard his cries. And when at last he had broken through and stumbled forward, he had walked right through Tony, and into wakefulness.

Before all this, Steve would have confidently said that Tony would never kill himself, never even consider it. But that was before. There was only so much a man could take, and it had been so long, over two months now. Tony couldn't be blamed for thinking that Steve wasn't coming for him, or maybe even that Steve had died in the initial attack on Ernor.

The dream had felt so real. Too real. More than ever, time was working against them. If they didn't find Tony soon, they never would.

"We have to go now," he said. "I just feel it, Thor. I know this is the right thing to do."

Thor gazed at him for a long moment, then he nodded. "Aye," he said. "Perhaps it is."

****

In the early morning, Tony sat in the corner with his knees drawn up to his chest, and told himself repeatedly that he had to behave today. He could not afford to let his attention wander, to be shocked again. Once was bad enough. Twice would bring him onto the quartermaster's radar, and that was to be avoided at all costs.

This was it. This was his life. There was never going to be anything else. He had to remember that. And since he had no choice but to keep on living, then he had to remember to follow the rules.

The rules were simple, really. He found it hard to believe that he had ever thought otherwise, that he had ever fought against them. There was no fighting them, no fighting the Kree. This was his life now and it was always going to be his life. He had to obey the rules and obey the Kree, and if he didn't, there was always the collar to painfully remind him of his bad behavior.

The collar. Everything came back to that golden band and the disc attached to the back of his neck, wired into his central nervous system so it knew when he was being disobedient at the very instant it happened. It ruled his life absolutely, and yet he couldn't even touch it for fear of the pain it brought.

For a long while he just sat there, staring vacantly at the wall, not even seeing it. In the back of his mind he counted the seconds and minutes until his handler came for him, but mostly he didn't think about anything at all. After all, what did it matter? Nothing set one day apart from any other.

So one man had been rescued. He had had his chance last night to make his own escape, and he had failed. He had nothing to look forward to. Because no one was coming.

There was only himself.

He was the only one who could do this.

His breath caught. His gaze came into sudden focus, so that he actually saw the sleek silver of the wall for once.

Do…what? What exactly was he thinking? How insane did he have to be to even contemplate this…whatever this was?

He wanted to curl up tight and close his eyes and blot out these terrible thoughts – but it was already far too late for that. He had thought them and now here they were, circling in his mind, terrifying as hell but demanding that he sit up and pay attention.

But it felt good, God it felt good to use his brain again.

It was the collar. Everything came back to that. The collar and the disc and the pain. If he didn't have the collar, if he were free to move, to think…

He knew then what he had to do. The idea was just…there…in his head, perfect and inviolate. Most of his best ideas had happened that way, arriving fully formed in his brain with little or no actual thought involved. How to create an AI. How to create a miniaturized arc reactor. How to (re)create a new element.

How to create a device that would break his collar.

As soon as he thought it, he cringed a little, ducking his head and squeezing his eyes shut. They might know what he was thinking. The disc might be able to tell. And they had been in his head before, when they had punished his failures by ripping everything away and throwing him into the void and no no no don't think about it, but the fact remained – it all came back to the collar and that disc on the back of his neck.

It could be done. He knew that much. He could already see what he needed to do, the parts he would need, the materials. It would take a long time. He would have to be extremely careful. Smuggling parts and supplies from his daily work routine would be difficult at best and downright impossible most days. He would have to be very vigilant.

Tony thought about this. Wondering if he were still even capable of such a thing. He felt a little bit like waking up from a long nap on a hot afternoon, his brain lethargic and struggling to process what was going on around him.

Could he remain alert and wary? Could he find enough of himself to make this possible?

He thought…maybe he could. It would mean turning his life into an even greater nightmare than it already was, forced by his own mind to stay present and focused in a way that he had fought so long and hard to avoid.

But it would be worth it. Wouldn't it?

He told himself not to think too much about what he would do once he rid himself of the collar. He could think about that later, when he actually had options. He could make a run for it then, and try to escape. Or maybe he could just sit here and reach into his chest and pull out the arc reactor and let it all happen naturally, going out on his terms, no one else's.

He didn't necessarily have to decide his fate today. It was wonderful enough just to know that he could.

****

It was three days before Tony was able to put his plan in motion. Three days of lying curled up on the floor, shaking with fright and counting all the reasons why he shouldn't do it, why it was dangerous, why he would be making the biggest mistake of his life. Three days of gathering his courage and telling himself that he could do this, he must do this, no one else could or would. Three days of sitting at his workstation, nerving himself up to look around with rapid, tiny glances. Always checking the Kree quartermaster first, making sure those cold eyes were not fixed on himself.

Three days, and then he finally did it.

As he walked out of that room at the end of the day, a coil of wire hidden in his hand, he thought he would vomit from sheer terror. He expected the disc to fire up at any moment, punishing him with the fiery pain that he would actually deserve this time.

The disc did not activate, though. The collar remained quiescent. Theft, he decided, must not be programmed into its strict set of rules. And really, why should it be? No slave would ever dare do such a thing, and even if they did, there was nothing here of value to steal, anyway.

Instead of reassuring him, the collar's silence only made Tony feel more frightened. Surely the Kree must know what he was up to, surely they must see it on his face. How could they not notice him breaking out into a cold sweat, or the tension in the hunched set of his shoulders, or the way his eyes darted restlessly from side to side?

Yet no one said anything. He walked with the other slaves back to the halls where their cells were located – and nothing happened at all. No one shouted at him or called him a thief. No one grabbed him and seized the wire from his hand. No one even looked at him.

He had forgotten, he realized. This was his life now, this was the way it was, and in his miserable nervous tension he had forgotten how none of the Kree ever truly saw him. None of them condescended to actually look at a slave. To them he was invisible. Only the doctors each night paid him any real attention, and that was only because they had to, as part of their job.

Still. Sooner or later, if he wasn't very, very careful, they would see. He couldn't allow himself to get complacent and trust in his invisibility. And once they saw what he was doing, they wouldn't just drag him away and punish him this time.

They would kill him.

A strange kind of peace came over Tony then. As he walked into his cell and the door closed behind him, he realized that he wasn't afraid anymore.

Death no longer held any fear for him. He had been afraid for so long that the thought of dying was almost comforting. At least then this would all be over.

One way or another, this nightmare would finally end.

****

Alone in his cell, he hunkered down in the corner and examined the wire he had stolen. By itself it wasn't good for much of anything, but it would be useful down the road. And it was small enough that he had been able to coil it into the palm of his hand and fold his fingers over it so no one could see.

There was nowhere to hide the wire – or anything else for that matter. If he was really going to do this, he would have to do it out in the open. He could hide the device behind the toilet as work progressed on it, but he certainly couldn't work there. He told himself that he didn't need to worry, though. He had long ago become convinced that the cell was not bugged, and there were no cameras watching him. No one ever stepped inside, and the handlers who came for him in the morning and at night never even glanced his way when they opened the door and waited for him to scuttle out into the hall.

Still, he would have to be extremely careful. Building the device would take forever if he could only smuggle away materials small enough to fit in his hand or possibly his mouth. There was, of course, the time-honored tradition of using his own body as transport, but he shied away in horror from that thought. His body had become hateful to him, useful only for what his hands could produce and the hole between his legs. He wanted nothing to do with it, hated to even touch his own skin anymore.

So. It would take time.

That was all right. Time was the one thing he did have. The one thing the Kree hadn't taken from him, but actually given him.

He could do this.

He would do this.

****

Hala was everything Steve had come to expect from the Kree: coldly beautiful, and dedicated to the expansion of the empire. There, however, the similarities to Kree-Lar ended.

The major difference wasn't even something he could put his finger on. It was insubstantial, defied logic, and kept him awake at night. It was the first thing he thought when he woke up, and the last thing he felt before finally falling asleep. It filled his thoughts and his dreams, and they had been on the planet three full days before Steve finally dared to call it hope.

Thor cautioned him to be patient, reminding him that the Kree Empire was vast, and expanding daily. He was right, Steve knew he was right – but that did not stop him from hoping.

They were going to find Tony here. He was certain of it.

That hope kept him going through the long days of wearing the golden collar, pretending to be Thor's slave. No matter how small he felt by the end of the day, reduced to nothing by Thor's cutting words and the cold dismissal by the Kree, he found refuge in that hope.

It was impossible to hide this from Thor, and Steve didn't even try. Thor did not discourage him from his belief, but his eyes were troubled as he looked at Steve.

"What?" Steve challenged. "Are you going to tell me that I shouldn't hope?"

"I would never say such a thing," Thor said. "I would only caution you to remember the gravity of the situation. Even if we should find Tony here, there will be no happy reunion. You must remember, he will not be the same."

Steve nodded. "I know," he said. He did know it – and yet he found himself suddenly bristling, months of pent-up frustration and anger coming out. "But maybe you should give him some credit, too. He's been through things that would finish most men, and he's come out on top. So why don't you try cutting him a little slack?"

If anything, Thor just looked sadder then. "I have seen the videos," he said. "I know what kind of man Tony Stark was before his abduction. And I am telling you now, that man is gone. A different man walked out of that desert."

"Yeah," Steve said hotly, "because he saw what was happening out there, and he learned to accept responsibility for what he had done. And that's not the same thing as what's happening here, and you know it."

"No," Thor said. "It is not. But Steven, what lessons do you suppose he will learn from this? What kind of man will we find?" He took a step forward and placed his hand on Steve's shoulder, the way he so often did these days. "I do not say these things lightly, my friend. And I do not wish to take away your hope. I only want you to be aware."

Steve pulled away from the comforting weight of Thor's hand. "We're done talking about this," he said.

He thought Thor might argue with him at first, and he was glad, he was ready, he wanted to fight. He looked forward to the chance to give in to his anger, to yell at someone, maybe even to get into a shoving match. Thor could take it, and he wouldn't take offense, either. He would understand where Steve was coming from.

But Thor did not argue with him. He just nodded and left, and so Steve ended up punching his pillow and shouting wildly into the silence of his room.

That night he lay in bed and stared sleeplessly up at the ceiling. He wondered how much longer he was going to have to do this. He wondered how much longer he was going to wander the cold streets of this cold planet, burning with anger and yet frozen with shame while he pretended to be a slave in order to find Tony.

He wondered how much longer Tony would wait on him before giving up on all thoughts of rescue.

When the clock told him it was time to get up, he rose and took a quick shower, then got dressed in his slave's tunic. He locked the golden collar about his neck, and then he followed Thor silently out into the streets of Hala.

They didn't find Tony that day, or the next one either.

But although the days dragged out and Tony remained out there, lost and alone, still Steve hoped.

****

Every day was different from the one that came before.

He had new things to count now. Screws. Coils of wire.

Days.

He had taken hold of time again, placed himself in the middle of all those seconds and minutes and hours. Every day was to be counted, added to this latest tally in his head.

That count could never be accurate, though, and Tony knew it. He had lost too much time, too many days, to the dull haze that had fogged his brain for so long. He could get a rough estimate if he divided that other number, that terrifying number that lurked in the darkness in his mind, but some days that number grew by six and some days it grew by eight and there was never any pattern to it and so the math simply wouldn't work out this time – and with immense relief he gave it up as impossible.

What did it matter, anyway. Time lost could never be regained. Let those days stay lost and uncounted.

New days stretched ahead of him, each one different from the day before. Sometimes he was able to steal small items he needed. Other days the quartermaster's eyes were on him too often and he did not dare. He felt like a spring that had been wound too tight, trembling with the need for release, constantly watchful and on guard. Even when he was lying down and still, he felt as though he were walking on a narrow wire poised above an immense ravine.

One false step and he would fall.

He still did not fear death, but he did fear being caught. Arrest would mean interrogation and punishment. Eventually he would receive a clean death, of that he had no doubt, but he would be broken and screaming long before that point, unable to even beg for it.

Nights were far worse now. His mind was awake again, and there was no more refuge to be found in mere counting. His hands shook and trembled as he hid away his contraband, as he covered his face, as he bowed his head and prayed silently for one night, please God just one night when they didn't take him away and chain him down, one night when he didn't have to add to that horrifying number in his head.

But those prayers went unanswered, as he had always known they would be. There was no peace. Not for him. There was only the choking dread as the minutes and seconds ticked down. Then the desperate attempts to stay silent through the terror and the pain that never got any easier to bear, because they healed him every night when it was over and so every night was like the first time all over again.

After, when he had eaten his last meal and thrown it back up again, when he had been allowed his five minutes in the shower and given a clean tunic to wear, when he was curled up and alone in his room again, he let himself imagine what it would be like to finally start working on the device, to make it work, to touch it to the collar and hear the deactivation deep within him.

It would work. He knew it would work.

Please, let it work.

And although the days dragged out and sometimes it seemed like he would never get any closer to actually achieving his freedom, still Tony hoped.

****

Twenty-seven days.

That was how long he had. There was no doubt of it, either, because on the twenty-eighth day, the Kree caught him.

He didn't know it at first, though. The morning passed like it always did, the hours spent at work, repairing the weapons the Kree soldiers used in their training exercises. The alert sounded, and the slaves trooped into the dining hall for their afternoon meal, the same one they ate every single other day. Tony ate quickly, the way he always did, then spent the rest of the short break with his hands clutching each other tightly in his lap, willing himself not to be sick.

Then it was back to the workshop, only now the minutes stretched out unendurably. He shot little glances about the room, testing the air, gauging if it was safe to take something today. He hadn't been able to steal anything in two days, and he was growing restless. He needed to keep moving forward, to hold a tangible reminder in his hands that he was truly doing this, that one day he was going to be able to reach up and pull that disc off his neck and be free.

What he really needed now was a screwdriver. There were little ones that would fit inside the palm of his hand, as long as he kept his fist closed. No one would see. No one would know.

The afternoon crept forward. Tony worked and kept his head down like a good slave. And when the alert sounded again, he folded his hand over one of those small screwdrivers.

No matter how many times he did this, it was always the same. His heart pounded painfully in his chest as he walked out of the workshop. Every cell of his body seemed to be vibrating in some great dissonant chord; he couldn't believe that the collar remained silent, that his handler did not notice the tension in his body that made him quiver all over and erased his usual slave's submission.

Yet no one did. He walked with the other slaves to their cells, and when it was his turn, he went inside immediately, the way he always did.

And then he stopped dead.

The Kree accuser was standing in his cell.

Terror obliterated all thought. He dropped to his knees, only dimly aware of what he was doing. Far too late to do any good, he bowed his head and stared at the floor. As if a display of submission could help him.

As if anything could help him now.

The accuser did not speak. In the silence between them, Tony heard his own terrified breathing, high and shaky. He clenched his hand about the screwdriver. For a moment he wondered if he would have enough time to plunge it into his throat.

If the collar would even let him.

He didn't wonder how they had found out. It didn't matter. They knew. His cell was undisturbed, his carefully hoarded prizes still hidden behind the toilet, but that meant nothing. The accuser certainly knew they were there. He would have stood here, gazing down at those stolen objects with the same impassive face he was now staring at Tony with.

They knew, and they had sent the accuser here to confront him, and the only question now was what they were going to do to him before they killed him.

"What have you taken?" the accuser asked.

He responded immediately, desperate to avoid being punished for further disobedience. In his terrified state, he knew if the collar shocked him, he would start to scream and simply not be able to stop. Not until the collar short-circuited his brain and forcibly silenced him.

So he held out his left hand a little, raising it from the safety of his lap. He rotated his wrist, slowly unfolded his shaking fingers, and revealed the screwdriver lying nestled in his palm.

The accuser made a faint sound. It might have been disbelief, or it might have been anger. "Rise," he commanded.

At first Tony didn't think he was going to be able to obey. He was shaking too hard, practically whining now with each breath. Words were crowding in his throat, words he was forbidden to utter. I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry please don't hurt me don't hurt me I'm sorry.

Dull pain swept over him, the warning from the collar that meant he was precariously close to breaking the rules. He gasped and surged up to his feet.

The last time he had been in this situation, the accuser had hit him hard enough to make him fall, only to command him to stand up so he could be struck down again. This time he had no idea what was going to happen to him, what pain the accuser would mete out.

He thought he might suffocate from the terror of not-knowing.

"Give it to me," the accuser said.

The cell was small; just one stride would take him close enough to the accuser to hand over the screwdriver. Yet the distance seemed measured in miles, as though he would never actually cross it.

His head bowed, his eyes downcast like the good slave he was (and would be again if only they would give him the chance to prove it), Tony slowly extended his hand. His entire body tensed in dreadful anticipation when the accuser reached out, but the Kree took the screwdriver from him without managing to touch him at all.

"Remove your clothing," said the accuser. "You will no longer need it."

The words landed with all the force of a blow. Faint with terror, he did as he was told. The slave tunic was too short and too thin, providing almost no protection against the unrelenting chill in the compound, but he still felt a pang as he let it drop to the floor. Scant as it was, it had still been something. Now he could only stand there, naked and so scared that he couldn't stop trembling no matter how hard he tried.

Naked except for the collar, of course.

"You will come," the accuser rumbled, and such was Tony's life that for a moment he stood there in confusion, wondering if he was meant to bring himself off right here and now. Then the Kree began walking forward, and he quickly scuttled out of the way, understanding finally that he was supposed to follow.

Yes. All right. It was time.

He was ready.

The accuser led him through halls he had never seen before. And with every step, more and more of Tony's fear fell away, until at last only a cold, fatalistic acceptance remained.

They were going to kill him now. He was glad. He would not have chosen to go out this way, just one more Kree slave, but it wasn't his choice anymore. Nothing had been his choice for a long time now.

He was taken to a small cell and told to kneel in the center of the room. Between his knees, a drain was set in the floor. Silver shackles dangled from slender chains that were bolted to the two nearest walls.

"Extend your arms," the accuser said.

The shackles were cold about his wrists. Too late, it struck him that maybe he hadn't been brought here for an execution. Maybe the Kree thought death was too kind, too merciful.

No, the true punishment was being forced to live. To suffer for his crimes, but then be returned to work. For nothing to change. So he could see how utterly useless his efforts had been, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was nothing but a slave, that he would never be anything else.

Silence drew out in the small cell. Tony kept his eyes downcast, his head bowed. When the accuser finally moved, reaching into a pouch at his belt to withdraw a small object, he risked a tiny glance upward, but it was no good. He couldn't tell what the man was holding.

He found out quick enough, though. White light glowed at the edges of his vision as the collar activated. It was only the low warning pulse that served to dissuade him from greater disobediences, but this time it did not go away like it usually did. The pain remained constant, a dull throbbing all over his body.

The accuser made another low rumble of sound. Then he turned around and left.

Tony swayed in the chains. He couldn't go far, not with his arms extended outward, the chains drawn taut. He saw now why he had been restrained this way, why any prisoner would be left like this. Here, helpless, there would be no last-minute escape. No bashing your head against the wall and caving your skull in. No removing the arc reactor from your chest.

All he could do was kneel here and suffer, and imagine what horrors awaited him. Wondering what they were going to do to him. If they were going to throw him into the void again, rip everything away and leave him there this time no no no god no please. Anything, anything but that, please.

Cold sweat broke out on his skin. He shuddered, whining a little, and the pain from the collar ratcheted up a notch, reminding him that this was not allowed, that he had to endure in silence.

Crying a little – he couldn't help it – he bowed his head and closed his eyes.

At the mercy of the Kree, Tony waited.

Chapter Text

When the door opened again and heavy footsteps entered, it was morning. With what was left of his ability to think, Tony accepted gratefully that he had at last gotten his wish. He had been granted one night of solitude, one night where he wasn't tied down and raped.

The white light from the disc winked out. The pain that had been his constant companion for hours disappeared. The shackle about his left wrist was unlocked. Unable to hold himself upright, he slumped forward, putting agonizing strain on his right shoulder until the second shackle was undone. Then he simply collapsed, landing heavily on the floor with nothing to break his fall.

"Rise," said a voice. Not the accuser. A random Kree. Possibly his handler. The man spoke to him so little that he had forgotten what he sounded like.

Rise, he had been commanded, and he wanted to, he wanted to obey, to be good – but he couldn't. His body had long since turned to stone, overtaxed beyond endurance. He could not move at all, not even when the fiery shock coursed through him. He cried out hoarsely, which earned him another jolt, but even with his greatest efforts all he managed to do was twitch his fingers.

"Rise," repeated the Kree. The command was punctuated with another shock from the collar.

Tony tried, he did, please God, he tried, but movement of any kind was simply impossible. Helplessly, he just lay there and he waited for the Kree to grow tired of his disobedience and hurt him some more.

He had very few memories of the long night. At first there had been nothing but hellish misery as the pain in his knees and shoulders grew steadily worse and worse. He thought maybe he had lapsed into useless screaming at one point, before the collar had ruthlessly punished him for his insubordination. It must have gone on until it short-circuited again, cutting everything in his brain cleanly off, leaving him reeling on the edge of unconsciousness, although never fully gone, no, because this was part of his punishment, that he had to stay awake and suffer.

Eventually, though, he had subsided into the dull fog that enwrapped him now. The pain had never gone away completely, but it had receded enough that he could think again, after a fashion. The sensation of red-hot knives in his joints had dwindled into the thick immobility that still held him fast, preventing him from obeying the Kree.

"You will obey," warned the handler. The collar shocked him again, white light flaring bright. Tony made a tremendous effort, and his arm flopped feebly on the cold floor.

The handler made a disgruntled noise. The pain from the collar disappeared. After a moment, the handler set something on the floor, turned around and walked out.

Get up, he told himself. Get up, get up, for God's sake, get up! Maybe he could lessen the inevitable punishment if he showed them that he had ultimately managed to obey them, even if he had been unforgivingly slow at it.

But it was no good. His body had simply reached its limit, the hours of torturous restraint having finally done what months of continual stress and malnutrition had not. It occurred to him that maybe this really was the end, that if the Kree truly wanted to kill him, all they had to do was let him lie here.

Painfully he stretched his neck, looking to see what the handler had brought and then left. It was a tray, set on the floor almost within reach. A tray, containing three of those bland food patties that were the slaves' only meal, and a bowl of water.

For a moment he could only stare, unable to comprehend why they were bothering to feed him. What must they have in mind for him, if they wanted to keep him alive? The thought made him shudder, but he still couldn't take his eyes off the contents of the tray. The food meant nothing, but the sight of the water galvanized him like nothing else could have. His thirst was terrible, like fiery claws set in his throat. He couldn't remember the last time he had been given any water.

The handler would be back any moment now. He focused all his effort, all his strength, and heaved his body forward a few scant inches. It hurt, but he was beyond caring. He needed that water, he needed it.

Again, another terrible wrenching, and again, and finally he was within range, able to lower his head and drink like a dog from the bowl. The relief was immediate, and when the bowl was empty, he rested his cheek on the edge of the tray, breathing silent thanks.

The door opened and the handler walked in. Tony barely had time to cringe back before a hard gloved hand clamped itself about his upper arm and yanked him up. He scrabbled to get his feet beneath him, but his legs were as frozen as the rest of his body, and he could only dangle there, his shoulder wrenched painfully, all his weight hanging from the Kree's tight grip.

Pressure on the back of his neck, and then the familiar white light burned bright as his body was healed. The customary tingling sensation was almost like burning, making him breathe in sharply and kick out a little as he was at last able to move.

When it was done, the Kree let go of him, and he dropped to his knees. He was ready, though, and he stood up almost immediately. He knew he would be made to pay for this, for needing healing. Worse, for requiring the handler to actually touch him and acknowledge him and the fact that he had needed help.

"You will come," said the handler, and he obeyed at once, following the Kree out of the cell and through the strange hallways. They seemed to walk for a long time, although he wasn't sure if that was because they truly did, or because of how time seemed to draw out with his fear.

Funny to think that there had once been a time when he had been helpless and flat on his back, when he would have given anything to be able to walk again.

Eventually they wound up in a room that looked identical to all the others he had seen, with the same silver walls and the sterile, cold air. The only major difference was the row of Kree standing in the center of the room, a literal wall of hostility staring at him.

Hastily Tony dropped his eyes, not wanting to be caught looking back at them. One hand twitched as though to cover his nakedness, then dropped back to his side. What difference did it make?

The handler who had brought him here turned and departed, closing the door. That left his usual handler standing on the right, the quartermaster on the left, and in the middle, his green armor looking more vibrant than usual surrounded by so much white and silver, the Kree accuser.

Whatever they had planned for him, it did not look like an execution, and Tony's fear increased. He felt sick and trembly all over.

"For the duration of this interview, you will speak," rumbled the accuser.

His head still bowed, Tony nodded to show that he understood.

"How long have you been stealing from us?"

His thoughts raced. They would surely know if he lied. But maybe not. They might not expect dishonesty, the way they hadn't expected theft. Was it better to tell the truth and hope for mercy, or lie and pray for a swift death?

That dull pain spread through him, like a headache that encompassed his entire body. He gasped, and said, "Twenty-seven days!"

The quartermaster made a low sound of displeasure.

"What was your purpose?" asked the accuser.

He didn't want to tell them. Didn't they already know? But of course he had to speak it aloud, adding to his failings, his inability to be a good, obedient slave. "I was going to build something. To…to…deactivate the collar." His voice was barely a whisper. Even the words struck him as horrifically brazen, foolhardy in the extreme. Dear God, how insane did he have to be to even contemplate such a thing, let alone act on it?

For a long moment none of the Kree spoke. With his head down, he couldn't see their faces, but he could imagine the looks they were sharing, their quietly contained – but growing – anger.

"What did you plan to do when this was accomplished?" asked the accuser.

"I don't know," Tony admitted.

Immediately the collar punished him for the lie, and he gasped at the painful shock. "I don't know, I swear! I didn't think… I didn't know… I just wanted…"

"Enough!" snapped his handler.

"Were you working with anyone else?" asked the accuser.

Tony shook his head. "No." He knew it was wrong, but part of him was almost pathetically grateful for the interrogation. He had been ignored and treated as an object for so long, but now at last they were talking to him, acknowledging him as a person. Despite the terrible circumstances, he could still be glad for that.

"What were you planning to steal next?" asked the quartermaster. He sounded affronted. Probably he was going to be punished for this also, when all was said and done. It had happened on his watch, after all, right under his nose. And for twenty-seven days, too.

Tony told them. There was no point in pretending he didn't have the design and build of the device already mapped out in his head.

Another long silence fell. Finally the accuser said, "You will be returned to the containment cell. We will decide your fate, and the punishment you deserve."

Terror cut through him like a knife. He didn't even think. He just dropped to his knees in supplication. "Please," he begged. "Please just kill me now."

"Silence!" snapped the accuser. The command was punctuated with a painful jolt from the collar. Tony cried out, was shocked again, and managed to find the necessary silence.

His handler came forward, boots tromping on the cold, hard floor. "Up."

They weren't going to execute him after all. He should have known not to expect such a merciful fate. Too devastated to even weep, he followed along obediently. Back through the halls he had just traversed, to the cell where he was once again chained on his knees, arms outstretched, preventing him from doing any harm to himself.

He bowed his head and closed his eyes. Please…

He didn't know why he bothered. No one was listening.

****

He was unconscious when the handler came for him. That was one small gift he had been granted, at least, the ability to pass out. It was perhaps the first real kindness they had shown him at all, and he was dully grateful for it.

The pain was worse than it had been the previous morning. Was it yesterday? Had it been a full day? He didn't know, had lost track of time somewhere along the way, imprisoned as much by pain and fear as the shackles that held him fast. Even the numbers were not a refuge anymore, and time had slipped from his grasp again.

As before, the handler had to attach the device to his collar and heal his broken body before he was able to move. There was another tray of food and water, another desperate fumbling at the bowl, drinking it dry while ignoring the food. Why did they even bother, he wondered. Why waste resources on him at this point?

He was taken to a different cell this time, where only the Kree accuser stood waiting. In his gloved hands he held a silver sphere. "You have been judged, and sentence has been passed," he said in his deep voice.

In a way it was almost funny. That after everything, he could still feel fear. This horrible, cringing fear that made him want to drop to his knees and beg for mercy.

Just yesterday he had thought how good it was that they were actually talking to him, acknowledging him as a person. He knew now how wrong he was. Nothing good ever came from being noticed, from being watched, from being treated as a human being. The only safety lay in anonymity, in being ignored, in keeping your head down and your eyes lowered, in being the thing they wanted you to be.

He hoped the terrified pounding of his heart wouldn't count against him as breaking the rule about remaining silent.

"You are no longer worthy to serve the elite of the Kree army," rumbled the accuser. "You have betrayed the trust placed in you, and proven yourself unfit."

In another lifetime he might have laughed at that, at the idea of the Kree "trusting" him. Now the thought of it made him want to throw himself at the accuser and beg for another chance. Anything to prove himself worthy again, to show them what a good slave he could be. Anything to avoid more pain, more punishment.

"You will not serve us after this day," continued the accuser. "However, we will recover our losses. Tomorrow you are to be sold at auction to whoever is willing to pay for your worthless hide. I promise you then, you will rue your actions. Not all Kree are as merciful as its soldiers. Now, step forward."

The words echoed in the small room, meaningless and empty. Trust and unfit and sold and merciful and sold at auction and oh God, sold.

The collar shocked him, reminding him that he had been given a command. He could hardly take the necessary steps forward, his legs felt so rubbery, like they would give out at any moment and drop him to the ground.

They were going to sell him.

You will rue your actions.

Oh God who was out there, who would buy a broken slave the military didn't want anymore? Who would stand there and look upon his naked, cringing body with indifferent scrutiny, money jingling in their wallet, their eyes cold and hard?

Please. The word rose to his lips, yet he dared not speak it.

"Hold out your hands," ordered the accuser.

He was shaking too hard, he wouldn't be able to obey, he knew it, and the disc would light up, punishing him, and maybe that was for the best, maybe if he continued to be such an unworthy slave, they would change their mind and just kill him.

Against his will, his hands rose. Wrists together, expecting to be shackled. With his head bowed, he almost didn't see when the accuser reached out and set the silver sphere in his hands.

"We are the elite," said the accuser. "We uphold honor. We will not be called dishonest. Let all men see how unworthy you are, that you are a thief."

There was a faint metal click. Something within the sphere shifted, and then without warning scarlet agony erupted in Tony's hands. Instinctively he tried to drop the sphere, to let go of it and stop the pain, but it remained there, cradled in his cupped hands, pinned in place by the slender spikes that speared him through.

He screamed then, unable to help it. He screamed, and the collar remained quiet, and so he screamed again, falling to his knees, still holding the sphere, unable to let go as blood began to drip onto the pristine silver floor.

The accuser said, "And now all will see the truth of you." One gloved hand reached for the sphere. The spikes retracted – Tony screamed again – and the accuser stood up straight, now holding the silver orb.

Sobbing, keening with anguish, Tony crumpled forward, his bleeding hands held to his chest. There was nothing for him then, nothing but the pain and the horror and the blood, so brilliantly red on the floor. He didn't even feel the pressure as the accuser set the healing device against the disc on the back of his neck, barely saw the flare of white light as it was activated.

Instantly the pain began to diminish – but only in his right hand. The flow of blood stopped, the wound healed over. But only that one.

"Tomorrow you go to auction," said the accuser. "Until then use the time to reflect on what you have done, and what you have earned."

Hands pulled him to his feet. He hadn't even known his handler had returned. He cringed back, terrified of being hurt again, and the movement sent fresh pain through his left hand; blood continued to flow down his arm, dripping on the floor.

They were going to leave him like this, he realized, chained up with a hole through his hand. It was no longer bleeding, they had healed him that much at least, but the drying blood left bright red trails on his skin. "Please," he sobbed, "please don't." Light flared as the collar shocked him, and he wailed in terror, earning yet another shock, but God they couldn't, how could he endure this in silence, how was he going to survive this, where was their great mercy the accuser was so proud of?

He couldn't do it. This was it, then. This was as far as he could go.

His knees gave out. He fell hard, hitting the floor and crying out, only to be shocked for his weakness, for not being able to endure. And it was too much, it could not be borne, and so he gave himself up to the pain, letting himself scream without stopping, his entire body convulsing with the shocks from the collar, the floor so hard as he landed on it, the small pool of blood inches from his face, and --

And everything just…stopped…as the short-circuit in the disc kicked in. The collar. The pain. Himself. It All. Went. Away.

And there at last was the vaunted mercy of the Kree.

****

The city was called Rad-Nam, and it was just like all the others. Nothing set it apart from any of the myriad other cities they had visited in their quest.

Until something did.

Thor was going through his usual story about wanting to buy a human slave, having lost none of his flair for the dramatic over the months. Steve stood behind him, his attention wandering; he had heard this tale too many times for it to hold his interest anymore. He kept his head bowed, though, and his eyes on the ground, like a good and proper slave. It was nearly nightfall, and the collar about his neck felt too tight; he could hardly wait to return to the ship and take it off.

The slaver turned away from Thor with a curt dismissal. "Come," Thor said to Steve, a lofty command that must be obeyed.

They walked away, down a street lined with trees planted in such rigid formation that Steve was willing to bet that the exact same spacing lay between each of their thick trunks.

"Asgardian!"

The voice came from behind them. Not raised in a shout, but firm and commanding all the same. Steve stopped dead in his tracks. A moment later, Thor turned around, his grip on Mjolnir tightening a little.

The soldier who approached them looked no different from the others they had seen in their travels. His armor was the same shining white, his face impassive. He had been standing nearby while Thor talked to the slaver, but Steve hadn't realized he had been listening to their conversation.

"I am an Asgardian no more," Thor said, his voice low with warning.

The soldier ignored this. "This man you seek," he said. "I have heard of such a one."

Steve's breath caught. A wave of dizzying faintness swept over him, making his ears ring and his chest ache as his heart began to pound.

"Where?" Thor demanded.

"He is to be sold," the soldier said. "At a public auction. Tomorrow."

By now Steve's knowledge of the Kree language had grown until he felt he had attained some mastery over it. He would never be fluent, but he knew enough. He picked up his head and said, "Where will it be?"

The soldier looked startled, his eyes wide as he stared at Steve. "You speak to me," he said. He sounded both offended and amazed, at the same time.

"Steven is not a slave," Thor said. "He is my friend, and the man we seek is another friend, taken cruelly from us."

The Kree studied them for a long time, his expression inscrutable. "You should know," he said, "that the military does not hold many auctions. There will be something wrong with their slaves, or they would not be for sale. But they will still be capable of working hard, and they will be well-disciplined. The bidding will be fierce."

There will be something wrong. Of course there would be, Steve thought sickly. He couldn't think about that right now, though, or he would go crazy.

"We are prepared," Thor said, and he wasn't talking about money.

"Why didn't anyone else tell us?" Steve asked. He stumbled a little with the unfamiliar language. "We are asking people all day."

The soldier gave him a thin smile. "Because you are not Kree," he said simply, as though that explained it all. Which, unfortunately, it did.

"We thank you," Thor said solemnly.

The soldier nodded. "The auction is in Sector 571-B8. I wish you luck," he said. He turned to go.

"Wait," Steve said. He had never had any desire to know more about the Kree they had encountered on their travels. But this was different. This soldier somehow still retained enough of his humanity, enough to aid another person in need. "What's your name?"

The Kree turned back to him. "I am Mar-Vell," he said.

"Thank you, Mar-Vell," Steve said. He nodded, one soldier to another.

Mar-Vell studied him for a moment, then he nodded in return. He glanced at Thor, looked back at Steve, then turned around again and strode away.

This time Steve let him go. Now that the first rush of discovery was over, he felt almost giddy with joy. They had done it.

They had found Tony.

****

The Kree, it seemed, had the ability to suspend time.

Or so Tony thought, hanging in the chains that held him up. He was going to spend eternity in here, suffering the agonies of hell. There was never going to be any auction, never going to be anything other than this room and this pain.

Use the time to reflect on what you have done, the accuser had said.

He knew now what his biggest crime was. It wasn't the theft, or the lying. It was thinking that he could be a man again, that he could take his life back, that he could be Tony Stark.

He would never make that mistake again.

****

Back on board the ship, Steve ripped the collar off his neck and threw it to the floor. His earlier joy was tempered now with the harsh practicalities of what came next – but that didn't stop him from grinning from ear to ear.

"We did it!" he yelled. "We found him!"

The Ernorran crew were pleased, and they smiled at him. No doubt they were also thankful that they could finally go home, and Steve made a mental note to find a way to make it up to them.

Thor did not smile, but his eyes showed his relief. "The sector Mar-Vell mentioned is several hours away. We should leave immediately. We won't be able to make it there before curfew, but we should at least get started."

"We need to find out what time the auction is," Steve said. He wished now that he had asked Mar-Vell more questions. How had the soldier known about the auction? What had prompted him to follow Thor and offer up his knowledge? What made him so different from every other Kree they had encountered?

"We will," Thor assured him. "This chance will not slip away from us."

"No," Steve said grimly. "It won't."

****

He couldn't sleep that night. He was too wired, too nervous. He kept thinking about Tony, trying to imagine what it would feel like to stand on a stage in front of a crowd of strangers while they bid money on you. This was no charity auction, standing there in a tux while rich people bid on the chance to win a couple hours of his time and a photo-op. This was very real. If they could not stop it in time, some unknown Kree civilian would be Tony's next owner.

But they would be in time. They had to be. Anything else was unthinkable.

He tried to remember what Thor had told him, to remind himself that Tony would be different. Any man would be, after enduring such trials. He got to take off that golden collar every night and set it on the table beside his bed. He was even able to lift his head and speak to a Kree soldier, one man to another.

Tony would not be able to say the same thing.

And it would be hard at first, he knew that. He remembered getting Bucky back from Hydra's clutches, and how imprisonment had changed him. But like Bucky, Tony was resilient, capable of absorbing great hurt and refusing to let it make him into something other than he already was. Eventually, in time, Tony would be all right again.

They would be together again, the way they had been before all this.

Please, let them be together.

****

In the morning, the handler came for him. The device was touched to the disc set in his collar, and the light flared, and he was healed.

Not completely, though. The wound closed over and the pain that had reduced him to helpless, silent sobbing for much of the night finally disappeared. But there remained an ugly scar, a round mark on his palm and a matching one on the back of his hand. Thief, it said, for all the universe to see.

The handler took him to the infirmary, where he was examined by one of the doctors. Impersonal hands roamed over his body, checking for defects, for signs that he was unsound and not worth buying. Tony lay very still on the table and closed his eyes so he would not accidentally look at anyone, and tried to make his mind as empty as his body.

They let him take a shower after that, so he would not smell bad and disgrace his former owners. This time they did not bother feeding him, though. Nor did they give him a fresh tunic, and he realized that he was going to be displayed and sold as he was, naked and exposed, with nothing to hide behind.

They took him from the compound in a sleek silver craft. He stepped on board and did not look back.

****

The auction was to be held outdoors, in a small circular courtyard that looked perfectly normal, something that might have been at home in a park on Earth. Steve almost expected a spring concert to be held there, a band warming up on the stage, happy couples sitting in curved rows about the stage, talking excitedly as they waited for the performance to start.

Right now the stage was empty. People had already begun to arrive, although the auction would not start for another hour. This was the chance for the ordinary citizens of Hala to purchase a slave, one already broken in by the military, one who would come with some kind of defect – or they would not be sold in the first place – but who would be well-trained and easy to discipline. These people ran factories or bakeries, they manufactured weapons and uniforms, they built starships and the engines that powered them. They were looking for a warm body, someone to do the labor they did not want to do. They would be as indifferent to their purchase as the soldiers of the mighty Kree military. There would be no kindness, no compassion from these new owners. There would be no mercy.

"How many do you think will come?" Steve asked Thor. He was not there today as a slave, but as a buyer. Gone were the golden collar, the fake submissiveness. He stood on the street corner beside Thor, his arms folded over his chest, and his head up.

"I could not guess," Thor said.

That was troubling. The success of their plan depended on how many people assembled here today. Not that greater numbers would stop them. Still, Steve had no desire to hurt innocent civilians.

"Steven."

Something in Thor's tone warned him. His entire body tensed. "What?"

"There is something I must tell you," Thor said.

He had the urge to walk on, to move into the crowd and join the potential buyers, ignore what Thor wanted to say. "What is it?"

Thor's voice was heavy, his words reluctant. "There is something you must know about Tony's enslavement."

Memory sparked, reminding him of that day, so horribly long ago now, when Tony had first been taken. Standing there in the ruins of the observatory where Tony had been abducted, he had thought that Thor was keeping something secret from him. "Tell me."

"The Kree…" Thor gazed at him, his eyes more serious than Steve had ever seen. "Their soldiers spend their entire lives in service of the Empire. All that they do is for its greater glory and expansion. They train day and night to be the perfect warriors."

Steve nodded, afraid of where this was going, but more afraid not to listen.

"You were a soldier like them once," Thor said. "Do you not remember those days when you fought and trained and pushed your body to its limits and then beyond? Do you not remember the way your excess energies manifested themselves in…carnal desires?"

Steve stared at him in horror. The world around him dwindled to a dull roaring noise. All he could hear was the echo of that word: carnal.

"The Kree soldiers are encouraged in these desires," Thor said. "It is considered healthy. Manly."

Steve couldn't see him anymore. Everything had blurred around him. There was nothing but Thor's voice, every word horribly crisp and clear.

"Kree slaves serve not just with their labors, but with their bodies," Thor said sadly. "They are given to the soldiers so those men might release their desires and remain healthy and strong."

No. Oh God. It couldn't be true. It couldn't. Tony…

He felt sick to his stomach as horrible images flooded his brain. Tony lying helpless beneath one of the Kree, his eyes closed, trying to will himself not to feel. The slap of flesh on flesh, the Kree soldier buried deep within Tony's body, uttering a low groan as he came.

He shuddered and swallowed hard, finally finding his voice. "You mean one of the soldiers raped Tony," he said flatly.

"Steven, you misunderstand," Thor said. He had never sounded so grave before. "When I said the slaves are given to the soldiers, I intended the plural. Each night, the slaves serve an entire unit of Kree soldiers."

Abruptly the world snapped back into focus. Steve stared at Thor in stark horror. He barely heard himself whisper, "How many?"

"The numbers vary," Thor said. "Most are between six and ten."

"Every night," he breathed.

Thor nodded.

He felt numb all over. His brain tried to do the math, and he quailed from the numbers, rejecting them, shoving them far away. "How long have you known?"

"I have always known it," Thor said heavily. "Because I know the Kree, and their ways."

He couldn't understand. All this time Thor had known, but he had said nothing. "Why are you telling me this now?"

"Because we are about to see Tony again for the first time in over three months," Thor said. "And you need to know, if you are to understand how changed he will be."

Steve nodded. Not because he comprehended what Thor was saying, but because he had to do something to show he had heard. He took a single step away, needing to put some distance between Thor and himself. As though he could ever get far enough away from those terrible words and the truth they contained.

His stomach rebelled. He turned, leaned over, his hands on his knees, and threw up.

When it was done, he tottered away on shaky legs. He hadn't cried in front of Thor since that first awful night, when it had truly sunk in that Tony was gone. He didn't cry now, either – although he wanted to. Oh God, how he wanted to. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I could see no purpose in it," Thor admitted. He looked like he was almost in tears himself. "The knowledge would only have hurt you, and eaten away at you night after night. Perhaps I was wrong, but please believe that I sought only to spare you, my friend."

He did believe that. And Thor was right – he would have obsessed over it every night, wondering what Tony was doing, how many Kree soldiers were waiting to…

He shied away from thinking about it. He couldn't bear the thought.

"So now what?" He blinked back the tears, made himself to put this latest horror out of his mind and think only about what they needed to do next.

"Now we go to this auction," Thor said. "And we get our friend back."

****

Steadily the crowd grew. Steve and Thor remained near the edges of the gathering, not too far back but not too close to the stage, either. Thor was in full regalia, Mjolnir in one hand. Beneath his scarlet cape, strapped to his back, was a metal shield he had bought on Kree-Lar. Steve knew it was there, and his hands ached to hold it, to wield it.

He told himself to be patient, to remain calm. He would get his chance soon enough.

The courtyard was too small for the crowd that had formed, yet the Kree citizens who gathered here were very well-behaved. There was no pushing or jostling, no raised voices or arguing. They were all here for one reason, and one reason only.

At precisely the named hour, two Kree soldiers took up places on either end of the stage. They stood at attention, their faces haughty and impassive, their eyes flat. They were both armed. They did not speak.

A third man mounted the stage. He did not look like a soldier, although his clothing was designed to mimic the Kree armor as much as possible. He was tall and slim, and he had only to open his mouth to earn the crowd's complete attention.

The auction was one of the worst things Steve had ever endured. The slaves were in pitiable condition, their heads shaved, their naked bodies thin and frail. They all stood there with their eyes downcast, their heads bowed. Perfectly, silently, submissive.

It was terrible. Steve felt ill, alternately hot with rage and cold with horror. He had glimpsed slaves in passing before, during his time on first Kree-Lar and then Hala, but he had never been this close to one. He had not realized the extent of their degradation, or how wretched their lives were.

And Tony was one of them.

The thought made him shudder. And as the slaves were sold off, one by one, and Tony did not appear, Steve began to sweat with anxiety and dread. Where was he?

"Remember yourself," Thor cautioned him quietly. Steve clenched his jaw and nodded. The false collar, the too-short tunic, the passive obedience he had pretended to affect – all were gone. Today he was a buyer. Today he must appear indifferent, unmoved by the misery taking place in front of him. Today he must play a new role, and play it perfectly, or risk losing Tony forever.

With that in mind, Steve forced himself to focus on the auctioneer's voice as it rose in the air, strong and practiced, calling out for bids. Nearly an hour passed. Once or twice Thor offered a token bid – but only when he was certain he would be outbid and there was no actual danger of winning. Steve stood behind him and to his left, staring straight ahead as though studying each slave as they were brought forth. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, arrogant, superior, looking to buy.

Finally the auctioneer called, "And last we have Number 764."

As Steve stood frozen and still, Tony walked onto the stage and stood in the center, to the auctioneer's left.

Steve uttered a faint moan. He couldn't help it.

If it weren't for the arc reactor, he might never have recognized Tony. He was painfully thin, making the arc reactor appear larger than usual, encompassing his entire chest. Like all the slaves, his head was shaved, and he stood there naked, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped. But the worst part, the thing that made Steve curl his hands into fists of impotent rage, was the terrible emptiness in his eyes. That vacant stare came not from drugs or any outside source, but from within. It was difficult to tell if he even understood what was happening, if he realized he was being sold to the highest bidder.

Tony. Oh God. Tony.

The auctioneer took up his chant. "Number 764. Midgardian male. This one is strong, healthy, and in the prime of his life. Buyers should be aware, however." He turned to Tony and made a gesture, managing to do this without looking directly at him. "Show them."

Obediently Tony raised his left hand. The people in the back might have had difficulty seeing, but with his keen eyesight, Steve had no trouble at all. He could make out the round scar on Tony's palm with ease.

A quiet sound went through the crowd. Beside him, Thor hissed in anger.

"What does it mean?" Steve asked.

On stage, Tony lowered his arm back to his side. He never once looked up, and his dull expression never wavered.

"Now," said the auctioneer. "Who will start the bidding?"

"It means he is a thief," Thor explained. His eyes were fixed on the auctioneer, his jaw tight. "I have read that on Midgard, there are people who cut off the hands of thieves, but a slave without a hand is a slave who cannot work. So instead they are marked."

A thief. Marked. Forced to display the badge of his crime while total strangers debated whether or not to buy him. The thought of it, of what Tony must be feeling, made Steve's whole body quiver with rage. And yet there was a touch of pride, too. A thief. Even now, Tony was still fighting them, still trying to hold onto his identity. "How?" he asked.

"I do not know," Thor said. He did not look away from the auctioneer, but so grim was his voice that Steve did not believe him one for instant.

Steve did not argue. He just stared helplessly, furious hope and desperate fear clawing at his chest. I'm here, Tony. I'm here. I won't let them take you away from me again.

I swear it.

Thor looked over at him. "Are you ready?"

He nodded. "Yes. God, yes."

Thor raised Mjolnir high into the sky. The auctioneer, thinking the gesture signified a bid, counted him and added a figure to the growing sum as the ordinary citizens of Hala vied to buy Tony.

Overhead, the red skies darkened. Clouds began to gather, swirling thickly. The air, heavier than normal on this planet, grew charged with electricity.

The auctioneer gave Thor a look, silently reprimanding him for not putting his hand down, for disturbing the peaceful bidding process.

Thunder crashed in the sky. Lightning strobed through the clouds. Some of the people standing nearest them began to look around uneasily.

And up on stage, Tony continued to stare vacantly at nothing, the very picture of a perfect, obedient slave.

Lightning stabbed downward, striking Mjolnir. Kree civilians shouted in alarm and began to run. Even Steve, who had been expecting it, jumped a little.

Thor let the lightning play about Mjolnir for a few moments, giving people time to flee. On stage, the auctioneer froze in fright, but the two soldiers began to bring their weapons to bear.

Standing center stage, Tony didn't even flinch.

"For Midgard!" Thor roared, and unleashed the lightning.

Steve closed his eyes, but he might as well not have bothered. His vision sheeted out in white as the skies erupted with all the force of Thor's rage. All around him people screamed as they fled in terror, but Steve stood at the heart of the storm and felt no fear.

When it was over, when he could see again, he spared a moment to stare in awed amazement at the ruin Thor had wrought. The courtyard was scorched and black all around them in a perfect circle. Fleeing civilians were still within sight, but growing ever more distant as they ran for their lives.

On stage, Tony had folded to his knees. He was hunched in on himself, his eyes squeezed shut. The auctioneer was nowhere in sight. On either side of him, the two soldiers were rapidly recovering, raising their weapons again.

Steve did not hesitate. He threw Thor's cape to one side, pulled at the strap that released the shield, and lifted it high.

The shield was heavier than his own, and bulkier. But it did its job admirably all the same. As Thor bellowed and thrust Mjolnir into the heavens again, Steve caught the pulse blasts from the soldiers' weapons on the shield. The impacts made him stagger a little, but then he found his balance, and he began walking forward.

Lightning crackled behind him. Steve threw himself down and forward, into a diving roll. The lightning bolt seared the air above his head, and incinerated one of the soldiers. As he came up to his feet, he threw the shield in a precise arc. The soldier he had targeted sidestepped it and brought his rifle up again – only to be struck down from behind as the shield clanged off the backdrop of the stage and crashed into his helmeted skull.

The soldier hit the ground only moments before the shield did.

Reinforcements would arrive soon, Steve had no doubt of that. He cared nothing about that just then, though. He broke into a run, then vaulted lightly up onto the stage. "Tony!"

Tony was still frozen in fear on his knees. He did not look up as Steve called his name. But he did open his eyes.

That was more than enough for Steve. He raced forward and swept Tony up into his arms. "I'm here," he cried. "Tony, I'm here. I got you. I got you."

He held on tight, and vowed that he would never let go again.

Chapter Text

The moment Steve had wanted for so long was finally here, but there was no time to savor it. Any second now new soldiers would arrive, and they still had the problem of how they were going to get back to the ship.

"Steven!" Thor called his name as he alit on the stage, his cape fluttering into place behind him. With a single lightning bolt, he dispatched two more soldiers who came running onto the stage from the area beneath it, where they must have been guarding the slaves who waited to be sold off. "We must hurry."

Steve did not even look at the fallen soldiers. Reluctantly he loosened the circle of his arms, although he did not let go of Tony completely. He couldn't bring himself to take that step, to lose physical contact with him. Not so soon after finding him again.

He glanced over at Thor, then looked back at Tony – and most of his happiness sank into cold comprehension.

Tony had not hugged him back, had not spoken, had not even looked at him. He stood there now, naked and trembling, his head bowed so low the golden disc set on the back of his neck was prominently visible. If he was aware that Steve was the one who had just been holding him, he gave no sign of it.

"We must go," Thor said as he walked up. He looked around them, checking for more soldiers. Then he clasped one broad hand on Tony's shoulder. "Tony, my friend. It is good to see you again."

Tony's only response was to hunch his shoulders higher, and duck his head.

Steve didn't think he could bear it. He finally had everything he had wanted, and it was all wrong. He couldn't let himself think too much about it right now, though, or he would fall apart, and that was simply unacceptable. For months he had been putting off dealing with his pain, telling himself repeatedly that it could wait, that he had to stay focused. And it was still true now, more than ever. He had to get Tony out of here, to safety. That was his priority, the only thing he needed to be thinking about. "You go first," he said to Thor. "Please. Take him back to the ship. I'll meet you there."

Thor nodded. "Aye. But not yet. First we must remove that." He pointed at the golden collar that encircled Tony's neck. "When a slave is sold, the device that controls it is given to the new owner. But we do not know where that device is now, and there is no time to search for it. So it must come off."

"How do we…?" Steve started to say.

"Not here," Thor said, with another significant look around them.

Steve didn't need to be told twice. He slung his arm about Tony's shoulders and began to walk toward the edge of the stage. Tony came with him willingly enough, but his eyes were wide and shocked, and Steve could feel him trembling.

"Quickly," Thor muttered.

Steve picked up the pace. Beside him, Tony stumbled a little, then regained his footing. He was deathly pale, his gaze fixed and staring.

With Thor keeping watch, they managed to make their way down the steps leading to the area beneath the stage. No one was here now, and as soon as they were far enough inside that they could not be seen from anyone approaching, Steve stopped walking and dropped his arm from about Tony's shoulders.

"All right," he said. He felt marginally better now that they were out of view. More importantly, at last he had been presented with a situation where he knew what to do. After endless weeks of forced passivity, of having to pretend to be something he was not, he could be himself again. He could finally help Tony.

He drew in a deep breath. "Hold on," he said. "I'll make this quick." He took hold of the golden collar, and began to pull it apart.

Instantly the disc on the back of Tony's neck lit up. Tony went rigid, hissing in a sharp breath. For a moment it looked like he might speak – his mouth opened, but he made no sound.

"Just hang on," Steve said encouragingly. "I'm gonna get you out of this." It was difficult to get a good grip on the collar; it lay too snug against Tony's neck. Worse, when he tugged too hard, he saw that the oval disc didn't want to move, that it seemed to be actually attached to the back of Tony's neck.

And the golden band itself would not budge. No matter how hard he pulled, the metal simply would not part. He threw all his strength into it, and Tony was gasping and shaking in his eagerness to be rid of it, and still Steve failed.

"Steven! Stop!" Thor's cry of horror rang out, filling the silence around them.

Steve froze, his hands hovering just above the collar. As soon as he let go, the white light on the disc went out. Tony slumped bonelessly to his knees, his head hanging low, shoulders heaving as he breathed in harsh gasps.

"You must stop!" Thor ordered. He had been checking the far reaches of the area beneath the stage, and now he stalked forward, cape billowing behind him, looking nearly as wrathful as he had when he had hurled the lightning at the Kree. He gave Steve a look that would have cowed most men – but he spoke gently enough. "You are hurting him."

Horrified, Steve jerked his hands back. "What?"

"You cannot touch it," Thor said. "Not without activating it."

Steve looked down, and finally saw how ashen Tony was, how tightly his jaw was clenched, the sweat beading his brow. Guilt slammed into him, the pain jolting all the way through his chest. In his eagerness to free Tony of the horrible thing, he had forgotten what Thor had told him about those golden collars, letting himself think only of the false band he had worn during their long search. He hadn't thought of the consequences of his impulsive action.

He hadn't even realized he was hurting Tony.

And Tony had borne that pain in silence, because he had to, because he had learned that brutal lesson too well, that a slave must never speak or make noise of any kind, nothing to draw attention to the fact that here was a living person, not just an object to be owned.

"Oh my God," he whispered.

"I should have warned you," Thor said. "The fault is mine." He sighed heavily. "Without the Kree device, there is only one way now to break the band. And it will not be pleasant."

As soon as he said that, Steve knew what he meant. He recoiled from the thought, but he knew it must be done. And quickly, too. Time was their enemy now, more so than the Kree. They could not afford to still be here when the inevitable reinforcements arrived.

"Do it," he said quietly.

"You will have to hold him," Thor said.

Steve swallowed hard, but he nodded.

Together they knelt beside Tony. Thor wasted no time. "Forgive me, my friend," he said. Then he touched Mjolnir to the golden collar.

Sparks flew. Tony flinched away, but Steve was there, wrapping both arms about him, pinning his arms and holding him fast.

Blue lightning danced about Mjolnir's runes. Sharp white light burst into life on the disc.

Tony began to scream.

The worst part about it was the relief Steve felt then. He hated himself for his role in this, for holding Tony down and forcing him to endure pain so bad it made him scream. But those agonized screams, horrible as they were, comforted him, too. They were proof that the Kree had not silenced Tony completely.

A bolt of lightning, brilliantly beautiful in miniature, shot from Mjolnir to play about the golden collar. It writhed over the slim band, and Tony threw his head back, his entire body jerking and shuddering in Steve's grip as he screamed and screamed.

And then it was done. The collar shattered, golden fragments falling away. The light emanating from the disc went out, and the curved surface took on a smoky hue. With a snarl of disgust, Thor swept his hand at it and struck it away. It tumbled down Tony's back and landed on the ground, where it broke into three pieces.

Tony sagged in Steve's arms, barely conscious. Violent red welts had risen on his neck where the collar had been. The worst of it was where the disc had lain; there his skin was burned so badly that blisters had formed. But he was truly free now, the last tether to his slavery finally broken.

Across his bent head, Thor met Steve's eyes. "I am sorry," he said.

"Not your fault," Steve forgave him. He knew it had only been seconds, but it felt as though he had been kneeling here for ages. "Is it safe to take him now?"

"Yes," Thor said.

"Then go," Steve urged him. "Get him out of here." He couldn't bear the thought of the Kree falling on them now and stealing Tony away from him again.

Thor hefted Tony easily with just one arm. Tony hung in his grasp, his head lolling. "Will you be all right?"

Steve stood up. "Yes," he said. Let the Kree come – so long as Thor took Tony to safety first.

Let them come. He was ready for them.

"I will return for you as soon as I can," Thor promised.

"I know," Steve said.

****

The Kree did indeed come. By the time Thor found him, Steve had fought his way down several city blocks, heading for their ship. He was still on foot; two scorch marks adorned his shirt where he had narrowly missed being shot and killed by the Kree.

Steve had not missed.

He stood in the middle of the street and watched Thor land. He was armed with a stolen pistol, the shield held in his other hand. "Is Tony all right?"

Thor either did not hear him, or else chose to pretend he had not. "The pilot is reporting mobilization in this sector," he said. "We must leave immediately."

The flight to the public hangar was quick. Cold wind whistled in Steve's ears. Despite Thor's presence, he felt isolated, almost untouchable.

He had so much to think about – and so little time. In minutes he would see Tony again, and he had to be ready. He had to get this right, say the right words, do the right things. If he failed – again – the consequences would be disastrous.

He quailed from that thought. Tony was so badly hurt, in ways Steve couldn't even begin to comprehend. It terrified him to think that he might only add to that hurt, instead of making it better.

The hangar was fast approaching; he braced himself as they landed directly in front of the ship. Immediately he was in motion, running up the ramp. Behind him, Thor bellowed, "We must return to Ernor with all haste! This is not the time for moderation, my friends!"

Steve had long since learned to trust the crew at their jobs, and at any rate, he had far more important things to worry about than their return course to Ernor. "Where is he?" he demanded. "Where's Tony?"

"I left him in your room," Thor said. An anxious frown drew his brows together. "I didn't know where else to take him. Steven…"

The whole world seemed to stop for a moment. His room. "No…" Oh God. The collar. He had left it lying on the table beside his bed, where it stayed every night, in between his daily performance for the Kree.

But Thor, thankfully, had apparently foreseen this problem. "Have no fear," he said. "I placed it in your bag. Tony will not see it."

"Thank you," he breathed. Then he was off, practically tripping over his own feet in his haste to reach his room. He felt more alive than he had in months, practically quivering with hope and joy. Yes, Tony had obviously suffered badly, and yes, he had screwed up with the collar, but those things didn't seem to matter so much anymore. The important thing was that they had found Tony, they had him back, and they were going home.

He burst into his cabin, a glad cry on his lips, and then he froze.

Tony was sitting on the edge of the bed; he must have regained consciousness on the flight to the ship. No doubt Thor had told him to sit there before leaving to retrieve Steve. He was still naked, his head bowed slightly, his gaze fixed on the floor. His right hand covered the marked left one; both hands were curled into loose fists and resting in his lap. The burns from Mjolnir's lightning were painfully red. He was shivering.

Steve stepped into the room at a normal pace, suddenly aware of the violence of his entry. "Tony?"

Tony went rigid, and his breath caught. His shivering intensified. He did not look up.

It was chilly on board the ship, but not enough to account for that terrible trembling. And as Steve drew nearer, he saw the fear in Tony's eyes, and he finally understood.

He wanted to scream then with the rage and despair that swept over him. Thor had tried to warm him, had told him repeatedly that Tony would be changed by his ordeal, but he hadn't wanted to listen. He had refused to believe it, had pinned all his hopes on Tony's unyielding will.

He hadn't remembered one of life's most awful truths: everyone had a breaking point.

He took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. Getting upset would only frighten Tony further. He had to stay in control of his emotions, and think about how his actions would appear to Tony. He could not afford to be selfish now. Everything he did from here on out had to be about Tony.

"It's okay," he said. He took pains to move slowly as he walked up to the bed, then reached for the blanket folded at the foot of it, still right where he had left it this morning. "You're safe now."

Tony flinched with his whole body, huddling on himself while managing not to really move at all. He still did not look up, just continued to stare at the floor with that same expression of dull terror.

Steve stood there, unsure what to do next. For so long he had dreamed about this moment, but he had never dreamed that it might end up like this. He had often imagined that Tony might be hurt when they found him, but with a physical injury that could be bandaged and healed. This kind of hurt, though, he was helpless against.

Tony did not move. He just continued to sit there, and all of a sudden it seemed like Steve was looking not at the man he loved, but at a complete stranger.

It wasn't just the changes in his physical appearance, the shaved head and the weight loss. He had never seen Tony so helpless before, so utterly terrified but unable to do anything about it. That submission was terrible, and all the more so because Steve finally understood just how genuine it was. This was not an act for a rescuer he didn't recognize, or a ploy to keep from drawing attention to himself. This was real.

And what was he supposed to do with that? What could he possibly do or say that would make this all better?

He sat down on the edge of the bed beside Tony. It was a mistake he regretted the moment he made it. Instead of tensing up as Steve might have expected, Tony just sort of…slumped. His shoulders sagged and he bowed his head still further. Any more and he would slide right off the edge of the bed. His shivering threatened to become full-body shudders, but in spite of his obvious terror, he made no sound beyond a hitch in his breathing.

"I'm sorry," Steve said quickly as he stood up again. "I'm sorry. Tony. I don't…" He looked around helplessly.

Maybe if he was honest, if he turned this into a dialogue. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what you need."

Think, he told himself furiously. Yes, this was Tony, and his emotions were getting in the way, but ultimately this was no different than dealing with a wounded soldier on the battlefield. He might not know what to say, but he did know what to do.

The ship had a medical kit, but first he needed to determine how badly Tony was hurt. He took a deep breath and slowly sat down again. "I'm going to look at your neck now," he said. "Okay?" He started to lift his hand, trying to telegraph his every move.

Tony did not pull away, but every line of his body went taut with terror. His hands gripped each other hard enough to whiten his knuckles, and he clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut. It could not have been more obvious that he expected pain, and a great deal of it.

Just like before, Steve froze, then yanked his hand back. It had to be done or those burns would get infected. He knew it had to be done – and yet he couldn't bring himself to do it. Not now. Not when Tony was so terribly frightened.

"Okay," he said. "Tony…" He choked, caught his breath on a wave of crushing grief. Because he had finally gotten the one thing he wanted, and it wasn't what he wanted at all.

Tony just sat there shivering, those awful burns on his neck from the collar, his ribs far too prominent. The blanket was already sliding off his shoulders. Steve wanted to wrap his arms around him and hold him close, tell him that everything was all right, nothing would ever separate them again and no one would ever hurt him again.

But he couldn't. If he were to try, if he ignored all the signs screaming at him and did it anyway, what would Tony do? What horrors would be conjured in Tony's mind if he suddenly found himself held tightly by a strong pair of arms? Steve had no knowledge at all of what had happened to him during his months in captivity. Anything he did now – anything at all – might push Tony over the edge.

Maybe it was just too soon. During the auction Tony hadn't even looked like he understood what was happening. Nor after, when Steve and Thor had tried to remove the collar.

What if Tony still didn't know?

Unwillingly, he remembered Mar-Vell's words. There will be something wrong.

Maybe there really was something wrong with Tony. Deep inside, where no man could see. And maybe there was no healing that particular wound

He closed his eyes briefly. No. That couldn't be true. He wouldn't let it be true.

But all at once he couldn't bear to stay in this room anymore. Not when Tony was so terrified just by his mere presence.

Damning himself for being a coward, he stood up and backed away a couple steps. He whispered, "Why don't you get some sleep?"

And still Tony did not move, even when the blanket slithered down to the bed due to his continued trembling.

Steve swallowed back the tears and firmed up his voice, trying to sound encouraging. "Tony. You should sleep."

Immediately Tony let himself sink sideways so he could lie on the bed. He brought his knees up to his chest, and then he was still, his arms crossed between his chest and the mattress, his eyes closed.

Horrorstruck at what he had done, Steve could only stare. He hadn't intended to make it a command, to stand here giving orders like Tony was still a slave. But he didn't know how to take it back, how to tell Tony that he hadn't meant it that way.

There was really nothing he could do now. He did want Tony to sleep, to wake up rested and coherent again. It was the only thing he could think of that might help at this point. If Tony had a chance to regain his equilibrium, maybe he would finally realize that he was safe.

Maybe then he would be able to face Steve as an equal.

He sighed. There was barely an inch between Tony and the edge of the bed; one move in his sleep and he would tumble right off. Yet Steve somehow doubted that would happen. He already knew that Tony would not move a muscle while he slept.

He came forward again and picked up the blanket, then draped it over Tony's body. Tony flinched and his legs jerked as he hitched his knees up higher, but he did not otherwise react. He couldn't keep the fear off his face though; even with his eyes closed, he was obviously terrified of Steve's proximity.

"Sleep," he said. His voice wavered unevenly. "I'll see you later, when you're rested."

He didn't wait around to see what effect – if any – his words had on Tony. He turned and he hurried out of the room. He shut the door behind him and at last he knew a measure of success on this day, for he managed to stumble down the hall until he was out of earshot before he buried his face in his hands and he wept.

****

Tony woke up to such unsettling conditions that for a long time he couldn't do anything except lie there, his thoughts utterly blank. He could feel panic scuttling around in the corners of his mind, but for now it was held at bay by the sheer strangeness of his situation.

He was on a bed.

A bed.

The mattress was firm beneath him, but immensely softer than the floor he had been lying on for so long. The bedspread was thick and slightly scratchy, but not uncomfortably so. He could see the weave of the fabric, the rich green color. It smelled used, in need of a wash.

There was a blanket covering him, pulled not quite up to his shoulder. It too was green, and thickly warm.

The bed, the blanket, the warmth – the luxury was almost obscene. Those things would be taken away, of course, the way everything was taken from him, but he would get them back somehow, he would do whatever he had to in order to get them back, he would be good, he would obey, he would be so very good.

He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to calm himself.

Both the bedspread and the blanket smelled like Steve.

Oh God. Steve.

The panic that had been capering quietly in the back of his head surged to the front of his mind. Steve was here, Steve had talked to him, Steve had hurt him, trying to remove the collar, Steve had—

Steve.

But. The collar. Steve (and Thor, oh god Thor) had –

Carefully, without moving – he had not moved at all yet, except to open his eyes when he first woke up, because he was good, he was very good – he went very still, stretching out with his senses, feeling along his body, almost listening, it was like, feeling for…

Nothing.

It was not there. The collar was truly gone.

He let out an involuntary breath, a harsh gasp that came dangerously close to audible sound. Instantly he tensed up in dread, afraid of the shock even though he hadn't really made noise, he hadn't, please he had tried his best

(but the collar was gone, it was gone, it was gone)

and slowly he relaxed again, his body sinking into the slightly-scratchy warmth of the blanket covering him and the bedspread beneath him. Sinking into luxury undreamed-of, warmth and softness that smelled like Steve Rogers and sleep.

There was something he needed to think about, something he needed to acknowledge. It was possible that this was not real, that this was all a Kree trick, another punishment. They had been inside his head before, they had created the void, they had – no no no don't think about that, don't think about it--

But it wasn't them. It couldn't be them. Because he remembered now, he was remembering, the auction and the lightning that had split the sky. Because these things (Steve, the blanket, Steve, the collar that was no longer there, the lightning, Steve, Steve, Steve) they all added up into an inescapable conclusion. His math was always right, and it was there right in front of him like the deep green weave of the bedspread, and he had to see it, he had to let it in.

Rescue.

He was rescued.

They had found him. Steve and Thor, they had both been there, Steve's hands yanking on the collar, hurting him terribly, and Thor and Mjolnir and he remembered screaming in agony now, burning and burning beneath the endless shocks. And then…nothing. Just flashes of movement. Meaningless sounds. This bed. Sitting. Waiting. Steve.

And it was real. It was all real. It had happened.

It was happening.

Slowly he inched one hand forward until it peeked out from beneath the blanket. His right hand. Not the one they had scarred, marking him as a thief to all other potential slave owners.

And that ---

He froze, staring wide-eyed at his fingers. Was it… Had they…

Did Steve and Thor own him now?

His breath sped up. No no no no please no.

It wouldn't be so bad, maybe. They would be kind to him, at least.

They would tell him he was rescued, that he was free. They would smile at him and talk to him like he was a man again. But they would always know the truth. The collar might be invisible, but it would still be there, still wrapped about his neck.

He choked, realized he was almost hyperventilating, the room gone swimmy and distant around him. He curled his fingers into the bedspread, focused on the rasp of fabric under his fingertips, forced himself to breathe normally again.

Slowly the room came back into focus. He stared at the bedspread, at the rich green, a sensuous riot of color after months of seeing nothing but sterile white and silver. He was up to nearly two hundred when he realized that he was counting again.

The numbers calmed him further, gave him something to hold on to. By the time he reached four hundred, he was able to start thinking again.

Maybe Steve and Thor owned him now, but there was nothing he could do about it. Not until they told him what they wanted from him. He couldn't think about that now. They would do what they wanted to him and he couldn't stop them and it was pointless to lie here and worry about it and shake and tremble and oh God stop it why can't you stop it why can't you just be good?

So. Try again.

This room. This green bedspread. This blanket. This bed. These were the things he had. The things he needed to keep.

His hand was still in front of his eyes, fisted now into the bedspread – he hadn't realized he was doing that. Slowly he forced his fingers to uncurl, to let go of the bright green fabric. A slight pang went through him as he flattened his palm against the bedspread. He counted to ten, twenty, thirty, and clutched at the bedspread again, grabbing a handful of it in his fist and holding tight.

They wouldn't take it from him, would they? They would be kind, please let them be kind.

There was a thin crescent of dried blood on the back of his hand, near his wrist. He eased his hand still further out from beneath the blanket, but the patch of blood remained the same; there were no more spatters hidden where he couldn't see them. He had no idea how it had come to be there. He wasn't injured.

There was pain, though, but there was always pain in his life now, so that was nothing new. The source was new though, and so at last he made himself focus on his body, pushing past his instinctive loathing in order to determine what was happening within himself.

The pain was mostly centered around his neck. Memory returned, Steve's hands, Thor and Mjolnir, his own screams rising to fill the space around them, the agony of the disc's white light. He had been burned, maybe even badly. He couldn't touch his neck to find out, that was forbidden, and he was going to be good, he had learned his lesson, he was never again going to break the rules.

Dull pain throbbed in his head, but that was familiar, that pain was his constant companion, along with the hollow aches in his chest and the pit of his stomach. His throat felt raw, his mouth dry with thirst.

That need acknowledged, it suddenly became an imperative. Even the Kree had not denied him water until the very end. Surely Steve and Thor would not be so cruel. Surely they would let him have water.

Carefully, slowly, Tony sat up. The pain in his neck flared brighter, and he hissed in a sharp breath. The blanket slid off his shoulder and fell to the floor, a loose green heap. He sat very still, waiting for any reprisal, his head properly bowed, his eyes on the floor, tracing the line of blanket.

Nothing happened. No one came in and ordered him to stop.

He let out a shaky breath, his shoulders slumping. His cell had always been a safe place. The Kree had never hurt him there; the only pain he had experienced in the cell had been of his own making, usually when he wasn't able to stop himself from making noise. Apparently this too was a safe place, where he was free to do what he wanted, as long as he remained within the limits they had placed upon him and remembered to be good, to obey.

He slid off the bed and stood up. His legs wobbled beneath him and the room tilted to one side. He flung out a hand and braced himself on the edge of the bed and waited for his balance to return. After a while it did, and he began walking toward the small bathroom set in the corner.

The bathroom was the size of his former cell, containing a shower the size of a pantry, a toilet, and a sink.

There was also a mirror.

Hastily he looked down, avoiding that silver stare. He used the toilet and washed his hands, cleaned the dried blood off his skin, tried not to look at the scar that marked him as a thief. He cupped his hands beneath the flow from the faucet until he had enough water pooled there to drink. He did this several times, then dried his hands on the towel draped over the shower bar. As he tugged on the towel, the shower curtain rippled, and the rings on the bar jingled.

The sound sent terror jolting through him. It was a sound he heard every night, shackled to the steel frame behind that silvery curtain, counting the seconds until the soldiers came.

no no no no no

With a silent cry, he whirled around, wanting – needing – to flee.

And came face to face with the mirror.

The sight that greeted him made him recoil. A shaved head, just lightly darkened with stubble. Eyes like dark bruises, too large in a thin, white face. A collar of reddened welts and burns.

He cried out in rejection, in denial, in stark horror. Immediately he dropped to a crouch, clapping his hand over his mouth, forcing back the sound, cringing from the inevitable pain. Sounds weren't allowed, but he couldn't help it, couldn't stop the horrible moaning noise that escaped him, and oh God he had to stop, they were going to punish him for this, you have to stop it, stop it stop it stop it

Shaking, lips pressed tightly together, he crawled from the tiny bathroom and back into the bedroom. Then he stopped and just stayed there on all fours, willing himself to calm down, to find the silent submission he needed to attain.

After a long time he no longer felt like he was about to fly apart. The horrible image in the mirror was already forgotten. He climbed unsteadily to his feet and then stood there.

He would go back to bed. He would lie down and sleep, like Steve had told him.

He wanted to pick up the blanket and cover himself with it again. Would he be allowed? Or would he be punished for stealing?

He shuddered.

No. Best to leave it. Unaware he was doing it, he flexed his left hand. There was no pain; the wound the Kree had healed just this morning did not hurt. But the agonizing lesson he had spent all day yesterday learning was too strong. He would not take anything, not ever again.

But maybe, if he was good, Steve would give it back to him.

****

"I need to know," Steve said. "I need you to tell me what happened to Tony."

He had not cried for long, refusing to allow himself the comfort of tears. He did not deserve them. More importantly, there was no time for that kind of luxury. Tony was here right now, needing him. He had to get it together. He had to stay strong.

But to do that, he needed to know what he was up against.

"I don't know," Thor said. They were on the bridge, keeping respectfully back from the crew and out of the way. Steve liked sitting up here. There was nothing to see except for a mottled blue tunnel surrounding them, but it was enough to know that they were in motion, traveling at a speed far faster than any Earth vessel could ever hope to attain.

He looked over at Thor. "I don't buy that," he said. "You knew about the…what they did to him."

"That is because I know the ways of the Kree soldiers," Thor replied. "I do not know how they treat their slaves." His face darkened. "I can only guess."

"I need to know what I'm dealing with here," Steve said. "I can't…" He finally had Tony back, but now his battle was just beginning. He was more than ready to fight back – but he needed to know his enemy first. "I've already made too many mistakes. So I need to know. I need you to tell me." He took a deep breath, forcing himself to confront terrible thoughts, nightmare images. All those things he had tried so hard not to think about during the search for Tony. All those things he had lived in fear of for so long. "Did they beat him?"

"Steven, I do not know," Thor said.

Doggedly, he continued. "Because that might explain why he's so afraid of me. The Kree have such contempt for their slaves. Maybe the only time they ever paid him any attention was when they were hurting him."

Thor thought about this. "That would seem to make sense."

Steve nodded grimly. So. It was bad, but he could work with it. Ignorance was his greatest enemy here. Not-knowing could be even more dangerous than a loaded weapon.

He stopped, suddenly struck by a new thought. Not-knowing… He remembered how dazed Tony had been during the auction, seemingly unaware of what was happening to him. And then later, beneath the stage, he had not reacted to either Steve or Thor with anything except fear. And now here, safely on the ship, alone with Steve for the first time in months – and Steve might as well have been another Kree, based on Tony's response.

"I don't think he understands what's happening," he said.

Thor looked at him in puzzlement.

"I don't think… He spoke slowly, working it out in his head. "I don't think he knows who we are, or that he's really rescued." He thought about the awful way Tony had screamed as the collar shocked him and Mjolnir sparked with lightning. Of course. Why should Tony believe himself saved? All they had done to him so far was surround him with violence and then hurt him.

But as horrible as this all was, at least it gave him a place to start. He knew how to approach Tony now, and how to handle him.

"You may be right," Thor said. "It is possible that the Kree wiped his memory to keep him more tractable. A man who cannot remember his past is a man who has no choice but to accept his present, because it is all he has."

Most men, maybe. But not Tony. He hadn't accepted it. He had fought back in the only way he could – by stealing from them. What he had taken and why didn't matter. He had done it. That was what mattered.

They had taken everything from Tony that they possibly could, they had made it all but impossible for him to fight back – but still he had fought them.

Tears stung Steve's eyes again. He could scarcely comprehend the depth of Tony's strength and courage. Even under the most horrific conditions, a spark of his spirit had remained intact, providing just enough illumination to keep the darkness from swallowing him whole.

He only hoped that spark would be bright enough for Tony to find his way out of that darkness.

He looked at Thor. "I'm going back in there."

"I will go with you if you want," Thor offered.

Steve shook his head. "No, thank you." He had to do this alone. This entire situation was his fault, stretching all the way back to that fateful day when he had failed to protect Tony during the Green Goblin attack in New York. This was his fault, and that meant he had to face up to the consequences. He was responsible for what had happened to Tony. Now he had to make it right.

Or at least try.

"Tread lightly, my friend," Thor said as Steve began to walk away. "And be patient with him. Remember, there is no limit to how much pain a man's body might endure, but the same cannot be said of his mind."

Steve nodded. He walked through the ship, pausing only long enough to take the medkit off the wall and carry it with him, then pop in the galley and prepare a quick tray of food. They didn't have much variety on the ship, and nothing tasted quite right, but Steve was willing to bet it was better than what the Kree had served.

At his room, he knocked lightly on the door, counted to three, then opened it.

Unlike last time, he went inside the room quietly, not making any unnecessary noise. For a single instant, long enough for his heart to plummet into his stomach, he panicked when he saw the bed was empty. Then he saw Tony standing in front of the tiny bathroom, and he sagged with relief.

Tony stood frozen, his head bowed, his eyes on the floor by his feet. He was still naked, and Steve was struck all over again by how terribly thin he had become. All the slaves Steve had seen were underweight, but none as much as Tony. In contrast, the arc reactor looked enormous, its light casting shadows on the jut of his collarbones, the visible curve of his ribcage.

Steve forced himself to smile, though. Even if Tony wasn't looking at him, he would be able to hear it in Steve's voice. "I see you found the bathroom. Good."

Tony said nothing. He swallowed hard, and a shiver ran through him.

In the bathroom Tony would have found water, and drunk his fill. "Here. I brought you something to eat," he said. "It's nothing fancy, but..."

Tony didn't respond – not with words. But a look of distress crossed his face, and his shoulders hunched a little higher.

Steve set first the medkit, then the tray down on the table beside his bed, where normally the golden collar would be resting – thank God for Thor and his foresight. He sat down on the bed. "Why don't you come sit?" he asked. He made damn sure to phrase it as a question, so it sounded like an invitation, not a command.

Either he failed, or else Tony chose to interpret it that way. Immediately he came forward, his head still bowed. He did not look up as he sat on the edge of the bed, keeping some space in between them.

The sight of him sitting there, so close and yet so far away, naked and shivering, was more than Steve could bear. He tried not to move too fast, especially once he raised his hands, but he did not even hesitate. He leaned down, picked up the blanket, and settled it over Tony's shoulders.

Tony's fixed stare did not waver. On their own, it seemed, his hands drifted upward and he clutched at the ends of the blanket where they were draped across his chest. He sat there, very still, wrists crossed and pressed to the arc reactor, dimming the light.

Steve inhaled deeply, slowly. He kept his hands in his lap, in plain view. He forced himself to slump his shoulders so he would appear less physically intimidating. He had been a soldier once, he had to remember. If Tony made the connection between the Kree and Steve's past, things could go very badly.

Trying hard to sound friendly, he said, "Tony, do you know who I am? Do you remember me?"

Despite the blanket, another shiver ran through Tony. He blinked, and he shot the tiniest of glances over in Steve's direction, his head not moving at all, only his eyes, as he looked at whatever he could see of Steve's feet and legs from his current position.

Steve waited and waited, until he began to think Tony would not respond at all. Then at last, so quietly Steve could barely hear him, Tony whispered, "You're Steve." As soon as he spoke, he cringed, obviously anticipating pain and punishment.

That reaction was bad, but Steve supposed sadly that it was only to be expected. It would take some time for Tony to truly accept that he was free from the collar and its punishing shocks.

The fact that Tony had spoken at all, though, was encouraging. And he knew who Steve was, which was the most important thing of all. Their fears that the Kree had somehow erased his memory were unfounded.

Still, it worried Steve to think that Tony knew who he was, but was still so afraid of him. It made him fearful all over again that there really was something wrong with Tony, deep inside.

"And you understand that you're safe now, right?" he asked. He strove to keep his tone light and friendly. "Thor and I stopped them from selling you and we saved you."

Tony did not speak this time, but his gaze darted back and forth. He looked agitated now, his breath coming in shortened gasps.

Seeing him so obviously upset, but unable to voice what was bothering him, made Steve's heart wrench inside his chest. He would have given anything at that moment to undo what the Kree had done to Tony. Anything at all to have Tony back the way he had been, to unravel time and take them back to happier days, before they had ever even heard of the Kree. "What is it?" he asked. "You can talk to me, Tony. It's all right."

Without his serum-enhanced hearing, he probably wouldn't have heard Tony's words at all. "You don't…you don't own me?"

Self-loathing twisted in Steve's stomach. Oh God. He hadn't even considered the idea that Tony would believe he had been sold to Steve and Thor. He had assumed that Tony's lack of comprehension regarding the auction would extend to the natural consequences of being put up for sale to the highest bidder.

And all this time Tony had thought the worst, that Steve was his new owner.

"No," he said fiercely. "God, no. Tony, I'm sorry. I should have told you right away. I—" He stopped suddenly as Tony's shoulders hitched in a silent sob.

It took everything he had not to pull Tony into his arms then. He could only sit there, guilt and shame burning in his veins, and try to fix this latest mistake he had made. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have told you. You're free now. You're free, and we're going home."

Tony put both his hands over his mouth in an effort at staying silent as he wept. And it was finally too much for Steve to endure. He couldn't sit there and do nothing as the man he loved fell apart beside him.

He shifted over on the bed, taking heart from the fact that Tony didn't cringe away. He raised one hand and touched Tony's shoulder. This time Tony did flinch, but Steve didn't pull back. "It's okay," he murmured. "It's just me. It's okay." He let his hand slide across Tony's back, his palm whishing over the green blanket, to gently grip his right shoulder.

Tony didn't react to the touch. He just sat there, silently crying, his shoulders jerking slightly under Steve's arm. But when Steve applied just the faintest pressure, he turned and leaned forward.

Steve did not even hesitate. He encircled Tony with both arms, finally holding him close, the way he had longed to do all the months they had been apart. And when Tony held him back, so lightly, like he expected to be punished for it, Steve found himself crying too, the tears streaking down his face.

"I'm here," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm here. You're safe now. You're free. We're going home."

Chapter Text

Steve was holding him and they were going home and for the first time in so long he felt warm again and almost safe, even.

Steve was holding him and Steve's arms were warm and strong and he had forgotten what it felt like to be held.

Steve was holding him, whispering, "I'll never let you go. No one will ever hurt you again. I promise."

Steve was holding him, and he was crying, he couldn't stop, terrible noises coming from his mouth.

Steve was holding him and he wasn't just crying, he was sobbing, he was making all kinds of noises and oh God, he had to stop, he had to be silent, stop it stop it stop it

It was too much. It was just…too much.

Only yesterday he had been on his knees in chains, a bloody hole in his hand and a soundless sob on his lips. He had spent endless hours in hell learning that last, brutal lesson from the Kree – that he must never, ever break the rules again and disobey. And now here was Steve, wanting him to speak, to break one of the most fundamental rules of them all.

(but the collar was gone and he was free)

Steve…

Steve was too much. The smell of him. The warmth of him. The blue-gray of his clothing, cut in the style the Ernorrans favored – was it borrowed? Stolen?

Had Steve, too, broken the rules?

He wanted to wrap his arms about his head and curl up in the corner, cold silver walls pressed to his back and side, a familiarity that reassured without providing any measure of comfort. Instead he was surrounded by the warmth of the blanket about his shoulders, the slight scratchiness of the fabric, the bright green color of both blanket and bedspread, the give of the mattress beneath his thighs. And Steve, strong arms around him, firm chest beneath his head rising and falling with each breath, the fabric of Steve's shirt rasping against his skin, the smell of his soap and his body.

Too much.

He needed to be back in his cell, where there was nothing but that cold, silver and white silence.

It was all too much.

With sudden, cold certainty, so unlike the panicky flare of his racing thoughts, Tony knew that he was going to start screaming. And he wouldn't be able to stop. They would punish him for it (no, no, the collar was gone), but he wouldn't be able to help it.

They would –

They were close. Oh God. They were so close, and he twisted away in terror, pulling back and tearing free. Only the soldiers came this close to him, as they stepped up behind him and settled their hands on his hips and thrust forward—

The mattress dipped as he flinched away. The sudden motion made him slide off the bed and onto the floor, his legs folding beneath him as he fell. The blanket slipped off his shoulders, down his back, and he was naked again, cold and shivering and huddled up in terror, scarcely able to breathe.

At least he didn't feel like screaming anymore.

An endless age passed. He didn't know how long it lasted. He had gone far beyond counting. Numbers did not exist in this place. Nothing existed but terror and confusion and a white stream of no no no no

Little by little he came back to himself, almost like those times when the collar had short-circuited, cutting everything off in his brain and forcing him to restart. It was different this time, though. In the past when the collar had shocked him, the pain had gone away as soon as the shocks had stopped. Now throbbing pain still encircled his neck, keeping time with his heart.

He lay very still, eyes closed, not daring to move. He let himself feel the pain, the chill in the air, the cold hardness of the floor beneath him.

All so horribly, terribly familiar.

He was back where he belonged, where he needed to be, and part of him was thankful, but mostly he just despaired, because what had come before had all seemed so real, and he had wanted it to be real, oh God, he had wanted it so badly. But he should have known better, should have known there would never be any rescue. It was all a trick, an illusion, just one more cruelty perpetuated by the Kree.

Quietly, a voice. "Tony?"

He jerked, flinching in on himself. But even as he did it, he recognized the voice, and he knew that what he had just begun to think was only an illusion was in fact reality.

He really was rescued. He really was on board a spaceship. He really was free from the Kree and the collar. And that really was Steve who had just spoken his name.

Carefully he opened his eyes. He sat up, ignoring both the sick pain that ripped through his head, and the way the room tilted all around him. He braced himself with the bed at his back, and then he dared to glance up.

Steve was sitting on the floor, too. He sat across from Tony – which wasn't far, given the size of the room – his back to the same wall that led to the tiny bathroom. That was good, because Tony didn't think he could handle Steve standing over him right now, looming and casting shadows, the way the Kree had.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked.

Tony said nothing. He kept his gaze on the floor, sort of a soft focus, not really seeing anything, and wondered if he would be punished if he reached out for the blanket.

"I didn't…" Steve stopped, cleared his throat softly. "I need your help here, Tony. I don't want to hurt you, or upset you."

Steve's voice washed over him, the words nonsensical (why stop hurting him now?). He was so tired, and so cold, and the fear was back, a hard knot in the pit of his stomach. He didn't know what he was supposed to do now. He was so cold and he longed for the warmth of the blanket, but he didn't dare reach for it.

"Please," Steve said, almost begging. "Can you please say something?"

The weight of Steve's stare was like a physical hand on the back of his neck, pushing his head down, making him shudder. It wasn't like the cold glare of the Kree accuser, but it carried the same force, and the fear leaped into his chest, into his throat, almost wiping out the terrible pain in his neck.

One of the very first lessons he had learned at the cruel hands of the Kree was that he must not speak, must not make noise of any kind. Punishment was swift and pitiless. And yet here was Steve, wanting him to put himself in that tiny cell again, chained and helpless, reaping the just rewards of disobedience.

But to ignore Steve now was to disobey a direct command. And that too was not allowed. If he didn't obey, if he wasn't good, he would be hurt.

(But he was safe now, he was free, he could speak.)

"Tony, please. It's okay," Steve tried again, so painfully earnest. "You can talk to me. You're allowed."

He knew that. He wasn't stupid. The collar was gone, and this was Steve. Just Steve.

But he still couldn't do it. He had been silent for too long, and that silence too cruelly enforced. Even now, when nothing prevented him from speaking, he couldn't do it.

He was trapped between what he knew and what he knew. And so it wasn't Steve's mercy that prompted him to draw in a shaky breath, to open his mouth and whisper, "I'm sorry." It wasn't gratitude or relief. It was fear, nothing else. Fear of letting Steve down, of making Steve angry, of failing to do what he was supposed to do. Fear of disobedience. Fear of the pain.

Across from him, still on the floor, Steve uttered a hoarse noise that might have been a sob. "Oh God, Tony, don't…you don't... Why are you apologizing to me?"

He didn't know why. He felt suddenly faint with terror. He had tried so hard, but he had still screwed up, he had done it wrong, said the wrong thing.

What would Steve do to him now?

"Tony." Steve sounded worried. "God, you're shaking! It's okay. Hey, it's okay." Still on his behind, he scooted across the floor toward the bed, where Tony was kneeling in a loose heap.

His sudden movement sent a draft of cool air across Tony's bare skin. He shivered, then froze up as Steve shifted closer still.

This was it, then. His punishment.

But Steve didn't hurt him. All Steve did was lift up that green blanket from the floor and settle it over his shoulders.

Again.

"Better?" Steve asked.

He didn't know what to do. He had screwed up – but he had been rewarded for it with warmth, with a blanket to clutch tightly.

Nothing made sense anymore.

"It's okay," Steve said. "You know I'm… You know I would never…" He trailed off, giving voice to a nearly inaudible sound of frustration. "Tony, won't you look at me?"

But that too was forbidden, along with the mandate to never speak or make noise. He was not a person anymore, not allowed to look anyone in the eye.

No I can, I can do this, I can do this.

At first all he could manage were those tiny, darting glances he had perfected in captivity, peeking quickly upward while keeping his head properly bowed. In this way he looked at Steve's boots (black, scuffed, worn), his blue-gray trousers (too tight, shiny around the knees), his hands (strong, fingers curled in, not a fist, though). After that, though, he had to lift his head in order to see more, and at last he let himself believe that he was really going to do this.

Slowly he turned his body to the right. He raised his head a little. It hurt, pain stabbing the back of his neck, but he kept going. Not enough to look at anyone dead on, but enough so he could lift his eyes and see.

And there was Steve's slim waist, his muscled arms, his broad chest and shoulders. The line of his jaw. His full lower lip. His mouth. His eyes, so very blue.

Steve.

Oh God. Steve.

Memory returned in a rush. The four months of happiness they had shared. Laughing together and coining silly new words for modern technology and going out for dinner in tiny little dives and talking on the roof beneath the sunset and lazy mornings in bed drinking coffee. The Avengers, fighting side by side, no words required or even necessary, just assemble. The Forest on Ernor and a shawarma date he didn't even really want and a glowing blue scepter bringing out the worst in him.

Countless long hours in a tiny silver cell, wishing, hoping, praying Steve would come for him.

A vow made while he was helpless in the hospital, terrified that he would never walk again. I'll never leave you. No matter where you go, no matter where you are, I won't leave you. I promise.

The memories poured in, the door to the past standing wide open, and he scrambled frantically to force that door closed, to look away before he was swept up in that tidal flow and lost in it completely. He knew now why he had consciously rejected those memories before, why he had lain there on the cold floor of his cell and deliberately chosen to forget. It was simply too much. The past was too painful and he hadn't been able to bear it, he had needed to retreat, to isolate himself from the things that made him the man named Tony Stark, and focus on just being a good little slave.

Now, though, there was no running away, no escape into dull apathy and the rote counting of minutes. Now there was a need to accept the truth, which was this green blanket over his shoulders, this pain in his neck, this man sitting next to him.

"Steve," he whispered.

"Tony, oh God, Tony." Steve started to raise his hands, and in spite of himself, Tony flinched.

Steve froze, his hands hovering in mid-air. "I'm sorry. I just wanted… Can I hug you?"

The question meant nothing – Steve could do whatever he wanted. But he understood that some kind of response was expected from him, and so he nodded.

Steve's breath rushed out, as though he had been holding it, waiting for this. He scooted closer, and then his arms were around Tony, hugging him tight, almost enough for panic to rise within him. But it was okay, it was just Steve, and as before, he dared to let himself return the embrace, clinging weakly to Steve's borrowed shirt.

Only then, with Steve's arms wrapped around him, his forehead resting on Steve's shoulder, did he realize how much he had wanted this. He hadn't even known how to ask for it.

It was better this time. He wasn't crying, and he knew that he was free, that the arms holding him belonged to Steve. He wasn't afraid of being disobedient, or of being punished. There was just Steve and the warmth of Steve's body and the strength in the embrace that held him so lightly now, as though he might break.

And for the first time in months, he thought there might be a chance that he could feel safe. The fear and anxiety that constantly knotted his lungs and twisted his stomach settled a little, easing their grip on him. He drew in a deep breath and it stuttered in his throat – but it didn't hurt his chest, didn't make him feel like he couldn't get enough air, like he was going to suffocate on the fear that never let go.

He could really do this.

Steve's chest swelled beneath his, then Steve was speaking. "I thought I'd lost you forever. But I was never going to stop looking for you. Never."

He didn't know what to do with that. Steve had been looking for him?

"I love you," Steve said. "I love you so much."

There had been a time when those words had meant everything to him, when he had thrilled to hear them. Now they meant nothing. All he cared about was Steve's body so close and warm, the blanket on his shoulders, the lush green color, the pain in his neck that meant the collar was gone, the disc was gone, he was free, he was really free.

Long minutes passed. Steve continued to hold him, and Tony closed his eyes. The knots and the pain were still there, but everything was starting to recede. Even the confused jumble in his head was calming down.

"Tony?"

Steve's voice went right through him, forcing him back into wary alertness, his heart racing, his entire body tensing up in fear. What now, oh God, what now?

"We need to get those burns taken care of," Steve said.

He didn't understand at first. What was Steve talking about? Then he remembered, Steve's hands on the collar, trying to pull it apart with brute strength as it shocked him over and over until he screamed with the agony. Thor had been there too, holding Mjolnir up to his neck – and suddenly he became aware of the pain. Not just as another constant in his life, but as a source of genuine distress.

"There are painkillers in the medkit," Steve said. He let go of Tony and sat back. "I want you to take them. I'll wait until they kick in before I do anything, okay?"

He didn't move, didn't speak. The command was to be obeyed, and it was that simple. No response from him was required other than his obedience.

"I brought food, too," Steve said. "It's not the greatest, but…"

Tony hunched his shoulders. He couldn't bear to think about eating. Food was just something to divide the day into sections, to mark the time between morning and afternoon. For the Kree, it was a prize, too, a larger portion served at night along with a shower and a clean tunic, his just reward for being tied down and raped.

But Steve had not said he must eat. It wasn't a command. And Steve had said he was free. The awful pain in his neck said he was free. He watched Steve's feet as he stood up and walked over to the table beside the bed. When Steve came back, a quick glance showed that he was holding a steel-gray tray and what looked like a white suitcase.

Steve sat down beside him again. "Tony? You really need to eat."

He didn't look at the contents of the tray. He didn't want to know. He was taut with fear, his stomach twisting again in those painful knots. If he had to, he would. But he didn't want to, he didn't want to…

"Tony?"

He drew in a shivery breath, steeled himself for the shock. "I can't," he whispered.

"Why not?" Steve asked gently.

"I get sick," he whispered. It was true, it wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the only reason. But how to put into words the real reason? He couldn't describe the sick dread that twisted up his insides all day, every day. He didn't know how to say that food had become just one more torture among many, something to be endured when necessary but avoided whenever possible.

Steve hummed thoughtfully, apparently considering what he had said. "Do you think it was maybe something in their food?"

That was something he had, in fact, thought about before, sitting there in the dining hall, clutching at his stomach and keeping the food down only through sheer force of will. But it was different now, being asked to think, as though his opinions counted for something.

And he did think about it now. Wondering what the slaves in the kitchen did every day to prepare the food. What their schedule must be, how early they were forced from their cells in order to march down to the kitchen and start their day's work. What it was like to stand there watching the soldiers file past and take their meals without ever looking at them. Or worse, when the other slaves came in and ate, and still no one looked at them.

He thought about the dining hall, the long rows of the tables where the slaves sat. His regular seat, made his not through assignment but through sheer habit, looking out at all those other slaves he never thought about. The echoing silence, no talking, no bodies shifting restlessly. The cold in the air, somewhat less in that room through the combined body heat of the slaves.

Himself sitting among them. Just one more slave, sitting with his head down, his eyes fixed on the table. Eating because he had to, not because he wanted to. Forcing himself to swallow the tasteless food the slaves were given day after day, then sitting there afterward, waiting for the handlers to take them to their assigned work duties, hands clasped tightly, trying desperately not to be sick in front of everyone…

"Tony? Tony, it's okay. Hey…it's okay."

Steve's voice came from far away. He was doing it again, he realized, his breath coming in rising gasps, his entire body rigid with fear and dread.

He forced himself to stop, to slump, his head bowed. The blanket was still draped around his shoulders, and he clung to it gratefully. He could get used to this, the bright color, the warmth, the way it smelled like Steve.

"Maybe later?" Steve said hopefully.

Tony nodded a little. It was the only thing he could do. If Steve told him to eat, he would. Until then, he would just hope that it would be forgotten about.

"I'm worried about you," Steve confessed. "You need to eat."

He said nothing, just stared at the floor.

Steve sighed softly. "Well, at least drink something. You'll need it to take the painkillers." He undid the clasps on the medkit and lifted the lid, then reached inside. Something rattled; pills were shaken out of a bottle. The cap was replaced. Then Steve sat back and said, "Okay, hold out your hand."

Terror burst to life within him. He couldn't breathe, phantom pain stabbing his hands, cold light reflecting off the silver ball and the spikes impaling him hold out your hands

no no no don't please don't

His throat finally unlocked, and he gasped, dragging air into his lungs, and he was going to scream, he just knew it…

He didn't scream. He curled up on the floor, huddled about his knees, his forehead pressed to the cold surface, his hands held protectively to his chest. He moaned, low and desperate. Just once, though.

"Tony?"

don't please don't I'll be good I'll never take anything again you can have it all back just please please don't hurt me

"Tony. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't realize… It's okay. It's just me…" A ragged breath. "Oh God, what do I do?"

His hand hurt, the pain was like fire, only that wasn't right, was it? They had healed him, leaving behind only a round scar with a fine array of lines radiating outward, a miniature sun forever branded on his palm, a warning to everyone who saw him that he was a thief, unworthy of serving the mighty Kree. No, this pain wasn't in his hand, but in his neck, throbbing heat and it was fire, in a way, because he remembered now why it was there, why he hurt so badly.

He drew in a deep breath, exhaled shakily. He ached all over, muscles strained taut and trembling for too long – how long had he been cowering down here? Slowly, keeping his eyes averted, he uncurled from his ball and knelt upright, then sat back on his heels. A good posture, humble and submissive, demonstrating his obedience.

"Tony? You were…gone." Steve sounded so uncertain, his voice not at all strong and confident.

I'm sorry, he wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come. He could only kneel there, clutching at the blanket that had almost slipped off his shoulders when he sat up. He was afraid of losing it again, afraid that this time Steve wouldn't give it back to him.

"I'm so sorry," Steve said. "I didn't think…" He sighed. "I'm sorry."

He heard the misery in Steve's voice, but like Steve's declaration of love, it washed over him, leaving no trace of itself behind. There was nothing for him but the pain in his neck, and the utter relief of realizing that he was not about to be punished. His shoulders slumped and he bowed his head still further, not out of submission now, but sheer gratitude. The gesture hurt, a fresh stab of pain in the back of his neck, and he winced, his breath hissing between his teeth.

"Okay," Steve said. There were other sounds now. He was doing something. Tony didn't look up. He had escaped punishment, and so he didn't care what Steve did now. It didn't matter.

"I've got some water," Steve said, "and two of the pain pills. You should take them now, so they can start working."

Water. The Kree had never denied him water – not until those last days, when he was chained up and tortured – but still he had never felt sated, thirst just one more constant in his life, like the pain and the fear. Just the mention of it now made his mouth dry up, and he swallowed hard.

"It's okay," Steve said, at the same time he was realizing he was going to have to look up.

Slowly he lifted his head. He saw Steve's hands. A plastic cup of water. Two white pills nestled in Steve's other palm. The pills looked harmless enough: small, round, promising relief from the pain. But he had been fooled before by an apparently harmless silver orb, and a shudder worked through him. He would not make that mistake again.

"Do you want to take them?" Steve asked. "Or can I give them to you?"

Never, never, never again would he allow anyone to place something in his hands. Though every part of him trembled in breathless fear at his audacity, he forced himself to uncurl his fingers from the green blanket, and reach out. It wasn't stealing. It wasn't. Steve wanted him to have these things. It was okay. He was allowed.

Steve leaned in a little, shortening the distance he had to reach. Just as his shaking fingers closed about the cup, the blanket slithered off his shoulders and fell to the floor in a green heap.

Defeated, Tony slumped, closing his eyes. Was he not allowed to have anything at all, then?

"It's okay," Steve said quietly. "I'll get it."

He opened his eyes. The first thing he saw were those round little pills, and he snatched at them, grabbing them up, barely grazing Steve's palm with his fingertips. Then he sat back again, clutching his prizes, the pills rattling together in his fist because he was still shaking all over, water nearly sloshing over the side of the cup.

The thought of losing the water frightened him badly. This might be all there was. If he spilled it, he wouldn't get any more. Before he could see the nightmare become reality, he pushed the pills into his mouth, then drank from the cup.

The water was slightly cool, and it tasted strange, as though it wanted to hold a flavor but couldn't decide which one. He drained the cup in one long swallow, afraid to stop or let go, in case it was taken away from him before he could finish.

And when he was done, Steve did in fact lean toward him and reach out. He froze up, almost dropping the cup in his terror, but Steve didn't take it from him. Instead Steve scooped up the green blanket and spread it across his shoulders for the third time today.

And then Steve said, "They won't fit very well, but I've got some spare clothes you can have."

Tony stayed very still. He couldn't even think. What was… God, what was happening? He was nothing now, just a slave (no no I'm free now) and Steve was giving him things. Water, pills to take his pain away, this green blanket that smelled like Steve and was a little bit scratchy and in need of a wash. And now clothing.

It was too much, too much, he couldn't do this, and he closed his eyes against the sting of helpless tears. He was so tired, he couldn't do this anymore, sliding so easily into the pain and fear of the past, unable to hold onto what was real, what was happening to him right now. He wanted to sink down to the floor and curl up and sleep and let all this happen to someone else, someone not him.

"Here," Steve said quietly. "I'll take that. I'm sorry." A hand touched his, then fumbled at the cup.

He didn't cry out – he was too well-trained for that – but all the breath left him in a rush. He cringed back, ducking his head, eyes still closed, being so good, not looking, not making a sound. He held onto the blanket though, clutching at it desperately please let me keep it, please let me have this.

He heard Steve stand up and move away. He stayed where he was, shaking all over in terrible hope and fear.

Steve's footsteps returned, then he settled himself on the floor again. "Okay," he said. "This is what I've got. Let's see what fits."

Nothing made sense, and it didn't, he couldn't, and Steve said, "Tony? Did you want to try these on?"

And suddenly he understood. He sagged forward, opening his eyes a little, but not letting go of the blanket. He didn't need to hold on so tightly, he knew that now, but he couldn't stop himself.

He had to do better. He had to be good. He had to remember that he was free now. Steve wasn't taking things away from him. Steve was giving him things. Taking the cup from him was just so he would be able to accept the clothes.

He had to stop this, stop being like this.

He had to be good.

Slowly he nodded. He looked over at what Steve had for him.

The shirt and pants were the same blue-gray color as the ones Steve was wearing. They looked identical to what Steve had on, in fact. They would be too big on him, but Tony didn't care about that. He wanted those clothes, wanted them badly. He wanted to cover this unwelcome body so he wouldn't have to look at it anymore. He wanted to be warm again. He wanted the softness of the fabric, the color he had been denied for so long, the knowledge that he was dressed like a man again because he really was a man, not just a slave.

He felt a pang of loss as he let go of the blanket. Already the details of clothing – sleeves, legs, waistbands – seemed too complex. He fumbled with it all, swaying and almost toppling over when he stood up to tug the pants on. Steve reached out a hand to steady him and he cringed back, losing his balance in the opposite direction. He thumped lightly against the bed, the backs of his legs bouncing off the mattress. He wobbled, flirted with falling down, then finally regained his balance.

Steve made a quiet sound. Not disappointment, exactly. More like dissatisfaction.

Tony's heart raced. He stared down at his feet, his head properly bowed, and he prayed that Steve would allow him to keep his new clothes.

Everything was far too big. The pant cuffs were puddled on his feet. The pants themselves wanted to slide down, lying too loose on his hips. The sleeves were too long as well, partially covering his hands, the shoulder seams drooping low. But the clothes were warm and he could no longer see the body he hated so much, and he wanted them, he wanted them.

"I didn't think they'd be that big on you," Steve said. "I'll try to find some that fit better, but it's awfully slim pickings. Everything we brought on board is borrowed from the Ernorrans."

Tony said nothing. The effort of getting dressed had left him feeling oddly weak and shaky, and his heart was still going too fast.

"Okay, why don't you sit…" Steve started to say.

Eager to comply, to be seen obeying, Tony dropped to his knees right where he stood, then settled back into the familiar posture of submission, sitting on his heels, his head down, eyes downcast.

"…on the bed," Steve finished, very quietly.

His breath caught in fear. Wrong. He had done it wrong.

"It's okay," Steve said. "This works, too." He sat on the floor beside Tony. He hesitated, then said, "Is it all right if I hold you again?"

His mistake was being overlooked. Relief loosened his limbs, and Tony nodded.

He did want it, too. As Steve enfolded him in another embrace, so strong yet so gentle, he let out a shivery little sigh. And when Steve picked up that green blanket and draped it over his shoulders yet again, he very nearly made a sound. It was his now, please let it be his, Steve kept giving it back to him, and he wanted it, oh God how he wanted it.

"I love you," Steve whispered.

Between the new clothes and the blanket and Steve's heat, he felt almost warm. The seconds and minutes ticked past, and then an even more amazing thing began to happen, as those little white pills fulfilled their promise.

Nothing could touch those hurts that were a part of him now, that constant ache in his head, the knots in his chest and stomach. But the fiery pain in his neck first dulled, then virtually disappeared. He could have cried from sheer gratitude, except that he seemed incapable of feeling anything at all anymore. As though the pills had somehow removed not just the pain in his body, but his ability to feel pain of any kind.

His eyes slipped closed. He was so tired. He slumped against Steve, held up by those strong arms. Sleep beckoned. Not just a light doze this time. The chance to finally set down all the pain and anxiety and just…rest.

For a time, he simply drifted. Floated in a hazy sea of warmth and softness, so unlike the cold hard cell he had known for so long. Exhaustion pulled at him, and he let it carry him along.

"Tony?"

The sound of Steve's voice jolted him back into awareness, his heart pounding, every line of his body rigid with a sudden burst of fear.

"I think it's time," Steve said. "Looks like those painkillers are working."

All thoughts of sleep were instantly banished. He sat very still as Steve moved away, opened up the medkit again, and began to rummage around inside. Things were set on the floor: a roll of bandages, a syringe, some kind of metal instrument.

He shuddered, and closed his eyes.

"I already asked," Steve said. "And none of the crew know magic. At least not any healing spells. And we can't wait until we get back. We don't have the power that the Kree ships had. It's going to take ten days to return to Ernor." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Tony. I'll do my best, but…this is probably going to hurt."

He had never doubted that. He bowed his head, exposing the back of his neck. It hurt a little to move like that, but the pain was easily tolerated.

For now.

"Okay," Steve said. "I'm going to start."

The first touch of Steve's fingers on his neck made him inhale sharply. It wasn't the pain. It was the fear of it. The fear of being shocked for touching, for breaking that most basic rule of all, which was that the collar must never be interfered with. And even though he understood that what Steve was doing was only possible because the collar was, in fact, gone, that knowledge detracted nothing from the primal terror that left him taut and trembling.

True to his word, Steve was as gentle as possible, but it still hurt terribly. And with every fresh jolt of pain, so much like the shocks that had ripped through him, Tony felt his hold on reality slip a little more.

"I'm sorry," Steve said as he flinched particularly hard. He made no sound, though, because he had learned that lesson well, pain had to be endured in silence or it only hurt worse, and then it would never stop. But this pain was not deterred by his obedience. It just kept coming and coming, no matter what he did.

"Saved the worst for last," Steve murmured, and shifted around to kneel behind him.

He nearly cried out then, overcome by terror. Behind him, someone was behind him, and they only did that when they were ready to fuck him, coming by six or by eight, and someone (steve) was right there

A touch on the back of his neck, where the disc was permanently attached, wired into his central nervous system, knowing what he did the moment he did it, punishing him with pain, like it was doing right now, it hurt, oh God it hurt but don't don't don't make a sound don't—

"tony?"

But he wasn't Tony anymore, he couldn't be Tony, he was only a slave, worth nothing but for what his hands could produce and the hole between his legs, and the pain was getting worse, but don't don't don't make a sound, just clutch the blanket tightly in clenched fists—

blanket?

"just hold on, almost done"

There was something wrapped in his hands, something draped down his back, warm and in need of a wash, and someone (Steve, it was Steve) said, "Almost done, just breathe," and he actually saw it behind closed eyelids, saw the lush green color and the slightly scratchy fabric—

And he was okay then, he was anchored again, aware of where he was and why. For everything that was the same as before – the pain, the fear, the helplessness, the silence – there was something that was not. Warmth. Clothes. Steve's voice. The green blanket. He clung to those things tightly, and his wrists hurt from squeezing the blanket so hard in his fists, but he refused to let go, he would not let go.

And finally it was done. Steve moved away and said, "That was the last one. I'm sorry, Tony. I tried not to hurt you."

With this latest torture ended, with Steve no longer behind him, the worst of his fear dissolved. Consciousness wanted to go with it, his body finally pushed too far beyond its meager limits.

He let it happen.

The world tilted into darkness. He was sinking. Arms slid around him, lifting him up. He wasn't afraid.

The bed. Cool sheets. Smell of Steve.

A touch, light and gentle, on his temple, his cheek.

Softness. Warmth.

Finally, sleep.

Chapter Text

"I was wrong," Steve said.

He didn't want to leave Tony alone for too long, but there were things he and Thor needed to discuss. He was also pretty sure that Tony was going to sleep for a long time. It was only mid-afternoon, but already it had been an incredibly long day. He thought there was a good chance that Tony would sleep the rest of the day and all night, too, to finally wake up tomorrow morning.

"He does know who we are," he said.

"That is good news," Thor said. "How is he doing?"

"Sleeping right now," Steve said. He thought of his last sight of Tony, curled up in bed, covered by both the bedspread and the blanket. Against all that green, the bandage on the back of his neck had stood out starkly white. He had been so deeply asleep that he hadn't even flinched when Steve hadn't been able to resist stroking the side of his face.

Thor gave him a long look. They were in the bedroom the Ernorrans had set aside for Thor, although he slept only rarely. He had accepted it as a token of his appreciation for their respect, but so far the only real use the room had seen was when they needed to speak in private without any of the crew overhearing.

"And before then?" Thor asked.

"Not well," Steve admitted. "He's… I don't know. He gets confused. Sometimes it looked like he didn't know where he was. Like he still thought…he was a slave."

Thor nodded, his expression somber. "That is to be expected," he said. "It should pass in time."

"I hope so," Steve said. He hesitated, then said, "It was so hard. I didn't know what to say. And I kept… It seemed like all I did was say the wrong thing and frighten him."

"That is not your fault," Thor said. "You cannot be blamed for not knowing the words that harbor fear for him."

Rationally he knew Thor was right. But it was still hard not to blame himself for inadvertently terrorizing Tony. "I just… I kept trying to talk to him like normal. I didn't know what else to do." He had been utterly horrified to realize just how broken Tony was. All he had been able to do was talk to Tony as though he could somehow bring out the real Tony Stark, if only he said the magic words.

"You did the right thing," Thor said. "He would not want you to treat him any differently."

But they had to, Steve thought. Tony was too fragile right now. He needed slow kindness, patience and compassion. They had to walk carefully around him, mindful of what might frighten him. Already Steve had learned what some of those things were – but in the worst way possible. What he really needed was to know what exactly had happened to Tony during his captivity, so he would know what to avoid.

He couldn't ask, though. Making Tony talk about it now would simply be too cruel. Chances were he would never want to talk about it. Not that Steve could blame him, because he would probably do the exact same thing, if it were him. Worse, Tony had learned to suffer in silence, so he was simply incapable right now of telling anyone when he was upset. Instead Steve would have to take his cues from Tony's body language, which wasn't easy when Tony still had trouble distinguishing what was real. There was no way to tell when he was reacting to something he was remembering, or if Steve himself had done something to provoke that fear. It was a guessing game, a game where the stakes were enormously high and the consequences of losing could be disastrous.

"He won't look at me," he said. "He keeps his head down all the time. And when I was cleaning the burns on his neck, he never made a sound, even though I know he was in a lot of pain."

Thor nodded. "It will take time to unlearn that behavior," he said. He did not look too worried about this, as though he fully expected Tony to succeed. Steve loved him a little for that, for his faith in Tony. It made it easier to believe that Tony would be all right again someday.

"I did get him to talk to me a couple times, though," he said hopefully. He decided not to tell Thor that Tony had only spoken at first because he believed they owned him now.

"That is good," Thor said with approval. "I feared it would take longer to overcome that harsh discipline."

"Well," Steve said dryly, "it's not exactly like we're having a conversation yet or anything." Still, he knew Thor was right. Despite the fear and confusion, Tony had already made great strides forward. He hoped desperately that a good night's sleep would go a long way toward helping Tony's recovery.

"Perhaps not, but there are some things you and I must have a conversation about," Thor said.

Nothing good ever came from those words, and Steve felt his heart skip a beat. "Such as?" he asked.

"We must decide now," Thor said, "what we will tell people when they ask what has happened to Tony."

The blood drained from Steve's face.

He had forgotten. In the chaos of the rescue, and then the urgency to tend to Tony's immediate physical needs, he had forgotten the ugly truth. Even when Tony cringed back from him and his touch, he hadn't made the connection. He had let himself forget, but he could never let that happen again.

He had to think of Tony, who would never be allowed to forget.

"No one can know," he said.

"You are certain of this?" Thor asked. "It may make it harder for him to recover."

"How?" Steve demanded angrily. "How does it make it easier for him if the whole world knows he was raped?" He almost choked on the word. "I won't do that to him. And I won't let you, either. He's been humiliated and degraded enough. I won't add to that. No one knows, Thor. I mean it."

Thor's eyes flashed with anger. Abruptly Steve thought to wonder where Mjolnir was. All during their agonizing search, Thor had been so patient with him and his emotional turmoil, but he knew right then and there that Thor had finally reached the end of his patience.

"I would never do anything to cause Tony pain," Thor growled, his voice low and tight with anger. "And you should know that, Steven Rogers."

"I didn't mean—" Steve started to defend himself.

Thor spoke right over him without even raising his voice. "But you have just stood there and told me that you do not know what to say to him, and what might frighten him. And you know the truth of what he endured." He paused to let that sink in, then he said, "Now imagine how that will be for someone who does not know that truth. Someone who does not know what words or actions they must avoid. Someone who means well, but who—"

"I get it," Steve said loudly. "Enough." He held up his hand, and thankfully, Thor stopped talking. "Okay," he said. "I get it. But the answer to your question is simple. We tell them what they can't say. They don't need to know why. They just need to know not to do it."

Thor did not look convinced. All he said though, was, "If that is what you think is best."

"Well, what else am I supposed to do?" Steve exclaimed. He was getting angry now, too. "It's bad enough that people are going to see him when he's like this. You know how much he'll hate that. Maybe not now, but later, when he looks back on it. How much worse will it be if everyone knows the Kree raped him, too?"

He shook his head. He could have gone on, and a part of him wanted to. That part of him was eager to get into a fight, to yell and shout, maybe for a punch to be thrown. But he couldn't give in to that anger, and he knew it. Thor had been there for him all these months, and he would be a fool to throw all that away for the sake of indulging himself. He had to stay calm, if not for Thor, then for Tony's sake.

"I can't do that him," he said. "If he wants to tell people, that's his choice. But I won't do it."

Not that Tony ever would. Steve knew that already. Maybe one day, far in the future, he might tell Pepper. But no one else. Even the therapists he would inevitably have to see would probably never know the full truth.

Thor nodded solemnly. "Very well. There are no physical marks, and no injuries to indicate that type of assault. We will not speak of it to the doctors on Earth, and they will have no reason to suspect. Nor will I ever breathe a word of it to anyone."

Steve's shoulders slumped with relief. He knew Thor was as good as his word. The last of his anger dissipated, absorbed back into himself, where it waited to erupt again some other day when it was finally safe to do so. "Thank you." He glanced over his shoulder. "I should get back to him."

"We are not done yet," Thor said. "There is still one thing we must discuss."

Steve took a deep breath and pretended the words did not fill him with dread. "Okay."

"I have been thinking about Tony," Thor said. "He should not be left alone."

It wasn't a rebuke, Steve realized. It was a statement of fact. And it so happened to be one he agreed with. He nodded. "He's been in solitude for too long."

Thor looked somber. "No, Steven. That is not the reason why."

His heart began to pound; there was a dull roaring in his ears. He knew it was wrong to pretend to misunderstand, but he couldn't help himself. "Then what is?"

"Many men," said Thor, "would consider the shame of what happened to be unendurable."

All his good intentions about remaining calm and even-tempered went out the window then. He bristled in righteous anger, defending Tony with his words, the way he hadn't been able to do with his fists and shield. "What happened to him wasn't his fault! And Tony is smart enough to know that."

This time Thor did not get offended. "Normally I would agree," he said. "But he is consumed with pain and fear now. You said it yourself – he is confused, having trouble differentiating between the past and the present."

"It's only been one day," Steve protested, still defending Tony. "Besides, he would never kill himself."

"Can you be so sure?" Thor asked.

"Yes," Steve said without hesitation. He thought briefly of his nightmare, that horrible sight of Tony pulling out the arc reactor in a desperate attempt to end the pain – then thrust it from his mind. "If he didn't do it before, when it would have made more sense, he won't do it now."

Thor stared at him for a long moment, then he nodded. "You know Tony far better than I. I will concede to you in this matter."

The rest of it remained unspoken, but Steve heard it all the same: and may it be on your head if he does anything to himself.

"Thank you," he said, somewhat stiffly. Then, to make peace, he added, "But you're right. He shouldn't be alone. That's why I'm going back to stay with him."

"You should rest first," Thor said. "Eat something. You may not get many chances such as this again."

Steve said nothing. He supposed Thor knew that he hadn't slept last night, so anxious to see Tony again that he hadn't been able to keep his eyes closed for longer than a few seconds.

So much had happened today… It seemed impossible that just twenty-four hours ago he had finally heard the words he had longed to hear, telling him that Tony was out there. Since then he had been struck one cruel blow after another as the harsh reality of their situation set in. But despite all that, he felt happier than he had in months. He had found Tony again. Nothing could take away his joy from that simple fact.

"I will watch over him," Thor said, apparently misunderstanding the reason for his hesitation.

"I know you would," he said. "But it's okay. I don't need the sleep."

"Steven." Thor did not look pleased. "You may have much greater stamina than most men, but even you must rest. And you know Tony would not want you to neglect yourself for his sake."

That was a low blow. But it was also true, he had to admit.

He heaved a sigh of surrender. "All right. But only for a few hours. And you promise to wake me if he wakes up first?"

"I will come for you immediately," Thor promised.

"Okay," Steve said. He turned to go, and then stopped. "Um."

Thor looked at him expectantly – and with no small measure of impatience.

"I don't have anywhere to go," Steve said.

Comprehension dawned on Thor's face. He smiled a little, and clapped Steve on the shoulder. "My friend, it would honor me if you remained here and treated this room as your own."

Mi casa es su casa, Steve thought with a little smile. Then he looked away, the smile dying. That was the kind of thing Tony would have said.

"Sleep well," Thor told him, and he walked out.

Steve couldn't remember the last time he had felt less like sleeping. He looked around the small room; it held nothing at all to indicate that occasionally an Asgardian used it. That was probably best, he decided. This way he could think of it almost like a hotel room, just a temporary place to lay his head before he could go home.

He climbed into bed and pulled the bedspread – it was green too, like the one in his room – up to his neck. He shifted around at first, trying to find a position that was comfortable. He thought about Tony and everything that Tony had suffered during their separation.

After a while he wiped the tears away and he closed his eyes.

He slept.

****

When he woke up, it was evening, and he knew a moment of pure disorientation. Where the hell was he? Why was he alone in this strange bed?

Then memory flooded back, and he sat bolt upright, throwing the covers back.

How long had he slept? Was Thor still sitting with Tony? Had he missed anything?

He took a quick shower, grimacing a little as he got dressed again in the same clothes he had been wearing all day; they smelled of sweat and the shirt was scorched where the Kree had shot at him. But he could do nothing about it now, and his appearance was of such little importance that he found himself getting annoyed that he would even spare a thought to it at all.

He left Thor's room, thinking that he would grab a quick meal from the galley, but out in the hall, he stopped dead.

Thor was walking this way, coming from the direction of the bridge. "What are you doing?" Steve said. "I thought you said you were staying with Tony."

"I was," Thor said. "But he still sleeps, and I wanted to speak with the crew."

"Why?" Steve asked.

Thor glanced at the closed door to Steve's room, then gestured toward his own door. Steve backed inside the room, moving to one side so Thor could enter, too.

"I wished to ask them if we could make more haste in our journey," Thor said.

That did not sound good. "Why?" Steve asked, instantly suspicious. "What's wrong?"

"We must return to Ernor as soon as possible," Thor said gravely. "I mislike what I see in Tony. He is much too thin for a man his size. You must get him to eat, Steven."

"I tried," Steve said. His chest felt too tight as the full meaning of Thor's words sank in. It would be a horrible irony if they managed to rescue Tony from a nightmare of rape and slavery, only to lose him now from something as mundane as malnutrition. "He said it made him sick."

Thor frowned. "Why should that be?"

"I don't know," Steve admitted. "And the ship's food isn't the greatest, either."

"Still, he must eat," Thor said. "And if he will not—"

"What?" Steve demanded. He took a step forward, so mere inches separated him and Thor. "I hold him down while you force it down his throat?"

Thor did not even flinch. "If needs be, yes."

Steve just stared at him, his fists clenched, almost shaking with the force of his righteous fury. If Thor laid so much as a finger on Tony, he would…

What? He would what? He certainly couldn't fight Thor. Nor did he want to. If it weren't for Thor, he would never have found Tony. He owed everything about their current situation to Thor's patience and wisdom.

And even as he forced himself to take a deep breath and uncurl his fists, he realized how badly he was behaving. Thor would never resort to such violence on Tony, not when he was healthy, and certainly not now. But Thor was a warrior, and he thought the same of Steve, and so he spoke with words that lent themselves to violence, even when they were untrue.

Still, now he knew. This was serious. And he had to do something about it. He was the only one who could make a difference.

"I'll get him to eat," he promised.

****

The concept of time on a spaceship was meaningless, the assigning of an hour to those labels called day or night arbitrary at best. But it didn't matter what time it was aboard the ship. Tony's body clock said that night had fallen.

And he was terrified.

He had woken up a little while ago. If he had managed to go back to sleep again in those first few moments, everything might have been all right. But he hadn't fallen asleep. He had realized what time it was, and in an instant he was wide awake and consumed with fear.

Nights meant only one thing.

Sick dread curled in the pit of his stomach. Nothing could assuage that ache; not the amazing fact of waking up in a bed, not wearing clothes, not the blanket that he clutched so tight. He had sat up when he first woke, but now he hunched in on himself and bowed his head. It hurt, pain bursting to life in his neck like a fire that had flared back up from banked ashes. In the back of his mind he began to count the seconds until the door opened and he had to follow the handler through the halls, down to that room with the silvery curtain and the steel bars, where the soldiers would come by six or by eight to make him bleed.

Sixty seconds and he tried to stop counting. He had to stop. He was free now. The collar was gone. Steve was here. He was free.

One hundred, two hundred, and every nerve in his body was taut with terrified apprehension. They were coming. He knew they were.

Three hundred and… Steve. Where was Steve? He dared to look up.

The door opened.

The betrayal was so raw, so agonizing, that Tony actually cried out with it. Cried out in terror, in utter denial.

No no no. It couldn't be. They could, they couldn't, he was free now, he was free, please God they couldn't no no no please no

Footsteps approached, and his terror escalated sharply. Inside, someone was inside his cell, and he would be punished now, because he was supposed to follow the handler immediately, he was supposed to obey, he was supposed to be good, but instead he was cowering beneath that green blanket and clinging to it as though it could shield him and protect him from them.

A voice. "Tony?" His name, yes, and the sound penetrated the haze of fear surrounding him, so he could suddenly hear himself too, the rapid, almost hysterical whine in his breathing.

"Tony? It's okay. It's just me. It's Steve."

Steve couldn't save him, though. No one could save him. They had come for him and he wasn't ever going to be allowed to have one night of peace, one night when they didn't bend him over those cold steel bars and close the shackles about his wrists and fuck him until he was bleeding and barely conscious.

please no, please

"Tony?" Steve's voice, and that was all wrong, because Steve had promised never to leave him, but Steve had lied, because Steve had never come, Steve had –

-- but Steve had come.

Steve had taken him away, Steve had given him this green blanket that he was clutching so tight, Steve had, Steve was –

Steve was here right now.

The knowledge swept over him in a rush. He felt suddenly weak all over.

"It's okay. You're okay." Steve was still speaking, trying to get through to him, unaware that he knew where he was now.

The fear began to dissipate, but his galloping heart was slow to resume its normal rhythm. Slowly he uncurled from where he was huddled on the bed. Now that he wasn't ruled by fear, he could feel pain again; dull throbbing in his head and chest, and a sharper, more agonizing burn on the back of his neck. He was thirsty, too, his throat dry, the metallic tang of blood in his mouth where he had bit the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming out loud.

"Tony?" Steve sounded unsure now, like it had finally clicked that he wasn't just speaking into thin air, that his words mattered.

He nodded. He wanted to say he was sorry, but the words remained locked away inside his head, where they had been for so long.

He opened his eyes, and yes, there was Steve. Standing near the center of the small room, hands worrying at each other, his posture uncertain. He risked a tiny glance up (allowed, I'm allowed) and saw Steve's brows drawn together in an expression of concern.

Quickly he looked away again.

Twice Steve drew in a breath like he was going to speak, but without actually saying anything. Only on the third try did he manage, "Did you… How about some water?"

Even the thought of it made him lick his lips in anticipation. He nodded again, and Steve said, "Okay," and walked toward the tiny bathroom.

He heard water running. He moved across the bed to sit on the edge of the mattress. He held onto the blanket with both hands, reluctant to let go. He didn't think Steve would take it from him anymore, but he was still afraid of losing it.

Steve returned with the same cup from before, full of water. He stopped in front of the bed, and held it out.

Tony longed to hold it. He was so thirsty. But he couldn't do it. Only yesterday he had spent the day on his knees, in chains, tortured for stealing from the Kree. The memory of those excruciating hours was too fresh in his mind.

"It's okay," Steve said. His voice was thick, and he had to clear his throat. "You can take it."

His hand shaking, Tony reached for the cup. His fingers closed over it, and Steve let go, and for a terrible moment he thought he might drop it, then he firmed up his grip and brought it in close to his chest.

"Don't drink it all just yet," Steve said. He walked toward the small table beside the bed and sank to one knee.

Tony froze, still holding the full cup.

Steve opened the medkit and rummaged around inside. When he stood up, he was holding two more of those little white pills. "Here. I'm guessing you could use these."

He had to take the pills in his scarred hand, but he reached for them eagerly, because he knew how miraculous they were, and because Steve was giving him things again and so it was okay to take them. He was so very grateful, but he didn't know how to say that, so he just swallowed the pills and drank the cup of water, and when Steve asked if he wanted another one, he nodded a little.

The second cup of water tasted just as good as the first. He drank it all, and Steve took the cup when he was done and set it on the table again.

"I need to change the bandages on your neck," Steve said firmly. "But we'll wait, and let the painkillers work." He sat down beside Tony.

Instantly he stiffened up, expecting the worst. His fists clenched about the hem of the blanket, holding onto it tightly. He bowed his head, remembering too late that he wasn't supposed to look at Steve.

"Tony?" Steve sounded worried, the confidence leaking out of his voice again. "Do you want me to move?"

He couldn't speak. He could only sit there and tremble and wonder what Steve was going to do to him next.

"Hey. Hey, it's okay." Steve touched his shoulder, then slid a warm hand down his spine, to rest on his lower back.

Maybe he meant to bring his hand back up again, maybe it was only meant to be a reassuring gesture, but he didn't do that, he let his hand stay there, a heavy weight even through the shirt that hung off him, and Tony's heart stopped. The breath escaped him in a great – but silent – shiver of terror.

no no no don't not you please no

The soldiers had touched him there sometimes, bracing their weight as they thrust into him.

not you no Steve please no please don't

He couldn't bear it if Steve fucked him, too. He would snap, lose his slim hold on sanity for good. There had been a dreadful appeal to that idea, once, the thought of just…letting go. Now, though, he fought against it with all his might. He couldn't give in. He had to hold on. He had to remember where he was, why he was wearing clothes, why he had this green blanket. He had to remember—

I'm free now.

"Tony?" Reality flooded back. Steve was no longer touching him. Steve had, in fact, moved further down the bed, putting some space between them.

He could hear himself, still breathing in those shuddering gasps. He was shaking all over, bent over so far he was dimly surprised that he hadn't slid right off the bed again, like last time.

"I'm sorry," Steve said quietly.

Tony blinked rapidly, trying to push the tears back, to get himself under control. He had to stop doing this, God, why couldn't he remember that he was safe now, that he was free?

Why couldn't he be good?

"I won't touch you again," Steve said. "Not without your permission. Okay? Tony? Is that all right?"

He didn't know how to explain that it wasn't Steve's touch he feared. He had no particular aversion to being touched. Except for the nightly exam by the doctor, contact with any of the Kree had been few and far between. It was only the pressure of Steve's hand, the weight of it, on that place on his back, that had frightened him.

And it scared him to think of losing Steve's embrace. Already he needed it. He needed the warmth of Steve's body heat, the reassuring solidity of his strength. If he lost that now, so soon after getting it back…

"Please," he whispered. He winced as the word left his throat, but he persevered, the fear of losing Steve outweighing the fear of punishment. "Please…" He choked, and could not continue. What he wanted didn't matter anymore. The Kree had taught him that, and he had learned that lesson well.

"Do you want me to stay by you?" Steve asked quietly.

He just nodded, unable to do anything more. But apparently this was enough, because Steve scooted in closer to him.

Steve did not touch him again, though.

****

They sat in silence for a time, neither one moving.

Steve was utterly miserable. Every time he tried to help, he only made matters worse. He could live to be as old as Thor, and he would never forget the abject terror on Tony's face when he had walked through that door.

The hell of it was, he didn't know what he was doing wrong. He didn't know what he wasn't supposed to say. And Tony, so lost in his own head, wasn't making it easy for him. His responses to Steve's actions were all over the map, and Steve had no clue what would make him react one way versus another.

It was almost enough to make him want to give up. He was in way over his head here, that much was obvious. He wasn't cut out for this kind of thing, and he constantly worried that he was only making things worse.

But this was Tony. Tony. The man he loved with all his heart. He could no more walk away now than he had been able to give up the search for him.

So he thought about what he had said to Thor, how ignorance was his greatest enemy, and he remembered how this afternoon Tony had welcomed his embrace but tonight he flinched back from Steve's touch. And he took a deep breath and he said, "Tony, I know what happened."

Tony did not react. He continued to sit there, his head bowed low, arms crossed over his chest as he held onto the blanket draped over his shoulders.

Steve forced himself to say it. "I know what the soldiers did to you."

Tony's whole body jerked, sort of huddling in on himself. A shudder worked through him.

"I want you to know," Steve said, "that it doesn't change anything. It doesn't matter to me. I love you. I always will. Okay? I just… I want you to know that."

Tony shivered a little. He didn't seem to care about Steve's confession. There was no shame on his face, nothing to indicate that he was distressed that Steve knew he had been raped every night for over three months. As far as Steve could tell, the only thing he was feeling right now was fear, but whether that was because he was thinking about what had happened to him, or because he feared it happening again, Steve had no way of knowing.

He clasped his hands tightly in his lap and bit back a sigh, not wanting Tony to know how frustrated he felt, or how badly he wanted to pound something with his fists just so he could let his anger out on something. He hated this, having to check his every move, to rehearse his every word. Everything he said was wrong, anyway, and it wasn't like Tony could talk back to him yet. If only—

Inspiration suddenly struck. New hope filled him. There was still time to kill while they waited for the painkillers to start working. Maybe…

He looked up. "Tony? Is it all right if I—" He stopped himself from saying hold your hand only at the last moment. He remembered how Tony had reacted this afternoon when Steve had told him to hold out his hand. Touching that scar on his palm would most likely only frighten him still further.

"—rub your back?" he finished, rather lamely. It was all he could think of.

But it worked. His gaze still fixed on the floor, Tony gave him a small nod.

"Okay," Steve said. He wasn't sure how this would work through the blanket, but he was going to try, anyway.

He let his hand rest on Tony's back, high up, between his shoulder blades. Tony flinched, but only once. Steve watched him carefully, but he did not seem distressed by the touch. So after a long pause while he waited to see how Tony would react, he began to move his hand in small, comforting circles. He applied light pressure with his palm, just enough so that there would be contact made even through the too-big shirt and the blanket.

For a while he did nothing more than this. Some of the tension eased from Tony's body; his shoulders slumped, and his head bowed even lower. He didn't even wince then, which Steve took to be a good sign that the painkillers were doing their thing.

He should stop, he thought, and move on to the unpleasant business of changing Tony's bandages, but he was reluctant to do that just yet. After the rough start to the evening, they were both owed these moments of peace and quiet.

Still, worry ate away at him. He couldn't wait too long. And he wanted to move on, to test out his theory.

He slid his left hand over in his lap, so it rested on his right thigh, within easy reach. He rubbed a few more soothing little circles on Tony's back, then he stopped. He let his palm lay flat against the blanket for a few moments.

Then he pressed his two fingertips to Tony's back, and he began to write.

T and O and N and Y, and before he had drawn the first downstroke of the N, Tony had sucked in a sharp breath, and was trembling beneath his hand.

I and L and O and V and E and Y and O and U and I love you, he wrote. I love you. I love you.

Tony uttered a shaky little sigh.

Steve waited, tracing the words over and over, the way he had once done in that dark Forest on Ernor, where they had been trapped for four days and nights. The writing then had been their only means of communication, their sole source of comfort during that nightmare. But Tony did not reach out now and take his hand. He just sat there staring dully at the floor, an occasional tremor shaking him.

At last Steve gave up. His heart lay heavy in his chest, and he felt dangerously close to tears. He had thought… He had hoped that would actually work. He turned his head away and wiped swiftly at his eyes. It probably didn't matter, because Tony wouldn't see, because Tony wouldn't look him in the eye, but he was taking no chances.

It was too soon, he told himself. The auction had only been this morning, after all. And Tony was still so confused. If he didn't know what free was, he certainly couldn't be expected to understand love. All he wanted right now was to be warm, to not be raped or beaten, and for the pain to stop.

"Okay," he said. He let his hand drop. "There's some burn cream in the medkit, and then I'm going to change that bandage." He hoped like hell that it wouldn't hurt, but he supposed a little pain was inevitable. The back of Tony's neck was badly burned, and he had bled there too, where the disc had been attached to him. There was really no way to tend those wounds without hurting him a little, even with the painkillers in effect.

Unfortunately his gloomy prediction was proven right. He did his best, but even with the drugs, Tony flinched in pain. Steve moved as quickly as he could, discarding the old bandage, applying the cream liberally to the affected area, then covering it with a new bandage. When it was done, Tony was shaking all over, his hands tightly fisted in the blanket he had not once let go of.

"All done," Steve said with an encouraging smile. At least the worst part was done. Until tomorrow, that was. When he would have to do it all over again, several times a day. He hated having to inflict more pain on Tony after everything he had already suffered, but it was necessary. The alternative meant infection and even worse pain.

He put the supplies back in the medkit. As he returned the painkillers to their place, he made a mental note of the amount of pills still remaining in the bottle. He estimated there was enough to last for four more days. Assuming, of course, that none of the crew sustained an injury requiring them to take some of the pills.

That task finished, he stood up and turned toward Tony. He looked at him now with a critical eye, trying to see him as an impartial observer, and not as someone in love with him.

It was not pretty. The borrowed clothing hung off him, accentuating how dangerously underweight he had become. Burn cream glistened on his neck, and the fresh bandage was startlingly white. His shaved head and bare feet only added to the pathetic sight he made.

Little wonder he was shaking, Steve thought sadly.

He felt torn with conflicting desires. He wanted to gather Tony into his arms and never let go. He wanted to let Tony sleep for hours; he could see how exhausted Tony was, his body no longer able to keep up with the demands placed on it. But his duty now, his first priority, was very clear.

Besides, he had made Thor a promise.

"Tony? Why don't we—" He stopped halfway through. He went over to the narrow wardrobe in the corner where he had put all the clothing the Ernorrans had brought for him on this trip, courtesy of the Matriarch's largesse. He pulled out a pair of socks, hesitated, then grabbed a second pair.

"Here," he said as he knelt in front of Tony. "Let me." He held up the socks so Tony could see, giving him a chance to understand what Steve's intentions were. He watched as Tony blinked in shock, followed by an expression of silent gratitude.

It hurt to see that look on Tony's face, when by all rights he ought to be angry with Steve for taking so long to remember such a simple thing. He chastised himself for his lapse as he reached for Tony's foot. He had to do a better job if he was going to continue to take care of Tony.

The first touch of Steve's hand made Tony jerk a little, although he did not pull away. His feet were as cold as ice, the soles calloused and dirty from walking around barefoot at the auction. He sat very still as Steve pulled both pairs of socks on, tugging the cuffs as high as they would go in order to add another layer of warmth to his ankles.

That task done, he stood up. "How about we head to the galley?"

Tony's shoulders hunched. He looked suddenly anxious, his eyes darting about, his hands tightening their hold on the blanket draped down his back. But he stood up almost right away, obediently following the command he had been given.

Steve winced. The last thing he wanted was to stand here giving orders. It was cruel and it was wrong, and it would only confuse Tony still further about what was real and what was past. But neither did he want this room to become a new prison cell. If Tony knew that he had the run of the ship, that he was allowed to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted to do it, maybe that would help him accept the idea that he was free, and no longer a slave.

Tony took a step forward. He let go of the blanket with a pained wince, like it hurt him to lose it.

"No, it's okay," Steve said. "You can bring it."

Quickly, before it could slide onto the floor, Tony grabbed for the blanket and pulled it tight over his shoulders again. He might have nodded a little; it was hard to tell with the way he was shaking.

Steve led the way from the bedroom and out into the hall. It was not a long walk to the galley, but he kept his pace deliberately slow, checking to make sure that Tony wasn't limping or in any physical distress. He was relieved to see this was not the case, although it was plain to see that Tony was deeply reluctant to keep moving, walking with his head bowed so low it was impossible to see his face, his steps dragging on the floor. He was clutching both ends of the blanket now with one hand, while the other was at his waist, holding up the pants that kept wanting to fall off his hips.

Steve cursed himself for not doing anything yet to find him clothes that would fit better. Still, in spite of these difficulties, he was following along, and Steve took heart from that. By now he already knew that Tony could – and would – simply crumble with fear if he was too overwhelmed. But he was not doing that now, and that gave Steve hope. Everything he could do to bring some normalcy back into Tony's life was another step forward.

They reached the small galley, which was thankfully dark and empty – he hadn't thought what they would do if one of the crew was in here until it was too late. But there was no one to witness as he and Tony walked inside and then stopped just inside the room. He waved his hand over the spot in the wall where the sensor hid, and the lights brightened.

He looked over at Tony, and his sense of accomplishment vanished in a heartbeat. Far from appearing normal, Tony was trembling all over, his gaze fixed on the floor, white with terror.

It was a kick in the teeth to see him like that, and worse, to know that he was the reason for it, even if he didn't know the exact reason why. For an instant Steve contemplated just walking away and letting Thor take over. At that particular moment there didn't seem to be any compelling reason not to do it. Everything he did was wrong and just made things worse, so why should he keep trying?

But giving in was not in his nature, and especially when it came to Tony Stark. So he fell back on his default strategy, and pretended that everything was fine, that he hadn't noticed how close Tony was to having a panic attack.

"We're here," he said. "It's not much, but it's got everything we need."

Without actually lifting his head, Tony looked around with more of those frantic, darting glances. Looking, maybe, for whatever was in here that could hurt him. It was disturbing to watch, but at the same time Steve recognized that here was more proof that Tony had refused to surrender himself completely to the Kree, and he felt another stirring of pride within him.

The Kree might have broken Tony, but he was still in there somewhere, still fighting.

Now it was up to Steve to give him the chance to win.

Whatever Tony saw in here, it must have been all right, for he suddenly sighed, shaky and low, and he slumped.

Instantly Steve was there, wrapping both arms around him and catching him as his knees buckled. "It's okay," he said. "I've got you."

Tony didn't struggle in his grasp. He didn't even seem frightened anymore. He just hung in Steve's arms, barely conscious, too wrung out by the constant terror of memory to understand what was happening in this time.

Steve looked around, unsure what the best course of action was. Then, still holding Tony upright, he carefully made his way over to the table where for over three months he and Thor had joined the crew for their meals. One of the chairs was pulled out slightly, enough that he could gently deposit Tony onto it.

The change in posture brought Tony around; he startled violently, and then went very still. He stared down at himself, a look of amazement on his face. With one shaking hand, he reached out and traced the arm of the chair, then slowly curled his fingers around it. He leaned back, and the gesture nearly made the green blanket, which was already in a precarious position after his faint, slide off his shoulders.

Instantly Tony let go of the chair arm and grabbed for the blanket. He pulled it tight across his shoulders and as far across his chest as he could make it reach, which wasn't very far because he was now sitting on it. He didn't look up at Steve, but stared at the dinner table. Not in apathy this time, or with fear, but with an aura of alert awareness. For the first time since Steve had walked in on him this evening, he had the sense that Tony was genuinely present and with him, able to understand what was happening to him.

He yearned to reach down and hug him, but he didn't dare. Not when Tony was finally starting to calm down from the night's terrors. So he walked over to the cupboards where they kept the meals that were easy to heat up, the ones that always tasted a little funny without being gross. "This won't take long," he said lightly, as though resuming a conversation that had just been put on pause for a little while.

The one advantage to the strange ship food was that it was quick to heat up a meal. In no time, Steve was returning to where Tony sat with a bowl of a thick stew that actually didn't taste too bad, if you were willing to overlook the fact that the "gravy" had a weird blue tinge to it.

"Here we go," he said. He placed the bowl and a spoon in front of Tony, then got him a glass of water. "Let me know if you need anything else."

Tony eyed the bowl like it was radioactive. He shot one of those anxious little glances in Steve's direction – aimed not at his face but his chest – but he was already reaching for the spoon with an unsteady hand.

Steve tried not to stare, not wanting to make Tony feel even more uncomfortable than he already was. But he couldn't help studying the too-sharp lines of Tony's profile, the wasted muscle of his arm. He couldn't understand why the Kree would starve their slaves, unless it was a deliberate cruelty designed to keep them weak and in no shape to fight back. And even that was so needless, because the collars were deterrent enough. So why this?

Halfway through the bowl, Tony's mechanical motions began to slow. Hoping he would eat a little more, Steve said, "You're doing great."

It had sounded good in his head, but spoken out loud, it just sounded shitty and awful. Tony winced, his shoulders and upper back rounding as he hunched in on himself.

"It's okay," Steve said hastily. "You can stop whenever you want. I didn't mean…" He sighed as he moved the bowl away so Tony would not feel compelled to continue eating. "I just wanted to make sure you had enough to eat."

Tony just stared at a spot on the table, saying nothing.

The silence drew out between them, and Tony began to wince, his jaw clenched.

Steve was nearly overcome by despair. All he could think about suddenly was that last morning on Ernor, when Tony had left him to visit the observatory in the mountains. They had laughed and kissed. They had been so happy and in love. He had never imagined it would be the last day they ever got like that, the last time he would see Tony as he had once been.

He doubted those days would ever return.

He cleared his throat. "Not tonight, obviously, but maybe tomorrow we can explore the ship. It's actually pretty neat. You'll probably have fun in the engine room, or whatever they call it." He smiled a little, remembering the joke they had shared in the Matriarch's Citadel, back when he had foolishly thought that he knew everything there was to know about grief and anguish. "There's lots of alien tech there for you to steal."

What little color there was in Tony's face drained away. He uttered a thick choking noise, and his eyes widened with dismay. Steve had just enough time to realize the horrifying dual meaning of what he had said, then Tony leaned to the right and vomited up everything he had just eaten.

Steve sprang to his feet.

Tony was crying softly in terror. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry." Then he cringed, squeezing his eyes shut and clamping his jaw so he would not say anything else.

Steve couldn't stand it. This was his fault. He had practically forced Tony to eat, giving him a command he could not disobey, even though Tony had known that he would be sick, had even tried to tell Steve that this would happen. And then his horrible remark about stealing tech, not even thinking what it would do to Tony to be accused of theft again.

And Tony was the one who had apologized.

"It's okay," Steve said. The words stuck in his throat; he sounded like a bad actor standing on stage reading lines he didn't understand. "It's my fault. You tried to tell me."

Tony was nearly sobbing by now, but in that terrible silence the Kree had forced him to learn. He was still turned away, both hands pressed to his chest, up high near his right shoulder, the right one shielding the left. There was no reaching him now, Steve realized; he was too far gone to hear anything Steve said, and a touch would only deepen his terror.

So instead of trying, he cleaned up the mess on the floor, moving as quickly and as quietly as possible. He was filled with self-loathing, his jaw set, his expression grim. The disgusting task was his penance, his own unique punishment for failing to take care of Tony properly. He kept an eye on Tony the whole time, watching for a sign that the panic was loosening its hold on him and lucidity was returning.

He finished cleaning up, washed his hands twice, then returned to the table. Tony wasn't crying anymore, but he was still huddled in on himself, still protecting his hands. It struck Steve all over again that the auction had just been this morning, that in all likelihood whatever the Kree had done to scar Tony's hand and mark him as a thief had happened only yesterday.

He had to remember how close Tony still was to the past.

Slowly Tony began to relax, his hands lowering a little, his shoulders drooping. He looked exhausted then, so worn out by constant terror that Steve wouldn't have been surprised if he fell asleep right there in the chair. And part of him wanted to let it happen, because God knew Tony needed the sleep. But it couldn't be comfortable sitting there, and there were things he needed to say first.

"Tony?"

Instantly Tony tensed up again, although nowhere near as badly as before.

He tried his best to keep his voice gentle. "You know, or I hope you know, that you can talk to me about anything. Whatever happened to you… Whatever they did. You can talk to me about it."

After a long moment, Tony nodded a little. It didn't mean he was about to start talking, Steve knew. It just meant he understood.

"And I…" He stopped. "Can you look at me? Please?"

Tony swallowed hard and opened his eyes. Slowly he lifted his head so he could look Steve in the eye. But even then, he turned his face away slightly, unable to look at him directly. His eyes were red from crying, but worse, far worse, was the way Steve could practically see the shattered pieces of his soul. He knew Tony was in there somewhere, trying so hard to put himself back together, but right then it seemed all but impossible that he would succeed.

But he would succeed, especially if Steve had anything to say about it. And he understood then that he did have something to say about it. That in fact, at this moment he was literally the only person in the world who had a say.

And so he said it.

"I want you to know, I will never hurt you," Steve vowed. "Never."

It was the worst thing he had ever done, having to speak those terrible words out loud. It was embarrassing, but it also made him angry, hell, it made him furious. He should not have to say it, and Tony should not need to hear it. But it could not have been more obvious that Tony did need to hear it.

He could not fathom it, the depth of Tony's fear, the agony of a life that was just one cruelty after another, everything that made him the amazing person he was systematically destroyed until there was nothing left but a broken shell. Sitting there, Tony looking up at him, still in tears, Steve thought that given the chance, he would willingly slaughter every single Kree in the universe.

"You don't have to be afraid anymore," he said. "You're safe now. No one's ever going to hurt you again. I promise."

Tony looked down. He nodded a little, his eyes closing. He grimaced then, and Steve's heart leapt in his chest, because it was an expression Steve had seen on him before, when he had done something stupid and he knew it, and he was mentally chastising himself for it.

He was right. Tony was still in there.

It was just too soon, he told himself for the hundredth time on that incredibly long day. He had to be patient, he had to hold himself in check and make sure he did not say anything else so horrifically idiotic.

He had to do better.

"How about we go back?" he suggested.

Tony nodded a little, and Steve stood up. Immediately Tony followed suit. He reeled a little, and had to grab at the edge of the table to keep his balance.

"It's okay," Steve said. He slid the chair back. "I got you." He stooped a little, then lifted Tony into his arms, blanket and all.

Tony didn't react to being carried, although he did turn his face away again. He kept his eyes closed and he didn't move at all as Steve brought them back to his bedroom.

It was the only time he would do this, Steve thought. After today, things would get better and Tony would be capable of feeling shame again, and then he would hate being carried around like some kind of invalid. Steve only did it now because Tony was so exhausted, and the thought of making him walk back to the bedroom, even over that short distance, seemed needlessly cruel. All he wanted right now was to make things easier for Tony in whatever way he could.

Back in his room, he set Tony gently down on the bed. Still wrapped up in the blanket, Tony immediately curled up, bringing his knees toward his chest and pressing the side of his face into the pillow. Steve pulled the covers over him, and hoped he would be warm enough.

"I'll stay with you," he said quietly.

Tony opened his eyes. He glanced in Steve's direction – not at his face – then looked away again.

"I'll sleep on the floor," he said. "I won't bother you."

Tony tensed up again. He looked miserable.

Unsure how to interpret this reaction, Steve went very still. Could it be…? "Or I could sleep on the bed…?" He could scarcely believe he was even suggesting such a thing. "It's not that big, and I…" He made himself stop talking, afraid that he was venturing into dangerous territory. Beds meant sleep, but they also often meant sex, and the last thing he wanted was to remind Tony of what he had endured every night.

Tony glanced his way again. His lips parted and he drew in a breath like he might speak – but he still couldn't do it. He shivered, and instead he just nodded.

"Okay," Steve whispered. He was once again awed by Tony's courage; he could not imagine what it had cost him to say yes.

And please God, let him be truly saying yes, let him not think it was a command to be obeyed…

He kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed. It was narrow, and Tony was lying in the middle of the mattress, his body slightly angled away from Steve. Which actually made it all the easier to wrap both arms around him and pull him close.

Breathless, Steve lay flat on his back, almost trembling himself with all the things he was feeling. Tony's head was on his right shoulder, and though their bodies did not touch anywhere else, it was enough for Steve just to hold him again. That by itself was a precious gift, something he had thought he might never have again.

The lights were still on. Steve stroked Tony's upper arm through the bedspread, through the blanket, through the shirt that was way too big. "You're gonna be okay," he said quietly. "You're gonna be okay."

Tony shivered. He lay very still, his right hand resting on Steve's chest, the other trapped between them.

"I love you," Steve whispered. "I love you."

Tomorrow would be better, he told himself. Tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. Nothing could ever be as bad as this day.

He only wished he could believe that.

On his chest, Tony's hand moved, so lightly Steve almost couldn't feel it. With trembling fingers he traced an S and a T and an E...and then he stopped.

And though Steve waited and waited, that frightened touch did not come again.

Chapter Text

When Tony woke up, it was to such unimaginable warmth that for a second he couldn't believe it was real. He lay still, not even opening his eyes. Then he remembered, and everything fell into place around him. The clothes that were too big, the green blanket with its slightly scratchy fabric, the green bedspread in need of a wash, Steve's arms holding him close.

Steve.

Cautiously he let himself truly inhabit his body, allowing physical sensation to take hold. He could tell instantly that he had slept for hours without moving, a trick he had learned early on in his captivity. Nothing had changed now. It was still a good rule to follow. He was curled up on his left side, his head on Steve's chest. The only difference between now and last night was that at some point Steve must have moved just enough so that his knees, drawn up toward his chest, were now pressed against Steve's thigh.

That was all right, though. The physical contact did not bother him. If Steve had tried to lie behind him, he would have been too frightened to ever relax enough to sleep, but this, this was okay.

Anything was bearable as long as he could stay this warm. He had to urinate, but he was used to holding it, and that was okay. His neck hurt badly, but pain was just a part of him now, and that too was okay.

Steve's chest rose and fell beneath his cheek in a quiet, steady rhythm. He could feel the reassuring thump of Steve's heartbeat.

He was warm and he was not alone. Steve was here. Steve was holding him.

It was all real.

His memory of what had happened yesterday was fragmented, like a movie reel that skipped ahead, blurs of nothing punctuated by sharp bursts of terror. He remembered the Kree taking him from the punishment cell and healing the wound in his hand. He remembered standing on the stage during the auction, and the lightning that had suddenly split the sky. He remembered Steve's hands on the collar, trying to pull it apart, and the way he had screamed from the unbearable pain.

And then, and then… Steve again. The green blanket. Sleeping on an actual bed. Putting clothes on. Steve telling him he was free. The terrifying walk to the galley, convinced that he was being taken to that room with the silvery curtain and the steel shackles. Choking down some food and getting sick from it.

And then Steve, and being held, and being warm, and feeling safe, truly safe, and he had remembered then, the way Steve had traced words on his back, and further into the mists of memory, a Forest he remembered through sound and smell alone, not sight, Steve's hand in his, words written on his palm.

He had tried to "speak" then, to thank Steve for everything, to express his gratitude.

And then? He must have fallen asleep, too exhausted to stay awake.

He didn't know how long he had slept. It was almost morning, his body clock told him that much. He could go back to sleep if he wanted. There were still a couple hours before he must be awake, ready for when the door opened and –

No.

No. Not that. Not ever again. He was free. No more collar, no more handler leading him to work, no more being a slave. The number in the dark corners of his mind was forever stopped, the count frozen, no more Kree soldiers coming by six or by eight to rape him every night.

He shuddered.

Steve made a sleepy murmuring noise. His head turned on the pillow.

Tony tensed, waiting for him to wake up. But Steve remained asleep, and slowly, slowly, he relaxed, sinking into the warmth surrounding him.

After a while, he fell asleep again.

****

Mornings were always the best time of day, when he felt the strongest, more like a person. The work had contributed a lot to that, even if he hadn't exactly had any interest in the Kree tech itself. Then there was the fact that mornings were the furthest point from the horror at night, when he could almost, almost, fool himself into thinking it wouldn't happen again, that this time things would be different.

On this morning, there was no handler come to take him to the dining hall. There were no rows of slaves eating in silence. There was no quartermaster with the sharp eyes, no Skrulls sitting behind him, no weapons that must be repaired quickly and without a single mistake or else you would be severely punished (no no no not that please).

There was only Steve.

He sat very still on the edge of the bed while Steve stood next to him and changed the bandage on the back of his neck. He had swallowed two more of those little white pills, but even their relief couldn't keep the pain completely at bay. While Steve re-applied the healing salve and fixed a new bandage over the burn, Tony sat with his hands clasped tightly in his lap, and clenched his jaw in order to remain silent.

But it was better today. He didn't forget where he was or why, and though the touch of Steve's fingers on his neck was frightening, he never lost sight of the fact that the collar was gone. And after it was done, Steve sat beside him on the bed and asked if he could hold him, and Tony nodded and very nearly said yes out loud before he remembered that he wasn't allowed.

So they sat, and now that the bandage was in place, he could drape the green blanket across his shoulders again. And then Steve's arms were around him, and Tony sighed a little as he sank into Steve's warmth. He was cold again, shivering a little from time to time. He needed the warmth of Steve's body against his, so different from the cold hard floor he had known for so long.

He wanted to sleep again. He was so tired.

He was halfway there when Steve spoke his name. Instantly he jolted awake, his whole body rigid with fear.

"How about we head down to the galley?" Steve said.

He had to go, there was no refusing it, no disobeying Steve's wishes. He knew he had been there last night, but he had very little memory of that room except for when he had been sick. Surely, though, it would look nothing like the Kree dining hall. Surely it would be all right.

Steve led him through the halls, and he followed along obediently, his eyes on the floor, his head bowed. It wasn't a long walk, but by the time they reached the galley, his heart was racing and he was breathing hard.

They stopped just inside the room. A faint aroma clung to the air, remnants of someone else's meal. Tony stood there, swaying a little, holding up the too-big pants with one hand, clutching the blanket just below his throat with the other.

"Okay," Steve said. "There's something a lot like oatmeal, or something sort of like eggs. Which one do you think you can eat?"

The morning meal was the only one where he didn't immediately feel like he was going to be sick afterward. He didn't care what the food was. He had to eat now, and so he would. There was nothing else to think about.

"Well, we can try both," Steve said. He sounded a little too hearty about it. "You just sit down, and I'll take care of it."

Slowly Tony shuffled over to the table in the center of the room. He sat down and stared at a spot on the floor. It was slightly warmer in here, so he didn't shiver as much, even though he was still cold.

It did not take Steve long to return with two plates. Both were set on the table in front of him. "It's up to you," Steve said. "Whichever one you think you can handle." He paused. "And if you can't eat these, then I'll make something else. Whatever you want, Tony."

What he wanted didn't matter and never had. Obediently he picked up the spoon Steve had provided, and he began to eat.

And it was okay. He knew it would stay down this time, and oh the relief of it, of knowing that he could obey Steve's wishes, that he could be good. With that knowledge, some of the tension bled from the knots in his chest and stomach, and he was able to eat almost all of the eggs.

The door opened then, and heavy footsteps entered. Tony froze up and dropped his head, his shoulders slumped, properly submissive as he should be.

"Tony. It is good to see you again, my friend." Thor's voice rumbled as he approached. He set one hand on Tony's left shoulder.

Tony jumped, unable to help himself. Thor either did not notice, or pretended not to. He did not move his hand, but his thumb moved in little circles, making a faint whishing noise atop the blanket. "We have sorely missed you."

He risked a glance sideways, saw that Thor was still in full regalia, down to the cape. There was no sign of Mjolnir, however.

"And I am pleased to find you in here," Thor said. "Our Ernorran friends have been very generous. I am told that few ships this size are as well-stocked as ours." He laughed. "You should find everything you need here, but if there is something you require, only say the word and it will be found."

He nodded a little, unsure what else to do.

Thor removed his hand and walked away. Tony dared to glance up again, saw the back of Thor's head. His hair was longer than he had ever seen it, scattered through with tiny braids.

"You should try this," Thor said. He rummaged through the ship's stores. "Our friends thought it would be something for me, containing everything a warrior needs to fight. I did not have the heart to tell them it was not necessary. But maybe you will find it to your liking?"

The cup that was set in front of him was short and slender. The liquid inside looked faintly pink, like something that might have come out of an Earth blender. It had no smell.

He didn't want to drink it, didn't want to even look at it, but Thor was staring at him and he could feel the weight of that stare, and so he had no choice. Trying not to shake (stop it, stop it, be good, don't you dare spill it, don't you dare), Tony raised the cup and drank.

Sweetness exploded on his tongue, and he gasped, almost choking on the drink. It was thick and rich, and the taste was like nothing he had ever known before. And it was sweet, God it was sweet, how long had it been since he had had sugar?

Very quietly, too quiet for him to hear the words, Thor murmured something.

"…didn't think," Steve replied, just barely audible. He was nearly finished with the oatmeal.

Tony set the empty cup down. He licked his lips, trying to lap up the last taste of sweetness and savor it. He felt shivery all over, fear and apprehension and sheer greed all rolled into one.

"It is potent for a Midgardian, no?" Thor said with a chuckle. He dropped his hand onto Tony's shoulder again and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I am pleased you like it. Now I will not feel so bad at shunning this gift. Thank you, my friend."

Tony did not look up. He did not move. Thor's words – that thank-you – meant nothing. He had done nothing, he was nothing.

Thor's hand pressed his shoulder briefly again, a heavy warmth that made him feel pinned in place, unable to move. Fear leapt into his throat, overpowering the sweet taste of the drink and making him shiver.

It was just Thor, he told himself. Only Thor, with his cape and his armor and the mighty Mjolnir. Thor, who had helped save him, searing the skies with lighting and burning him in an effort to get rid of that golden collar. Thor, who had given him something too, instead of taking things away from him.

"Rest easily," Thor said. He removed his hand and walked away, and the knots that had begun to tighten in Tony's chest loosened up again. "You are among friends now. Do not forget that."

And then he was gone.

For a moment Tony felt a pang of loss, wanting Thor to return, in spite of the fear he brought.

Then Steve said, "He's been like that the whole time. In and out, and honestly I have no idea what he does with himself all day."

Steve. He had forgotten about Steve in the fearful rush of Thor's presence. He glanced up quickly and saw that Steve was still sitting at the table beside him, the empty oatmeal bowl in front of him.

"I got this." Steve took their dishes to the sink and began washing up. While he did this, Tony sat still and carefully ran his tongue over his teeth, sucking away the last of the sweetness from Thor's drink. He hoped he would get more of it later. Maybe if he was very good, Thor would let him have another cup.

Steve finished up at the sink and came back toward him. Tony kept his eyes averted and his head down, not looking at Steve as he approached.

"Did you want to see the ship?' Steve asked. "We could go for a walk if you want."

He didn't want that. He didn't want to be taken through the halls as though he were still on a collar and leash. He would go, of course, if Steve made him, but he didn't want to, he didn't want to.

And after a long silence, Steve, oh thank God, Steve said, "Or we could just go back to the room?"

Yes please, just this, yes, please Steve, please.

He nodded a little and his shoulders sagged as he breathed again. He had been clutching the blanket tightly with both hands, completely unaware that he was doing it, and now he made himself relax his fingers. It was okay. He was okay.

"Okay," Steve sighed. He sounded miserable. "I just… Tony, I hope you understand that you don't have to stay in there if you don't want. You're free now. You can go wherever you want. That room, it's not…it's not your new cell."

He knew that. But there was a part of him that maybe wanted it to be. His cell had always been a place of refuge. The cold solitude had been hard to endure sometimes, but in that silence there had been only himself. The Kree had never hurt him in that space he could call his own. At night, shaking and crying, he had curled up in the corner and tried to push himself into the walls and disappear. He had felt safe there, as much as he had ever felt safe during those long, terrible months.

He couldn't tell Steve any of that, though. Even if he had been capable of speech, there were no words to describe such a thing.

He followed Steve back through the halls to their small bedroom. Twice he had to hitch up the pants that kept wanting to slide right off his hips. He breathed carefully through slightly parted lips so Steve would not hear him, or know how out of breath he was from the walk.

He didn't relax, though, until the door closed behind them and they were safely inside.

"I was thinking," Steve said. "I don't know if a shower is such a good idea right now because of that bandage on your neck, but what about a bath?"

A bath. A chance to be clean, to wash away the non-smell of the Kree compound. Not a swift shower, three hundred seconds and no more, standing beneath the hot spray, sobbing a little as he scrubbed at the blood and come streaking down his legs, but a real bath.

"It would have to be more like a sponge bath, though," Steve said apologetically. "If that's all right."

That was all right. Anything was all right as long as he still had this. He was suddenly almost breathless with the desire to be clean again, to wash away the last lingering remnants of the Kree.

"Okay," Steve said. "I'll get everything we need. I'll be right—" He stopped. "Will you be all right alone?"

Tony nodded. Solitude held no fears for him.

Steve hesitated a while longer, then he left. Tony counted to ten, then another ten just to be safe, then he sank to his knees.

His heart was beating painfully fast, part fear and anticipation, part exertion from the walk back here, part whatever was in that drink Thor had called potent. He needed to catch his breath, to have a chance to just slump and close his eyes and recover. Worse, the painkillers were starting to wear off, and the fiery hurt on the back of his neck was forcing its way into his consciousness a little bit more with every passing minute. He needed to get on top of the pain before the opportunity for controlling his reaction to it was lost for good.

He was still kneeling there when the door opened again and Steve returned. He saw Steve's feet stop dead, right as Steve gasped out loud. "Tony?"

Then Steve was bending over him, reaching a hand for him, and he couldn't help it, he flinched away, steeling himself whatever awful thing was about to happen to him.

But Steve did not touch him. Steve froze, his hand hovering in the air just inches away. Slowly he stood up. "I'm sorry," he said, sounding very stiff. "I just… Are you okay?"

Yes, he was okay, and even better once Steve backed away. His chest hurt, the pain centered around the arc reactor in a way he hadn't felt in years. It scared him, and he pressed his hands to his chest, the hem of that green blanket still clutched in his fists, wishing he could just push the pain out of his body that way. It didn't work, of course. It had never worked.

"Tony?"

He nodded quickly, grateful that he had found this way of keeping both sets of rules, the one that said he must remain silent, and the one that said he must respond to Steve when prompted, because orders must be obeyed.

Steve made a quiet little sound, like he was about to speak. Then he took a deep breath. "Okay," he said. "If you're sure."

Tony nodded again. He braced himself to speak, to say the words out loud. Anything to make Steve stop looking at him. He could feel that stare piercing him through, ratcheting up the tension within him. Nothing good ever came from being stared at like this, from being noticed.

"I asked the engineer if he could divert some of the heat into this room," Steve said. "I'm not sure if he can, but hopefully he can come through for us."

More heat. He nodded. Yes. Please.

"How about you do this in the shower?" Steve suggested. "It'll make the least amount of mess. And the sink is right there. You won't have to stretch to reach it. I should know. I keep bumping into it." He paused. "I brought towels and some clean clothes. These might fit a little bit better, I don't know."

The mention of clothes brought him up sharply. Until now he had thought only of the bath itself, and the promised relief of being clean. He hadn't even thought, hadn't realized that it would mean being naked again.

Remove your clothing.

The Kree accuser's voice echoed in his head. He didn't want to, please, he had just been given these clothes, why must he give them up so soon? He wanted to curl up in the corner and pretend this wasn't happening, that he wasn't being forced into this.

But.

He wanted that bath. He wanted to be clean, to be rid of the taint of the Kree. He could almost feel it still, etched into his skin, tumbling through his blood and mixing with his breath. He needed it to be gone.

He needed to be truly free.

And it was only Steve, he told himself. Steve wouldn't hurt him. He was free now and he was safe, and nothing was going to happen.

Remove your clothing, this time with the force of a command, and he stumbled to his feet, pulling at the shirt that hung so loose on his shoulders. The blanket slithered to the floor, followed by the pants that were too big and both pairs of socks, and then he was naked, cold and shivering and not sure if he was going to bolt for the corner or walk toward the bathroom.

"I'll put this in here," Steve said. He watched Steve's feet walk away, more of Steve's legs coming into view with every step. Then Steve was in the bathroom, and Tony peeked upward just enough to see him set the towels down, balanced precariously on the lip of the sink.

"And let's…" The bathroom was so small, Steve didn't even have to move. He just turned a little to his left, then reached out and shoved the shower curtain off to one side, revealing the tiny space behind it.

Metal rings jingled as the curtain was pushed aside. It was a sound he heard every night, that silvery curtain dropped into place, hiding him from view so the soldiers would not see his face when they fucked him. It was a sound he knew far too well, and it struck terror into his heart.

Without conscious volition, he dropped to the floor.

He couldn't breathe, oh God, he couldn't, no no no please don't please don't do it to me please, there was a thick roaring in his ears and he couldn't breathe, no no no, he was gasping, crying, his chest hurt, please no, his throat was closed up and there wasn't enough air, he couldn't breathe—

(tony?)

He heard Steve's voice, but it meant nothing. There were no words here. No numbers, either. Only pure white panic and that desperate struggle for air. It was like drowning again, not water in his lungs this time but sheer terror obliterating everything else.

(tony are you okay?)

no no no no no

He didn't know how long it lasted, how long he was in the grip of that fear. He was perfectly clear in his mind, but unable to count, the numbers frozen. After a while it was easier to breathe. He could hear himself gasping. The floor swam into focus, and he realized he had been staring fixedly at the same spot for a very long time. His chest hurt. His head hurt.

But it was over. He was okay.

Gradually his heart rate began to slow down, the tight bands that had been constricting his chest loosening up and falling away. He breathed easier, almost normally, only the occasional shudder wracking him and making him gasp. He lifted his head, uncoiled from his huddle on the floor, sat back on his heels.

"Tony?" Steve spoke his name in a quiet, low voice.

He flinched, his eyelids sweeping closed for a moment. Just then he didn't want Steve. At least, not the Steve currently sitting between him and the bathroom. He wanted the Steve who had given him warm clothes and a blanket, the Steve who had held him so close, the Steve who had made him feel safe.

"It's all right," Steve said. "You don't have to. We'll try it again some other time."

He opened his eyes, confused in that first moment, because he didn't know what Steve meant. Then he blinked and he remembered. The shower curtain. The sound of rings. (He shuddered.) The bath he still wanted.

Please let me have this.

He dared, not a refusal, not disobeying, not that, never, but…

He shook his head. Just a little. Just enough.

Steve's breath caught. "Are you sure?"

He nodded. He glanced up, so quickly, saw the curtain still hanging there, all bunched up on one side of the tiny shower space, and winced away.

"What is it?" Steve asked gently. He must have seen. He must know. He had to know. "Is it the shower?"

It was, yes, because he wasn't at all happy about having to stand in that confined space, so similar to the shower cubicles at the far end of that room where the Kree had healed his bleeding body and allowed him to eat a hot meal. But it wasn't just the shower. He could cope with that. He thought. He hoped.

Please, please let me have this.

He shook his head.

"The curtain?" Steve asked, and he must have been thinking about the incident the whole time Tony was lost in that panicky blur, for him to come up with the real solution so fast. And that, Steve wracking his brain to think why he was upset, that wasn't something he could face right now.

He shuddered, and nodded.

Steve didn't ask why. He just got to his feet, walked the two strides that took him into the bathroom, reached up, and ripped the shower curtain – and the bar it hung from – right off the wall.

Completely shocked, Tony just stared at him. He saw the cold fury on Steve's face, the clenched line of Steve's jaw, the vivid blue of his eyes. It was the first time he had looked at Steve's face since yesterday when Steve had asked him to.

He didn't want to look away. He was alarmed by Steve's anger, although he thought (please) that it was not aimed at himself. He had disobeyed when Steve wanted him to go in there, but it wasn't his fault, please don't let Steve be angry with him. And he knew it was wrong, he was only making things worse because he wasn't supposed to look, he wasn't one man looking at another anymore (but he was, he was), but he simply couldn't help it. This was Steve, and he needed to see Steve's face.

Then Steve looked down at him, and their eyes met. In an instant the cold anger vanished, and Steve's face softened into lines of compassion. He smiled at Tony, miserable, his lower lip quivering a little.

Horrified at what he was doing, Tony looked down, bowing his head. Hot pain speared the back of his neck when he did so, and he gasped. It was only right, though – and much less than what he deserved for breaking the rules so brazenly.

Steve walked out of the bathroom, still holding the metal bar. The rings jumped and jingled as he marched toward the door and flung it open. Tony hunched in on himself and squeezed his eyes shut and thought that if any part of that silvery material touched his skin, he would start to scream.

A loud clatter made him open his eyes and look. The bedroom door was standing wide open. He caught a glimpse of the shower curtain crumpled on the floor, still attached to the bar, which had been cast aside in the hallway. Then Steve shut the door again and the sight was lost from view.

Shivering, taut with fear, Tony waited for Steve to ask why the curtain had bothered him so much. He didn't want to talk about it, didn't even want to think about it. He wanted it to be something that had happened to someone else, why couldn't he be someone else, (why couldn't he just be good?)

"It's gone," Steve said. "Whatever it… It's gone now, okay? You're safe, Tony. You're okay."

He nodded gratefully. Steve hadn't asked. He didn't have to talk about it.

"And you're sure you want to do this?" Steve asked. He sounded doubtful. "You don't have to, you know. You can do whatever you want."

That was, he didn't know, but he was free now, and he could, he could, and what he wanted, still, even now, after everything, was to feel clean again.

Steve was waiting on him, and he owed Steve an answer, Steve who had pulled the shower curtain off the wall even without understanding why, all in an effort at protecting him.

He swallowed hard, forced the whisper out through a dry throat. "Please."

"Okay," Steve said immediately, his voice soft and encouraging. "Then that's what we'll do. Or, well, you can. I don't think you need my help." He chuckled a little, somewhat forced, and then stood up.

Right away Tony followed suit. He just stood there at first, uncertain, swaying a little as the room wanted to tilt around him and ugly pain pulsed in his head. Then Steve moved aside, leaving him a clear path to the bathroom, and he understood that he was being given permission to do this on his own.

He shuffled forward, part of him waiting for Steve to stop him, for this shining thing to be taken away from him, the way everything had been taken away from him. It wasn't until he was standing in the shower that he relaxed a little. He had to stop, he had to remember that he was free now, that he was being given things again, and they were his to keep.

A cold shudder wrenched through him. He glanced out into the bedroom, saw Steve standing almost out of sight, back turned. There was no reason for it, he had nothing to hide and anyway Steve had already seen him naked – but it made him feel a little bit better, all the same.

He turned the sink on; Steve was right, he didn't have to stretch for it. The water took a while to heat up, and he stood there shivering while he waited. Cautiously he reached out and let his fingertips glide down the folded towels, two of them, a washcloth and a round thing of soap set atop them. They were a light brown color, made of a soft yet very absorbent material. For a moment he remembered the steamy showers in the Citadel on Ernor, Steve standing just outside, wearing nothing but a towel and a smile, ready to join him—

He winced away from the memory, pulled his hand back from the towels.

The moment the water became tepid enough to tolerate, he wet the washcloth through, then soaped it up. He had to be quick (no), he only had five minutes (no), three hundred seconds (no no no).

He scrubbed at his face, at his stubbly head, shuddering in revulsion. He passed over his burned and welted neck and moved on to his chest, washing even the smooth glow of the arc reactor. Arms next and the seconds were ticking away and his heart was pounding so hard he could feel it pulsing in his temples. He wet the cloth again, soaped it up, craned to reach his upper back, careful not to touch his neck (but the collar was gone) and get the bandage wet. Stomach next and he was breathing hard, hands shaking in his eagerness to wash it all away. Lower back and his heart was racing, he didn't want to touch what came next, (no no please), move on, it doesn't matter. Counting up to two hundred now and there was no time. Legs then, knobby knees, bending down to scrub at them –

Dizziness assaulted him. Loud roaring filled his ears. The world tilted. He flailed, smacked his hand on the tile wall of the shower, and fell, hard.

The bruising impact jolted him out of the faint, back to awareness. He couldn't move, though, his body not his own to command anymore. His head and right shoulder were wedged into the corner of the shower, his legs folded into the tiny floor space in front of the sink. Pain throbbed in his head and encircled his chest with crushing iron bands. His right arm hurt where he had landed on it.

"Tony!" Too dazed to look away, he watched Steve run up. Steve's eyes were wide, his mouth agape with fear and shock. "What happened? Are you okay?"

He was frozen with fear and dizziness, could only lie still where he had fallen. His arm was bent awkwardly beneath him, the rim of the arc reactor digging painfully into his wrist. The tiled wall was cool on the bare skin of his head.

The bathroom was too small for Steve to enter, and what little space was available was currently being taken up by Tony's lower body. Steve was forced to stand in the doorway, clutching at it with one hand. "Are you hurt?" he asked anxiously.

He didn't know. It didn't matter.

"Can you…?" Steve trailed off, blue eyes full of uncertainty. He looked down, and his hand tightened on the doorframe, making it creak in protest. "Tony?"

He was suddenly aware of what he was doing, lying here, able to look up with only one eye but still, he was staring, he was looking. Terror cut sharply through the haze and dizziness, giving him strength. He kicked out, made an ugly humping motion against the floor, and managed to lever himself up to his hands and knees.

It hurt, the pain in his head increasing, his right elbow twinging painfully. He stayed there on all fours, staring down at the washcloth he had dropped.

"Can you make it?" Steve asked. The words were tentative, so unnatural in that voice which was normally so steady and reassuring.

He had to. He rocked forward a little, gaining some momentum, enough to get one foot under him and finally lurch upright.

Steve was there right away as he reeled into the wall and bounced off it, one hand at his back, the other poised to catch him if he fell again. Squeezed into the tiny bathroom, standing not behind him, thank God, but by his left hip, but still too close anyway, too close, and he was naked and cold, a film of soap and water drying on his skin, and he knew he was going to collapse again – all in the instant before his knees buckled.

Steve caught him, gently guided him down to his knees. "I've got you. It's okay. Let's just…stay here."

Tony just knelt there, shivering all over, the back wall of the shower mere inches from his nose.

"It's okay," Steve said again. "Let me just rinse you off, then we'll get you in bed and you can sleep. It's okay." He leaned down to pick up the washcloth, but Tony was kneeling on it, and he had to straighten back up again.

All this was happening, and he knew it, he heard the words, but it was almost like it was happening to someone else. He twitched his leg up and over, and Steve pulled the washcloth free, and it would take the smallest of motions to lean forward so he could press his forehead against the tile, but he didn't dare move.

Water ran in the sink. Then Steve was there, running the washcloth across his chest, up over his shoulders, down his back. The water was warm, but still he shook and trembled. He wanted to cringe away, cry out and beg for this to stop. The fear was overwhelming, though, holding him fast so that he couldn't move, couldn't make a sound.

"I'm going as fast as I can," Steve murmured. "I know that soap has to be itchy. Just hang on." The washcloth dipped lower, swiped across first one hip, then the other, then followed the curve of his ass. Lower, between his legs now, wiping away the worst of the filth, and the fingers would be next, pushed inside him to assess the damage and determine how long he would need the healing device and --

Tony started to cry. He couldn't help it.

"Okay," Steve said quickly, "we're done, we're done, you did good, Tony, it's okay."

Steve lifted him up, and then he was being carried, and then that soft towel was rubbed all over him, and he couldn't stop shaking, couldn't stop crying, please and no and don't and --

Hands on him, manipulating his body, and it was Steve getting him dressed again, and it was the handler forcing him into that steel frame, stretching his arms out for the shackles. Both were true, both were happening, and he didn't know anymore, he just wanted the terror to end, please God, just please make it stop.

"You're okay. It's okay. It's only me."

The handler had never spoken to him in that room, there were no voices there except that bored call of Next! and the occasional grunt of a soldier as he came, buried deep inside his body.

Steve. It was Steve.

He clung to Steve's voice desperately, a lifeline to reality, to what was really happening.

"Here we go, it's okay, you're okay." The bed and warmth surrounding him, a cool pillow beneath his cheek. He turned his face into it, and it was instantly wet with his tears.

"Sleep now," Steve soothed. "It's okay. You're okay. You're safe now." A hand stroked his shoulder and upper arm, then went away. The touch did not return.

Already the rush of terror was wearing off, exhaustion sweeping in to take its place. He accepted it gratefully. He wanted to sleep, he didn't have to feel anything when he was asleep, it was better this way.

And maybe, please God please if he was good, maybe one day he wouldn’t have to wake up and feel anything at all.

****

Some indeterminate time later, he woke up. He was unsure what had roused him – until he heard the sound again and he rolled his head on the pillow to see what had caused it.

Steve was sitting on the floor, his knees drawn up, arms resting on them. He was crying.

Quickly Tony looked away, but not before he saw the brief hope on Steve's face die out, replaced with dull acceptance.

"I'm sorry," Steve said from on the floor. "I know I've done everything wrong. I know I've been pushing you too hard. I just thought… I thought you might feel better if you could be…more normal, I guess. I'm sorry. I won't do that anymore." He drew in a deep breath. "I'll do better. I promise. We'll go at your pace. I won't push you again."

It was okay. It didn't matter. He would do whatever Steve said.

He closed his eyes. Slept again.

Chapter Text

There was no question now of what he had to do, and Steve accepted his role without question. He was glad to do it, even. Whatever it took to help Tony get better, he would do. And so he remained in his room, alone with Tony, talking to no one, seeing no one. A couple times a day he left to get food from the galley or other basic supplies, and that was about it.

Following the terrible attempt at a bath, Tony fell asleep, and did not wake up the rest of the day. The day after that was much the same. He had reached the end of his endurance, his weakened body pushed far beyond its limits. It was a restful sleep, thankfully, unbroken by nightmares or anxiety, and Steve spent many hours just sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him sleep. With every deep breath Tony drew, something eased up in Steve's chest, relaxing him, too. He was still angry at the Kree and what they had done, but he no longer felt those murderous impulses from before.

Occasionally, when he was certain Tony was sleeping too deeply to wake, he indulged himself in touch. He tested Tony's forehead for fever, anxious that none of his wounds were becoming infected. He brushed the backs of his fingers along Tony's cheek; away from the Kree and whatever they had done to suppress natural growth, he was starting to grow stubble again, on his face and head alike. Steve relished the rasp of hair against his skin, savoring it as proof of life.

Other times he held his hand close to Tony's face, sometimes daring to touch his slack lips. Tony's breath ghosted over his fingertips, a barely perceptible warmth that he nonetheless seemed to feel throughout his entire body.

Once, he gently touched his fingers to Tony's neck, feeling for his pulse. He didn't do this for long, though; the rhythm was slightly unsteady, wavering sometimes, and it frightened him. He didn't know if Tony's heartbeat was always like this now, because of the shrapnel and the arc reactor, or if this was a result of his poor physical condition.

That was okay, though. He didn't need to keep track of Tony's pulse. It was enough just to have him here. To know that he was safe, that no one would ever hurt him again.

With Tony sleeping so much, it was impossible to stick to any kind of schedule, so Steve didn't even try. He just made sure he was there when Tony woke up. He had something ready to eat and drink each time, and two more of their pain pills. He tended the wounds on Tony's neck, trying his best to be gentle and not cause Tony any more pain. Soon the ugly burn from the disc would start to itch, and he would have to warn Tony not to scratch it. The burn would scar, of course, but scratching would only make it worse. He had a feeling, though, that this would be one of the easiest things he had to do – he had only to make the warning sound even remotely like a command, and Tony would obey.

Thor visited once each day, but did not stay long. Each time, Tony was sound asleep, and he did not stir even when the door opened and Thor walked in. Given his earlier reaction to someone entering the room, and how quick he was to startle at anything new, Steve took this as a sign of how exhausted he was. He was glad, though. More than anything right now, Tony needed rest.

On the fourth morning since the auction and his rescue, Tony woke up and right away Steve saw the difference. His eyes were clear, and though he quickly averted his gaze, he let himself look first, instead of just making those brief, darting glances from before.

It was enough to give Steve hope, and his smile was genuine. "Good morning."

Tony, of course, did not respond. Not that Steve had expected him to.

He had had a lot of time over the past two days to revise his expectations of Tony. Long hours when he had sat on the edge of the bed, or paced back and forth in the small room. He had not slept much himself, afraid of missing it when Tony woke; he was tired now, but it was nothing he couldn't deal with.

He knew now where he had gone wrong. He had been so determined to make everything all right, to make Tony "normal" again, that he had blundered from one disaster to another. He knew better now.

This couldn't be about himself. It had to be about Tony.

So he stopped talking. He looked at Tony, truly seeing him. He saw the way one of Tony's legs moved slightly beneath the bedspread and the two blankets that covered him in order to keep him warm. He saw the slightly pinched look around Tony's eyes, a sign that he was in pain or some other kind of physical distress. He saw how Tony was curled up on his left side, how his right shoulder twitched upward even closer to his ear.

He could guess what Tony needed – it had been over eight hours since he had fallen asleep – but Steve had learned the hard way not to make any assumptions. Nonetheless, he stood back a little, moving closer to the table beside the bed and the wall, clearing a path to the bathroom. "Whenever you're ready," he said.

For a long moment nothing happened. Steve felt his hopes sink. He had spent hours working out the things that were safe to say, and how to say them. In the end he had decided that the best thing to do was keep in mind that for months Tony had been forcibly stripped of all control, over his fate, his choices, even his own body. What Steve had to do now was give him back that control, in any way possible.

Then slowly, timidly, Tony uncurled from his ball and sat up. As the thick blankets and the bedspread fell away, he shivered, although Steve was aware enough now to know that he might just as easily be shivering in fright as from the cold.

He nodded and smiled encouragingly, even though Tony was looking down at the floor and wouldn't see it.

It seemed to take Tony ages to cross the short distance to the bathroom. Every step was hesitant, as though he fully expected Steve to stop him at any moment. He had returned to those nervous little glances too, checking Steve's position constantly, never looking at anything above his knees. But he kept going, and at last he disappeared into the bathroom, and Steve let out a long, silent exhale.

He had done it. Navigated contact with Tony without inadvertently terrorizing him or making him remember the horrors of the past.

Maybe there was hope for him, after all.

****

Tony was awake now, but for Steve, very little changed over the next two days. He still spent the majority of his time sitting in silent vigil. The only major difference was that instead of watching Tony sleep, now he got to hold Tony in his arms.

That was good, it was even better than good, because it meant Tony felt safe around him. But it worried him, too, because it was a sign of how fragile Tony was right now. Before this, in that too-short time when they had been happy together, Tony hadn't really liked for Steve to hold him. In bed, sure, from time to time. But outside of it, in day-to-day interaction, not so much. Steve had never asked why, had just chalked it up to a man who had been raised to believe that wanting affection was a sign of weakness, and let it go.

Now, though, Tony came into his arms willingly, almost eagerly. Steve told himself it was for purely physical reasons: warmth, a soft surface to rest his head on, protection. He told himself not to get his hopes up, to remember that Tony wasn't capable yet of feeling things like love, and that it would be a very long time before he trusted anyone again.

Still, there were times when he could close his eyes and almost imagine that they were happy again. That none of this had happened.

The hours stretched out, long periods of time when he was almost bored. The Ernorran crew had brought with them a game similar to chess, which he and Thor had played before as a way to pass the time, but there was no chance of doing that now; Tony couldn't concentrate enough to learn the complex rules of a game. It worried him, too, that Tony was content to sit here for so long doing nothing. In times past, that genius brain would never have allowed this. He would have been leaping up within minutes, reaching for a tablet, calling out instructions and lines of code and specs to JARVIS. But now he just sat and stared dully at nothing, and though he tried not to think such gloomy thoughts, still Steve feared that something fundamental was broken inside of him. That the thinking part of Tony Stark was gone forever, left behind in a cell on Hala.

He continued to walk down to the galley a few times a day and bring small meals back. He didn't fear leaving Tony alone; he had meant it when he told Thor that he didn't think Tony would try to kill himself. That didn't stop him from hurrying back each time, though.

He tried just about every combination of food he could think of to entice Tony to eat, usually with little success. Tony's inability – or unwillingness, Steve still wasn't sure which one it was – to eat with any regularity remained his biggest concern. Already he was seeing a pattern emerge. Tony ate best in the morning, appearing to have little difficulty with whatever Steve offered him. As the day progressed, though, he grew visibly more distressed when asked to eat, and at night he couldn't do it at all, looking as though he would be ill just at the mere suggestion of food. It wasn't hard to figure out why – every night, Thor had said – but Steve didn't know how to fix it.

Thor had better luck, coming in sometimes to visit. He always seemed too big for the room when he showed up, with his booming voice and billowing cape. Each time he arrived, he brought with him a small cup of that Asgardian elixir that their Ernorran friends had given him. Those were the only times Tony showed any real interest in food, his whole body tensing up in anticipation when he saw the cup in Thor's hand.

Thor did not visit at night, though.

Nights were the worst, when every little noise, every little move Steve made caused Tony to flinch and tremble in fear. For a few hours this would be the case, and Steve did nothing then but sit perfectly still and hold Tony close. He was a human shield then, protecting Tony from both the specter of the past and the fear of the future.

This would go on for some time, hours creeping past while Tony trembled and Steve imagined – and tried not to – what the Kree soldiers had done to him. And then like magic, some unknown marker would come and go, and Tony would slowly, so slowly, start to relax. The danger was past then, no one was coming to take him away to be raped, and he could finally let himself believe that he was safe.

For Steve that was the worst time. The rage he felt toward the Kree was all-consuming then, but he had to hide it deep inside, where Tony couldn't know. If Tony ever thought Steve was angry at him, it would destroy the fragile thing they were working at building between them, and there would be no recovering from that. So Steve kept his violent thoughts to himself, and did not speak of them, not even to Thor.

At night, in fact, Steve did not dare to speak at all. But during the day, with nothing else to do to fill the time, he found himself talking almost constantly.

He was very careful about the stories he told. Nothing about the war, nothing to remind Tony that he had once been a soldier like the Kree. Instead he talked about his childhood, his mother, his early ambitions to go to art school. He relived teenage adventures with Bucky, pranks they had pulled, scrapes they had barely gotten out of – all still remembered in such vivid detail that they might have only happened yesterday.

Then he skipped ahead, neatly glossing over eighty years of history. He talked about waking up in New York and how disoriented he had felt. How he hadn't known for a long time if he was going to be able to adjust to this strange new century.

"That was me who broke the waffle maker," he confessed. It was the fifth day, and in a little while he would give Tony the last two painkillers from the medkit. He looked forward to the times when he changed that bandage on the back of Tony's neck, just because it gave him something to do. From time to time Tony twitched his head to the side, one shoulder hunching up, and from that Steve guessed that the healing burn was starting to itch – but he had never once tried to scratch at it.

"You must have known it was me," he said. "I put too much batter in, and it started pouring out the edges. It was making a mess all over the counter. I guess I panicked. I just scooped it up and tossed it into the sink so it would be easier to clean up. And I guess I threw it too hard, because it broke. I felt bad, but I couldn't say anything."

He sighed, remembering that day nearly two weeks after the Battle of New York, when he had still been learning his way around the Tower. "It really threw me for a loop. I thought I would never figure things out." He looked down at Tony's bent head, and the green blanket that remained draped across his shoulders, keeping him warm. "I got real depressed and angry, and I didn't know what to do. And then not even an hour later, there you were, up in my face, insulting my uniform and saying you could make it better without barely lifting a finger, challenging me to let you do it."

Briefly he tightened the circle of his arms. "You knew, didn't you? That I needed something like that just then. Or was it just good timing? Either way, it helped. So…thank you for that. Thank you, Tony."

Tony just sat there in Steve's arms, unresponsive as always. But he made a soft little sigh, shaky and barely audible – and so Steve knew he had heard.

That made him feel better. He wasn't sure how often Tony actually listened to him, how many of his words were going unheard and unheeded. Tony slept so much, it was difficult to tell sometimes when he was asleep and when he was just lying there, slumped passively in Steve's arms.

He liked to think that it was the sound of his voice that helped lull Tony to sleep, but he was realistic enough to know that it was far more likely that Tony slept so much simply because he was so weak and exhausted. All the same, he went on talking, and he went on hoping.

Now, though, he wasn't sure what to say. Should he continue talking about those days when they hadn't even liked each other that much, when they were both Avengers and the future was full of wonderful, uncertain promise? Was it a kindness to remind Tony of who and what he had been? Or was it cruel to make him remember what he could never be again?

He didn't know, and so he let the silence claim them again.

****

For Tony, the days passed in a dull haze. It was as if he had expended his capacity for terror in the shower that morning, and there was nothing left. He seemed – at least for the time being – unable to feel the bright fear from before. Or much of anything, for that matter.

He spent the majority of his time slumped against Steve, slipping in and out of sleep. Occasionally a tiny voice in the back of his mind tried to speak up and say that this wasn't right, that something was gravely wrong with him. It was easy not to listen, though, so he ignored it and just let sleep take him once more.

In a way it was like being back in his cell, listless and still. Counting. Waiting. Only now there was nothing to wait for, and the seconds and minutes and hours just kept piling up in his head.

But this wasn't his cell, and he wasn't a slave anymore, he was free, and Steve was here holding him, and he was free, the collar was gone, and he wasn't a slave anymore. He wasn't quite sure what he was, because he couldn't be Tony Stark again, not yet, and it occurred to him that maybe that was what he was waiting for, to find out what he was now, and then he fell asleep again and everything ceased to matter.

What mattered was Steve, keeping him safe, even when the clock turned against him and evening came, and every fiber of his body was strung taut with tension and dread. The green blanket, smelling not of Steve anymore but himself, but still warm and still something he needed. The clothes on his back, the bed beneath him, the warm air, the sound of Steve's voice. The bare skin of his neck. The ability to breathe deep and keep on breathing. The freedom to speak.

But there he quailed, because it was one thing to know he could speak, another thing entirely to actually do it. He wanted to, but the lesson had been learned too well, and no matter how many times he told himself that the collar was gone, the disc was gone, he was allowed, he wouldn’t be punished… He still couldn't do it.

Then one afternoon Steve told his story about the waffle maker, and in a brilliant burst of memory, Tony was there again, as if he had never left.

Back on that day. In the Tower. In one of the R&D labs. Working on a new version of the suit.

****

Sir, you might want to see this.

What is it? he snaps. He's busy. Things to do, suits to build, the Earth isn't going to defend itself, you know.

You asked me to monitor Captain Rogers and inform you if he exhibited any unusual behavior.

Ah. So he did. And now Cap is exhibiting. Interesting. He puts down the welder, looks at the display JARVIS has so thoughtfully hung in mid-air.

Steve is sitting in the breakfast nook, which isn't really a nook at all, given that it's the size of most people's kitchen. Glass walls on three sides, and a spectacular view of the city, but right now Steve has his back to it all. He's got one elbow on the table, his chin propped up in his hand, and he's staring glumly at a yellow plastic placemat that Tony is absolutely one hundred percent positive he did not have on his list of approved décor for the Tower.

I believe there was an incident in the kitchen earlier, JARVIS says. It would appear the waffle maker has been destroyed.

Tony sighs. So much for his gluten-free waffles.

He could be angry now. He'd be well within his rights as host and appliance buyer/inventor. But there's something about that look on Steve's face, like he's a breath away from crying. Not wild sobbing or anything like that, but that slow leaking of tears a person does when they aren't even aware that they're crying.

And right then, he thinks he would do just about anything to save Steve from that horrid fate. He has no idea why it should bother him so much to think about Steve crying – it's not like they're friends. Hell, they don't even get along with each other, can't spend more than ten minutes in the same room before they're arguing about something. But apparently this is a thing that's happening to him, regardless of where he and Steve stand with each other, so he might as well roll with it.

After all, if nothing else, this will give him the excuse he's needed to get to work.

Okay, he says. Time to open a new file. Pull up all the stats on Cap's uniform.

Sir?

Just do it, Tony says. We've got a Capsicle we need to fix.

****

He sighed a little, shaky and wretched. He didn't want to remember things like that. It hurt too much to remember that he had once been an actual person.

But once remembered, it was hard to forget. The actual memory itself dissolved into dust, but the feeling of it, that lingered. And what he remembered then was the sense of belonging, of being right where he was supposed to be, doing what he was meant to be doing.

He had forgotten what that felt like.

He closed his eyes, gave himself up to that feeling of belonging, pretending a little that it had already happened, that Steve was holding him and they were back home, and he was better, he wasn't so damn scared and cold and tired all the time, and they were safe and warm and nothing hurt and—

Tony shuddered. He opened his eyes.

He wanted it, oh God how he wanted it.

We're going home, Steve had said, and he had forgotten that until just now. We're going home, after telling him that nobody owned him, that he was free.

We're going home.

Home. Home, to where he would be safe, no one would tie him down and rape him, no one would put a collar around his neck and tell him he wasn't allowed to look at them because he wasn't even a person anymore.

Fevered need seized him. He wanted, God, he wanted it, could they, but Steve—

Steve.

If he told Steve… If Steve knew…

What could Steve do?

He didn't know. He just wanted to go home.

The room was suddenly in crisp focus. Everything looked sharper, edges no longer blurred, clarity restored to his vision after days of hazy drifting. The green of the blanket was extraordinarily vivid. Steve's borrowed clothing was stretched tight across his broad shoulders. His hand, resting on Steve's chest, was thin and bloodless, the fingernails just starting to grow back from where he had bitten them constantly.

It was so simple, really. It took no effort at all to curl his last two fingers under, to set his fingertips on Steve's chest.

A single stroke downward. Down at an angle, and up and then down again and back up. Trembling now with fear and longing and the desperate need to know that this was all right, that he wouldn't be punished for it, that he was still safe.

I want to go home, he wrote.

Beneath his cheek, Steve's chest lifted in a sudden exhale. Tony froze, cringing into himself, the old terror creeping back, making him shake all over.

But when Steve released that breath, it was with a sound that could have been a laugh. "Oh God. Tony." The circle of his arms tightened, and for the briefest instant, Tony's fear rocketed higher still, almost choking him with the force of it. Then Steve was saying, "We will, we will, I promise. We're going home now. We'll be there soon."

We're going home now, and please let it be true, and he dared to go even further, to whisper it into the warm space between his lips and Steve's body.

"I want to go home."

"We will," Steve vowed, his voice thick with tears. "We are. We're going home now, Tony, as fast as we can."

"I want to go home," he said again, and that was enough, that was as far as he could go.

It was enough, though.

****

Steve was still smiling as he stepped into the galley – although he had to stop briefly to sniff back the tears that kept wanting to fall. That was okay, though. He didn't mind crying when the tears rose from joy.

He had left Tony asleep on the bed, wrung out from whatever incredible courage had allowed him to speak up. It meant pushing back the next time he needed to change that dressing on Tony's neck, but after what had just happened, he couldn't really bring himself to care too much about that. Right now all he cared about was fulfilling that promise he had made, and the amazing fact that Tony had finally dared to voice something he wanted.

He was surprised to find Thor in the galley, seated at the table in the center of the room. Mjolnir rested on the table in front of him, and Thor was staring at the hammer as though it contained the answer to all his questions.

"Didn't expect to see you here," Steve said as he walked over to the shelves where they kept the pre-made meals

"I was waiting for you," Thor said.

It could have been a perfectly innocent remark. Steve knew that it was not. He froze, his back to where Thor sat. He had to take a deep breath before he turned around. "Well, you found me."

Thor nodded, his gaze still on Mjolnir for a moment. It struck Steve that he had not seen Thor carrying the hammer since they had left Hala. He didn't like that Thor had it with him now.

"We must talk," Thor said. He looked up, and Steve was shocked to see that his usual stoic façade was nowhere in sight. Thor appeared visibly distressed, a fact that disturbed Steve even more than seeing him with Mjolnir again. He could think of very few reasons for Thor to get upset, and not a single one of them was pleasant.

"We must return to Earth right away," Thor said. "Our Ernorran friends are doing all they can for us, but at our current rate of speed, the journey will require nearly a week. We cannot afford to take that time."

Steve nodded cautiously. "What did you have in mind?" he asked. Whatever he could do to help, he would do it. The sooner they could get Tony home, the sooner he could begin the painful process of recovery.

"I have asked the crew to set down on the nearest planet," Thor said. "I will call upon Heimdall and he will return us to Asgard, and from there to the Earth."

The thought of returning home so quickly, especially after Tony had just expressed the desire for it, made Steve's spirits lighten.

Then he thought of something. "Will he be able to see us?"

Thor looked affronted. "Heimdall is the All-Seeing."

"Not always," Steve said.

For once Thor looked at a loss for words. "Explain yourself."

"I asked him, once," Steve admitted, "to try to find Tony." He saw Thor's eyes widen briefly, and he could have kicked himself. He had never intended to tell Thor about that day, and now it was too late to take it back. "It was when we went back there and you left to find Lady Sif. I asked Heimdall if he could see Tony. I thought we could locate him that way and just…go get him." He shook his head. "But he couldn't see him."

Thor frowned. "That is indeed strange."

"Why would that be?" Steve asked. He remembered the panic he had felt then, trying not to believe that Tony was dead, which had been the only explanation he could come up with for Heimdall's failure.

"Heimdall himself will be the first to admit that there are things in this universe which can thwart his sight," Thor said. "However, I can think of none of them."

"Some kind of Kree technology?" Steve suggested.

Thor's upper lip lifted in unconscious scorn. "Such a thing would not stop Heimdall." He heaved a deep breath. "No, I can only think that he failed because he was searching for the wrong man. The Tony Stark we lost to the Kree no longer exists, and that was Heimdall's error."

Such words, spoken so casually, made Steve's blood run cold. "You have such a wonderful way of putting things," he said flatly.

"I am sorry," Thor said. He inclined his chin. "I only meant—"

"I know what you meant," Steve said. He sighed.

Silence fell between them, thick with tension. Just as Thor stirred himself to speak, Steve said, "Can Heimdall take us to Ernor?"

"Why should he do that?" Thor asked.

He shrugged, and finally closed the distance between them so he could sit at the table opposite Thor. "It was just a thought. They could maybe heal him…?"

"No," Thor said. "The Matriarch cannot help us this time. We will return to Asgard first, and from there to Earth."

It would be better this way, Steve told himself. Thor was right. There was no reason to delay their return. "Home," he said. "To the Tower." Despite his promise to Tony, he hadn't actually allowed himself to think about going home. Not since that awful day when Tony had been stolen from him. But now he was pierced through with nostalgia.

He wanted to be in New York again, where the sound of the traffic was such an integral part of the city that he didn't actually hear it anymore. He wanted to be surrounded by people caught up in their busy lives. He wanted to eat Thai food, go for a run in Central Park, see the night sky blotted out by tall buildings. He wanted to play chess with Natasha, cook dinner with Bruce, watch TV with Clint.

He wanted to sit with Tony in the workshop. He wanted to watch Tony work, his hands graceful in motion as he activated ethereal screens in the air. He wanted to bring Tony a cup of coffee and smile as their hands touched, the warmth of Tony's fingers on his lingering long after they parted. He wanted to wake up and see Tony lying next to him, thick hair tousled, a devilish smile on his face as he reached out a hand and slid it up Steve's leg.

He wanted things to be like they had been. And though he knew he could never have it again, that didn't stop him from wanting it.

"No," Thor said somberly. "We cannot go to the Tower just yet."

His vision of going home crumbled right before his eyes. "Why not?" he demanded.

"Steven, do you not see what is in front of you?" Thor said. "Do you not see what is happening with Tony?"

Vague as they were, the words still hit him with the force of a blow. "What do you mean?"

Thor looked distressed, but somewhat angry, too. "It is as I thought, then. You are blind to the truth." He took a deep breath. "Tony is dying."

Steve flinched. "No," he whispered. "No, but we saved him--"

Thor continued as though he had not spoken, his expression grim. "He does not eat. His body is weak. He has been too long without proper food and rest. He requires medical attention, and quickly, or it will be too late."

He knew it was true, he knew it was, but every part of him cried out in denial. He didn't want it to be true. He wanted Tony to be all right, to be normal, to be the same man he had fallen in love with. He wanted Tony to live, to be happy again, to smile at him and say that everything was going to be okay.

And if it was true – because it was true, it was – then whose fault was it?

"I tried," he whispered. "I—"

The worst part was that Thor didn't chastise him this time for his failure. "Only your Earth doctors can save Tony now," Thor said. "We must bring him to them immediately."

He nodded, but then right away he wished he hadn't, as a dozen voices clamored in the back of his mind, telling him he had just made another mistake. "No. Wait. We can't."

Thor's brows drew together. "Steven." The warning was obvious in even that single word.

"No, I know," he said. He held up one hand, stalling Thor's protests. "You're right. He does need to see a doctor, but Thor, we can't just take him to a hospital. Think about it. He won't be able to handle it. And the way he looks right now, you know he'd hate for people to see him like this."

Thor slammed one hand down on the table. "I do not care what he looks like!" he exclaimed. "I care that he is dying!"

"And you think I don't?" Steve snapped as he rose to his feet. He pointed in the general direction of their bedrooms. "I've done nothing but sit and hold him for days!"

"And yet you do not see!" Thor said loudly. He stood up as well, both hands braced on the tabletop.

"I see enough," Steve said. He felt cold all over, to the point of shaking with it. It took him a moment to realize that he was actually furious, more angry than he had been in a long time. "And I know that if you take him to some hospital right now, you might as well put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. You'd be killing him just the same. Maybe not right away, but in time."

"I am trying to save his life!" Thor shouted.

"So am I!" Steve yelled. "You're not listening to me!"

One of Thor's hands twitched toward Mjolnir. The sight was like cold water thrown on Steve's anger. He actually took a step back from the table.

"Listen to me," he said quietly. "I'm not disagreeing with you. But think about what you're saying. He can't handle being in the hospital right now. All those people staring at him, whispering about him, wondering what happened. It frightens him if I stare at him too long. He'll never be able to handle it."

"Then what," Thor said, "are you suggesting?" He held himself stiffly, as though it hurt him to keep his anger in check.

"I'm saying," Steve said, "that we go to SHIELD."

Thor reared back a little. "SHIELD?"

Steve nodded. "They have a medical unit, and the people there are very good at what they do." He hadn't required their help much for himself, but he had seen them in action, tending to Clint and Natasha and even Tony, and those injuries acquired while fighting to save the world from the forces of evil.

"The medical wing is smaller, and it's more personal," he continued. "The staff won't talk, and there shouldn't be many other patients there." The fewer people who were around to witness Tony's condition, the better off he would be. And at SHIELD, Steve and the other Avengers could insulate him from the shouting clamor of the media and the public, who would all be desperate to know why Tony Stark had been gone for three months, why he had disappeared from a hospital with his back broken and reappeared looking like, well, like someone who had been held prisoner and tortured.

Thor frowned, considering this. "You might be right," he said slowly.

Steve said nothing. He knew he was right. Tony was in no shape now to care about other people seeing him – but he would, one day. And when that happened, when he was capable of feeling shame again, he would take that out on whoever had put him in that position in the first place.

And it won't be me, he thought. I won't do that to him.

"You should speak to them as well," Thor said. He sounded far less hostile now, although he was obviously still tensed up, both hands still balled into fists and braced on the table. "You might not be suffering as Tony is, but you too will require medical assistance."

In shock, Steve stared at him. "Me?"

Thor nodded. "The Ernorrans have gone to great lengths to accommodate us, but they know nothing of humans. Their food does not contain the nutrients a man needs. I suspect the serum that made you into the Captain continues to sustain your body now. But even you will eventually suffer ill effects, should our journey last much longer."

Steve didn't know what to say to this. He felt fine, a little tired, maybe, but he had just chalked that up to not sleeping much over the past five days while he watched over Tony. Now he wondered, though. Was Thor right?

"That is why we must return to Earth immediately," Thor said. "It does not matter whether we persuade Tony to eat now. He could feast on this very day, and it would not help him."

The implications of this were staggering. Steve sat down again, almost falling into his chair. "If we hadn't found him when we did…"

Thor nodded slowly. "He would most likely already be dead."

The thought of it made his blood run cold. Their glorious rescue, and all they had done was postpone the inevitable.

He suddenly couldn't bear it. He wanted to leap to his feet, to stalk onto the bridge and demand more speed from the crew, even though he knew they were surely already doing everything they could to hasten their journey. He wanted to run back to his room and gather Tony into his arms and find a way to share his strength and vitality, gifting those things to Tony through the touch of skin on skin, or with a kiss, or a whisper in his ear. Something, somehow, please.

"The captain has told me there is a suitable planet within range," Thor said. "We should arrive in six hours."

Steve nodded, and tried to remember how to breathe. Tony was not going to die. They would be in time. They would save him.

"Do not mourn him just yet," Thor said gently.

"I'm not!" Steve snapped. Bristling with outrage, he started to push back from the table so he could leave; more than ever he wanted to return to Tony.

Before he could get up, though, Thor sat down. "That is good," he said. "Because you and I have much to discuss before our arrival." He gave Steve a long look. "For though I respect SHIELD, I do not trust them."

"Neither do I," Steve said. They were the lesser of two evils by far, though, and they really could help Tony. "What did you have in mind?"

Thor let out a slow breath, and nodded. His relief was plain to see, and Steve suddenly realized just how close they had come to ruining their friendship.

"I have been doing much thinking," Thor said. "I will tell you my thoughts, and then I would hear yours as well."

Steve nodded. "Then we'll decide what to do. Together."

"Yes," Thor said. "Together."

****

"Tony? I have something to tell you."

The messy, painful business of changing the bandage on his neck was done. There were no more of those magical white pills, and so he had simply had to endure in silence, biting down so hard on the inside of his cheek that he could still taste blood. But it was over now, thank God, and he was finally able to sit still.

It was almost evening, the minutes were stretching out, approaching that hour when he wouldn't be able to feel anything but sick dread churning in his stomach. He tried to tell himself that nothing would happen, it had been days now, he was free, and Steve was here to hold him and keep him safe. But none of that meant anything when measured up against the weight of the past.

"Tony?"

Steve was sitting on his left, both of them perched on the edge of the bed. They were not touching. Steve's hands were in plain sight, clasped in his lap.

He nodded. He wanted to wrap himself in his blanket, now that Steve was done with the bandage and it was safe to have it there again. But he didn't dare move, not when Steve clearly wanted to talk to him, not when Steve was looking at him. He couldn't see the expression on Steve's face, but he could hear the serious note in Steve's voice, and he could feel the intensity of Steve's gaze, and he thought of the hour and what lay ahead, and he shivered.

"Do you remember what you said to me earlier?" Steve asked. "About going home?"

There was only one thing Steve could have to tell him. The bottom dropped out of his stomach. No. No no no.

"We should be there in an hour," Steve said. "Two at most."

The words made no sense. Be there, what? An hour?

"Thor has asked the crew to land on a nearby planet. Once we get there, he's going to call on Heimdall to bring us to Asgard, and then back to Earth. We're going to have him take us to SHIELD." Steve was smiling; it was there in his words. "We're going home."

Home. They were going home.

"Home," he whispered. Right away he flinched, but there was no shock, no punishment. Because he was free now.

They were going home. Where no one would ever hurt him as badly as the Kree had. Where he would be safe and warm again.

Where he would have to be Tony Stark again.

"Thor says that Heimdall can send us anywhere, as long as he can see it. We decided on Director Fury's office. That puts us in the heart of SHIELD, and we can get you to Medical as soon as possible." Steve hesitated, the smile gone from his voice. "Tony…you know you're going to have to stay there for a while. I know you know that. You're not stupid."

He did not know this. He had not thought about it.

Medical was, it meant, and his breath caught, because no, please no. It was a cold room with harsh light. Hands on his body, probing, brisk and impersonal. Not an end to the torture but an addition to it, another nightly terror to be endured. To be condemned to that again, to have to stay there, no release in sight, when he was supposed to be free, when he was supposed to be going home…

"Hey, it's okay," Steve said, and he realized he was shaking all over, his breath coming in short gasps.

"Tony, it's okay. I'll be there the whole time. I promise. I won't let you be alone." One of Steve's hands lifted from his lap, and he half-turned.

At any other time, he would have quickly welcomed the offer. Now though, the thought of Steve's hands on his body made him feel sick. He cowered back, and immediately Steve brought his hand back to his lap.

"Don't…" Now Steve sounded agitated. "Please don't be upset. It'll be okay. I promise. But Tony…you're…you're so weak. You're starving to death. Don't you see that? And I…" A quaver entered his voice. "I won't let that happen. I can't let that happen. Okay?"

No, he wanted to say. No, no, please don't do this to me.

"But it's gonna be okay," Steve said. "You're gonna be all right. It might take some time, but you'll get there in the end. I know you will. You're strong enough to beat this. I know you can do it."

Whatever you want, Steve had said just a few mornings ago, but that wasn't true, was it? It had never been true. It was never about what he wanted or what he was allowed to have. It was about what they wanted, and taking things away from him.

It was suddenly hard to breathe. Like a golden band was fastened tight about his neck again.

"Tony?"

He was slumped over, shoulders down, head bowed, being good, being so good, look, see, I'm obeying, please don't do this to me, please don't. The sick dread was back, the knots in his stomach twisting tightly. They were the reason he couldn't eat, the reason Steve wanted to condemn him to that brightly lit hell of doctors with their blank faces and their probing fingers. And he couldn't explain it, couldn't say anything, because he had to be good, he had to remember to follow the rules, and maybe then Steve would show him mercy.

"It's okay. Hey." Steve's voice was soft now. "Why are you crying?"

Was he? He didn't know. He wanted Steve to hold him. He wanted to stay here on the ship, where he had first felt safe, where he had been warm again for the first time in months. He would do better, he would be good, he would eat everything they gave him, he would do whatever they wanted. Anything so they wouldn't send him away.

A swift knock at the door made his breath catch, his heart hammering in his chest. A moment later, the door opened and heavy footsteps walked in.

Sudden terror overwhelmed him. He wanted to flee, but that instinct had been cruelly suppressed for too long, and he could only sit there, shaking, silently crying.

"What is wrong?" The voice was familiar, but it took him a long moment to place it as belonging to Thor. The worst of the fear left him then, but he couldn't stop thinking about Steve leaving him in Medical, and he was still cold and shaking.

"It's nothing," Steve said. "Just the excitement of going home. That's enough, don't you think?"

"Aye," Thor said. There was a moment of silence in which Tony could hear the quiet little gasps he was making as he cried. Then Thor said. "We will be landing shortly. If you have any preparations to make, now is the time to make them."

"We'll be there in a little bit," Steve said.

Thor hesitated, then he withdrew. He closed the door behind him.

"We have to go," Steve said. "But I wanted to tell you one other thing first."

What else could there be? He didn't want to hear this, didn't want to know.

"Thor and I discussed it, and…we're not going to tell anyone…what the soldiers did to you," Steve said. His words came slowly, like it hurt him to speak. "We don't…it's your decision if you want to tell anyone. Not ours. I just…I wanted you to know that. No one will know. Unless you want them to."

He didn't care. It didn't matter. He would tell them if they asked. Whatever they wanted.

The bed lifted slightly as Steve stood up. He opened his eyes, saw Steve's feet walk away, then he was gone from view, doing something behind him in the corner of the room he couldn't see from this angle. He swallowed hard, made himself stop crying.

They were going home.

Steve came near again. A bag the size of a small suitcase rested against his thigh, the same blue-gray color as his borrowed clothing; when Tony dared a quick glance upward, he saw the strap criss-crossing Steve's chest. "Okay," Steve said. "Ready?"

He wasn't, and he would never be, but he had no choice. He stood up, swayed backward, then found his balance.

Steve leaned down and picked up the green blanket where it had been discarded on the bed while he changed the bandage on the back of Tony's neck. "Here," he said. "Did you want to take this?"

Quickly, before Steve could change his mind, Tony nodded.

"Okay." Steve draped the blanket across his shoulders. Immediately his hands rose to clutch the ends, holding it tight.

"Well," Steve said. "Let's go home."

****

A short while later, they were standing on the bridge. Tony kept his head down and his eyes fixed on the floor. He didn't want to see the ship. He didn't want to see their tech. He didn't want to look at the Ernorran crew, men and women who might look something like the people who had been enslaved with him, who were still suffering under the Kree.

"Thank you for everything," Steve said. "We can never repay you."

"It was our honor," replied one of the Ernorrans. An accent he hadn't heard in months, since those days in the Citadel when he had marveled over the ability to walk again, when he had teased Steve and they had—

No no no. Don't think about it, don't, don't, don't.

"Hold onto me tightly," Thor instructed them. He had one arm around Steve's waist. Steve returned the embrace with his left arm; his right was firmly around Tony. For his part, Tony was pressed up against Steve's chest, his forehead resting on Steve's collarbone, both arms wrapped tightly about him. He knew he should complete the circle and reach out to Thor, but he couldn't bring himself to let go of Steve.

After a long pause when he was certain Steve could feel the frantic beating of his heart, Steve said, "It's okay. I've got him."

Thor hummed a little, discontented. But he did not hesitate. He raised Mjolnir high and cried, "Heimdall! See me, old friend!"

Tony had traveled via the Bifrost before, but he had forgotten how it felt. The rush of light, the incredible pressure, yet without any sensation of movement. The onslaught on his senses was too much, ripping away the silent, colorless environment he had grown used to, first in his cell, then in the small bedroom here on the ship. He tried to cry out, but the unearthly wind stole his voice. All he could do was cling desperately to Steve and pray that it would be over with soon.

Then the shining light vanished, and he was standing on solid ground again, only for his knees to buckle. Steve's arm caught him and held him up. And all around him was Asgard, glorious Asgard, where humans were not welcome.

A deep voice said, "You have found him."

He shivered, didn't look up, kept his head bowed into Steve's chest.

"Yes," said Thor. "And now I must ask you to complete our journey. We must return to Midgard."

"In a very specific place," Steve said.

Tony shut his eyes and his ears. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want to know. It was bitterly cold. He was shaking violently. He thought he might have lost the green blanket.

He didn't want to go home, to be a prisoner of doctors and their cold hands and harsh lights. He couldn't stay here in Asgard, though, and he knew it.

He had nowhere to go, nowhere that was safe.

He thought he was maybe crying.

"So be it," Heimdall said, and then the light swelled again, pressing against his closed eyelids, battering his weakened body. He tried to scream, and this time he managed to produce a sound, a thin wail that was instantly shredded by the wind of their passage.

And then it was done, no more light, no more wind. They were home.

"What the fuck?!" The voice was familiar, its angry tone matching the name of its owner. "How did you get in here?"

"Sir—"

"Jesus Christ. Stark? What the hell happened?"

"Sir, if you could—"

"There is no time for questions. We must make haste to your medical facilities."

"Yeah. Yeah, I see that."

Steve's arms were around him, lifting him, carrying him. Moving forward relentlessly, no time to stop and breathe.

There was no escape now, even if he had been capable of it.

They were home.

Chapter Text

After months of forced idleness, the sudden rush of activity was almost too much for Steve to handle. Everything seemed to happen so fast, and he felt several steps behind, stumbling to keep up.

Fury was on the comms already, barking out orders to the medical staff, telling them to make ready for a critical patient. In between orders, he demanded answers to his questions, then promptly told an agent to alert the Avengers.

Here Steve found his tongue at last. "And Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes." The Avengers might be Tony's friends, but Pepper and Jim Rhodes were his family.

"What the hell happened to him?" Fury asked.

Steve couldn't answer that one. He let Thor do it for him. He just focused on holding Tony, still wrapped up in the blanket he had taken with him.

He had worried that the exertion of the travel here would be too much for Tony, and sadly it looked like he had been proven right. Tony was silently crying, his face turned into Steve's chest, his hands loosely curled over the arc reactor. Steve wanted to reassure him, to tell him that everything would be all right, but they were passing agents in the halls now, men and women who stared at them openly in shock, and he couldn't speak, could only press Tony closer to his chest and hurry his pace.

In Medical, he faltered briefly. Along the edge of the receiving desk, there was a strand of pine wreath laced with lights. A small Christmas tree was set on a shelf behind the desk, a miniature version of the helicarrier acting as a tree topper.

A Christmas tree. Was it Christmas?

"Christmas Eve, actually," Fury said in answer to his question, and he must have asked it out loud without even realizing it.

A clock on the wall behind the desk said it was 10:29. Morning or evening, Steve didn't know. He was having a hard enough time trying to wrap his brain around the idea that it was Christmas, that time hadn't stood still for everyone here, that it wasn't still the middle of September like when they had left.

"Captain!" He looked up as the doctor came forward. Very tall, very good at what he did, which was to remain generally unfazed over the latest and greatest in superhero injuries. Right now, though, his eyes were wide and he was gesturing frantically toward one of the nurses. This, then, was what it looked like to see Dr. Epps "fazed", Steve thought, and he nearly burst out into laughter.

He was in danger of losing it, he thought in some amazement. After everything they had been through, he was finally going to go crazy.

"Talk to me," Dr. Epps said. "What happened?"

Thor went through it again, a somewhat more detailed version of the story now, as they were quickly escorted into one of the examining rooms. Steve thought it looked vaguely familiar, like he had maybe sat here once while astonished medical personnel looked at the already-healing wound he had received from a Chitauri weapon.

"Set him down," Dr. Epps ordered, and he gently deposited Tony on the narrow bed, blanket and all.

And Tony, Tony flailed out with one hand, still crying, still silent, before going limp, utterly passive in his terror. Accepting what was about to happen to him, because he had been taught that he had no choice, that whatever it was, however painful or degrading it might be, he simply must endure it.

It broke Steve's heart to see him this way, and it filled him with a terrible foreboding too, for what was to come.

"Calm down, Mr. Stark," the nurse said. "Everything will—"

"Don't tell him what to do!" Steve snapped. He couldn't bear it, them giving Tony orders like he was still just a slave.

"Captain—"

"Sir—"

"Director, you must listen—"

The voices blurred into a meaningless babble. Steve pressed forward and sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned in and laid one hand on the side of Tony's face. "Tony. Hey, Tony. It's okay. It's just me."

Tony's eyes opened. In that first instant, he looked directly at Steve, and Steve saw it all, his abject terror and the desperate plea for Steve to take him away from all this. Then he flinched back, and his gaze slid off Steve's face so he could stare fixedly up at the ceiling.

"Captain, you need to move aside," Dr. Epps said. "Allow us to do our jobs."

"I'm not leaving him," Steve said.

"Sir…"

"No!" Steve shouted.

Beneath his hand, Tony cringed and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Steven."

He looked up at Thor, blinking back the tears. "I can't leave him, " he whispered to his friend, ignoring everyone else. They did not matter. Even the doctor wasn't important then. Only Thor would understand. He slid his hand down, caressing Tony's cheek, then took hold of Tony's left hand. He didn't care what anyone else thought, didn't care that maybe some of the people in this room disapproved of two men loving each other. All he cared about was Tony.

Immediately Tony's fingers closed over his with panicky strength. Fresh tears streamed down his face.

"You see," Steve said. "I can't leave him." He swallowed thickly. "I won't." He raised their joined hands and bent down so he could press a kiss to the scar on the back of Tony's hand.

"It's okay," he said. "I won't leave you."

****

If Steve had once thought that coming home would resolve a lot of Tony's issues, the next few hours showed just how wrong he had been.

Despite being home, being surrounded by people who cared about him and who only wanted to help him, Tony remained in a state of trembling fear and anxiety. He shied away from anyone who approached, and only Pepper was able to touch him. The worst came when Colonel Rhodes showed up, still in uniform in his haste to arrive so quickly. Tony took one look at him and actually cried out in terror before curling up tight and almost ripping out the IV line they had started so he could finally get some nutrients into his system.

Because he had recently worried about receiving this same reaction to himself, Steve knew right away what the problem was. While everyone else, Rhodes included, just stood there in embarrassed shock, Steve rose to his feet and pointed at the door. "Out," he commanded. "Out, and stay out until you take off that goddamn uniform, soldier."

Rhodes continued to stand there, hurt and angry and bewildered, and finally Thor ushered him out.

Tony, though, did not calm down until they sedated him. By then the clock read quarter to two, and it was the early morning hours of Christmas Day.

The room had largely cleared by then, no one wanting to stick around and watch Tony in his drugged sleep; only Pepper remained, her eyes red from crying, her hair falling from its elegant knot. Steve felt like he should go to her and comfort her, but he didn't want to let go of Tony's hand.

The silence drew out between them, filled only by the soft beep of the heart monitor, and the slow, steady rhythm of Tony's breathing. They had rolled him onto his back again, but Steve had made them wait until the sedatives kicked in before he would let them touch him, and force him out of his protective huddle.

Asleep, Tony looked even thinner than before. He was wearing a loose hospital gown, one shoulder bared for the network of IV lines attached to a port located just above his heart. The too-big clothing he had been wearing earlier was piled on top of the bag Steve had brought with him, along with the green blanket from the ship.

The bag itself was tucked away in the corner, where no one could trip on it. Safely packed away inside were Tony's drawings of the Ernorran tech he had made during their stay in the Citadel. The twig from the Forest was in there, too, and Steve told himself fiercely that one day he would give Tony these things, he would. And when he did, Tony would smile at him.

That day would be far in the future, though, and he knew it. Right now they were just focusing on keeping Tony alive. Dr. Epps had told him that they would very carefully monitor Tony's blood chemistry over the next few days, to minimize the risk of something the doctor had called Refeeding Syndrome. Steve had recoiled to hear him describe it, horrified to think that the very thing that was going to save Tony's life could, at the same time, prove fatal if not recognized in time.

The burns on Tony's neck had been properly treated and dressed, and Dr. Epps had spared a compliment for Steve, saying his intervention on the ship had kept them from becoming infected. But the burns were the only physical injuries Tony had, and the priority now was feeding his starved body and making him as comfortable as possible. His mental health was not an issue at this time – the sedatives were only to keep him quiescent and calm, putting less stress on his already-damaged heart. Later, much later, there would be time for things like therapists.

Steve doubted Tony would ever talk to them, though. Sitting here, watching Tony's terrified reaction to Dr. Epps and the staff, he thought he was starting to figure it out. On Hala, Tony had been raped every night by at least six men. No one could suffer that without injury. It stood to reason then that the Kree had some way of treating their slaves and keeping them physically whole, so they would be ready for another gang-rape the next night. A quiet question posed to Thor, when no one else had been listening, had confirmed that the Kree did indeed have superior medical technology.

So he thought he understood why Tony was so frightened of this place, why the doctors terrified him so badly. But he couldn't let that change anything. Tony was dying. They had to do this. That old terrible cliché had never been more true: it was for his own good.

And if Steve hated himself for his role in all this, for only adding to Tony's terror, well, that was his business. No one else needed to know.

"What happens now?" Pepper asked quietly.

Steve just looked at her helplessly.

Pepper made a rather watery sniff. "What happened to his hand?"

"I don't know," Steve said. That was one thing he had a pretty good idea about, though. The scar on Tony's palm was identical to the one on the back of his hand. He could think of only one reason that would be the case.

"Did you kill them?" Pepper asked.

He looked at her.

"The people who did this to him."

"No," Steve said.

Pepper nodded, and he couldn't tell if she was relieved or disappointed in him.

The worst part was, he didn't know which one he was feeling, either.

****

The hours passed, bleeding into days, and somehow four of them went by, each one just like the one that had come before. Tony spent most of his time sleeping, and when he was awake, he was heavily sedated, barely reacting to anyone's presence in the room, his eyes dull and listless.

Steve kept his promise. He did not leave Tony alone. He was there watching when the nurses came in every few hours to take a blood sample, or when they brought in a new bag full of all the electrolytes and nutrients Tony's starved body needed. He was there when Pepper visited on her way to work, when Natasha stopped by to see how things were going, when Maria Hill returned early from her Christmas vacation and came by, only to put her hand over her mouth and turn away, white with horrified pity.

He meant to stay there, too, no matter what anyone said.

So he was a little bit surprised at himself when Thor finally got him to return to the Tower. "You have been neglecting yourself for too long, my friend, and Tony will see that when he wakes up. Do not add your pain to his." It was the same thing everyone had been telling him for four days now, but for some reason, this time Steve listened.

Bruce met him at the Tower. He was the only one who hadn't come to visit, but Steve didn't hold that against him. The Hulk was very fond of Tony, and the last thing they needed was an incident aboard the helicarrier.

"Steve." Bruce hesitated only slightly before pulling him into an embrace.

Steve did not hug him back. He felt numb all over, far beyond such simple things as hugs. All around him, the Tower seemed to be lightly pulsing, furniture and artwork and even the walls moving closer, then far away. Occasionally when he turned his head, sparks lit up the corners of his vision.

"I made some tea," Bruce said. "And dinner's in the oven. But I think maybe we'll skip all that and just go straight to the main attraction: bed."

Steve just stared at him. He had the vague feeling that he was meant to say something here, but he couldn't think what it was, so he didn't even try.

"Sorry," Bruce said with an embarrassed grimace. "Lame attempt at a joke. Come on."

He let himself be led upstairs. He felt dimly grateful that Bruce didn't ask about Tony, or make some banal comment about how everything would be all right.

He was grateful because he knew now what a lie that was.

"Just get some sleep," Bruce said kindly.

He nodded. His room smelled faintly of lemony furniture polish, like someone had recently cleaned it. The bed looked very big. Someone, he thought it was maybe Natasha, had brought his bag back here and left it beside the closet. Leaning against the footboard, his shield was vividly red, white, and blue.

The sight of it brought a lump to his throat. He felt absurdly like crying.

"I'll get you if anything comes up," Bruce promised.

Steve just nodded again, afraid that if he opened his mouth to speak, he would burst into tears.

"Well," Bruce said awkwardly. "Okay…" And then he was gone.

Steve drifted forward. He let his fingertips glide over the curved arc of the shield as he passed by. He sat on the edge of the bed and took off his shoes. He stood up and slowly pulled off his clothes – his own now, courtesy of Clint.

He stretched out on the bed and buried his face in the pillow. It smelled of laundry detergent, a good clean smell. The sheets were the color of beach sand, the comforter a darker brown. There was nothing green in his room at all.

He closed his eyes and slept.

****

When he woke up, a full day and night had passed. He felt almost like his old self again, his strength returned, the room properly in focus once more. He took a long, hot shower, then ate the leftovers from Bruce's dinner; Thor had been right, he thought. Being back on Earth, eating real food, had restored his energy levels. He just hadn't noticed it before because he had been fighting so hard to stay awake for so long.

No one bothered him as he sat in the kitchen and ate. He knew he couldn't be alone in the Tower, but the other Avengers kept a respectful distance and did not bother him – and he did not seek them out.

After he had eaten, he went downstairs and did what he should have done days ago.

Tony's workshop was exactly the way he remembered it. Half-finished projects scattered throughout, bits and pieces of armor lying on workstations, a crimson torso dangling from a chain hoist attached to the ceiling. He counted four coffee mugs, two silver carafes, and half a dozen clear glasses all spread across various surfaces. Bits of wire gleamed under the lights and cursors blinked patiently on computer displays. The bots were in one corner, in their charging stations. Their "heads" lifted curiously when Steve entered the room, but they did not move.

Steve cleared his throat. "JARVIS?"

"Hello, Captain Rogers," said JARVIS.

The sound of the AI's cultured voice nearly reduced Steve to tears. It was so normal, such a huge part of his life before all this horror. It seemed almost impossible to hear it again now, after everything that had happened, still sounding exactly the same.

He swiped at his eyes and sat down on the nearest stool. The computer monitor on this workstation was currently displaying a screensaver; as he watched, an image of the Earth taken from high above the planet dissolved into another one. A river winding through oceans of green land, a dark blot of woods, a city at night reduced to nothing but outlines of light. They were pictures from Iron Man, he realized, pictures Tony had taken while in flight.

His throat closed up again. "It's good to hear your voice," he said hoarsely. He took a deep breath. "Has anyone told you what happened to Tony?"

"Ms. Potts has filled me in," JARVIS said. "In addition, I am uploaded into SHIELD's mainframe, and I am constantly monitoring Mr. Stark's medical condition."

Thank God for Pepper. "And do you…" He paused. It felt strange as hell to ask his next question, to speak this way to what was essentially nothing but a computer. An incredible, near-sentient computer, but still…just a computer. "You understand what that means?"

JARVIS hesitated before replying, which was unusual enough that Steve's heart began to beat faster. "I understand that Mr. Stark is injured and will require time before he can come home again. Ms. Potts has asked me to refer to my data on Mr. Stark's behavior that dates to when he returned from Afghanistan." Again JARVIS hesitated. "She then said, 'This time it's much worse.' Using this baseline data, I have attempted to predict Mr. Stark's behavior and plan accordingly. It has not, however, been a very successful attempt. I am lacking too much data."

Lacking too much data. Jesus. Steve passed a hand over his face and sighed. "You're killing me, JARVIS."

"Sir?"

"Nothing," he said heavily. "Okay. I can help you out. But then I'm going to need you to help me."

"If I can," JARVIS replied.

Steve blew out a long breath. He had to be honest now, because JARVIS was one of the few people – if he could be called that – whom Tony trusted. Because JARVIS held Tony's heart in his hands, literally, when he flew as Iron Man. Because he suspected that Tony would turn to JARVIS for comfort when he couldn't find it from other people. Because JARVIS would not judge him, would not give him orders, could not touch him, could not frighten him.

And it was awful, because that honesty required him to speak things out loud that he had barely allowed himself to think.

"You have to understand," he began, "that the Kree took everything from Tony when they made him a slave. They told him that he wasn't a person like them. They made him wear a collar and they punished him with shocks if he spoke to them or looked them in the eye. And at night they--" But there he stopped. That was Tony's secret to tell, not his.

"Anyway," he said. "They took everything from him. And now there isn't much left. And what there is…" He inhaled deeply. "He's very scared," he said. "And I honestly don't think he fully understands that he's free. It's not his fault, though," he hurried to say. "He's starving to death, JARVIS. Literally. They've got him on an IV, feeding him through a tube because he can't do it himself." He stared at the screensaver images of the Earth, trying to use them to banish the memory from his mind of Tony lying there so still, drugged into sleep, hooked up to so many wires and tubes.

He heaved a sigh. "So that's what we have to do, JARVIS. We have to help him see what's real now, what it means to be free. We have to give back everything the Kree stole from him."

Of course, that was easier said than done. He knew that far too well. Every mistake he had made on board the Ernorran ship was forever burned into his memory, and he knew he would never forget. He had inadvertently terrorized Tony too many times to ever be allowed to forget. That was his penance: remembering.

"How can I help you, Captain?" JARVIS inquired. If he was moved by Steve's story, it did not come through in his voice, which sounded as smooth as ever. Steve had never quite figured out what level of emotion JARVIS was capable of feeling; it appeared he wasn't going to find out today, either.

"Run your programs," he said, more angrily than he had intended. He told himself to stop it, that JARVIS meant no offense by his apparent lack of caring about his creator. "Do the math. Whatever it is you do. You know as well as I do that Tony can't be Iron Man right now."

Not that Iron Man was needed. During the last few days when he had done nothing but sit by Tony's side, the other Avengers had filled him in on what had happened in his absence. One of the first things they had told him was that Jim Rhodes had taken Tony's place on the team. They needed a heavy hitter, someone who could fly, who had serious firepower, and War Machine filled that role well.

It wasn't just about the Avengers, though. Tony was too unstable right now. In the armor he would be a danger to himself as well as others. If he got spooked, if something happened to send him back into memory, into enslavement, there was no telling what damage he could do before he came to his senses. It was too big a risk, and Steve meant to make sure it didn't happen.

"I need you to lock him out of the suit."

"I cannot do that, Captain," replied JARVIS.

Steve clenched his jaw. "You mean you won't."

"I mean I cannot," said the AI. "I cannot go counter to my programming."

So it wasn't a question of refusal. Steve mulled this over. "But you agree with me that we need to keep him out of the suit."

"I cannot agree to something I have no data on," said JARVIS. "However." And for the first time, something resembling emotion bled into his voice. "I agree that Mr. Stark will require looking after, and that use of the suit is not always in his best interest."

It was probably the best he was going to get, Steve decided. "I'm with you on that one. So, tell me. What is the command to make you lock him out? If you can't do it on your own, I'll program it into you."

There was only the slightest hesitation before JARVIS said, "I am not permitted to give anyone else that code. However, if on your own you happened to encounter a certain file on the secure server, you would find it there."

Steve couldn't help smiling a little at that. Trust Tony to create a loophole in his own AI so it could thwart him. "Okay, you're gonna have to walk me through it."

"I can do that," JARVIS said. "I should inform you, though, that if you apply the lockout code, Mr. Stark can override it at any time. And should he do that, I will be unable to stop him."

"Then we need to make sure he doesn't do that," Steve said. Which was also probably much more easily said than done. Still, he had to try. And he wouldn't feel comfortable until he had some kind of plan in place to ensure Tony's safety. "Can you alert me if he tries it? Text me or something?" He would have to remember to start carrying his cell phone at all times, to make sure JARVIS could contact him.

"Yes," JARVIS said.

"Good," Steve said. His shoulders slumped a little. It wasn't much, but at least it was a start.

The computer display in front of him abruptly cleared, the screensaver images of Planet Earth vanishing. He found himself staring at a long list of folders, most of which were named only with a nonsensical string of numbers and letters. "You will find what you need in File H42199B," said JARVIS. "And Captain? Thank you for your assistance."

"No," Steve said. "Thank you."

****

When he came back upstairs, Thor was waiting on him, pacing back and forth. He stopped and brightened when he saw Steve. He was as stripped down as Steve had ever seen him, his arms bare to the shoulder, that red cape nowhere in sight. "Steven, I would ask a favor of you," he said.

Shame curled within Steve's stomach, making him want to turn around and hide in the workshop, the way Tony had so often done. He knew he had behaved badly these last few days, stubbornly refusing to leave Tony's side and snapping at people if they came too close or said anything he deemed as potentially triggering, regardless of the fact that Tony had spent most of that time either asleep or unconscious. Much of the SHIELD staff were still on vacation for Christmas, and the remaining personnel were spread thin. His suffocating presence in Tony's room had only made it more difficult for them to do their jobs, yet none of them had complained to him.

He had to do better, he told himself for the thousandth time. He had to.

"What do you need?" he asked.

Thor hefted Mjolnir absently, not seeming to realize he was doing it. "I have been idle for too long," he said. "I fear I am growing soft. Would you trade blows with me?"

Steve hesitated. He wanted to get back to SHIELD and Tony. He had already been gone for over a day, which was far too long. What if Tony chose today to come out of his lethargy, and he looked for Steve but couldn't find him?

But the lure of the gym was very tempting. His chest felt too tight suddenly. Tony had laughed and made a crude joke the first time Thor had asked one of the Avengers to spar with him and used those words, trade blows. Tony himself was a pretty good boxer, and Steve had always enjoyed watching him dance around the ring, a tank top hugging his muscled upper body. At first that admiration had been aesthetic only, an artist's appreciation for beauty. But once they had found each other and fallen in love, he had enjoyed it for so many other reasons.

It wasn't just his chest that felt tight then. His entire body had all at once become a poor fit. He understood what Thor meant now. It had been way too long since he had given himself over to the purely physical, or even been able to do more than the most rudimentary of exercises. He longed to go down to the gym and throw punches, shift his feet in the rhythm of combat, feint and parry, then press the attack. And Thor was the only one he could do this with, the only one he could strike without fear of causing injury, while at the same time filling that role for Thor.

"Sure," he nodded. "Let's do it."

He kept an extra set of workout clothes in the gym, but for this he only put on the track pants he preferred. Barefoot, bare-chested, he held up his fists, lowered his head, and looked Thor square in the eye.

He had no idea how long they were down there beating the shit out of each other. They wrestled on the mat, arms wrapped about each other, rolling, kicking, punching. Steve knocked Thor on his ass, and Thor sent him flying halfway across the room. He shouted and yelled and cursed every filthy word he knew. And at the end of it, panting and soaked in sweat, lying on the floor with both arms thrown wide, his chest heaving for breath, he stared up at the ceiling and had to admit that he felt better than he had in months.

"Thank you," he said. He was battered and sore all over, even though the serum was already at work, healing bruises and contusions, removing all evidence of the fight. Thor had been careful not to hit him too hard on the face, but it hardly mattered. Within a couple hours no one would be able to tell they had just been pounding on each other.

In truth, though, he hadn't been seeing Thor as he brought his fists down over and over. It was himself, weak and helpless and making such horrible mistakes when all he wanted was to put things right again. It was the Kree, with their impassive faces and condescending stares and their terrible unrelenting cruelty. It was every person in SHIELD who stared at Tony in appalled shock and revulsion. It was every reporter clamoring at the entrance to the Tower, wanting to know why three of the Avengers had been gone for so long and what was wrong with Tony Stark now. Fury didn't know who had leaked that information to the press, but he had vowed that when he found the culprit, that person would swiftly find themselves exiled to the deepest, darkest, most rat-infested jungle post SHIELD had.

He arched his neck back, groaning a little at the satisfying crack of bone. He felt drained, almost limp with exhaustion. But it felt good. For a little while at least, he had been able to unleash the terrible anger that he had been carrying around for so long. It would be back, he knew that much, and probably on this very same day, but for now he was free of it.

"We should do this more often."

"Aye," Thor agreed. "It is good for us to remember sometimes."

Remember what, he wanted to ask, but he held his tongue. He supposed he already knew the answer to his question. Remember that they were warriors. That they were friends. That they could use each other this way and help each other out. That sometimes hitting things really did help.

That he didn't have to do this alone.

"I should go," he said. He pulled his arms in and rested his hands on his chest, but made no move to get up.

"I will take you," Thor said. He didn't ask where they were going; he knew, of course.

"Thanks," Steve said. He sat up. He would have preferred to take his motorcycle, even though it was far too cold for it, but he couldn't exactly ride to the helicarrier. But flying with Thor, he would still get the cutting winter wind on his face, which he actually wanted right now. It would help clear his mind.

"Come find me when you are ready," Thor said. He had barely broken a sweat during their battle, but Steve knew perfectly well that wasn't the real reason Thor had wanted this. He had just as much anger bottled up inside as Steve did, and just as little way to release it.

Steve climbed to his feet and headed for the door. He was nearly there when Thor said, "You are a good man, Steven Rogers. Tony is fortunate to have you."

This was so untrue that for a terrible moment Steve thought Thor was mocking him. Then reason caught up to his brain, and he stopped himself from saying something awful.

There was nothing he could say, though. So he just walked out, and he left Thor standing there.

****

Tony was staring blankly at the wall when the door to his room opened and someone walked in. He barely had time to tense up in fear before a voice said, "Hey, Tony. It's me."

Steve.

Steve was back.

He slumped, sinking into the bed with its too-thin pillow and the sheets that smelled of industrial laundry soap. They had let him keep the green blanket, but it was only covering his legs right now. His thoughts felt too heavy within his head, their weight dragging down his entire body with them.

He didn't mind.

Steve sat down on the chair beside the bed, on the opposite side. He liked that. Steve didn't deliberately walk into his field of vision, making him look at him. Steve just sat down and said, "How are you feeling?" and didn't expect an answer.

He wished they could all be like Steve. Natasha was good; she sat quietly and read a book. Thor talked about old adventures in Asgard and made it clear that he didn't need to respond – not that he would have. Clint talked too much, nervous and too fast. Pepper talked too much, asking too many questions.

She had been there earlier today. He didn't know when. He didn't know what time it was, not now, nor when she had been there. She came and went a lot, always offering to bring him things, like she was just his personal assistant again and not CEO of one of the largest companies in the world.

Today she had asked if he wanted her to bring a wig. It would look real, she had said. "Just until… And no one would have to know."

He hadn't said anything. He never did.

He didn't know how long she had been gone.

Steve, though.

"I sparred with Thor earlier," Steve said. He chuckled a little, his voice dropping slightly in volume; he had probably ducked his head. "I'm getting rusty. It was a little embarrassing how many times he got the drop on me."

Tony stared at the wall and said nothing.

"I, um, I brought you something," Steve said. "Thought you might be ready for this."

Unlike Pepper, Steve didn't ask. He just did it. But that was okay. Steve had made him remember that he could be given things, that he was allowed to keep them.

At least until someone else took them away from him.

Slowly he rolled his head on the pillow so he could see what Steve had for him.

"I figured you had to be getting kind of itchy," Steve said. The electric razor in his hand was sleek and black, and it took Tony a long moment to recognize it as his own.

He had forgotten. He used to own things, in that time before the Kree had owned him.

"It's up to you, though," Steve said.

He looked up at Steve. The lesson the Kree had taught him was too strong, though, and he had to look away again immediately, part of him still cringing in awful anticipation of the shock. But there was no shock, because there was no collar, because he was free now. And so he looked at Steve again, and this time he was able to sustain the eye contact for a little while.

Steve smiled, lips slightly parted. His hair looked freshly combed. His eyes were brilliantly blue.

Tony looked away. He nodded.

Steve hit the button that raised the upper half of the bed, so Tony was sitting up now, more or less. As Steve stood up and came forward, though, he twitched and closed his eyes. He couldn't help it.

Absolute silence descended as Steve went still. Then he said, "You want to give it a go?"

Tony shook his head. No. He did not. His hands were unsteady. He did not want to look at his face in a mirror.

"Okay," Steve said. "Want me to do it?"

He nodded.

"Okay," Steve said.

He sat very still, eyes closed, as Steve ran the razor over his face, removing days of accumulated stubble. Only on his cheeks and jaw though – Steve left the new beard growth on his chin and upper lip, shaping his goatee back in. Steve's other hand rested lightly on his shoulder. Not holding him down. Just a reassuring touch, warm and welcome.

Then it was done, and the razor was silenced, Steve's hand removed from his shoulder. He heard Steve sit back down in the chair, and he opened his eyes.

"Feel better?" Steve asked.

Tony nodded a little. He had itched, although the worst itching by far was on the back of his neck, where the healing burn was.

"Dr. Epps said they're going to start you on liquids tomorrow," Steve said. "That's good news."

Tony nodded again. He could feel the old anxiety wanting to creep in at the thought of eating anything, but it was dulled, and didn't seem to really affect him.

He shivered a little. He was cold.

Instantly Steve was on his feet, pulling the blanket up to his chest. "Do you want me to…"

He didn't need to finish the question. Tony nodded quickly.

Carefully Steve climbed onto the bed beside him. There really wasn't room for them both, but Steve had never let that stop him. It was hard for him to find a good spot, with the feeding tube and the wires leading to the heart monitor, but he had done it often enough by now that it didn't take him long to get situated.

Once he was in place, Steve opened his arms. Tony moved into them immediately. Steve held him tight, and he sighed and closed his eyes.

Now he felt warm.

Now he felt safe.

Steve didn't talk to him or do anything except hold him. Tony focused on breathing, and pretended that they were back on the Ernorran ship. Anywhere but here, in this place where he was always cold and the lights were too bright and he couldn't help cringing in fear whenever anyone touched him.

We're going home, Steve had said. But Steve had lied.

He didn't want to be here anymore, fed through a tube, barely able to shuffle the few steps to the bathroom. He didn't want to be in this place that reminded him of when those doctors had stared down at him night after night, their hands on his stomach, their fingers inside him, their eyes cold and uncaring.

He wanted to go home.

It was hard to think. Easier that way, too, though. The last time he had allowed himself to think like a man he had ended up on his knees with a hole in his hand. The drugs muddled his brain too, making anything more than a basic yes or no response so much effort that he didn't even bother.

But he tried now. He really did.

Steve had said something earlier. Something he needed to think about.

Something…

Despair swept over him. Come on! Why can't you do this?

Why can't you be good?

Oh God he was never going to get out of here.

And had he really thought he was free?

This was his new prison, the doctors and nurses his new owners. They told him what to do and when to do it. They watched over him constantly. They were always there, checking on him, asking him questions as though they expected him to answer, calling him Mr. Stark in tones of false cheer that were every bit as deadly as the heavy monotone of the Kree. They hadn't put a collar around his neck, but he belonged to them, beyond question.

"Tony? Are you okay?"

He was shaking, he realized. Almost crying.

Desperation gave him courage. "I want to go home," he whispered.

And for the first time, he let himself truly acknowledge what that word meant. Not just Earth, this spinning blue planet that had never heard of the Kree, but home.

Ocean waves rolling in. Endless expanse of sea and sky. Warm sunlit breezes. Rooms filled with light and gently curving space. A familiar voice, a friend to talk to anytime he needed it. A place to call his own.

"You'll get there," Steve said encouragingly. The pressure of his arms tightened a little bit. "Dr. Epps says—"

And he remembered then. Just hearing the name of the doctor did it.

Dr. Epps said they're going to start you on liquids tomorrow.

That was it. That was the key.

"—they want to see you at a certain weight before they release you."

He knew then what he had to do. He saw it clearly, free of the fog of the sedatives and his own misfiring brain.

But. He couldn't. Not here. Not in this place. Not while he was still enslaved.

"I will," he whispered, and the words just tumbled out between terrified gasps because he was talking, he was breaking all the rules for this. "I will, I'll be good, I will, just please, please take me home. Please."

"Tony…" Steve's voice was thick with emotion.

He kept his head down, not looking, obeying that rule at least. "Please." His fingers trembled over Steve's chest, searching for the right words. He would write for hours if only he found the words that would give him back the sea and the sun and the sky.

Steve let out a shaky sigh, one that Tony felt all through his entire body. "I'll try. I'll talk to them. I can't make any promises, but I'll try. Okay?"

He nodded frantically, trying not to cry. It wasn't enough, please take me home now please, but it was all he was going to get, and it was more than he deserved, for his brazen disobedience he should be punished, but Steve had said, and although Steve lied and broke his promises, Steve was also here with him now, holding him and keeping him safe.

"I love you," Steve said, and maybe that was true and maybe it was a lie and Tony didn't know anymore and didn't care.

All he wanted was to go home.

****

When Steve finally left Tony's room later that night, he stopped dead in the hallway at the sight of another person coming his way.

"Hey," Colonel Rhodes said. He had both hands raised, palms out. "Don't worry. I'm not going in there. I actually wanted to see you."

In a flash Steve's initial worry gave way to relief. "Good," he said. "Because I was hoping to talk to you, too."

The timing couldn't have been better. He had intended to find somewhere private and call Rhodes from his cell phone, but now that would not be necessary. Whether by fate or sheer coincidence, he had been granted this chance to talk to the one person who could help him make up his mind.

Because after talking to Tony, he was pretty sure what his next step was – but he had to be one hundred percent certain, or it wasn't going to happen.

"What," Rhodes said, "you gonna give me the speech about how there's only room on this team for one man in a suit of armor?"

"No," Steve said. They fell into step together, walking slowly down the hall. "Who else gave you that speech?"

"Actually no one," Rhodes admitted as they passed through the admitting area. "But Iron Man's got plenty of fans, and they've been pretty vocal about it."

"Let them," Steve said shortly. "You're needed. You stepped up when you saw that need, and you've been keeping the world safe. As far as I'm concerned, Colonel, you're a hero."

"It does have a nice ring to it," Rhodes said with a small smile. They went through the double doors that marked the entrance to Medical, and then they were in a narrow hall. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Why don't we get a cup of coffee?" Steve suggested. He didn't want to have this conversation in the hall, where any passing SHIELD agent could overhear them.

"Works for me," Rhodes said.

They didn't talk as they headed for the enlisted men's mess hall. Steve thought about Tony, fallen asleep at last from exhaustion and a new round of sedatives, his eyes red from crying. His plea to go home was the most Steve had heard him speak yet. It wrenched his heart to remember the desperation in Tony's voice, and the way he had promised to do what the doctors said, as though he hoped obedience could earn him the reward of getting to go home.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" he asked as they entered the mess.

Rhodes was blunt and to the point. Halfway to the coffee machines, he just stopped walking and looked at Steve. "I want to know how much longer you're planning to keep Tony here. Because I might not be allowed in to see him, but I know the man. And I know this has to be killing him."

A dozen responses leapt into Steve's throat all at once. And stupidly, the one he actually said aloud was, "I'm not the one keeping him here."

Rhodes gave him a look that said, Don't bullshit me, son.

"Dr. Epps wants him—"

"Yeah, I know what the doctor said," Rhodes said. "But I also know that if you guys wanted Tony out of here, you would make that happen. So what I want to know is why. Why haven't you made that happen yet?"

"Because he's dying," Steve said flatly.

Rhodes flinched a little.

"Maybe not right this second," Steve said, "because they're feeding him. But if they release him now, I've got no guarantee that he'll be all right."

You weren't there, he wanted to say. Rhodes hadn't seen Tony crying in terror after vomiting up his dinner, convinced that Steve was going to punish him for his crime. He hadn't seen Tony shaking all over and clinging pitifully to that green blanket because it was all he had. He hadn't held Tony for hours on end, washed his face for him and put socks on his feet.

He hadn't heard Tony pleading to go home.

He sighed. "Maybe it'll be different, I don't know. He told me tonight he wants to go home."

Rhodes's expression sharpened. "He told you? I thought he wasn't talking."

"He isn't," Steve said.

He saw it, when the realization hit Rhodes, how badly Tony must want to go home if he was able to overcome the brutal lessons of the Kree enough to speak his mind. "But you're still going to leave him here."

"Well, actually," Steve said. He moved over to the nearest coffee machine, grabbed a styrofoam cup and poured some coffee into it. "That was what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Yeah?" Rhodes asked. He poured himself a cup, raised it to his mouth, made a face, then lowered it without drinking.

"I wanted to ask you what happened after Afghanistan," Steve said. He hoped he wasn't overstepping his bounds. Jim Rhodes had been friends with Tony for nearly twenty years. They had a shared history that Steve would never know, never be able to replicate. He knew Rhodes would want to protect Tony, but he hoped that the urgency of the current situation would outweigh that need.

"I'm assuming you have a good reason for asking that," Rhodes said.

"You know I do," Steve said. "Or I wouldn't have asked."

Rhodes stared at him for a long moment. Then he led the way over to a table set in one corner, where they were far from the other SHIELD agents who had come here for their break. They sat down opposite each other. Then Rhodes said, "Pepper tell you to ask me that?"

"Actually it was JARVIS," Steve said.

Rhodes made a quiet hmph noise. "JARVIS needs to learn when to shut up."

"JARVIS wants the same thing we all do," Steve said. "For Tony to get better." And he guessed that made it official then: he and the AI were on the same side.

"Yeah," Rhodes muttered. He sighed and looked down at his coffee. For a long moment he simply stared down at it, his lips pursed unhappily. Then he said, "The thing you gotta remember about Tony is, he hates feeling like he's lost control of the situation."

Steve uttered a bark of incredulous laughter. He couldn't help it.

"Tell me about it," Rhodes said wryly. Then he looked at Steve, anguish for his friend overcoming his usual stoicism. "What the hell did they do to him?"

"I don't know," Steve said. For a moment he considered telling Rhodes the whole truth. The man deserved to know why just the sight of him had terrified Tony so badly that he hadn't yet been allowed back in to see him. But he had no right to share that with anyone, not even someone as close to Tony as Jim Rhodes.

"I mean," Rhodes continued, "I got the same party line as everyone else, about the collar, and how he won't talk or look at you. I get all that. But, man, what the hell did they do to him?"

"I don't know," Steve said again, a little louder this time. "He's not saying, and I haven't asked."

Rhodes gave him a long, unhappy look. "Well, don't let it go too long," he finally said. "That was my mistake. I didn't ask enough questions. I thought I was doing the right thing, letting him keep his secrets, the way he likes. So when he came to me about Iron Man, I didn't know."

"Wait." Steve was momentarily distracted by this revelation. "Tony came to you first about Iron Man?"

Rhodes grimaced. "Yeah," he said softly. "He came to me first. But I didn't listen." He sat back in his chair. "But, look. You asked. Tony is a terrible patient. He hates being told what to do. He hates anyone to see him as weak. He does a lot better in familiar surroundings, with people he knows. After Afghanistan, they took him to Germany for the debrief. We ended up leaving there ahead of schedule and coming back to L.A. because he was driving everybody crazy, being an ass and making them all want him gone." He paused.

"So when we got back here, Tony holed up in his workshop. And everyone knows what he did in there, but the point is," Rhodes said, "is that he went to work. It was the best thing he could have done. After Afghanistan, everyone treated him like he was made of glass, and he hated it. Back here, he wasn't the victim anymore." He looked at Steve. "You get it?

Steve did understand. In his limited way, Tony had tried to tell him that earlier tonight. I'll be good, I will, just please, please take me home. It wasn't just the desire to leave this place and go home. Tony knew he would do better once he was away from here. He just didn't know how to tell anyone that anymore.

And that was it, really. He had heard what he needed to hear.

He had made his decision.

"You think it'll work this time?" he asked. "Take him back to the Tower, with JARVIS and the bots and his work?"

"I think it's worth a shot," Rhodes said.

If it meant helping Tony, anything was worth it. Steve looked at him and said, "So do I."

****

It wasn't easy to convince the staff to release Tony. But later that night, when everyone else had gone home and Steve was the only person there, when he took Tony's hand and told him that in the morning they would go home, he knew just how worth it this really was. Because Tony burst into tears of helpless relief and gratitude – but then he smiled, shaky and tearful and full of so much hope, and Steve thought he would simply die from the pain of loving this man.

That smile was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Chapter Text

"Are you ready?" Steve asked.

Tony nodded, remembered that he was supposed to be speaking, and said, "Yes."

It was morning, still early. Steve had sat with him for most of the night, but he must have left at some point, because when Tony woke up this last time, Steve had a gym bag with him. Steve had smiled to see his confusion. "Brought some things for you."

So for the first time in over three months, he was wearing his own clothes again. A long-sleeved T-shirt, a thick, gray USAF sweatshirt. Dark gray boxers, thick white socks. Jeans that had to be tightly belted to stay up on his skinny hips. Stiff black shoes that made his feet feel heavy and cramped. To cover his head, a New York Yankees baseball cap. And draped across the foot of the bed, not far from where he was sitting, a long black coat and scarf.

He had nothing to bring back with him. Nothing except the green blanket from the ship, which Steve had folded up and placed inside the gym bag. He knew the doctors had been talking to Steve, that they had given Steve bottles of pills and shiny brochures. But none of that had anything to do with him, and none of it mattered.

The doctor had been in to talk to him. The papers were signed. Now they were just waiting for the okay from Clint, who had gone to verify that the SHIELD transport they were taking was ready. When Clint said everything was good to go, they would finally leave.

They were finally going home.

Tony was anxious and scared and tired and his head hurt and his chest ached and the burn on his neck itched unbearably and he was still cold even in his thick winter clothes -- and he thought he would just explode if he didn't get to have this. Part of him was utterly convinced that at the last minute, they would change their minds and tell him he had to stay. He expected it and he dreaded it and yet he couldn't stop hoping. Steve had been giving him things since his rescue.

Please let Steve give him this.

Steve said, "There was some talk about having a little…thing…for your welcome home. But I told them… Well, it's not going to happen. It's up to you if you want to see anyone and say hi. I know Bruce hasn't been able to come, so you might want to stop by his lab and see him? But it's your call."

Bruce.

Bruce's lab.

It didn't add up. Bruce didn't have a lab in Malibu. Bruce had never even been to –

And he suddenly understood. Steve wasn't taking him home. Steve was taking him to Stark Tower.

For a terrible moment he forgot how to breathe. Panic seized him by the throat and shook him, hard. He wasn't going to get the sea and the sky and the warmth of sunshine. He wasn't going to get those airy open rooms and the sweep of the land spread out before him.

He gasped for air, fought against the vise that closed about his chest. It was okay. (no) It had to be okay. (no)

Stop it, damn it, stop it! Be good!

Stark Tower could be home. He had done it before. He could have the sky there, and JARVIS, and Steve. He could be warm there. He could be safe.

(please)

"Tony?" Steve sounded worried.

Quickly he nodded and made himself sit still, no shaking, no crying. Showing how fine he was, how good he was being. Anything to make sure Steve didn't change his mind and decide that he needed to stay here for a little while longer.

Steve sat beside him on the edge of the bed. "When we leave, we should be able to go straight to the hangar," he said. "Natasha and Fury are doing their best to make sure the halls are clear. But if we run into anyone and they want to talk to you…you don't have to, Tony. You don't have to stop, you don't have to say anything. Unless you want to. Okay?"

He nodded. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He didn't want them to stare at him, to judge him, to weigh his disobediences and find him guilty.

"You're gonna get through this," Steve said. "You're gonna be all right."

Tony stared at the floor and said nothing.

Steve took a breath to say something else – and his phone chimed. Tony stole a glance over at him, saw him pull the phone out of his pocket and look at the screen. An agonizing moment passed when he was certain that they weren't going anywhere, they were never going anywhere, he was going to spend eternitry trapped here. Then Steve stood up and shoved the phone back in his pocket. "Clint says they're ready."

His heart began to beat faster. They were leaving. They were really leaving.

"It's cold outside," Steve said. He was wearing his favorite leather jacket.

He stood up and reached for his coat. It sagged around him, heavy on his shoulders, reaching to mid-thigh. He did up the buttons with shaking hands, then looked up and saw Steve holding out the scarf. "Here," Steve said. "Let me."

Immediately he froze, his hands still hovering about that last button on the coat. He didn't make a move as Steve first draped the scarf over his shoulders, then looped one end about his neck. But nothing could stop him from trembling all over in sudden terror, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

"Tony?" Steve's voice was pitched low, trying to stay calm. "What's wrong?"

He wanted to reach for the scarf, to pull it down, stop it from strangling him like the collar, not that the golden loop had ever constricted his breathing, but it was there, it was there, and he could feel it encircling his neck and it was too much, too much, but he couldn't touch it, that wasn't allowed, he would be punished, they would hurt him, they would—

Steve's hands filled his field of vision, and then suddenly the suffocating weight was gone and he could breathe again. He could hear the way he was gasping, and he realized his hands were balled into fists above the arc reactor.

"I'm sorry," Steve said, awkward and contrite. "I didn't think. I'm sorry."

He was the one who should be apologizing, but he couldn't find any words. It was all he could do to uncurl his fists and lower his hands and stand still, properly submissive. Being good, yes, because if he screwed up now, he would never get out of here.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked gently.

He nodded, eager to show that he was, he was, he was.

Steve was silent for a long moment. He could feel the weight of Steve's stare, and his heart continued to hammer away in fright, but then at last Steve sighed a little and moved away, and Tony breathed easier.

"Okay," Steve said. Then, "Wait," and Tony's heart plummeted. "Damnit. I forgot gloves."

He didn't care. He could put his hands in the coat pockets. He didn't mind if they were cold. He was used to it by now. But please, please don't let Steve use this as a reason not to go…

"Oh well," Steve sighed. "I'm sorry, Tony. I just forgot."

He didn't know what to do with that, so he just stood there, eyes fixed firmly on the floor, and waited for Steve to tell him what to do next.

Steve took a deep breath. "Okay, well, let's go."

They walked out of the room. Something eased up in Tony's chest a little as he passed through the doorway. They really were leaving, this was really happening...

"Good luck, Mr. Stark!" called one of the nurses.

He flinched, and said nothing. Just kept walking. They were all staring at him and he hated it, his pulse was racing, he was so damn scared, and he kept waiting for one of them to call out and demand that he stop, to pin him in place with just the weight of their stare.

But no one else said anything, and although they all continued to stare, no one stopped him.

He went along with Steve as quickly as he could, and they were in the admitting area now, and he could see lights and a long strand of green wreath draped around the edge of a large desk. The sight threw him for a moment, and then he remembered what Steve had said about it being cold outside, and after an endless moment when his dull brain struggled to put it together, it finally struck him that it was Christmastime.

His step faltered. Christmas. A time of gifts and holiday cheer and enormous trees done up in lights and people wanting to be friendly. A time when you were supposed to be glad to be with family and loved ones, when everything was supposed to be cozy and happy and right with the world.

"Tony?" Steve's hand touched his upper back, gently applying pressure, keeping him going.

He was grateful to Steve for that, for guiding him out of Medical and into the hall beyond. His whole body was tense with the desire to be gone from this place, to avoid seeing anyone along the way.

For once, though, it seemed like he was actually going to get something he wanted. They encountered only one SHIELD agent as they passed through the halls, and though the woman's steps slowed as they approached, she kept on walking and she didn't try to talk to them.

Then they were there, not in the hangar where the Quinjets were kept, but a smaller one, the hatch currently raised. And Clint wasn't standing beside a plane, but a car, a cherry red Corvette convertible with the top up.

"Captain. Mr. Stark."

The voice was familiar. Tony risked a glance up, and then quickly looked away again.

"Agent Coulson." Steve sounded like he was smiling.

"I thought you could use my car," Coulson said. "She might be just a prototype, but she'll get you there quickly. And there's no traffic this way."

"We could use that," Steve said.

Tony said nothing. They were on the helicarrier, he knew because Pepper had told him and Steve had told him. So what were they going to do with a car up here?

"It would be my honor to take you home," Coulson said.

"Thank you," Steve said. "We appreciate that."

Steve's hand touched his back again, and Tony jumped, then started forward. He didn't look up as they approached the car and got in the back seat. It felt strange to sit in a car again, leather seats beneath him, the roof curving above his head. It made him feel confined, and not in a good way. The others were so close now, too close, and he stared down at the seat belt and knew he could not clasp that band about his hips and tie himself down. Knew that if Steve tried, he would start to cry in terror.

"You guys should feel special," Clint said dryly as he settled into the passenger seat. "It's not just anybody who gets to ride in Lola."

"The car's name is Lola?" Steve asked.

"Of course it is," Coulson said evenly. "All cars have names. Lola, though...she's one of a kind. She's not really meant for chauffeuring people around, but I thought you guys might like this for the final leg of your journey home." He started the engine.

The interior of the Corvette was spotless. Tony clasped his hands in his lap, right one over the left, hiding the scar that marked him as a thief, and tried not to panic. They were too close, and if they reached for him now, he would have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

"Next stop," Clint said. "Avengers Tower."

And with that, the car rose into the air.

Steve uttered a surprised yelp. Tony remained silent, but a thrill shot through him that had nothing to do with fear or anxiety. It was like being doused with cold water, a sudden clarity that left him shivering all over. He felt awake, more aware than he had in months, parts of him that had huddled for too long in the dark just now waking up.

The hatch began to open, and the hangar brightened as daylight poured in. "Everyone ready?" Coulson asked from behind the wheel.

And then they flew out into the winter sky.

Tony looked. He had to look. And oh God, the sky. The first sight of it, blue and boundless, made his throat close up. It was the sky, it was Earth, it was one of those rare winter days when the sun was shining and the sky was so crisp and clear that you could almost taste it when you breathed in.

It wasn't until the vista blurred into nothing that he realized he was crying.

Beside him, Steve said quietly, "Hey. It's okay."

In the front seat, Clint twisted around to look. "Is he okay?"

"It's fine," Steve said tersely. "Everything's fine. Just keep going."

The sky, oh God, the sky, and they were home, he was home. Steve's hand was on his back again, rubbing little circles there, but he barely felt it. He could only stare at that beautiful Earth sky, and cry.

The car dipped a little, then leveled out. He could see buildings now, tall skyscrapers poking into the sky. Another thrill shivered through him, but this one was touched with fear. All those buildings…all those people…

It was too much, too much. He covered his eyes with one shaking hand, crying in silence, the way he had learned.

"Tony? Tony, look." Steve's voice was low and reassuring – and contained a command he could not disobey.

He lowered his hand and looked. And there, directly ahead, was the Tower.

Stark Tower. Now Avengers Tower. His home.

A thousand memories swam up from the depths, inundating him with all-but forgotten sights and sounds and smells. Drawing up the plans with Pepper, never guessing that one day the Tower would be a bone of contention between them. Building the enormous arc reactor that powered it all, filled with pleased pride over his accomplishment. The Tower itself, rising ever higher into the sky, while he flew heavy beams and materials into place and felt good about his contribution. Fending off sweaty workmen and sawdust while Pepper met with planning committees, commiserating with each other over how their day went over champagne and lobster. Connecting the arc reactor to the grid, far below the harbor, telling himself that he was fine with being underwater, he was cool, everything was cool, back when he had no idea what real fear tasted like.

There had never been a Grand Opening, like he had envisioned. Loki and the Chitauri had seen to that. The Battle of New York, everyone called it, but for Tony it was just "that day." Not something to be glorified or even vilified. Just "that day."

So he had opened the Tower to them all, and they had come. And as it drew nearer in the sky, fine details visible now, a whole new set of memories overtook him. Tears and ugly words with Pepper that he wished he could take back, but never did. Bruce, smiling hesitantly as he realized the entire lab was meant for him. Clint and Natasha skulking around as though just waiting to be evicted, not quite sure that this was for real. Thor knocking an expensive glass bowl to the floor with his billowing cape and freezing up in shame. Steve sitting lost and alone in the breakfast nook.

Steve…oh God, Steve. The Tower was full of him and his presence. Sweating down in the gym as he ran for miles on the treadmill. Curled up on a couch in the library, devouring one book after another. Turning off the TV in disgust upon seeing another reality show. Sketching the New York skyline, head bowed over his drawing, pencil smudged all over his hand. Smiling up at Tony, flat on his back in a bed where the sheets were half-pulled off and draped on the floor, happy and flushed with desire and full of love.

Tony shivered away from that last memory. He was in that one, and he didn't want to think about that. He didn't want to think about anything like that, not ever again.

(never, never, please God never)

He had to face up to it, though. He haunted the Tower more than any of them. Everywhere he would go, he would run into the ghost of his former self. Nowhere was safe. The workshops, the gym, the kitchen, the enormous bedroom that was larger than some apartments. He had stamped his mark on all of it, and now he had to go back.

Whether he wanted it or not, he was going to have to be Tony Stark again.

He thought, though, that maybe there was a part of him that did want it. The part of him that had awakened when the car rose off the ground, defying gravity and demanding an explanation. It was still uncertain and full of fear, but it was there. It existed.

The Tower dominated the view now. Coulson was making for the landing pad.

"You okay?" Steve asked quietly.

The question startled him out of his reverie, and he looked over at Steve. For a moment their eyes met, and he saw the vivid blue of Steve's eyes, so like the sky out there, the faint pink tinge on Steve's nose and cheeks from the cold. He saw the hopeful look on Steve's face.

Then he realized what he was doing, and he swiftly looked down. He wasn't crying anymore, but he could feel panic circling over his head, waiting to descend. It was inevitable at this point. Already he had seen too much, and Clint and Coulson were so close, just inches away in the front seat of the car, and there were millions of people down there…

The car was slowing down, preparing to land. Keeping his head properly bowed (be good, be good), Tony looked out the window, following their progress.

They touched down with barely a bump. And they were here.

He was home.

Relief shuddered through him. They could still fly away, he knew that, he wasn't safe, not yet, but he didn't think they would do that to him.

Please don't let them do that to him. Please let him have this.

"Well," Coulson said, "this is as far as I go." He turned around in his seat. "Welcome home, Tony."

The words were kindly meant, but they shriveled up what little anticipation he had felt to come back here. They would all be inside, waiting to tell him the same thing, expecting him to smile and accept their welcome. They would want to hug him. They would all be watching him, staring at him, looking to see how he behaved.

Like Coulson now.

He nodded swiftly, his head still down, eyes averted. Being good.

"Thank you," Steve said, and Tony froze in fear, suddenly aware that he should say it as well, that he was expected to show gratitude now. He was supposed to be speaking, too, one more thing he was doing wrong.

But he couldn't do it. Fresh tears blinded him. He couldn't make a sound, could only sit there terrified and trembling. He didn't want to go inside and face them all, face the past and its too-lively ghosts. But he didn't want to go back to the helicarrier and the cold lights of Medical.

He wanted the sea and the sky and the warm sunshine of Malibu – but he didn't know how to ask for them.

"Tony?" Steve's hand touched his shoulder.

He flinched, biting his lip hard to stay silent.

Steve's hand slid over, rubbing his back. "Whenever you're ready."

They were staying. They weren't going to take him away. They were staying, and now he had to go inside and let them all stare at him. Torn between gratitude and fear, he just sat there, trying desperately to get himself under control. He had to stop this. He had to be good.

He nodded. Fumbled for the door handle. Pushed it open and stepped outside.

It was bone-chillingly cold. The wind that was a constant at this height bit right through him, stole his breath and made him shudder.

He heard a car door open. Steve's head and shoulders came into view.

Tony looked up. He lifted his head, raised his face to the sky. It felt strange and wonderful after months of staring down and bowing his head. The movement made the bandage on the back of his neck fold in on itself, the painful itch flaring up, but he didn't care, barely even felt it. He couldn't see anything for the tears, could barely even open his eyes against the brightness of the sky and the bite of the wind, but that didn't matter. The wind made him stagger and lose his balance so he fell back against the car, the cherry red chassis propping him up, and that didn't matter, either.

He was standing beneath the open sky.

He really was free.

****

They went in together, Steve's arm about his shoulders, shielding him from the worst of the wind and helping to bear his weight. He felt dizzy. His feet ached in the stiff shoes. The heavy collar of his coat rubbed painfully on the back of his neck.

Inside, in that room where he had once offered Loki a drink, all was quiet and still. No one was there to greet him.

He was grateful.

The room was large, full of winter light, surprisingly warm. The bar at one end looked untouched. The black leather furniture appeared pristine and unused; it could have come straight from the showroom.

He didn't remember the last time he had been in this room. He knew he could remember, if he wanted – but he didn't want to.

"It's good to have you back, man," Clint said. He walked past, bringing with him one last scent of the wintry wind. Then he was gone, taking the elevator down, disappearing off somewhere.

Steve set the gym bag on the floor and took off his coat. After a moment, Tony did the same. He let go of the coat with a pang, knowing he would miss the thick material soon enough.

"Natasha's still at SHIELD, but Thor and Bruce are around here somewhere," Steve said. "And Pepper said she would come over later tonight. It's up to you where we go from here. Did you want to say hi to anyone?"

No. No, he didn't. He didn't want them to look at him, to be under their scrutiny. Nothing good ever happened when they looked at him like that. He wanted to be ignored, to avoid their gaze, to scuttle along his way and not draw attention to himself.

"Tony?"

Quickly he shook his head.

"Okay. How about we get something to eat then? And then maybe a nap?"

Something to eat. Instantly his shoulders hunched, and he ducked his head. But he had promised that he would try, and he had to be good (but I'm free now), so that meant he had to eat.

And it was okay, he told himself. He was home now. He was safe. He didn't have to be frightened anymore, or sit in growing dread as the evening hour rolled around. That part of his life was over. He wasn't a slave anymore. He could be Tony Stark again.

He swallowed hard, pushing back the reflexive nausea that resulted from the mere idea of eating anything. He nodded.

"Okay," Steve said. He hesitated, then began to walk toward the elevator.

Bound by an invisible collar and leash, Tony followed him.

The kitchen looked the same as he remembered it, except for the new microwave that took up a sizable chunk of counter space. And the plastic yellow placemats that featured so heavily in his memory of Steve were nowhere to be found. Instead the table in the breakfast nook was covered with a white cloth sprinkled with green holly leaves.

It was warm in the kitchen, in spite of the large glass windows. Tony stood in the middle of the room and wondered what he was meant to do next. He deliberately did not watch as Steve moved around, opening cupboards, setting things down on the counter. He didn't want to know what Steve was doing.

Instead he focused on the clear winter sky beyond those windows. It beckoned to him, appealing in its blue simplicity. Here at last was something he could stare at, not too chaotic on his senses, comforting in its familiarity. Despite the cold wind, he found himself wanting to go back outside, to stand beneath that sky and soak it in. He wanted to look up at it, to count the progression of time not with numbers, but by the pattern of the clouds and the changing colors as the blue deepened with time.

But he didn't know how to ask for that, how to say he wanted to go out there. Because whatever you want didn't really mean that, and most likely never had.

"Tony?"

He flinched, jerked out of his thoughts. He looked up, just a quick glance, and saw that Steve had set out a meal for him. Milk, applesauce, a glass of something that looked like chocolate milk but probably tasted horrible, full of all the vitamins and nutrients his hateful body needed.

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I know you're tired. But you need to eat something first, okay? Just a little, that's all. Just…something."

He looked at the food and all at once he was so exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open. The thrill of their flight, the excitement of getting to go home, that sight of the city spread out before him, and now being here, actually being in the Tower – it was all too much.

And he was tired, so tired of himself most of all. Constantly vacillating between apathy and terror, never knowing how to react. He was at war with himself, and it was a battle he could never win, because he didn't know how to surrender.

Maybe that was his problem, he thought. He couldn't surrender. Never had, never would. It was why he hadn't just gone quietly insane under the Kree, why he was still fighting even now, trying so hard to make sense of his world.

"Tony?"

He glanced up at Steve, one quick peek, nothing more.

Slowly he walked over to the table, where once upon a time Steve had sat and stared glumly down at a yellow plastic placemat, and a man named Tony Stark had looked upon him and decided to help. Maybe that was when all this had begun, and maybe it was just a memory he was clinging to because it was too hard to think about anything else, and he would probably never know, but he had to stop thinking about it, he had to remember where he was, remember that Steve was standing there waiting on him to obey, and he had to be good, he had to be good or they would send him away again.

I will, he had promised Steve.

So he did.

****

Later, he followed Steve upstairs.

His bedroom was very large, dominated by a king-size bed covered in an enormous navy blue comforter. One whole wall was taken up by a walk-in closet. He thought he remembered clutter, dresser surfaces covered by tablets and cufflinks and balled-up ties. Now, though, the room was neat and tidy and smelled vaguely of cleaning products.

Tony looked at it all, and knew he could not stay here.

The panic that always encircled his head now swooped down and settled in. He couldn't stay here, but he didn't know how to tell Steve that. He had found words before, but that was for things he wanted: a bath, to know no one owned him anymore, to go home.

The ability to say no, though. That was beyond him. Just one more thing the Kree had taken from him.

"Tony? You okay?"

He was doing it again, frozen in place and trembling. The room was well-heated, but he felt cold all over.

He shook his head. Please don't make me stay here.

It was too big. Too full of color and things. In that bed he had lain naked with Steve and let Steve touch him all over, had even, a few times, allowed Steve to –-

No. No no no. Never again. Never.

He didn't belong here. This room belonged to Tony Stark, not himself.

Steve was right there, his voice warm with concern. "What is it? What's wrong?"

He half-turned toward Steve, away from the bed and the closet full of expensive suits and ties and everything else in that room that even now, cleaned up and free of the everyday detritus of life, still contained too many ghosts.

"I don't…" Steve's hands lifted in bafflement. "I don't know what to do here. Talk to me, Tony."

The moment Steve said it, he groaned and his hands snapped into fists. But it was okay. Tony didn't mind. Steve had told him to speak, and so it was all right.

"I don't want to stay here, please," he said. He kept his head bowed as he spoke, but he could still see Steve's hands uncurl and lower back down to his sides.

"Okay," Steve said. "You don't have to. We can go to my room if you want—"

But no, that was just as bad, ghosts lurked there too, especially in the bed, and he tensed up, and Steve hurried on, "—or we could go anywhere. There's plenty of rooms in here, just pick one you want. Whatever you want, Tony." And this time he believed it wasn't a lie.

"And I'm sorry," Steve said. "I didn't mean to make it sound like an order."

He didn't mind. He knew Steve didn't own him, and he knew that he was free. "You can," he whispered. "I'll be good."

He knew instantly that he had said the wrong thing. Steve made an awful noise, and his whole body jerked. "Tony," and his name was a sound of anguish.

His heart started hammering in his chest. He had screwed up, he had done it wrong, and they would, they --

No no no, I'm free now, I'm free now.

"I don't want to tell you what to do," Steve said. "That's not… I know I'm doing it all wrong. I don't know what to say or how to say it, but…" He let out a long, slow breath. "I'm trying, Tony. I really am."

Some response was called for now. He tried to think what it was, but all he could think of was that moment in the flying car when he had failed to show the proper gratitude toward Coulson.

"Thank you," he whispered. And then, because that didn't seem to be enough, he added, "For saving me."

"Oh God," Steve said.

Wrong, it was still wrong, and his fear deepened, wanted to become panic again. When Steve raised one hand, he flinched violently and squeezed his eyes shut.

"It's okay," Steve said, and he too was whispering. "I just wanted...to hold you. Is that okay?"

It was, and he nodded, relaxing even as he moved forward. And then Steve's arms were around him, holding him, keeping him safe, and he sighed.

For a while they simply stood there. The last of Tony's fear drained away and he just felt exhausted again, ready to fall asleep standing up. His head started to droop, and Steve's arms tightened about him, bearing up more of his weight.

"I love you," Steve said. "I love you so much."

The words still meant nothing, no matter how many times he heard them. Love was, what? He only wanted to be safe, to be warm, to be home, where he didn't have to wear a collar and no one would hurt him anymore.

"Hey," Steve said, still in a whisper. "Don't fall asleep just yet."

He stumbled against Steve as they turned away from the bedroom that had once been his, and moved down the hall. Down the elevator two floors, to the guest rooms, some of which he had never even seen in their completed form.

The bedroom Steve chose was of medium size, with sturdy oak furniture and a smaller bed. The comforter was dark green. There was no mirror over the dresser. Green drapes hung over the window, closed at the moment, darkening the light.

"Is this okay?" Steve asked.

Tony nodded. It wasn't his, it wasn't Steve's. There were no ghosts here. He was too tired to really care, anyway. He just wanted to sleep.

Steve drew back the comforter, and he crawled gratefully into bed. The sheets were cold and smelled dusty, but the bed was soft and he was already sinking, the Tower falling away around him.

The hat was gently tugged off his head. He curled up on his side, knees to his chest, hands tucked beneath the pillow.

The last thing he knew was a warm kiss on his forehead.

****

The quality of the light was unchanged when Tony woke, which confused him at first. Then he realized he had slept through an entire day and night, and he relaxed back into the covers again.

But that was, that made him blink, because something was different. The green blanket, the one he had brought with him from the ship, was now draped across the comforter, adding a layer of warmth to the bed.

That wasn't the only change, either. A lamp on the dresser was turned on, the shade tilted so the light would be dim but enough to see by, should he have awakened at night. His shoes and belt were gone, taken away so he could rest more comfortably. And as he lay there, wondering if he had woken up when Steve did those things for him and he just couldn't remember, he realized that the greatest change wasn't something outside himself, but internal.

His headache was gone.

He almost couldn't comprehend it. That dull, throbbing pain was part of him now, an extension of his body. And now it was gone. Not just slumbering, waiting to flare back to life the first time he moved his head, but truly gone.

For now, lying still, the burn on his neck didn't hurt. His stomach didn't hurt. It didn't hurt to breathe. His bladder was uncomfortably full, but not enough to hurt.

He was free from pain for the first time since the Kree had taken him.

A shiver ran through him that had nothing to do with how warm the room was.

He was alone, no sign of Steve. No Thor. No doctors. No nurses.

Just himself.

He couldn't lie here too much longer – he really did have to pee – but he indulged himself anyway. Relishing the solitude, the absolute quiet. He didn't have to count anymore, or watch the door with mounting dread, waiting for it to open. Here he was warm. Here he was free from pain.

And oh God, the relief of it, to finally lay down and stop fighting, to truly relax and accept that he was safe.

That he was free.

He wanted to stay there and just breathe, maybe sleep some more, but it wasn't meant to be. His body demanded that he pay attention to it, and he sat up quickly, suddenly on fire with purpose.

The bathroom was across the hall. He barely hesitated before opening the bedroom door. The hallway was empty, thankfully. He hurried into the bathroom, threw the door closed behind him, and made it, just in time.

Without his bladder screaming at him, he was able to relax again. He looked around, taking care to avoid the mirror over the sink. He had never been in here before, probably hadn't even seen the plans for it – Pepper would have handled it all. What he saw was a standard size bathroom containing a tub shower and a toilet, a sink, and a small decorative table in one corner that held a dusty box of Kleenex and a glass jar filled with small green stones. Nothing fancy, nothing special.

And then he noticed the empty silver bar above the tub. No shower curtain hung there. Even the rings were gone.

Steve again, looking out for him, still without even knowing why. His shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes, overcome by gratitude.

He wondered where Steve was now.

He opened his eyes, wiped away the tears. He washed his hands and cupped them beneath the faucet, resolutely not looking at the mirror, then lowered his head so he could drink the water that pooled on his palms. He closed his eyes as he drank, not wanting to see that ugly scar on his hand – up close it was nothing so poetic as a miniature sun.

His thirst sated, he turned to leave, and his gaze fell on the shelf in the tub, neatly stocked with all kinds of soaps and shampoos. He glanced to one side and saw the towels hanging from the bar, soft and green.

He hadn't washed since that awful day on the ship. Steve had reassured him that it was fine, it didn't matter, he wasn't getting sweaty or dirty, so it could wait. And no one had even tried at SHIELD Medical, possibly because Steve had warned them off, he didn't know.

But now, now he wanted to be clean again. He could do it, he thought. A real bath this time, sunk chest-deep in warm water, no one to stare, no reason to count the seconds and hurry.

He could do it. No one would stop him.

It would mean going back to his room and stepping into that enormous closet and selecting new clothes. Remembering which dresser drawers held underwear and socks. Finding shoes that didn't make his feet ache.

But.

He could do it.

He went across the hall and back into the guest bedroom. He wasn't sure why. To bolster his courage, maybe. Or maybe to lie back down and sleep some more.

There was a note on the table beside the bed. He hadn't seen it before in his haste to make it to the bathroom. It was a single sheet of paper with his name written on the front, folded in half and tented on the table.

He walked over and picked up the paper, then unfolded it. The words jumped out at him, handwriting that was achingly familiar, and it struck him with some wonder that he was reading again, English words, not indecipherable Kree symbols, and then he was focused only on the contents of the note

Tony,

You were sleeping so well, I didn't want to wake you. I'm coming down to check on you from time to time, but if you need me before then, I'll be in the kitchen.

I love you,
Steve

How long until Steve's next visit?

He sighed a little, and put the note back. The urge to crawl back into bed and burrow beneath the covers was very strong.

But he wanted that bath.

But he had promised Steve that he would eat, so he should go to the kitchen.

But he wanted to sleep.

But he was free now. He could do what he wanted.

Couldn't he?

"Because I'm home," he whispered, amazed at his own daring.

"Indeed you are, sir," replied a voice, and his heart leapt into his throat. In fright, yes, but mostly because he knew that voice, and it was safe and familiar, and he had missed it so much.

"It is good to see you again, sir," JARVIS said.

And then he was crying, unable to help it.

JARVIS. The AI he had created using nothing but his own brain and some empty server space. The friendly voice that had been there for him for years, doing his bidding, it was true, but also subtly challenging him. Teaching JARVIS had made him stretch the limits of technology and create incredible advances in the field of cybernetics, advances the world could know nothing about but which he did not begrudge keeping secret, because he would never do anything to jeopardize the existence of his friend.

There had been a time when JARVIS had been the only one he could talk to. The only one who knew his deepest secrets. The only one he trusted.

"Sir?"

"I'm home," he whispered. He had to sit on the bed, he was crying so hard. It hurt his chest and his throat and there was no question of remaining silent, but he had gone beyond caring.

"And sir," JARVIS continued, "may I be the first to wish you a Happy New Year."

A new year. Tony couldn't speak. He could only sit there and cry.

He was home, and he was free.

Happy New Year to me.

Chapter Text

By the end of Tony's first week home, Steve was beside himself with guilt and worry. And he didn't have the faintest idea what to do about it.

On the surface, Tony was doing better. He was calmer now, less prone to those moments of terror when he froze up and started shaking. Nights were still bad, and everyone had already learned to leave him alone then, even though they didn't know why – Steve had only said that it seemed to help, and let them assume that he too didn't understand why this should be the case. But even though those nightly episodes continued, Tony seemed to recover his equilibrium more quickly once the magic hour had come and gone.

True to his word, he was eating, although not as much as Steve would have liked, and only when Steve was around, never the other Avengers. He didn't push the issue, though. Tony's problem with food was mental in nature, not physical. The last thing Steve wanted to do was give him another reason to dislike eating.

Still, he was obviously trying hard, and Steve loved him fiercely for that. He was still too thin, but he didn't look quite so terribly starved anymore, and there was a little bit of color in his face now.

No, all that was good. The problem was that Tony didn't actually do anything. It was like he had given up, like returning to the Tower had sapped the last of his strength and now he had nothing left to give.

In a way, Steve would have preferred fear to the apathy that Tony had sunk into. At least then he would know that Tony was aware of his surroundings.

Most of the time Tony just slept. There was no doubt that he needed the rest, but Steve worried that he was using sleep as a way of avoiding reality. When he did finally wake up, he would wait for Steve to walk with him up to the penthouse, where he would sit for hours on one of the black leather sofas. He sat facing the enormous windows that lined the room, but it was often impossible to tell if he was actually seeing anything. He showed no interest in reading, watching TV, or speaking to anyone – not even JARVIS. He had not yet gone to any of the labs or even his own private workshop. And though he spent hours staring at the arc of the armor assembly on the roof, he appeared to have no thoughts at all of Iron Man and the Avengers.

Steve sat with him a lot, but it wasn't the same. Before, Tony had given every appearance of wanting to be held. Now when Steve made the offer, he tensed up and became visibly unhappy. Only at night, when the skies were dark and every little sound made him flinch, did he willingly accept Steve's embrace.

He wasn't alone in his frustration, either. Not that it made him feel much better. It was cold comfort to know that Pepper had no better luck in getting Tony to take part in the world around him. Nor did Bruce, or Thor, or Happy Hogan. Whatever they might suggest doing, Tony just wasn't interested.

That dull apathy frightened Steve badly. He sat there and he looked at Tony and he couldn't see the man he had fallen in love with. He knew – he hoped – that man still existed. But right now it was all too easy to lose that hope.

He thought about the prescriptions Dr. Epps had given him, prescriptions he had filled but done nothing with. Xanax and Prozac, something else to help him fall asleep. Little pills that he had offered Tony once and only once, taking them away again when he saw the sick look on Tony's face.

He wondered if he had done the right thing. If he should have insisted. He didn't know what to do, and worse, he was still making mistakes, still doing terrible things without even realizing it.

Tony's second day back in the Tower had been New Year's Day. A wonderfully symbolic day, and Steve had been ridiculously filled with hope. That night, he had asked if he could share the bed with Tony, and after only a slight pause, Tony had agreed.

It had been an unmitigated disaster. Everything had started out fine; he had fallen asleep lying flat on his back, holding Tony in his arms the way he had done on their first night on the Ernorran ship, the day they had rescued Tony from the slave auction. But at some point they both must have moved in their sleep, because when he woke up, his chest was pressed to Tony's back, a perfectly normal nighttime erection was between them, and Tony was crying in silent terror.

He had nearly fallen out of bed in his haste, one foot tangling in the sheets as he fled, babbling apologies, one hand covering his crotch. He had felt sick with guilt, and it only got worse when he tried to reach out for Tony – and Tony cringed away from him.

Eventually, of course, Tony had calmed down, but the damage had been done. Since then, Steve had continued to sleep in the same room, but at a safe distance, rolled up in a sleeping bag on the floor. Tony had indicated several times that he wanted Steve to remain there, but even so, Steve couldn't help wondering how much of that incident was responsible for the way Tony now seemed so uncomfortable in his embrace.

He thought, too, about what Jim Rhodes had said, how he shouldn't wait to ask Tony questions. In the long silences that punctuated his days, he framed hundreds of questions that he knew he would never ask. Questions about what the Kree had done, and where, and when; questions about what Tony had done in response and how he had felt.

Questions about himself.

Did you ever think about me? Did you know I was coming for you? Or did you give up on me?

He was too afraid to ask, though. And so, like Tony, he found it easier to let the silence claim him.

The other Avengers noticed this, of course. Thor invited him to spar several times, and this Steve did with alacrity, needing the chance to blow off steam and push his body to the limit. Down there in the gym, sweat pouring off him in rivers, he could finally forget about his aching heart and focus on the purely physical.

Thor was not the only one, though. Natasha in particular was far too observant, constantly drawing him into conversation and insisting one day that he accompany her to visit Director Fury and discuss a growing situation in Madripoor. He wasn't interested in taking up the shield again, though, and he told her that, but she just gazed back at him, cool and steady, and so he gave in and went with her.

That was the only time he visited SHIELD. It was too uncomfortable. Everyone stared, and he heard the muttering, the rumors, the questions. They all wanted to know what had happened to Tony Stark. Even Director Fury hinted that Steve needed to debrief with SHIELD, and that was when Steve stood up and ended their meeting by walking out.

He had not gone back.

Fortunately, his resolve not to take up the shield hadn't been put to the test. No new supervillains cropped up that week, and while A.I.M. might be building up a power base in Madripoor, they were still laying low for now, and so Steve didn't have to be Captain America again just yet. He wasn't sure what it said about him that part of him wished it were otherwise. The rest of him was just relieved and thankful; he hated to think what Tony would do if they all rushed out of the Tower to save the world and just left him here alone.

It would happen sooner or later, though. That was just how their lives went. There was always some threat out there that needed to be dealt with. If it wasn't A.I.M., it would be something else. And he had to be ready for it.

And that meant making sure that it was wise to leave Tony alone. And that meant trying his best to make Tony feel safe.

So on a chilly afternoon where rain clouds gathered in the sky, he put on a bright smile and he said, "Hey, Tony, I had an idea."

He kept his voice light, the words a suggestion. He had learned from his past mistakes, and he would not make them again.

Tony didn't look up at him. He had only been awake for a little while from yet another nap. He was dressed in a thick ivory-colored sweater and jeans. Steve had gone through his closet and brought down armloads of warm clothing for him to choose from, hanging it all up in the closet of the guest room where he was still sleeping at night. He was bare-headed; his hair was growing back in, just long enough now to stand up in stiff bristles. His goatee was back as well, although he wasn't taking care of it, and it looked rather ragged. Steve hadn't said anything to him, because he was certain that Tony hadn't looked in a mirror yet, but there was no gray hair in that new growth, not on his head, nor on his face.

He cleared his throat. He felt embarrassed, but he told himself to get over it. What he was feeling right now didn't matter.

"I worry," he said, "that you don't know that you can go where you want. That you…you're waiting for someone to tell you what to do." He thought back to that horrible moment when Tony had given him permission to order him around, and clenched his jaw, rejecting the memory. "But you should know, that's never gonna happen. You're home now. You're free. You can do whatever you want. You can go wherever you want. So I was thinking, how about we go for a walk?"

He had thoughts of going downstairs, then suggesting that they visit Tony's workshop. Maybe seeing Dummy and the bots again would bring that smile back to Tony's face. Jim Rhodes had said that after Afghanistan, Tony had thrown himself into work. Building Iron Man had been his true escape from the cave.

We have to give back everything the Kree stole from him, he had said to JARVIS, and so that was where he had to begin. Now that he wasn't in physical distress, something like this might be exactly what Tony needed now. The chance to build something, and start using that genius mind again.

The chance to reclaim his life.

He waited, watching Tony anxiously for signs of distress. He didn't want Tony to think this was a command that had to be obeyed. He wanted Tony to want to come with him.

And to his immense relief, Tony nodded.

"Great," Steve smiled. "Where did you want to go?"

Tony did not respond. He bowed his head a little, baring his neck and revealing the bandage that was still there, covering the slowly healing burn from the disc on the collar.

"It's okay," Steve said hastily. "We can figure it out as we go."

Tony nodded again, quick and worried.

"Okay," Steve said, and stood up.

Without any input from Tony to guide him, he no longer had any ideas about their final destination. He decided that they would just wander the halls, maybe ride the elevator down a few floors. Hopefully at some point Tony would see something to catch his attention, some place that would give him a reason to choose to stay. He wanted Tony to understand that he was being given a choice, and to act on that knowledge. The Kree had ripped away Tony's ability to control anything in his life, and more than anything, Steve wanted to give that back to him.

They walked past the library, past an entire floor of R & D labs where Tony had once boasted that at any given time, he always had at least half a dozen projects in the works. They moved slowly, Steve having to adjust his longer stride to Tony's shuffling pace.

He didn't care. He would do anything as long as it meant he got to have Tony by his side again.

He eased his hand over, found Tony's fingers. Tony flinched and instinctively pulled back – then a moment later, he was clinging to Steve's hand with a tight grip.

Holding hands, they took the elevator down still further. Since Tony seemed to have no interest in choosing what floor they got off on, Steve sent them to the floor with the gym and the pool. They walked past the pool, Olympic-sized, ten lanes across, with two diving boards of different heights. The sound of the water lapping on the tile walls was almost soothing, and Steve let himself dare to hope that he wasn't the only one feeling at peace.

"What are you guys doing here?"

Startled, he looked up as Natasha came toward them. She was fully dressed, but her hair was still wet; she must have just come from the showers. He hadn't known she was down here.

"Just going for a walk," he said. He glanced over at Tony, who was standing very still, his gaze fixed on the floor. He looked very pale.

Natasha looked at them both. Her eyes narrowed briefly. But when she spoke, her voice was as calm as ever, giving away nothing of her thoughts. "Sorry to cut it short, but I needed to see you, Steve."

"Yeah," Steve said. "I think we're done here, anyway." He could hear how unnaturally high-pitched his voice sounded, but there didn't seem to be a damn thing he could do about it.

Natasha followed them back up to the penthouse. Steve held Tony's hand and refused to look behind him; he could feel her stare boring into his back, right between his shoulder blades. But she said nothing, not until they had Tony installed on his couch again, staring blankly at nothing, a single shiver rippling through him. She waited while Steve made sure that Tony was all right, that he didn't need anything. She kept her silence while Steve walked out, and said nothing as they took the elevator down a floor to the common area.

But the moment they were alone in the enormous living room with its huge TV and the assorted couches and chairs, she spun on her heel and speared him with a furious glare. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"What?" Steve protested. "We were going for a walk."

"You fucking idiot," Natasha snapped.

He stared at her, taken aback by the violence in her words. He had rarely seen her lose control like this. "What are you talking about?"

"What exactly do you think you were doing back there?" she demanded.

"We were going for a walk," Steve repeated stiffly. He had no idea why she was so angry with him, or what he had done wrong this time.

"Maybe you were," Natasha said. "But Tony was only following you because you gave him no choice."

"What?" he exclaimed. He thought swiftly back over his presentation of the idea of going for a walk. After weeks of inadvertently giving orders to Tony, he was certain that this time he hadn't fallen into that trap. "No, he wasn't!"

Natasha's eyes sparked with anger. "Yes, he was. You represent Authority, Steve. Capital letter. He had no choice but to go with you."

Anger swept over him in a rush. It was easy for her to stand back and pass judgment on him. What did she know? She hadn't been there. She hadn't seen Tony's terror. She hadn't sat with him for hours, just holding him, trying to make him feel safe through sheer willpower alone. None of them knew. Even Thor, who had been there from the beginning, didn't know everything. "Don't you dare compare me to them."

She did not seem perturbed by his reaction. "Who were you doing that for?" she asked. "Whose benefit? Was it your idea? Or was it Tony's?"

The words were like cold water thrown on his anger, burying the fire in a swift rush of realization. "It was my idea," he said slowly. He thought he could see now where she was going with this, and he felt the first stirrings of horror deep in his stomach.

"Steve." She said his name gently, all traces of anger gone. "He would do anything you said. Not just because he's been taught to do that, but because it's you."

It was the first time any of them had mentioned the fact that he and Tony had been in love once, sharing a bed and being ridiculously, blissfully happy together. He shook his head. "I didn't mean… That was never my intention. I only wanted to help."

"I know," Natasha said. She looked at him with some sympathy. "But Tony doesn't know that. And he won't know unless you go make this right."

She was right, of course. Once again he had fucked up, all because he wanted to help.

He blew out a long breath. "Maybe one of these days I'll get it right."

"You're doing just fine," Natasha assured him. "It isn't easy." She hesitated. "I couldn't do it."

"I have to," Steve said simply. "I love him."

He turned around and walked out, leaving her standing there. All the way back to the penthouse, he focused on his breathing, trying not to let this latest failure get to him. He had to stay calm. He couldn't let Tony see that he was upset.

He had to be like Tony, and hide when he was feeling distressed. Tony did it out of fear, not wanting Steve to punish him for daring to be afraid. But Steve did it to protect him.

He found Tony right where he had left him, sitting on the leather couch, staring blankly at the window. It was darker outside, the rain clouds having amassed in the sky during their walk. He sat on the couch beside Tony, leaving a small space between them, and said, "Hey."

Tony ducked his head a little. It occurred to Steve that most people looked up when someone walked into a room, natural curiosity making them want to see who was approaching. But Tony had been forced to learn the opposite – he looked down, avoiding eye contact, not wanting to see, not wanting to be seen.

He exhaled slowly. God, he was tired. Not in his body, but in his soul. He was so tired of this, of having to walk on eggshells, of having to dissect every little thing he said and did. Too often he descended into whiny selfishness – I'm trying, Tony, I really am, he had said on Tony's first day back. The moment he had said it, he had been awash in self-loathing. He still hated himself for that lapse, and it didn't matter one bit that as of yet Tony hadn't realized how awful those words were.

He was tired of losing his patience, of waking up and wanting Tony to just be normal again, to look over at him and smile and beckon him over to the bed for a searing kiss and a teasing grab of his ass. He was tired of coaxing Tony to eat like he was a stubborn toddler, tired of watching him sit here all day long staring at nothing, tired of wondering what had happened and being too damn scared to ask the questions that needed asking.

If wishes were horses, went the old saying, and Steve had never been one to waste time on wishful thinking.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize you were upset. I never want you to think that I'm ordering you to do something." He hesitated. "You can always say no."

That was a lie, of course. Tony couldn't tell anyone no right now. Just like he couldn't look anyone in the eye for more than a split second, or say anything without cringing a little. But it had to be said out loud, and it had to be Steve who said it, no matter how embarrassing it was. And maybe it would help Tony if he knew that he had permission to refuse them.

What he wanted to say, what he didn't dare say, was You have to help me out. Tell me when you're upset. Tell me when you're scared.

Tell me what happened to you.

But he couldn't say those things, and he knew it. Tony had finally achieved some measure of calm – although Steve worried he had taken it too far. Still, it could only be a good thing that he had reached a point where every little thing no longer terrorized him. The last thing Steve wanted to do now was deliberately invoke the past and shatter that calm. And yet he remembered what Jim Rhodes had said, and he continued to stumble awkwardly over his ignorance about what Tony had endured – and he knew that he must say them anyway. And soon.

But not today.

Today he just said, "Are you okay?" And when Tony nodded, not looking at him, quick and anxious, he had no choice but to accept the lie as truth.

Because what else could he do?

****

It was the little things that kept tripping Tony up.

The ability to brush his teeth. Using a clock to measure the time instead of his own body. Remembering that he didn't have to just sit here and shiver when he was cold. Remembering that he was allowed to speak. Waking up in the middle of the night and hearing Steve's breathing from the sleeping bag on the floor, and not being terrified by it.

Dealing with other people.

None of them gave him any orders – but they all wanted something from him. Natasha offered to teach him some low-impact toning exercises. Clint wanted to have a James Bond movie marathon. Thor brought him different foods that might tempt him into eating a real meal. Bruce invited him down to the lab to see the latest project he was working on. Pepper brought books, and even Rhodey, who hadn't come by in person yet, called him every evening and seemed content to talk at him for a while before hanging up.

But the worst was Steve. So quiet and unassuming – but Steve's demands were the worst, precisely because they were unspoken. Steve wanted him to talk, to look him in the eye, to wake up and put on clothes and eat breakfast.

Steve wanted him to be normal.

But Steve didn't understand. None of them did. He didn't want to do those things they suggested. He didn't have the energy for it. It took all his strength just to get through the day without screaming, to keep himself locked down, quiet and still.

He had realized on that first day back (Happy New Year to me) that he couldn't do this. He couldn't talk to JARVIS, couldn't reclaim the Tower, couldn't be Tony Stark again. He wasn't that person anymore.

He couldn't go back, but he couldn't go forward, either. He couldn't even think about it, his mind simply unable to deal with the issue. He didn't want to think. He just wanted to be here, finally warm, finally safe.

And maybe he could have done just that. But the others wouldn't let him. They all meant well, and he was dimly grateful to them, but part of him wanted to just cringe and hide away from them all and their staring eyes. He felt sometimes like he was standing in a minefield, hundreds of bombs – all labeled with his name, of course – buried around him. And one single step would set them off, a monstrous chain reaction with himself at the epicenter. So he didn't take that step. He didn't move. He just sat quietly all day, and he escaped into sleep when he could, and when he couldn't do either of those things, he kept his silence and his head down, and just tried to get through whatever the latest ordeal was as quickly as possible.

Until this.

He hadn't wanted to walk around with Steve, but he was powerless to disobey any command he was given. Steve had been kind enough to phrase it as a question, but all he had heard was the order to get up and walk.

So he had nodded and he had stood up and he had walked and when Steve wanted to hold his hand, he had submitted to that touch, even though his skin had been crawling at the feel of Steve's fingers on those twin scars on his hand. He had walked along and kept his head properly bowed and his eyes down and he had tried desperately not to think about all those nights when he followed his handler through the hall, the leash attached to his collar, heading for that room with the silver curtain and the steel shackles.

Now Steve was apologizing for all that, and he had no idea what he was supposed to do with that. He didn't care if Steve told him what to do.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked, and he nodded, because he had to.

Steve kind of sighed a little, a quiet, unhappy sound, and Tony tensed up. He waited for Steve to accuse him of dishonesty, to stare at him the way Natasha had, measuring him with just his eyes. But to his relief, Steve just said, "Oh. It's raining."

He glanced up and saw that Steve was right; rain streaked down the windows. It looked cold out, and he shivered a little just thinking about it.

"Cold?" Steve asked.

He shook his head. The Tower was wonderfully heated, despite it being the dead of winter. Most of the time he actually felt warm, helped out by layers of thick clothing.

They sat in silence. Tony stared at the rain on the window and felt his eyelids grow heavy. The walk had worn him out, both physically and mentally. All he wanted to do now was sleep.

"I'll let you rest," Steve said.

He nodded, remembered again that he was supposed to be talking now, and said, "Thank you."

He waited until Steve was gone, though, to lay down on the couch and fall asleep.

****

When he woke, the early winter dark had fallen, and he was still alone in the penthouse. He looked around quickly, checking twice to make sure the elevator doors remained closed. Already he could feel the knots tightening in his chest and stomach, the hour pressing down on him.

"Sir?"

Tony flinched, hunching in on himself.

"Colonel Rhodes is on the phone for you."

Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. It's just Rhodey. Stop it.

He swallowed hard, tasted coppery fear in the back of his throat, whispered, "Okay."

The screen materialized over the desk. Big enough to see from where he was sitting, far enough away that there was no danger of forgetting that he was actually seeing someone who was separated from him by many miles.

Every evening Rhodey called him, right around this time. And every evening, he sat here and stared at the floor and made no response as Rhodey talked about his day and the weather in Washington, DC and his latest adventure in dealing with the United States government.

"Hey, Tony," Rhodey said.

He glanced up, barely taking in the image on the screen. Rhodey was wearing a dark blue sweater. No uniform.

He was still a soldier, though.

"So I got some news for you," Rhodey said.

Tony kept his eyes lowered, and said nothing.

"You remember the lady from NASA, the SI liaison? Carol? Well…" Even without looking up, he could hear the smile in Rhodey's voice. "I ran into her the other day. And she asked if I wanted to get some coffee. And basically one thing led to another, and…I asked her out. And she said yes."

Tony said nothing. He knew he should be pleased for his friend, but he had locked himself away from those kinds of feelings for too long. He didn't know how to reach them anymore. Even thinking about the effort it would take to pretend made him feel exhausted.

"So I guess this is a thing now, me and Carol," Rhodey said.

The silence drew out between them. Tony stared at the floor and felt his skin crawl under the weight of Rhodey's gaze. Even with the man himself hundreds of miles away, present in the room only in the sense that his face was on a display projected in mid-air, Tony felt small and anxious as Rhodey continued to stare at him.

At last Rhodey kind of sighed. "You wanna hear about the day I had?" he said. His voice was a little too loud, trying a little too hard to sound normal. "You're gonna love this."

Tony stared at a patch on the floor and said nothing.

"I get a call this afternoon. Some dipshit Congressman is at the Pentagon. I won't say who, but trust me, you didn't vote for him. Anyway, he's pissed off because the vending machine ate his dollar and he wants to call in War Machine to blast the shit out of it."

Rhodey chuckled a little, amused by his own story. "So I get down there. Not in the suit, obviously. And there's this Congressman standing in the middle of the hall, surrounded by candy bars and bags of Cheetos. Apparently his aide knows a little jujitsu or something like that." He laughed. "You should have seen it. Milky Ways all over the floor."

Tony glanced up at him, then looked back down. He said nothing.

"Nothing? Not even a tiny ha-ha?" Rhodey sighed. "Well, I guess you had to be there."

Tony hunched his shoulders a little. He didn't know what he was expected to say.

"Tony." Rhodey's voice was kind, but so disappointed. "You know, this whole conversation thing works a lot better when both people participate."

Instantly his whole body went rigid with dread. He had screwed up. Again. He was supposed to be talking, and he knew it, but he kept forgetting. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"No," Rhodey said. "You don't have to be sorry. Just…you know what? It's okay. You don't have to talk if you don't want. Forget I said anything. But I'm gonna call you tomorrow, okay?"

Everything was all right, everything was fine. He wasn't going to be punished. This was the same thing Rhodey said every night. He nodded, winced in fright as he realized his mistake, and quickly said, "Okay."

"Okay," Rhodey said. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

The call ended. From the corner of his eye, he saw the screen go blank, then vanish.

Tony sat where he was for some time, staring at the same patch of floor he had been studying. After a while he turned and looked out at the city lights beyond the window.

You should have seen it. Milky Ways all over the floor.

The words chased themselves around and around inside his head. He didn't understand why. After months of sitting idle, his brain was grinding into motion again, and he didn't know why but he didn't want this, he didn't want this, oh God he had to make it stop.

Because there was something, there was,

Rhodey's laughter echoed in the empty room. He didn't know why he should be thinking about it.

You should have seen it. Milky Ways all over the floor.

He was ice-cold, shaking all over. Why?

Outside it was pitch black, the city lights bright and crisp against the darkness. All that light, all those buildings. Inhabited by people who had never even heard of—

Rhodey, laughing.

Something was, something was happening, a mental connection was being formed. All week long his brain had labored to produce even the simplest thoughts, but now something was, this was,

He didn't want to see. Didn't want to know. He raised one trembling hand to his forehead, as though he could physically ward off the thoughts that were taking shape there.

You should have seen it. Milky Ways all over the floor.

And from the black depths of memory, unwanted and horrible, another voice.

What is the name of your galaxy?

Tony shuddered helplessly.

In his head, Rhodey laughed. Milky Ways all over the floor.

That's what we call it! It's not my fault you guys call it by a different name.

Himself. Kneeling before the Kree accuser.

In his terror, he forgot how to breathe. He just sat there, staring in blank shock at the lights visible in the night, lights that could be extinguished so easily, like blowing out candles.

What is the name of your galaxy?

He moaned, a terrible sound that hurt his throat and tasted like blood.

no no no no no

Memory assaulted him, making him double over, clutching his head in agony. He could feel the cold again, chilled air on his naked skin. The floor cold and hard beneath his knees. The collar tight about his neck. The fear of the pain.

The terrible knowledge that he was already breaking.

What is the name of your galaxy?

His chest was too tight. He couldn't breathe. He staggered to his feet, crashed down to one knee, lurched upright again.

"Sir?" JARVIS sounded worried.

What is the name of your galaxy?

Something was, he was, he was—

What is the name of your planet?

He looked around, frantic, not even knowing what he was searching for. He started forward, reeling, stumbling. He collided with the table where once upon a time a completely different man had shared champagne with a beautiful woman. He found his feet again, staggered on. Toward the windows and those terribly vulnerable lights in the darkness.

Outside it was still raining. It was very cold. The wind struck him like a blow, crushed him beneath its relentless onslaught.

Point out your galaxy on this map.

He stopped. Stood staring in horror at the city, seeing not the lights now but that tall figure in green armor, and a star chart that was terrifyingly familiar.

Himself. On his knees. Pointing with a shaking hand.

No no no please God no.

Tony screamed. Into the night he screamed until he had to stop and drag in a deep breath, and then he screamed again, terror and pain and denial pouring down like the icy rain.

He flailed for breath, stumbled, caught himself with one hand on the armor assembly arc as he fell to his knees. He was soaked through, cold and shivering. His throat hurt. His heart was beating so hard that his chest hurt.

Point out your galaxy on this map.

The Kree knew where the Earth was.

And it was all his fault.

****

While Tony slept, Steve took advantage of his chance to let off some steam. He would have preferred to go running, but it was cold and raining out, and he was in no mood to fend off the crowd of paparazzi and well-wishers gathered at the entrance of the Tower. None of them were satisfied with the carefully prepared statements Pepper had released to the media regarding Tony's condition, statements that talked about "unexpected setbacks in an otherwise amazing recovery", and said that "we are confident that in the fullness of time, Mr. Stark will resume his duties both at Stark Industries and as Iron Man." Anyone leaving the Tower was subject to shouted questions and intrusive cameras, and Steve couldn't handle that on a good day, let alone a day like this one.

So instead of running, he went down to the gym. Thor was out visiting Jane and wouldn't be back until later tonight, but Clint was around, and he cheerfully took Steve up on his offer to beat each other up.

It was a good workout. Clint wasn't as strong as Thor, or as skilled at close combat as Natasha, but he was quick and light on his feet, and Steve had never seen anyone as good at improvisation. He had to earn every punch he landed, and several times Clint surprised him and socked him a good one.

Afterward he showered and changed into some clean clothes, choosing a heavy sweater; the temperature was dropping and the rain was supposed to change first to sleet, then to snow. He grabbed a quick dinner for himself, made a mental note of what he could bring up to Tony later, once it was safe to offer him food again, and then he stepped into the elevator.

He was nearly at the penthouse level when his phone chimed. He pulled it out and looked down – and his heart nearly stopped. It was a text from JARVIS.

You are needed in the penthouse immediately.

His heart began to race. He was late in coming up, he knew that. If Tony had already descended into that state of hazy fear that overtook him each evening, the sight of the elevator doors opening would terrify him.

But he could hardly stay away. And now something must have happened, something terrible enough for JARVIS to decide that Steve had to be there.

The penthouse was empty. That threw him for a split second, then he heard the terrible sound of someone screaming. He turned in the direction of the screaming, and cried out in horror when he saw Tony on the roof.

As he ran forward, he watched Tony fall to his knees. He hurried outside, and immediately had to raise his arm in order to shield his face from the stinging sleet.

"Tony!" The wind wanted to steal his voice. It was raised in an ungodly howl, and it wasn't until he was nearly there that he realized some of that terrible wailing was coming from Tony.

There was no time to be gentle or ask Tony if what he was about to do was okay. It was freezing out, and Tony was already soaked and oh God he could have just walked right off the roof so he just reached down and hauled Tony upright and then he was hurrying back inside, half-carrying, half-dragging Tony and pretending that he didn't notice the way Tony was cringing away from him.

After even a short time outside, the warmth of the penthouse felt heavenly. But Steve kept going, almost running to the elevator. "JARVIS! Take us down to Tony's room."

The doors slid open, and Steve stepped inside. In his arms, Tony was shuddering all over, ice melting in the short bristles of his hair. His eyes were closed. He had fallen silent, and he was deathly pale.

Steve was shaking himself by the time the elevator reached the floor where Tony now slept. Part of that was the cold, but it was also the sheer horror of realizing what could have happened, of imagining what he would have done if Tony had just kept on walking and gone right off the edge of the roof.

He helped Tony sit down near the foot of the bed, then ran down the hall to the linen closet. He grabbed an armful of towels, scrubbed at his own face and head, then quickly ran back.

Tony had slumped down onto the bed, and was now lying there curled up and shaking. But as Steve bent over him, towel in hand, he opened his eyes and looked up. He flinched back, but he held the eye contact, which was so unusual that Steve found himself frozen in place.

"I have to tell them," Tony said hoarsely.

Steve just stared. He didn't have the faintest idea of what to do. Whatever had happened, whatever had sent Tony out onto the roof to scream into the night, it was big enough to overcome the brutal lessons he had learned at the hands of the Kree.

Tony pawed at the green comforter and sat up. "I have to…" A single drop of water ran down the side of his face. "Rhodey…said…" He shuddered and looked up at Steve again. "I have to tell them."

"Okay," Steve said quickly. He stepped back a little, so he stood in front of Tony now. "Tell who? Tell us what?"

Tony's gaze slid away. He stared at the floor, his eyes dark with horror. "I couldn't help it," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Frantically Steve searched for the right thing to say. Tony was talking again, and he wanted so badly not to fuck this up and lose this precious thing, even if it had happened because of something terrible. "It's okay," he said. "Whatever it is, we'll be okay." He started to reach for Tony's wet clothing, but Tony pulled back with a thin sound of fear.

"Don't, please don't, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Tony said, the words tumbling out so fast they blurred into each other. "I couldn't help it, I'm sorry, I'll be good, I'll be good, I'll tell them, I will, just don't, please don't punish me, please."

Steve felt an icy chill seeping through him that had nothing to do with his wet and cold state. He was utterly convinced in that moment that Tony's sanity had snapped, that he was hearing the words that had previously only chased themselves around in Tony's head, finally spoken out loud.

He swallowed hard and managed to find his voice again. "Tell us what?"

He didn't say it loudly, but it cut through Tony's babble like flicking a switch off. Silence fell for a few seconds, then Tony looked tearfully up at him.

"They know where we are," Tony whispered.

The bottom of Steve's stomach dropped out. There was no need to ask who "they" were.

But it was impossible. The Kree had never been to Earth. They didn't even know what a human was – that was why Steve had consented to play his role, to let himself be put on display every day, so the Kree could see what a human male looked like, in the hope that they would connect his appearance with Tony.

And they knew where Earth was?

No. No, they can't.

"How?" he whispered back.

"I told them," Tony said. He was crying, still shaking with cold and shock. "I couldn't help it. I told them. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

He shouldn’t have been surprised, but the revelation was still a nasty shock. "It's okay," he said automatically. His voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. "It's okay."

Tony crumpled forward, his hands over his face. Steve caught him easily and held him tight, his arms about Tony's thin shoulders, water dripping onto the floor between them.

"It's okay," he said again, while Tony clung to him and wept desolately.

"It's okay," he said, and prayed that he was right.

Chapter Text

"Point out your galaxy on this map." He picked up his head and saw a star chart hanging in the air in front of him. Nothing on it looked familiar.

He shook his head. "I don't…"

"Answer or be punished."

Already he feared the pain so much that the fear of it was starting to rule his thoughts – much to his disgust. He wanted so badly to play it cool, not just blurt it out the way he did. "I don't recognize any of this!"

The image shifted. "Point out your galaxy on this map."

Once again nothing looked familiar. He had always enjoyed star-gazing, but looking at constellations from the safety of Earth was far different from staring at a meaningless cluster of stars. All spiral galaxies looked the same. How the hell was he supposed to know which one was the Milky Way?

"I don't know what it looks like," he said. "Happy now?"

"Answer or be punished," the accuser said.

****

The memory chased itself around his head, around and around, and sometimes he knew he was in Avengers Tower and Steve was the one by his side, peeling off his wet clothes and toweling him dry. Other times he saw the Kree accuser and his pitiless eyes and heavy hands that doled out pain with calculated blows.

"I'm sorry," he wept.

"I have to tell them," he begged.

"They know," he said. "They know. They know."

Rhodey had said, You know, this whole conversation thing works a lot better when both people participate, and he was trying, he was trying so hard to be good and speak, to remember the new rules that governed his life, but the Kree knew where Earth was and it was all his fault and –

"Tony, it's okay. Just breathe. It's okay."

Steve this time, because the accuser had never spoken to him with such kindness, had never known his name, had never thought of him as a man.

Steve had rescued him from the Kree, and he had repaid that act by betraying Steve.

He had betrayed all of humanity.

"I have to tell them," he whispered.

"It's okay," Steve said. "We will. I promise. We will."

He let Steve ease him down in the bed, cover him with the green comforter and the blanket he had brought from the ship. He was cold, so cold, shaking and crying and trying to tell Steve, to do what Rhodey wanted, to tell them all what he had done.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I couldn't help it."

I'm sorry, I tried, I did, I tried so hard, but I couldn't help it, and they know where Earth is and it's all my fault.

He didn't know if he was speaking out loud anymore, which words were inside his head only and which ones he was saying, and it didn't matter, none of it mattered, because the Kree knew where Earth was.

Point out your galaxy on this map.

He shuddered violently, terror strangling him so he couldn't speak anymore, couldn't scream either and that was good, that was very good, because once he got started he would never stop.

"It'll be okay," Steve said. "We'll figure it out. We'll tell them."

Yes. He had to tell them. He had to warn them. The Kree knew where Earth was.

"Just get some rest," Steve said.

He couldn't, he didn't want, he had to tell them. But a part of him wanted to just curl up here and close his eyes and let Steve hold him and keep him safe and warm.

"It's okay," Steve said. "It's not your fault, Tony."

It was, though, it was his fault, and although he desperately wanted to believe the lie, he could not let himself.

Not this time.

****

The moment Thor returned to the Tower, Steve went to see him. He hated to ruin Thor's good mood – visiting with Jane always brightened Thor's day – but some things were more important. "We have to talk."

Standing there with Thor, alone in the dining room, he could almost pretend that time had rolled back and they were on the Ernorran ship again. Back when it was just the two of them standing between Tony and the cruelty of the universe, when he had felt like Thor was the only one who understood what he was going through.

"We might have a problem," he said. "Apparently Tony showed the Kree where the Earth is located."

Thor looked very grave. "How did you learn this?"

"He told me," Steve said. "I don't know what happened, what made him suddenly think about it…" He wondered, though. Tony had mentioned Jim Rhodes, and Steve knew Rhodes called every night. Had something been said during that conversation, something to make Tony remember when he had given away the Earth's location? "He was pretty upset."

He had decided not to tell Thor that Tony had gone out on the roof. Tomorrow, once Tony had calmed down, he would get Tony to promise never to do that again when he was upset about something. No one else needed to know. They would only want to keep an eye on him all the time, or restrict his movements within the Tower, and that was something Steve wasn't willing to do.

Not yet, anyway.

"Is this going to be a problem?" he asked. "Will they come here?"

"I do not know," Thor said. He frowned in contemplation, his eyes distant. "From their perspective, we stole their property and murdered some of their soldiers. But I should think if anything, their eye would fall upon Asgard first."

Thor's story of being an exiled Asgardian would be well-known among the Kree by now as they gathered information on the two men who had attacked them so boldly. But still… "Not even the Kree would be stupid enough to attack Asgard," Steve protested.

"I would hope not," Thor said. "For their sake."

Steve wasn't interested in anything that would help the Kree. "So, what then?" he asked. He could feel his whole body tensed up, ready for imminent battle. And he couldn't lie – part of him wanted it. Part of him wanted to smash the Kree and destroy their filthy empire. "They can't take on Asgard, so they come here instead?"

"I do not think the life of one slave is enough for them to declare war on Earth," Thor said, "however angry they might be."

"I sense a 'but' in there somewhere," Steve said.

"Unfortunately," Thor said. He took a deep breath. "They may decide to enslave the Earth, not destroy it. Make this planet part of their empire."

Steve's breath caught. "That's not exactly any better."

"No," Thor said. "But it is something we should consider."

"Tony kept saying he had to 'tell them.' I assume he meant the Avengers. Or maybe SHIELD," Steve said. In his distress, it had been impossible to get anything else out of Tony. He had told himself that it could wait, it had already been a few weeks since the rescue at the auction, and there had been no sign of the Kree. One more day wouldn't make a difference. They could talk about it tomorrow after Tony had calmed down.

Thor nodded. "I agree. SHIELD will have to hear this."

"It can wait," Steve said. "We'll go tomorrow. He's asleep right now." And then, even though Thor had done nothing to indicate what he thought about the situation, he added, "It wasn't his fault. He said he couldn't help it. You know they must have tortured him or he would never have—"

"I am well aware of that," Thor said tightly, and Steve winced a little, guilty once again of offending his friend. "I do not blame Tony for giving them what they wanted. Anyone would have done the same."

Steve let out a long breath. "Yeah. I'm sorry."

Thor looked slightly mollified. "Go to him. Stay with him this night. He will need you more than ever. In the morning we will take our news to the Director of SHIELD and find out what they can do."

And if there was nothing they could do? If Fury just thanked them and sent them on their way? He tried not to think about that, about what it would be like to look up one day and see a Kree ship in orbit about the Earth.

Maybe he could offer himself up to them. He would willingly endure anything if it meant sparing Tony. Not that Tony would thank him for that sacrifice, for having to live with the knowledge that someone else was suffering in his place.

But he would do it. Whatever it took.

Anything to protect Tony.

****

That night Steve lay awake, staring sleeplessly up at the ceiling.

He had some decisions to make, and he had to make then now.

Don't let it go too long, Jim Rhodes had counseled, and he was right. It was time – it was past time – to sit down with Tony and talk with him about what had happened. He could not keep wandering around in the dark, making guesses and getting them wrong. This morning's blunder with their walk through the Tower was the final straw. Tony was balanced on a knife edge between the past and the now, and all it would take was one hard push to send him over.

In the morning, he decided. They would take Tony's concerns about the Kree to Director Fury, and then they would come back here, and then they would finally talk.

In the bed above him, Tony inhaled, shaky and soft, and Steve suddenly realized that he was awake. Awake and crying. Silently, the way the Kree had taught him.

He got up and went over to where Tony lay, curled up as small as he could make himself. "Hey," he said.

Tony hunched on himself, trembling in his effort to remain silent.

"It's okay," Steve said. His heart broke to see Tony's pain, to know that there was virtually nothing he could do about it.

"It's not your fault," he said. He sat on the edge of the bed and gently touched Tony's hand, which was barely peeking out from beneath the covers. At first Tony jerked back, but an instant later he grabbed at Steve's hand and held on tight.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispered. "I'm so sorry."

****

He dreams that he's out walking with Tony. It's a beautiful summer day; the sky overhead is blue and cloudless. They're strolling through Central Park, hand in hand, taking their time. They have nowhere to be, and the whole day is theirs for the taking. Steve is ridiculously happy and content, and he feels an immense gratitude for that, although he can't quite understand why.

"A hundred grand for your thoughts," Tony says with a cheeky grin.

Steve eyes the picturesque bridge arching across the pathway just up ahead. "I'm thinking that I'm going to shove you up against the tunnel there and kiss you."

"Huh," Tony says. "I was just thinking the same thing. I should sue you for intellectual copyright infringement. Either that or some supervillain has just unleashed a telepathic device on the city and you're feeling its effects."

"How about neither of those," Steve says. He's smiling helplessly because God, he loves Tony. "How about I just kiss you?"

"Works for me," Tony says.

They kiss beneath the bridge and it is warm and thrilling, and their hands roam and touch and promise, and Steve knows that as soon as they get back to the Tower they are going to make love, and the anticipation fills him with desire. He can't believe how happy he is. He doesn't know what he ever did to deserve this man.

"Well," Tony says, a bit breathlessly. "Should we take this somewhere else?"

Steve looks at the path ahead, and his heart leaps into his throat. The sky on the other side of the bridge is the dull, washed-out grey-white of winter. The trees are bare, their limbs stretching torturously upward for something they've lost and can never regain. He can feel the cold too, wisps of it easing beneath the bridge, trying to wrap icy fingers around him and drag him forward.

"No," he gasps.

"No?" Tony says with a magnificent pout. "I'm all for PDA, you know that, but the last time I was arrested for public indecency I was twenty-four and utterly hammered, and the picture in the paper was incredibly unflattering and I swore I would never do that again. So unless you want me to break my promise, we should really head on back." He grins up at Steve and starts walking forward.

"No!" Steve cries. "Don't!"

Startled, Tony stops and looks back at him. He's standing right at the shadow line of the bridge; one more step will take him out into that winter desolation. The cold light washes over him, turning him pale and ghostly, rendering his face in stark lines, the bones far too prominent. "What's wrong?" he asks.

"Don't go out there," Steve pleads. His heart feels like it's caught in a vise. He's never been so afraid. "I don't want to lose you."

"What are you talking about?" Tony says. He looks puzzled and a little bit exasperated. "I'm right here. Now are you coming or not?"

Cold wind seeps beneath the bridge. It blows Steve's hair back from his forehead, and gusts through his clothing. When it's gone, Tony is standing there naked, his head shorn, shivering in the chill.

Steve cries out in horror, because he remembers then.

He remembers all of it.

"Come on," Tony says. He holds out a trembling hand. "It'll be okay, Steve. I promise." He is a wreck of a man now, a shell of his former self. Only his eyes remain the same, the vibrant spirit still strong there.

But it won't last. Steve knows it won't last. That spark will soon be extinguished, and then there will be nothing left of him.

"Tony, please," he whispers.

Alone, Tony steps out into the bleak landscape ahead—

****

He woke up with his pulse racing and his cock hard against his leg. His heart felt sick with sorrow, but apparently his body only remembered what it had felt like to kiss Tony and press his body close.

He sat up on one elbow and looked over at the bed. Tony was curled up beneath the covers, still asleep. It was a little past seven, according to the clock on the nightstand. He had only slept for two hours.

Moving as silently as possible, Steve eased out from his sleeping bag and stood up. He took care to angle his body so Tony would not be able to see his erection if through some unfortunate chance he woke up right then. But luck was with him as he quickly rummaged through the dresser drawers where he had stashed some of his clothing. He grabbed the first pair of clean underwear he found and a T-shirt that looked slightly less wrinkled than the others, then hurried across the hall and into the bathroom. Once the door was safely shut behind him, he breathed out in relief and let his shoulders slump.

Images from his dream stayed with him as he used the toilet and brushed his teeth, then stepped into the shower. He turned the hot water on full blast, hoping it would drive the nightmare away. He had to stand with his left shoulder almost touching the back wall of the shower; without the curtain, he had to angle the showerhead so the spray would not get all over the floor. It was awkward and a bit annoying, but as he did every morning, he told himself firmly that he would put up with it. He would do whatever he had to do in order to make Tony feel safe.

He still didn't know why the shower curtain bothered Tony so much. It was one of those questions he needed to ask, but dreaded hearing the answer to. And he wondered, too, what Tony thought as he stood here every morning, somehow managing to shower without getting the bandage on the back of his neck wet. At first he had expected Tony to spend ages in the shower, luxuriating in the steam and hot water, but in that he had been proven wrong. Instead Tony was in and out so fast that most mornings Steve had barely finished making the bed and straightening up the room when he came back in, wrapped up in a bathrobe that was too big for his thin frame.

Thinking about Tony in the shower made his cock twitch. Not Tony as he was now, but the way he had been, the way he had looked in Steve's dream. A touch of gray hair at his temples and in his beard, his arms and chest firmly muscled, the light of the arc reactor glowing on tanned skin. Smiling, teasing, pressing little kisses in a line down Steve's back. Up against the wall, head tilted back, fingers tangled in Steve's hair, the heat of his cock in Steve's mouth.

Steve groaned. He wrapped his hand about himself and stroked, just the way he liked it. Guilt ripped through him and he hated himself for this, for thinking about Tony this way, but he couldn't help it. He was only human and he missed this, and he needed this, God, he needed this.

He closed his eyes, stroking harder now, using his self-loathing, needing the pain mixed in with the pleasure to make this tolerable. He reached around and slid one finger, soapslick and warm, deep inside himself, imagined it was Tony's fingers, Tony's weight warm on his back, Tony's breath on his neck, murmuring endearments and filthy things in his ear. He thought about Tony spread out on the bed before him, eyes dark with desire, laughing, arms thrown out wide. He remembered how it felt to be on his knees, Tony's cock deep inside him, one of Tony's hands rubbing small circles on the small of his back, soothing him. He remembered the rare nights when it was himself looking down, the incredible heat of Tony's body around his cock, the way Tony talked constantly, clutching at him with both hands.

He cried out when he came, as much from grief as from pleasure, because he knew those days of laughter and passion were lost to him forever. He would never have them again, never fall asleep naked with his body entwined with Tony's body, the smell of sex and sweat in the air around them.

And what he had to ask himself, right here and now, his cock still twitching a little in his hand, on his knees as hot water streamed down on his bent head, was if he could accept that. If he could live with the knowledge that his relationship with Tony was forever changed. If he could go on knowing that in all likelihood Tony would never want to have sex again, that this empty, solo pleasure was all he could look forward to.

A strangled sound escaped him. He hadn't realized he was crying.

It might not be never, he told himself. Tony was amazingly strong, and already he had come far from those terrible days aboard the Ernorran ship. Maybe one day he would surprise them both and they would end up in bed together.

And maybe he never would, and Steve had to accept that. Hope could be a dangerous thing, and he could not face the future filled with hope based on a lie.

He stood up, soaped up his hands and rinsed them beneath the spray, wiped at his eyes.

In the end it wasn't really a choice to make. He loved Tony with all his heart. It didn't matter how broken Tony was now, or what might happen in the future. He loved Tony and that was the only thing that mattered. Sex with Tony was fun and felt amazing, but it had never defined their relationship. Nothing would change if they could no longer touch each other in the old ways. His love for Tony would not diminish or weaken because of that.

He took a deep breath. Then another. With a steady hand, he reached for the shampoo.

He had to be quick and finish up. He had already been in here far too long. He had almost forgotten what he had learned last night, that the Kree knew where Earth was. Right now that took precedence over everything else. He had promised Tony that they would talk to Director Fury and he had to keep that promise.

But when they were done, when they were safely back here in the Tower, he and Tony were finally going to talk.

****

He returned to the bedroom with his hair damp and his dirty clothes bundled up in one hand. Then he just stood there for a moment, staring in surprise, because the bed was empty.

Tony was gone.

Steve tossed his dirty clothes into the hamper in the closet, then headed up for the kitchen. Before now, Tony had always waited on him and they had gone upstairs together. Clearly the driving need to speak to SHIELD had given him the motivation to act on his own. It was a step forward, but for all the wrong reasons, and Steve found himself wincing a little as he stepped into the kitchen.

Here, too, the room was empty. Outside, the morning was dull and gray. A coffee mug sat beside the sink, bright green, one of Bruce's. There was no sign that Tony had been here.

His heart starting to beat faster, Steve hurried down the hall toward the elevators. He told himself not to panic, that he would find Tony (not on the roof, please God not on the roof) in the penthouse.

But Tony was not in the penthouse. He was not on the roof, either, and that was when Steve finally gave in to his fear. "JARVIS!"

"Yes, Captain," came the immediate response.

"Where's Tony?" he demanded. He felt almost sick with fear. He had vowed never to leave Tony, never to let anything happen to him – and now he didn't even know where Tony was.

"Mr. Stark has gone to the SHIELD helicarrier," said JARVIS.

Steve went very still, staring at the bar at the far end of the room without actually seeing it. "What?"

"While you were in the shower, Mr. Stark had me summon Thor, and requested passage to the helicarrier."

Tony. Had asked JARVIS to summon Thor. Had asked Thor to take him to the helicarrier. He struggled to process it, to understand what it meant. Two things he would have thought impossible for Tony in his current state – and yet he had done them, driven by his fear of the Kree and his terrible guilt.

"And Thor just said yes?"

"He was unsure if such a trip was for the best, given Mr. Stark's emotional state, but in the end he consented. They left fourteen minutes ago."

That meant they were already there, assuming the helicarrier remained above New York Harbor, camouflaged by the stealth panels. "I need to get out there," he said. "Can you call Thor?"

"I have no means of contacting Thor," JARVIS replied. "He does not carry a phone on his person."

Of course he didn't. He was Thor. Steve breathed out harshly, ran a hand over his mouth and chin. "Okay," he said, thinking fast. "I need to get up there. How do I get up there?" How did any SHIELD employee reach the helicarrier when it was in the air, for that matter? Why had he never paid attention to mundane details like that? Why was he just standing here wasting time when Tony was up there all alone, terrified and yet so incredibly brave?

"There are regular helicopter flights from the roof of the SHIELD offices within the city," JARVIS said. "You could make your way there. Or I could send them a message indicating you require immediate travel to the helicarrier, and that you are requesting pickup."

"Yes," Steve said quickly. "Do that. Yes. Thank you." He turned around in a slow circle, looking at nothing in particular, wondering what was happening on board the helicarrier right now.

"Why didn't he wait for me?" he said. He didn't really expect an answer, and JARVIS did not provide one. "Why didn't he wait?"

****

I have to tell them.

Point out your galaxy on this map.

The Kree know where Earth is.

Even at this early hour, the bridge of the helicarrier was fully staffed and a hub of activity. Uniformed agents walked back and forth briskly, some carrying tablets, others holding paper files. There was a constant chatter between members of the crew as they kept the helicarrier flying smoothly. People coughed and sneezed and tapped away at computers and leaned in to talk to each other and laughed.

And they were all staring at him.

All this Tony glimpsed from the corner of his eye as he stood waiting for Director Fury, his head down, not wanting to see, not wanting to know. Thor was standing at the top of the stairs, between him and the bridge, but there was still no avoiding the weight of all those eyes. They were all staring at him, and when they weren't laughing too loudly, like everything was normal, just another day, they were whispering avidly to each other.

I have to tell them.

The Kree know where Earth is.

There was something about that, something else, something he needed to think about. Something he very much did not want to think about, because he knew if he did, he would go mad. And he had fought too long and hard for his sanity to give it up now.

But still.

The Kree know where Earth is.

Fury was holding court at the conference table in the aft section of the bridge, where in ancient times Tony himself had once sat while Fury shamelessly used Phil Coulson's death as leverage to get him and Steve to work together. The Director of SHIELD had looked up in surprise to see him and stared openly for a moment before saying, "Stark. Give me just a second." He had turned back to the agents clustered around him, men and women impatiently waiting their turn to speak with their superior, and pretended to ignore Tony.

The Kree know where Earth is and—

No. God, no.

Don't think about it, don't think about it, and they were all staring at him. He felt pinned down beneath the weight of all those eyes. They were judging him, measuring him, and he slumped his shoulders still further and bowed his head, trying his best to appear properly submissive, but still they stared and stared.

I have to tell them, but how could he speak, how could he go against the lessons he had learned so well? Bad things happened, very bad things, when he disobeyed, when the Kree noticed him, when people stared at him, and he wanted to drop down to his knees and make himself small and servile, to be good (please be good, be good).

The Kree—

"Next!" Fury called.

Tony cried out in terror. The word echoed and rolled around in his brain, the word he had heard five or seven times a night for so long, called out in bored and impatient tones, and he was on his knees, clutching at his head, trying to keep out the memories and that number, that horrible number which was always lurking in the back of his mind, going up with every call of Next!

A babble of voices rose all around him. Tony and Stark and is he okay and stand back and Next, Next, Next! Someone touched him, and he shrank back with another awful cry, and he jammed one fist in his mouth to be silent, be good, please God be good, don't, please, don't do it to me again, please, please, please

Hands gripped his arms and he was pulled up to his feet and propelled forward and no, God no, no, he was free now, he was free, they couldn't do this to him again, please God they couldn't do this to him…

please

****

Steve had been waiting on the roof for nearly ten minutes when the SHIELD chopper finally touched down. The moment he was inside and the door closed behind him, they were lifting off again.

"It's a good thing you called us!" his pilot yelled. "Director Fury just gave the order to bring you in. We told him we were already on the way to get you."

Cold chills broke over him. "What do you mean, bring me in?"

But neither the pilot nor the co-pilot would say, and Steve could do nothing but sit there and watch the helicarrier draw closer, and fear the worst.

****

Tony looked very small, asleep in the same bed that he had occupied once before, when they had first arrived back on Earth. He was asleep, heavily sedated, dark shadows beneath his eyes.

"What did you say to him?" Steve asked. Despite the fact that Tony could not hear them, he kept his voice low and tightly controlled.

"Nothing," Fury said. "We didn't even get a chance to talk. He freaked out first."

"You never should have let him stand there so long," Steve said. He was so angry he couldn't even look at Fury for fear that he might do something he would later regret.

"Are you gonna read me the riot act, too?" Fury said. His tone made it clear that he was in no mood for any more shit.

There was no need to ask who had done it already. Thor had been here when Steve arrived, pacing back and forth in the hall outside Medical, his face dark. Steve wanted to be angry with him too, for bringing Tony here in the first place, for not intervening when it became clear that Tony was experiencing a panic attack, for being there while Steve was standing in the shower jerking off to old memories. But he couldn't do it. Not when the one person he was really angry with was himself.

"Why did he even come here?" Fury asked in angry bafflement.

Steve looked up at him. Fury was standing near the foot of the bed, his arms folded, glaring at Steve. His position placed Tony in his blind spot, so he couldn't see what had become of him. It was a luxury Steve didn't have – and he suddenly couldn't stop the anger from pouring out.

"He came here to see you. He was upset last night, because he remembered something the Kree did to him. But he was so determined to warn you that he came out here, anyway, when he had no business being here." He saw that now, too late as ever. He had promised Tony they would talk to Fury, but he should never have made that promise. He should have left immediately last night and come out here alone. He should have done everything in his power to put Tony's mind at ease instead of making him suffer all night in an agony of guilt.

"Warn me about what?" Fury asked.

"The Kree know where we are," Steve said. "They know where our galaxy is, and they know where Earth is."

"Stark told them," Fury said flatly.

"He didn't have a choice," Steve said. "And if you say one word to him about it—"

"I'm not blaming the man," Fury said. "Or do you think I'm completely blind?" Anger tightened his voice. "I can see what they did to him. Even a trained field agent would have rolled over on them. But the fact remains, I've got to worry now about an alien species who likes to enslave other planets for breakfast!"

"We can handle it," Steve said.

"And how exactly are we supposed to do that?" Fury demanded. "In case you hadn't noticed, the last time we faced a galactic threat, it took all six of you to bring it down, to the tune of billions of dollars of property damage and hundreds of lives lost."

"We'll figure it out," Steve snapped. "And you should think about the fact that he didn't have to warn you. He could have kept it to himself."

"Captain, it doesn't matter if we know about it or not. The Kree still pose a threat to Earth. That's what matters." Fury turned around and walked out.

"You're wrong," Steve said quietly to the thin air where Fury had been standing. "That's not the only thing that matters."

He pulled up a chair and settled down to wait for Tony to wake up.

****

Even before Tony opened his eyes, he knew he was in a medical setting, and he began to tremble. He had vague memories of people staring at him, of being the focus of attention, and then--

"Tony? It's okay." Steve's voice, and he opened his eyes just as he remembered that call of Next! For a moment he saw Steve looking down at him, concerned and sympathetic, then he quickly turned away, remembering his place, remembering to obey.

"It's okay," Steve said again. "It's just me."

He wanted to go home. He wanted, oh God, he wanted to close his eyes and go back to sleep, to sleep forever, for this to all be some terrible nightmare.

Next!

He shuddered and shrank back in the bed.

"Can you tell me what happened?" Steve asked gently.

It wasn't a command, he didn't have to answer, but he remembered what Rhodey had said: this whole conversation thing works a lot better when both people participate.

He couldn't look at Steve. He couldn't—

"I talked to Fury," Steve said. "He knows about the Kree."

He nodded a little. He was grateful that he didn't have to say it, that Steve had done it for him.

"We can go whenever you want," Steve said. "There's a Quinjet waiting to take us back to the Tower."

He nodded again. Forced himself to say, "Thank you."

He sat up. His body felt heavy and lethargic. He had a flash of memory, a voice yelling, Just give him something! and the world tilting all around him, bright lights overhead like the Kree medical room, and he opened his mouth to scream—

"Tony?"

He fought for breath, to calm down. Fear cut through the dull haze enclosing him, sharpening his thoughts and sending shivers skittering through him. "I want to go home," he whispered, and the words were jagged and painful in his throat.

"Okay," Steve said. "We'll go."

It wasn't like last time. There was no anticipation of going home. He only wanted to get out of here, to put this place with its bright lights and sterile environment behind him. He never wanted to be here again, at the mercy of doctors and their impersonal hands and their cold eyes. He followed Steve into the admitting area, and he kept his head down and his gaze on the floor and when he heard his name, he flinched, but continued walking.

Ahead of him, though, Steve had stopped. He nearly bumped into Steve's rigid back before he realized what was happening, and he froze, hardly daring to breathe.

The television on the nurse's station was tuned to one of the 24-hour news channels. The perky reporter currently giving a voiceover sounded young and enthusiastic. "The same anonymous source responsible for this incredible video says Stark, who hasn't been seen in public since his return, is suffering from a nervous breakdown, although no one can say why. Whatever the cause, one thing is for certain: we will definitely have to wait a long time before Iron Man returns to the skies."

On the screen, silent pantomime played out behind the reporter's words. Cell phone camera footage, a bit shaky, the top half of the image cut off by something that had partially obstructed the view. What was visible, though, was more than enough. Surrounded by a group of people who were bent over in anxious concern, a man was curled up on the floor, arms over his head. The towering form of Thor entered the frame and picked the man up – who promptly began to scream.

Tony stared at the TV in sick horror. The man on the screen, caught in freeze-frame now, was painfully pale and thin. His head was disgustingly shorn, his eyes dark and sunken in his haggard face. His clothes were too big for him. He looked utterly insane.

"How did that wind up on TV?" Steve demanded.

"We don't know, sir," said one of the nurses. "Director Fury has already launched an internal investigation."

On the TV, the reporter was now saying, "…of the many questions we will be asking over the next few days is what role, if any, SHIELD itself has played in Stark's breakdown."

A new voice joined in, a male reporter. Onscreen, the cell phone camera footage began playing over again, an endless loop of revolting horror. "I couldn't agree more, Stacy. I think what we're seeing here is what happens when an average man tries to keep up with decidedly above-average superheroes. And let's not forget that just four months ago, Stark was in critical condition with a broken back. And we still don't know where he disappeared to or what was done to him to effect such an amazing recovery."

"Turn it off!" Steve snapped.

"I'm sorry, sir." The TV screen went blank.

Steve's arm went about his shoulders. He cringed back, then stumbled forward as Steve began walking again, forcing him to keep moving.

"Tony? Tony, listen. It doesn't matter. It's just the news. They say things, but it doesn't matter. Okay?"

They were in the hall, just the two of them, but he could still see the images on that screen, that silent but clear video.

He hadn't known. He hadn't realized how ugly he was now. He never looked at himself in the mirror, avoided looking at his hateful body as much as possible.

He hadn't realized. But no one else had that luxury. They were all forced to see him and what he had become.

"Tony?" Steve tilted his head down, trying to see his face, and he couldn't bear it suddenly, couldn't stand to have Steve look at him.

He didn't even think; he just reacted, raising one hand, shielding his face as he turned away. "Don't," he pleaded. Don't look at me, please, don't.

"Don't what?" Steve asked, so kind and compassionate and he couldn't endure it, he couldn't, he was going to wind up screaming again like that scrawny madman on TV.

Sick heat flooded his insides, a rush of twisted prickly feeling that he had forgotten even existed. Emotions so tangled up that he could hardly tell them apart.

Why hadn't they told him?

Why hadn't anyone told him how ugly he was now?

Why had they let him come here today looking like this? Why had they let everyone stare at him, and God no wonder they had stared, he wasn't Tony Stark anymore, he was a disgusting thing brought to life, jerking and twitching and screaming like a raving lunatic.

Why hadn't anyone told him?

"Tony?"

Oh God he wanted to shrivel up and die of humiliation. He couldn't go back out there, through those halls where SHIELD agents would walk past and look at him. He didn't want anyone to see him, not ever again.

But there was no choice, and "I just want to go home," he whispered, and he wasn't really free, not now and not ever, not when he had to follow meekly along behind Steve, still on that collar and leash, still nothing but a slave. Walking with his head bowed and his shoulders slumped and his hands shaking, cowering back from the weight of the eyes staring at him.

Not just with fear this time, no, but with shame.

There was no ceremonial ride in a unique flying car today, no smiling Coulson, no one to make him feel welcome. Only a young agent standing beside one of the Quinjets, who saluted and came to attention as they drew near. "Sirs."

"Just take us to the Tower," Steve said wearily. "And thank you."

"Yes, sir," said the agent.

They climbed aboard. Tony sat down quickly and stared at the floor and tried not to think of the images he had seen on TV.

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to buckle up," said their pilot.

Steve made a sound of protest.

"I'm sorry, sir. I know it's a short flight, but it's regulations."

He couldn't move, he was paralyzed with fear and shame. So it was Steve who drew the harness over his head, reached between his legs for the other half, then buckled them securely together at his chest. For a moment their eyes met, and he saw the compassion in Steve's gaze, and he clung to that even as he looked away.

Only Steve, he told himself as Steve gave his cheek a quick kiss and said, "You'll be okay." Only Steve, as the Quinjet took off and the straps of the harness dug into his shoulders. Only Steve, as the buckle jammed against his chest like he was bent over that steel frame again, legs spread and trembling, arms stretched out to either side, the bar that supported his chest pressing painfully on the arc reactor.

Only Steve, and they were going home.

The flight seemed to last forever. Tony sat very still and tried not to cry. He knew now how disgusting he was. He didn't want to give Steve and the pilot another reason to be embarrassed by his mere presence.

Thor was waiting for them atop the Tower, having flown back alone. The mid-afternoon sky was gray and dreary, and it was very cold. Tony started shivering the moment the hatch opened up, letting in the winter wind.

Steve thanked their pilot again, then they were bustling inside, Steve beside him, Thor behind him. Tony walked numbly in their midst, horribly aware of how helpless he was, in case either of them decided to punish him for his behavior on the helicarrier.

It was warm inside, but he scarcely felt it. When Steve gestured to the couch, he sat immediately. Words of apology, of pleading, sprang to his lips, but he held them back, bowed his head and closed his eyes, covered his scarred left hand with his right, and waited for them to pass sentence on him.

"I owe you an apology, my friend," Thor said heavily. "I should not have taken you to the helicarrier. Rather than listen to my misgivings, I allowed myself to be swayed by your appeal, and by my gladness that you were able to make the request of me. I was wrong, and I am sorry."

Every word was like a knife twisting in his chest. He was burning with shame; he had to squeeze his hands together to keep from covering his face so they couldn't look at him.

"And please don't worry about what's on TV," Steve said. "None of that stuff matters, okay? All that matters is that you're getting better."

Deep inside, where the worst of his guilt and shame writhed and twisted on themselves, something else stirred. It was the way they talked to him, the way they looked at him…

"Can you tell us what happened?" Steve asked. "What made you upset?"

It was that solicitous tone in Steve's voice, too.

"I know it's hard for you, and it goes against what you learned, but when you get upset, you need to tell someone. We need you to talk to us, Tony. Please."

That thing, that new thing buried deep, raised its head. It made him open his eyes, stilled his trembling, dried his tears. He almost didn't recognize it, it had been so long since he had felt it.

Anger.

It swept over him, a flood of heat that filled his entire body and made him clench his fists. It wanted to pull him under – and he wanted to let it, because it felt, God it felt good to get angry again.

But in the very next instant cold horror rose up, stealing away that rush of warmth and leaving him shuddering helplessly. He couldn't let himself give in. Lashing out with angry words only earned him pain and punishment. Only silence and submission could keep him safe. He was (but I'm free now), but the lessons had been too cruelly learned, and he was, and Thor and Steve had saved him and he had to be grateful, he had to be good, he had to be good.

"Tony? It's okay."

He felt like he was newly enslaved all over again. Crouched down in the corner of his cell. Feeling like he was going to shatter from the unrelenting horrors which were now memories. Shaking with the force of emotions he was not allowed to express. Lost and alone and desperately seeking some place of calm in the silence and the cold.

Knowing that if he could not find it, he would die.

"Take this," said a voice.

Something was draped across his shoulders. Red, thick (Thor), very warm. Heavy weight settled on his right. On his left. An arm went around his back. Then another. He was held. Supported. Steadied.

And Tony breathed. Finally.

Chapter Text

When Tony had calmed down and it was safe to leave him with Thor, Steve took the elevator from the penthouse and headed down a couple floors. He needed to talk to Thor about what had happened today, but that would have to wait until later, when Tony slept and he could be safely left alone.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, Steve said, "When Colonel Rhodes calls tonight, I want to talk to him first."

"Yes, Captain," said JARVIS.

He glanced at his watch. It was almost four o'clock now. Rhodes usually called around six. That was good. It gave him plenty of time.

Despite the events of the day, he felt very calm. He couldn't decide if that was a good thing, or if he was still just in shock.

The Avengers were assembled in the large living room. Steve supposed they had gathered here before for happy occasions, but at the moment he couldn't think of a single one. All he could think of was that day when he and Thor had told them of the plan to take Tony to Ernor to heal his spine.

Only Bruce had protested that day. He should have listened, he thought now. He should have known it was too good to be true. Instead he had persisted, and now he had to live with the knowledge that he had, for all intents and purposes, killed the man he loved.

They looked up at him solemnly now, Clint on the big armchair, Natasha and Pepper Potts on the couch, Bruce standing next to the coffee table. He knew they all shared in his helpless frustration, but just then he felt incredibly far apart from them, separated by a gulf that could never be crossed. They hadn't seen the things he had. They hadn't felt the things he had.

He prayed they never would.

"You've all seen the news by now," he said. "I wish I could tell you how it happened. But the truth is, I don't know. I don't know what happened to Tony, what the Kree did to him, what will upset him."

He squared his shoulders. "But that's going to change. Starting today. We're going to talk…and we're going to figure some things out."

They met his gaze evenly, each of them looking at him with sympathy, embarrassment, carefully controlled anger aimed not at himself, he knew, but at the ones who had done this to Tony and made this terrible speech necessary in the first place.

He took a deep breath. "One thing… One thing I should have told you…" But he stopped, unable to continue. He couldn't go on. He couldn’t tell them about the nightly rapes Tony had endured. He couldn't betray Tony like that.

The others gazed at him expectantly, warily even. All except Natasha. Her jaw was clenched, but her eyes were so sad – and he suddenly realized that she already knew the truth. However she had figured it out, whenever she had done it, she knew what he had meant to say.

What he could not say.

"The Kree know where we are," Steve said. He deliberately did not look at Natasha as he spoke. He didn't want to see her disappointment in him. "They know where the Milky Way is, and they know where Earth is. That's why Tony went to SHIELD. He wanted to warn them."

Heavy silence met his words. Pepper went very pale and swallowed hard. Bruce's chin came up. Clint and Natasha exchanged a tight glance.

"How long before they show up on our doorstep?" Clint asked.

"I don't know," Steve admitted. "They might not even care. They believe slaves are beneath their notice. They probably won't travel all this way for the sake of one man."

"But you blacked their eye when you rescued Tony," Clint pointed out.

"Yeah," Steve said, not without a touch of satisfaction. "We did."

"So it's situation normal, then," Bruce said. "Wait and see…and prepare for the worst."

Steve nodded. "Exactly."

****

He was in the library, ready and waiting when JARVIS informed him that Jim Rhodes was calling. The other man seemed completely unsurprised to see Steve's face on his screen instead of Tony. "Captain."

"Colonel." It was almost dark out, still cold and cloudy. Upstairs, Tony sat in the penthouse with Pepper, probably staring blankly at nothing while she tried to reassure him that she had already begun damage control with the media and that everything would be all right.

"How is he?" Rhodes asked.

Steve wasn't sure how to answer that. Tony had been visibly distressed ever since that moment in Medical when he had seen himself on TV. But he was also more submissive than Steve had seen him since that first day aboard the Ernorran ship, the day they had rescued him from the auction.

"He's upset," Steve said. "He saw the news."

"Oh shit," Rhodes said angrily. "How? And what the hell was he doing at SHIELD anyway?"

"Trying to warn them," Steve said. "The Kree know the location of Earth."

Rhodes couldn't hide his dismayed shock. But he drew himself up immediately, already mentally preparing for action. "What do you need me to do?"

"Nothing right now," Steve said. "Just tell me one thing. What did you say to him?"

He already knew the answer to his question. He had made JARVIS replay the last conversation between Tony and Jim Rhodes. He knew exactly what had sparked Tony's unwelcome revelation. First the mention of NASA, then that offhand comment about Milky Ways. In hindsight, it was almost too easy, making Steve wonder if he was missing something.

"I didn't say anything," Rhodes said. He looked puzzled.

"You sure about that?" Steve said. "Nothing about space?"

Comprehension dawned on Rhodes's face. "Yeah, I might've mentioned NASA." He looked bewildered. "That's what made Tony remember?"

"That and the Milky Ways," Steve said.

He could only imagine how Tony must have felt, forced to sit here and remember being interrogated by the Kree. The memories could not be pleasant; surely Tony would have held out as long as he could, refusing to give the Kree any information. They had probably used the collar to torture him, increasing the duration and intensity of the shocks until he couldn't endure any more, and he finally told them what they wanted to know.

And what was Tony thinking? Was he even capable of blaming himself right now? Could he feel guilt? Shame?

"Son of a bitch," Rhodes sighed.

"It's okay," Steve assured him. "You couldn't know." He grimaced. "It's a problem we all have."

"Still?" Rhodes asked. It wasn't snide or rude, but quiet, understanding.

Steve exhaled slowly. "It's killing me," he admitted. "This not knowing. I never know what to say around him, or what will set him off." He shook his head. "I waited too long to ask."

"Yeah, I know that feeling," Rhodes said dryly.

"The funny thing is," Steve said, "I was going to. This morning I woke up and I decided that today was the day. I was going to try to get him to talk about it. But when I went in to find him, he had already gone to the helicarrier."

Rhodes gave him a narrow look. "Where were you when this was happening?"

"In the shower," Steve said, and prayed to God that his guilt didn't show on his face. If Rhodes knew what he had been doing in the shower, he would never be able to look the man in the eye again. And he didn't want that to happen. It was surprisingly easy to talk to Jim Rhodes, and more than ever, Steve needed a friend.

"So he waited until you were out of the room and you couldn't stop him," Rhodes said. A slow, reluctant smile spread across his face. "Damn if that doesn't sound like the Tony I used to know."

That thought hadn't occurred to Steve before. In a flash it hit him what it meant, this proof that Tony was thinking again, plotting again. Able to conceive an idea and carry it through even though he must have been quaking with terror the entire time. It was amazing and so courageous, and Steve found himself grinning back at Rhodes with wordless joy.

"You know," Rhodes said, and he wasn't smiling anymore, "maybe this isn't my place, but if you really want to help Tony, you should leave."

Steve's smile froze on his face as he stared at Rhodes. The light-hearted moment they had just shared was gone like it had never existed. "What the hell does that mean?"

Rhodes held up a placating hand. "Just…hear me out. The whole world knew you two were an item. You're not doing him any favors by hiding away, making it look like you're afraid to leave him. You need to get out there. Go do the superhero thing. Take down some bad guys. Show the press that you aren't hiding. Give them something else to report on, some new headlines."

Steve focused on breathing, and tried to pretend that he wasn't affected by Rhodes's suggestion. He knew it wasn't meant as a condemnation, or proof that he was doing everything wrong – but it was hard not to feel that way.

"I can't just leave him alone." He couldn't go strutting off to be Captain America while Tony stayed here, shut in and unable to even think about being Iron Man. And what would happen if his taking up the shield spurred Tony to try to get back into the armor? JARVIS had already admitted he couldn't keep Tony out, and without Steve here, nothing would prevent him from suiting up and flying off somewhere.

Or what if Tony didn't decide to suit up? What if he took Steve's departure as his due, as what he deserved for being so helpless, so useless? What if he saw it as a punishment for his recent behavior, making him suffer through his fear and anxiety all alone with no one to sit with him and hold him?

"No," Steve said. "I can't."

"You can," Rhodes said. "And I really think you should."

"Easy for you to say," Steve said.

Rhodes looked pissed off, no doubt unhappy at being reminded that he wasn't able to visit Tony in person just yet. "It's not like you're abandoning him. And he won't be alone. Pepper's there. And the other Avengers."

"I know," Steve sighed.

He had to admit, Rhodes had a point. The media wasn't likely to give this up anytime soon. That video of Tony breaking down on the helicarrier was going to make the rounds for weeks. And since Tony himself couldn't come forward to address the issue, it was up to the rest of them to give the media something else to print. Something like Captain America striding forth, shield raised high, taking out some bad guys.

"I guess I could ask Natasha about a flight to Madripoor," he said reluctantly.

"That's the spirit," Rhodes said. "Although…" He wrinkled his nose. "Madripoor? Really?"

"A.I.M.," Steve said absently.

"Ah," Rhodes said.

"But I need to ask Tony first. I'm not leaving him if it's going to upset him," he said.

"You do that," Rhodes said. "But Cap? Do it soon."

****

Steve remained in the library after JARVIS sent the call up to the penthouse. While he waited, he practiced what he was going to say to Tony, planning how to explain that he was going away for a few days – and he was taking the shield with him.

He dreaded that conversation, but he had to be honest: part of him was eager to get back out there. He had been passive for far too long, all during the search for Tony, and even afterward, giving up everything in order to focus on helping Tony get better. He couldn't resent that sacrifice, and he would do it all again in a heartbeat. But he had never liked just sitting around doing nothing, even as – especially as – a sickly child who had been given no choice in the matter.

But he had a choice now. And he knew that Jim Rhodes was right. He wasn't doing anything to make Tony feel better. Quite the opposite. Everything he did was wrong.

So he would leave. He would put on the costume and hoist his shield, and he would take out some bad guys. He would give interviews for the press and he would smile and he would ignore the inevitable questions about Tony and stick to the script. He would take the world's attention off Tony, and onto himself.

And maybe then he would actually feel like he was helping out.

"Sir? Mr. Stark's phone call with Colonel Rhodes has ended," JARVIS informed him.

So it was time. Steve blew out a long breath and stood up. "Thank you," he said.

He found Tony exactly where he had expected to – sitting on the sofa, his hands clutching each other just beneath the arc reactor, right hand covering the scars on the left hand. When the elevator doors opened, he ducked his head and huddled in on himself. Despite the warmth of the room, he was shivering.

"Hey," Steve said.

He sat on the couch beside Tony. They hadn't really spoken since their return to the Tower, and the events on the helicarrier hung between them, dark and heavy. It made him uneasy to think about what had happened, and the horrid shock of first seeing Tony in that hospital bed, drugged into sleep. He had barely heard Director Fury's initial explanations; all his thoughts were for Tony and what could have happened to bring him to such a state.

He would have to wait to find out, though. Tony was more twitchy than usual, ashen and trembling in a way Steve had not seen for a couple weeks. The past must be very close tonight.

It was selfish as hell, but he almost felt relieved. Obviously they couldn't talk tonight, which meant he was off the hook for a little while. Tomorrow morning he would tell Tony that he was leaving.

Tonight, he was just going to sit with Tony and hold him.

"You okay?" he asked.

Tony nodded quickly without looking up. Anxious as ever to please.

"Do you want…?" He let the words trail off, and held out one hand.

Tony flinched, but Steve knew it was just an instinctive gesture, and not a reason to worry. And in fact in the next breath Tony nodded and made a move toward him. Steve turned sideways and scooted closer, opened his arms up, and then Tony was there, nestled in his embrace, holding him back tightly.

For a long time they simply sat like that, the way they did every night. After a while, Steve began to rub Tony's back using his fingertips only, keeping his palm right where it was to minimize the risk of too much touching. When Tony did not react adversely, he settled into a rhythm, a light back and forth motion meant to be soothing, reminding Tony that he wasn't alone, that he was here, a free man again.

Tony shivered against him. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"You have nothing to apologize for," Steve replied immediately. He hated that Tony was so beaten down that he felt like he couldn't be afraid or upset without breaking the rules and deserving punishment. But at the same time, he was surprised and pleased that Tony had said anything at all. It was rare for him to be able to find words when they sat like this at night.

Silence drifted over them again. Steve gingerly shifted his weight, moving slowly, turning his whole body so he wasn't twisted quite so much to the side. With every move he made, slight though it was, Tony twitched and stiffened up before relaxing once more. At last Steve was comfortable, and he settled into his role, prepared to spend the next few hours protecting Tony from his demons.

Some time passed. Another person would have had a backache and weary arms by now, but Steve was tireless. To stave off boredom, he thought about happier days, when the Avengers were new and he and Tony had been constantly at each other's throats, arguing and bickering over the least little thing. Back then he could have said the sky was blue and Tony would have come back with a dozen reasons why it wasn't. At the time, he would never have imagined that he would look back on those days with affection and nostalgia, and yearn for them again, but here he was, doing just that.

In his arms, Tony stirred. He sat up a little, so he was no longer passively slumped against Steve's chest.

Uncertain what was happening, Steve loosened his embrace somewhat.

Tony raised one hand, reaching up and out. Immediately Steve lowered his arm so Tony could complete the gesture without interference. He was expecting Tony to maybe point at something, but instead to his shock, Tony picked up his hand and turned it over so his palm was facing upward. Then he began to write.

The letters were faint, the touch of Tony's trembling fingertip on his palm hardly discernible. Steve held his breath and watched as Tony wrote, next.

Steve was baffled. The word meant nothing to him. "Next?"

Tony flinched violently, breathing in sharply through his nose.

Clearly he hadn't been meant to say it out loud. More confused than ever, Steve said, "I don't understand. Help me, Tony. What does it mean?"

Tony shivered. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. Three times he inhaled as though to begin speaking, but without any success. Steve was about to tell him that he could just write it if that was easier for him, when he whispered, "Fury said."

Steve frowned in thought, struggling to understand what Tony was trying to tell him. The video footage from the helicarrier had made it seem like Fury hadn't spoken to Tony at all, other than to tell him to wait while he finished up with the SHIELD agents already talking to him. Had he been mistaken about that?

Had Fury lied about talking to Tony?

He said carefully, "Fury said…that word? Today?"

Tony nodded.

None of it made any sense. And yet they were talking, truly talking, for the first time. Nothing could diminish his joy over that fact. "But why did it upset you?" he asked.

Again Tony tried to find the words, only to fail over and over. He was in tears, trembling in the curve of Steve's right arm. At last he managed to whisper, "At n--night…" He shuddered convulsively and could not continue.

It wrung Steve's heart to see his obvious terror at talking about what had happened to him. And even though he knew he should be leaping at this chance and gently encourage Tony to talk about it and finally get some answers to his countless questions, he couldn't bring himself to do so. The need to protect Tony from pain was stronger than anything else just then.

"It's okay," he said hastily. "You don't have to say anything right now."

That was it, he thought. Tony had gone as far as he could. There would be no more. Not tonight, at any rate.

But he had forgotten the depths of Tony's courage. With a shaking hand, Tony wrote I... He paused, inhaled deeply, then wrote, next!

Steve frowned, trying to make a sentence where there was none. Then Tony wrote 2, and he suddenly realized that what he had thought was the personal pronoun was in fact a number 1.

next!

3

By then Steve got it, oh God did he ever, and he wanted to tell Tony that it was enough, he didn't have to keep going (next!), to stop, please just stop. He could only sit there as Tony went on, (4) and by now he was taut with horror and dread and he felt like he was going to be sick, (next!) and he hated himself for that, because Tony had been forced to endure it all until it was over, until they were through with him, and that meant he could do no less, he had to sit here and bear it until the bitter end.

And Tony was still writing. 5 and next! and 6, and then he finally paused, his hand hovering above Steve's.

"Sometimes," Tony whispered, and his voice was dull, unlike the terror in his eyes – and then he started writing again – and Steve wanted to scream. Next! and 7 and next! and 8 and then mercifully he was finally done, it was over, and Tony was still, staring in blank horror at nothing.

He understood so many things then. Why that single word from Fury had upset Tony so badly. Why Tony spent every night in a haze of terror and dread, why the Kree had been able to so thoroughly break his spirit.

But not completely, no. Because Tony was here. He was white and shaking with remembered pain, but he was here, he was fucking here, and if that wasn't enough, he had just found the courage to speak about what they had done to him, and Steve thought his entire body would shatter with the force of the love and awe he felt just then.

And what he understood then, too, as tears blinded his sight and he held Tony close, was that he could not leave. Not now and not ever. Never again would he allow anyone to hurt this amazing, invincible man. He was going to be right here at Tony's side where he belonged, keeping him safe and showering him with all the love and kindness he deserved.

If it took him the rest of his life, he was going to see Tony made whole again.

He drew in a deep breath and forced the tears back. He knew what he had to do now, but he was afraid to do it. He worried that if he asked too many questions, he would only succeed in pushing Tony further into the nightmare of the past. But Tony had shown so much courage in talking about it that Steve knew he had to honor that courage by acknowledging it.

Quietly he said, "Their commanding officer. He was the one who said that?" Next!

Tony nodded swiftly, staring fixedly at that point in space.

"But he didn't…?" He couldn't finish the sentence. As always, Tony was braver than he was.

A quick shake of his head, and now Tony was in tears, too.

Steve could only bring himself to ask one more question. Anything else would just be too cruel. Part of him said he should stop now and be grateful for what he had already gotten, but he didn't know if he would ever get this kind of opportunity again, and he simply had to know. So he said, "That night after we came back here, when we slept together… Was it… I mean, did they… Were you in bed when it happened?"

Tony shook his head again, lips pressed together, not quite crying yet, but close. "I was…standing."

Immediately Steve's mind tried to conjure up a picture of how it must have been, but there were too many sordid details he didn't know. Had they made Tony stand up against a wall? Had they bound his hands or had they made him reach behind and spread himself open for them, the obedient slave doing all the work even during his own rape? How badly had they made him bleed?

Had any of them ever talked to him? Called him a slave, a whore, a good fuck? Had any of them ever said thank you? Had any of them ever touched him with kindness, with sympathy? Had any of them ever made him come?

Steve shuddered, horrified at himself. He had to stop thinking such terrible things.

He worried that he had already pushed Tony too hard, but he had one more thing he had to say first, one more thing he could not rest until he was certain Tony understood. "But you know I would never hurt you like that."

To his relief, Tony nodded. "But..." He struggled to find the words, still staring blankly into space, refusing to look at Steve. Finally he whispered, "You're not always you." He touched shaking fingers to his temple.

Steve knew what he meant. It was too easy to get lost in memory, to see only the things that had happened in the past instead of what was in front of you. He had seen it happen to soldiers in the war, had even suffered from it himself a little when he first woke up from the ice. Everything had been so strange and different, and sometimes he had stood on a city street and seen not the buildings in front of him, but the way things used to be back when he was a kid. It had been confusing and maddening and disorienting, and he had hated every minute of it.

And when that happened to Tony, he couldn't speak up and say that he was upset. He couldn't say anything at all then, because he was forced to remain silent, remembering only the cruel lessons the Kree had taught him. So when Nick Fury had said that simple word, catapulting him back into the past and the terror of being raped every night (6 and sometimes 8 oh God), he had had no escape.

He began rubbing Tony's back again, cursing the uselessness of the gesture and wishing he could do more. "It's okay," he said. "I've been there. I understand."

Tony's whole face crumpled as he finally gave in to tears. "I can't," he said, the words barely vocalized. He bowed his head, silently crying.

"It's okay," Steve said again. Empty words, but tonight they seemed more filled with hope than usual. They had talked tonight, a genuine sharing of words and information. Tony had dared to peek at the past and tell Steve what he saw. It wasn't much, but it was enough for now. A few more pieces of the puzzle, a little more knowledge.

Tomorrow, he promised himself, there would be more.

****

Tony slept badly that night. Every time he closed his eyes – and even when they were open – he saw it all again: the handler with the leash, the steel bars and shackles, that silvery curtain. He heard that bored call of Next!, the grunts of the soldiers as they came, his own barely audible whimpers as the pain grew steadily worse. He felt the strain in his legs and shoulders from holding such an unnatural pose for so long, rough hands on his hips holding him still for each thrust, the warm mix of blood and come sliding down his thighs.

As the hours crept by (but he wasn't counting, no), he thought the only thing keeping him sane was the sound of Steve's breathing.

There had been a brief moment toward the end of the evening, when they were riding down in the elevator to this floor, when he had thought of asking Steve to share the bed with him. In the next heartbeat, logic had reasserted itself and reminded him what a terrible idea this was. Especially now, tonight, with the memories pressing in so close. And he knew that he was right to have held his silence, to lie here alone – but a small part of him wished Steve was here beside him anyway.

He still didn't understand what madness had prompted him to talk about it. Nothing had been the same since he had made that terrible revelation last night (what is the name of your galaxy?). It felt like everything around him was moving too fast, out of control, dragging him along with it. He was outside of himself, watching as he did things like ask Thor to take him to the helicarrier, breaking down in front of them all and requiring sedation, telling Steve about what had happened to him every night. Watching himself with a blend of shock and horror, screaming at himself to stop, to be good, but screaming in silence like he had been taught, so he couldn't hear himself, could only be borne helplessly forward.

On the floor, Steve slept on, breathing deep. He had cried to hear what Tony had to say, although he had tried to hide it. He had asked, quietly, if Tony wanted something to eat, and when even the mere suggestion of food made Tony gag, he had been quick to smooth it over and say it's all right, you don't have to, it's okay.

Now it was late, it was dark, there was a clock on the nightstand that he never looked at, and on the floor Steve was breathing in and out. He tried to match his respiration to Steve's, but the rhythm felt unnatural and made his head hurt.

What is the name of your galaxy?

He shivered, curled up into a tighter ball.

That's what we call it! It's not my fault you guys call it by a different name. You can't expect me to know what you call it.

The Kree knew where the Earth was. And that was, there was –

He had the distinct feeling that he was missing something, that there was something else he should be thinking about. He had felt it on the helicarrier this morning, and now it was back. The nagging feeling that he was missing…what? Something that followed from that simple statement of fact. Something he absolutely did not want to think about – but must.

He squeezed his eyes shut. His head ached, and he didn't want to think about this, he didn't. He had spent too long learning how to ruthlessly repress his natural curiosity, and the desire to learn and seek out new knowledge. It might not be bliss, but there was definitely safety to be found in ignorance.

What is the name of your galaxy?

His hand, shaking with fright, pointing at the star chart. Terrified and crying. Hating himself for the betrayal.

Point out your galaxy on this map.

But no. That wasn't where it had ended, was it? There was more.

There was always more.

He heard the words as clear as day then, as though the accuser was standing over him again, casting him into shadow.

Do not think to save your world. Should the Kree decide it belongs in our great empire, nothing will stop us. Now point out your galaxy on the map and the dark bedroom was suddenly awash in cold light and he was small and naked again except for the golden collar about his neck and he was screaming in terrified denial because the Kree knew where the Earth was and they were coming here.

no no no no and he jammed one corner of the green blanket against his mouth, silencing the screams that as of yet only echoed inside his head and he couldn't give in to them, couldn't let them out –

I can't I can't please God no I can't.

If the Kree came here and they took him again…

White panic dissolved his thoughts. For a long time he couldn't do anything at all, could only lie there breathing in short pants through his nose, blood hot and iron in his mouth where his teeth had cut the inside of his lip beneath the pressure of his hand. His headache was growing, and the room began to swim around him, and he saw stars again, the stars on that chart the accuser had shown him, the chart he had pointed at, betraying all of humanity.

The Kree were coming and Steve, oh God Steve, Steve wouldn't let them take him again, Steve would –

I have to tell them, he had said, but he hadn't told them anything, it had been Thor and Steve who told them while he lay drugged and useless in SHIELD Medical, but they hadn't mentioned the most important thing, the one thing SHIELD needed to know.

The Kree were coming.

He tried to say Steve's name, to wake Steve up. He needed Steve's arms around him right now. He needed to feel safe, needed the lie, because there was no safety, not ever again. But he couldn't produce the sounds and he was still pressing the blanket to his mouth so he would remain silent and be good and suffer his just punishment alone.

The Kree were coming and no one knew and what could they do even if they did know? What could Fury and SHIELD do? What could the Avengers do?

What could he do?

He had to do something. This was his fault. He had pointed at that star chart and he had betrayed the Earth and now he had to fix it.

The Kree were coming, and he was crying in desperate terror (please God don't let them take me again) and he had to stop them. He was the only one who could. He was the only one who knew them.

That thought stopped him cold. For a moment he even forgot to panic, the fear put on hold, not even breathing.

Because he did know them. He had spent months working on their technology. And that was his answer. That was what he could do. He knew the energy signatures of their technology, the bandwidths they broadcast on, the capability of their ships.

Slowly he lowered his hand, let himself open his mouth and breathe in again.

He could do it. He could use existing satellite networks, create new ones, boost signals, launch a few satellites of his own, surround the Earth with a defensive array consisting of both weaponry and listening outposts, giving them advance warning and a fighting chance…

Realization shivered through him. It was almost morning, and he was thinking again. Planning. Creating. Building.

He felt suddenly like he was on fire, heated warmth rushing through him.

Slowly, afraid of waking Steve up, of drawing attention to himself, of being caught and punished, Tony eased out of bed. For a while he simply stood there, one hand touching the comforter, staring at the darkness of the room until he could pick out shadows and shapes and he knew he would not walk into anything.

It was like stealing screws and scraps of wire from the Kree all over again. His heart was pounding and he was alternately hot and cold and he kept waiting for the shock from the collar. He pulled on some clothes and slipped barefoot from the room, giving Steve and his sleeping bag a wide berth. Then he was out the door and in the hall, the first time in months that he was walking around on his own, not on a leash, not shadowed by Steve or Thor or anyone else who meant well but who only managed to frighten him.

He reached the bank of elevators and he pressed the button, only to miss it, his hand was shaking so badly, so he had to try again. The doors slid open right away and he stepped inside and turned quickly around, his back to the far wall, utterly convinced that he would see the accuser in the hallway behind him, or the handler with the leash – but the hallway was empty and then the doors slid shut and he was alone in the small space.

Tony slumped back against the wall with exhausted relief and closed his eyes. He felt short of breath and the world was spinning all around him. But he also felt an undeniable thrill of fear and hope.

He had made it.

After a while he opened his eyes. For a moment the view baffled him, until he realized he was sitting on the floor now, curled up in the corner of the elevator like it was his cell on Hala again.

He didn't remember doing that.

He forced himself to stand up. The elevator seemed to lurch around him, and he had to throw out a hand and brace himself on the wall to keep from falling. His headache was still there, and even his neck and back hurt now.

But he had a purpose, and he couldn't forget that.

He cleared his throat, tried and failed once, finally managed to say it. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, sir?" the AI replied at once.

Tony thought about that star chart and the enormous Kree star cruisers he had seen in the hangar on the day of his arrival on Hala. He thought of what they would look like in the sky above the Earth. He shuddered.

"My workshop," he whispered.

The elevator began to move. "My pleasure, sir," said JARVIS.

The workshop. There were several labs throughout the Tower that Tony claimed as his own, but this one was different. This was just "the workshop," where theory became reality and science became engineering. He had recreated the room in that house in Malibu as faithfully as possible given the space constraints, in order to make sure that he would always know where something was. No wasting time looking for a particular tool or project. Everything had a place, and he knew exactly where that was. The design of the room had been a good start, and once he had shipped the bots here, it had felt even more like home.

The elevator came to a stop. The doors opened. Tony stepped out and for the first time since his return, he entered his workshop.

At first glance it was overwhelming. Too many memories. Too many things.

Too much Tony Stark.

He stood frozen just inside the door, looking at everything and nothing all at once. The computers, the various suits, the bots, the coffee mugs, the sky cycle for Clint that he had been working on before all this happened, the welders and the screwdrivers and the locked case of spare arc reactors and –

It was too much.

It was like being back in the Kree compound again, hard at work, surrounded by alien tech, the quartermaster's eyes hard and unforgiving, watching him, judging him. He couldn't do it. He couldn't stay here. He should never have come. He shied away and started to leave, and then startled even further as he heard a sound that was achingly familiar.

He turned, and there was Dummy, rolling up to him, servos whirring, arm bobbing up and down with excitement. Like a dog wagging its tail.

The bot came right up to him, and in spite of himself, Tony took a step back. Immediately JARVIS spoke. "Dummy, that will be enough," and then Dummy was right there, clawed hand reaching for him, and he flinched and steeled himself for the pain, but that claw just patted clumsily at his shoulder, then slid down his chest as the bot's arm drooped low in dejection.

He had seen that posture before a hundred, a thousand times. Almost every time, he was the cause. Ugly words thrown at the bot without thinking, callous threats made so often they had lost all meaning years ago. Even the poor thing's name was an insult.

Guilt swamped him, brought tears to his eyes. "Hey," he whispered thickly. He lifted his hand, and instantly Dummy raised his claw again, bright and hopeful. And God, it was too much, this stupid robot, this creation he had made as a kid but never been able to throw out, because it was his, it was his friend, and he was suddenly hugging Dummy's chassis, the bot's arm draped across his back, the claw opening and closing – and that was when he knew.

Everything was going to be okay. He knew it with unwavering certainty. Everything was going to be okay. He was going to be okay. This was his space. This was a place of safety.

This was his home.

And it was okay because everything in here was his, everything belonged to Tony Stark, and that made it all his.

Because he was Tony Stark.

He stood up straight again, backed away from Dummy. The bot rolled back a little, arm raised questioningly.

Tony wiped at his eyes. "Good boy," he murmured.

He sniffed hard, scrubbed at his face. He couldn't stand here crying. He had to remember why he had come down here in the first place.

He had work to do.

But first, he let himself wander through the workshop, Dummy trailing faithfully behind him, You rolling along ahead of him. He stopped often, the floor cold beneath his bare feet, squinting a little behind his headache, looking at all the projects left half-finished. So many of them, some of which he didn't even remember working on, while others he looked at and remembered the design process, or an angry phone call to his attorneys regarding patents and copyrights. Metal wings designed to spring from a harness strapped to a person's back, his first crude attempt at responding to Steve's insistence on jumping out of a plane without a parachute. The sky cycle for Clint, a mock-up in one corner, not yet painted the bright purple color he had intended for it.

He touched computer screens, watched them come to life, still displaying whatever had been there four months ago, time capsules in digital form. Blueprints, schematics, transcripts. One screensaver was cycling through photographs of the Earth that he had taken while in flight. Others displayed cars, pictures of Iron Man, engine blocks. One computer was frozen in mid-song, an entire playlist queued up and ready, just waiting for him to give the command to JARVIS to start playing again.

And everywhere he looked: Iron Man. Boots, gauntlets, repulsors. Wires and circuits. Helmets and faceplates. The HUD data on three different computer monitors. Shiny red and gold, red and silver, black and gold. So many types, each one carefully crafted for one specific set of variables, because if there was one thing the Battle of New York had taught him, it was that you could never be prepared enough.

He stopped in front of one of the suits. He couldn't even remember what Mark it was. It didn't matter.

The light reflected off the metal, shining bright, beckoning him to raise a hand and touch. He hesitated, looked around with his head down, shooting quick little glances around to make sure no one was watching, that it was all right. Remembered that this was his workshop, and these were his suits, because he might be ugly and revolting now, but he was still Tony Stark.

Memories wanted to crowd in his head, and for once he let them. Afghanistan, building the Mark II in the room identical to this one in Malibu, the exhilaration of that first flight, fighting off the drones at the Stark Expo with Rhodey at his side, flying a nuke through a portal –

He shuddered. No. Enough.

He wasn't ready to be Iron Man again. Maybe he never would be. I am Iron Man, he had been fond of saying. The suit and I are one. And maybe that had once been true, but it wasn't anymore and maybe it never would be again (but I am Iron Man), but that was okay, because he had just become Tony Stark again – and for now, that was enough.

The suit could wait.

He sat down at a workstation. For a long moment he wondered if he was really doing this, if he was that brave. His hands hovered above the keyboard, the ugly scar on the back of his left hand reminding him of the price to be paid for daring to take action.

No, damnit. No. He could do this. He could.

He swallowed hard – it felt like there were jagged hooks in his throat, and it hurt. But he took a deep breath and said, "JARVIS."

It was only a whisper, but it was enough. "Yes, sir?"

He tried again, louder this time. "JARVIS. Open a new file." He floundered then, trying to remember what came next, to recreate the thrill of starting something new, of planning ahead and seeing the future. All he could see, though, was a terrifying dark sky blotted out by Kree ships.

No. No no no.

A cold chill shuddered through him. He buried his face in his hands. I can't, I can't do this, please.

No one answered. No one told him it was all right, that he didn't have to do this. Because there was no one else. He had betrayed the Earth and all of humanity, and now he had to save them.

He was going to do this because he was the only one who could.

"Okay," he whispered.

"Sir?"

He let out a long, shaky breath. "Okay," he said again, a little bit louder. "New file. Standard encryption, voice activation by myself only. Project name…SWORD."

"Sword?" JARVIS queried.

"SWORD," Tony confirmed. "Strategic World Observation and Response Deployment."

"I stand corrected," JARVIS said. "File created and ready."

"Good," Tony said. And he got to work.

Chapter Text

Steve woke up to discover that he was alone in the early dawn light. With a sinking heart, he looked around, already knowing what he was going to find. "Tony?"

There was no response. Not that he had expected one. A quick glance revealed that the bathroom across the hall was empty as well.

Don't panic, he told himself sternly. He stood up, wincing against the memory of Tony on the roof, screaming into the sky. "Where is he, JARVIS?"

"Mr. Stark is in the workshop," JARVIS replied smoothly.

Steve stood still in shock. That was the absolute last thing he had expected to hear. Cautious hope rose up within him, calming most of his panic. This might be a good thing. A very good thing.

Conversely, it could also be the worst possible thing in the world.

He began to throw on some clothes, slamming dresser drawers open and shut again in his haste. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"I did not see the need," JARVIS said. "Mr. Stark did not attempt to use the Iron Man suit. Nor did he do anything that posed a danger to himself."

Steve hurried from the bedroom, tugging a sweater over his head as he went. He jogged over to the elevator and hit the button. "What's he doing now?"

He had to wait a few seconds for the elevator to arrive; it must have still been on the floor with the workshop. Once he stepped inside and the doors started to close, JARVIS said, "Currently Mr. Stark is sleeping." He sounded watchful, protective even, and Steve knew that Tony was perfectly safe under that automated gaze.

"What was he doing, though?" he asked. He tried to imagine Tony lying in bed, kept awake by guilt and shame for hours before finally being driven to take action. Climbing out of bed, tiptoeing in the semi-dark, heart pounding with fear at his own audacity. Walking alone through the hall. Riding the elevator down. Entering the workshop and seeing everything just as he had left it four months ago.

He tried to picture all that – and couldn't do it. "Why did he even go down there?"

"He was working," JARVIS said, and now he sounded a little bit peeved, and more protective than before. He was not going to divulge any details, Steve realized.

The elevator chimed softly and the doors opened. Steve rushed out, already looking for Tony.

He spotted him right away. Tony was sitting at a workstation, his upper body draped across the tabletop, one of his specialized keyboards pushed to one side. His arms were folded, his head turned to one side, his left cheek resting on his forearm. He looked like he was deeply asleep. Behind him, the computer monitor was displaying its screensaver, the Stark Industries logo slowly floating around on the screen, hiding whatever had been there earlier.

Steve let out a long, slow breath. He trusted JARVIS, of course, but no amount of verbal reassurance could have truly set his mind at ease. He had needed to see Tony for himself. Now that he had, he relaxed, and he was able to enter the workshop at a normal pace.

The bots looked up as he walked in, their cameras aimed in his direction. He smiled at them and headed over to where Tony was sleeping.

He stopped when he was still several paces away, though. He cleared his throat, not wanting to frighten Tony. The last thing either of them needed was for Tony to wake up with a start and fall off his stool, or experience disorientation and confusion at finding himself in what had, sadly enough, become a strange place to him.

But Tony did not wake up, and Steve took a moment to just watch him and be quietly amazed.

So much had changed in just two days. It was like a switch had been thrown. In that time Tony hadn't merely taken strides towards healing – he had made enormous leaps forward. Asking Thor to take him to the helicarrier, trying to warn Fury and SHIELD about the Kree, finding the courage to tell Steve something of what had happened to him every night. And now coming down here and getting back to work. It was all a testament to Tony's strength and courage, and Steve felt flush all over with the pride and love that swelled within him.

He approached the desk slowly, a tentative smile spreading across his face. Within just two steps, though, that smile died.

He supposed he had been hearing it the entire time he was down here – he just hadn't comprehended what he was hearing. But now there was no mistaking the rattle in Tony's breathing. Or the patches of hectic color that stained his pale face. As Steve drew near, he dared to reach out a hand. Even before his fingertips brushed Tony's skin, though, he felt the heat of fever.

Alarmed, he backed away again. "What the hell," he muttered. When had Tony become so sick?

It didn't take long to figure it out, and when he did, he wanted to kick himself for his carelessness. Since his return, Tony had spent all his time in the Tower, surrounded by only a few select people, all of whom were rather limited in their interactions with him.

Until yesterday.

How many SHIELD agents were walking around now with the flu, or even just a winter cold? How many of them had coughed as they went past? Even just one person's germs would have been enough. Tony's immune system was severely compromised after his ordeal, and his body was still recovering from the effects of prolonged starvation. He was virtually defenseless against sickness right now.

And he should have known something was wrong, Steve chastised himself. Tony slept so lightly these days, startling awake at the least little noise. Someone entering the room with him always made him tense up in fear at first. Just the fact that he had not woken when Steve came into the workshop should have been the first clue that there was trouble.

He closed his eyes briefly, willing himself to remain calm. Everything would be all right. He would get a doctor to come here to the Tower, and get Tony started on whatever medicine he needed to get better. In the meantime, Steve would take care of Tony by himself. It was critical now that Tony remain quarantined, in effect, so no one else could come in and worsen his condition. And because Steve couldn't get sick, no one would argue when he insisted that he was the only one allowed to stay in the room.

Quietly he cleared his throat. Tony did not stir, however, and so Steve tried again, louder this time.

Tony jerked, inhaling sharply. His eyes opened wide and he sat up so fast that he nearly overbalanced and toppled off the stool. But even in his frightened haste, Steve saw that he kept his head bowed and his gaze downcast, remembering what he had learned at the hands of the Kree.

He stood still, knowing what would happen now. And he did not have to wait long; Tony looked around, only his eyes moving in those quick glances as he searched for what had woken him. As soon as Tony saw him, he relaxed – and then he bent over, coughing and grimacing.

"Hey," Steve said, now that it was safe to speak. "It's just me."

Tony nodded, one hand pressed to his chest. He still looked flushed, and there was a red mark on his cheek from where he had been sleeping. "I know," he said. His voice was a bit hoarse, like he had a sore throat. "I thought…" He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"You didn't do anything wrong," Steve replied quickly. He felt the old impotent anger over Tony's need to apologize every time he did something that he thought warranted punishment. But at the same time, he couldn't help feeling tentative hope over the fact that Tony was actually talking to him.

"How about we go upstairs," he suggested, trying to make it sound like a question, not a command. "You should be resting."

At once Tony slid off the stool. He coughed again, and the hand at his chest pushed inward. The gesture made Steve wonder just what effect the arc reactor would have on him now. He knew that Tony lived with a diminished lung capacity that was capable of compromising his breathing even when he wasn't sick. Now, though, it could spell major disaster.

Which made it all the more critical to bring a doctor on the premises who could administer whatever drugs Tony needed to get better, and fast. But the first step was getting him to bed so he could rest.

"Okay," he said with an encouraging smile.

Tony glanced up at him without really seeing him, and began shuffling forward. He seemed unsteady on his feet, and he walked more slowly than usual. Steve had to refrain from offering to carry him; the time for that kind of gesture was in the past.

Together they left the workshop. Dummy followed them for a few paces, but stopped just before the door. The bot's arm rose, then sank low, an almost-human gesture of frustrated longing.

"JARVIS," Tony said. "Save and shutdown. You know what to do."

"Yes, sir," JARVIS responded.

Steve glanced behind him, but he didn't see anything. The monitor at the workstation where Tony had been sitting remained on the screensaver image. Curiosity burned within him, and he wanted to ask what Tony had been working on. What could have spurred him to leave his bed and come down here alone and start a new project? What was so important that it had him speaking to JARVIS as though the last four months had not happened, like he was merely leaving here in order to go to the office?

But then he remembered that the last time Tony had left the Tower to attend to his company, Steve had pulled him out of the office so they could take a walk through the autumn sunshine. And then the Green Goblin had attacked.

Resolutely he put all questions from his mind. He focused on the task at hand, which was gently shepherding Tony into the elevator. He tried to stand close enough that he could catch Tony if he fell, while not being so close as to appear threatening.

The elevator began to rise. Tony swayed, coughed and grimaced. Under the flush of his fever, he was very pale.

"I'll call SHIELD," Steve said. "Have them send Dr. Epps over."

Tony closed his eyes tightly.

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I know you hate it." The elevator reached their floor and the doors opened. "But you need to see a doctor, Tony. You're very sick."

Tony bowed his head. He was shivering, but whether from fear or a fever chill, it was impossible to say.

"It'll be okay," Steve said. "I'll be there with you the whole time. You won't be alone." He moved closer to Tony, standing at his side.

Tony said nothing. He just stood there, swaying a little, his eyes still closed.

To hell with doing the right thing. Steve bent his knees, got both arms around Tony, and picked him up.

Instantly Tony stiffened, his breath catching on a gasp of fear. But as Steve walked out of the elevator, he slumped into Steve's hold and turned his face toward Steve's chest. "I'm sorry," he whispered. A shudder worked through him.

He was burning up with fever. Steve hurried his steps, anxiety tightening his chest and knotting his stomach. "It's okay," he said. "You'll be okay."

It was just the flu, he told himself. Nothing more than that. Just the flu, which just so happened to have killed millions of people the same year he was born.

Their bedroom was still shrouded in early morning light. The bed was unmade, the green blanket from the Ernorran ship bunched up near the pillow. Steve set Tony down as gently as possible, then quickly pulled the covers up, draping the blanket over the comforter last. With his fever, Tony would alternate between feeling too hot and too cold, but if the way he was shivering now was any indication, he needed the extra warmth.

"JARVIS, I need you to alert Thor. Tell him I need to see him." He would not contact Fury through official channels. Not when he knew there was someone within SHIELD willing to sell information to the press. A leaked e-mail or phone call now would only add fuel to the story still making the rounds about Tony's breakdown on board the helicarrier.

He sat on the edge of the bed and gently stroked Tony's face. "You'll be okay," he said. "It's just the flu. Nothing to worry about."

Nothing to worry about, and prayed he was right.

****

True to his word, Steve remained by Tony's side for the rest of the day. He was there when Thor came in, looking worried. He was there when Thor returned a short time later with Dr. Epps, who seemed slightly dazed by his flight through New York's skies. He was there as the doctor confirmed Steve's diagnosis of the flu, and prescribed an antiviral medication that would alleviate the worst of Tony's symptoms. He was there when Clint came in with a humidifier to help Tony breathe easier, and he was there when Pepper arrived with soup and Gatorade.

And he was there when Tony slept, and began to dream.

Maybe it was the fever that did it. Steve remembered those days from his childhood when he had been sick in bed with a fever, and the strange yet vivid clarity of his dreams then. He had wondered why Tony never seemed to have nightmares about what had happened to him, while foolishly hoping that maybe they would manage to avoid them altogether.

He should have known better.

At first he didn't know what was happening. Even in sleep Tony maintained the silence the Kree had taught him. He didn't whimper or cry out or thrash around. The only way Steve knew something was amiss was by the sudden change in Tony's breathing.

He was sitting in the chair in the corner, reading a book that Natasha had thoughtfully brought for him. He had grown used to the silence, so when Tony suddenly began to breathe in sharp gasps, it got his attention right away.

"Tony?" Alarmed, he put the book down and hurried toward the bed. By the time he got there, though, Tony was sleeping peacefully once more.

Reassured, he started to turn away – and Tony's entire body flinched. He started gasping again, an agonized expression on his face.

Steve's blood ran cold. Once could be written off, chalked up to the sickness playing havoc with Tony's body. But twice?

Twice was the terrible way Tony's fingers had trembled as he traced those numbers on Steve's palm. Twice was that silent cry of Next!

Twice was the nightmares finally come to call.

Steve did not hesitate. He reached out and shook Tony's shoulder. "Tony," he said firmly. "Wake up."

The result was exactly what he had expected. Which didn't make it any less painful to witness. Tony woke with a start and immediately cringed back, curling up tight beneath the covers, pale and shaking. Steve moved back a little, giving him some space. "It's okay," he said. "It's just me."

It took a while for Tony to calm down. When he finally opened his eyes, they were glassy with fever and unshed tears. He didn't apologize this time, though. He just lay there, staring blankly at a spot beyond Steve's right hip. The awful thing was, Steve knew why he didn't say he was sorry, why he held his silence. The nightmare had brought the past back – and a part of Tony was still stuck there.

Slowly, signaling his intention, he sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned down and kissed the soft skin of Tony's temple. "I love you," he whispered.

He sat up again. His heart broke when he saw that Tony had closed his eyes again. He was silently crying.

Steve eased his hand beneath the covers and gently took hold of Tony's right hand. "I've got you," he said softly. "I won't let go."

Tony's hand twisted beneath his. Thinking he was uncomfortable with the physical contact, Steve let go of him. Before he could pull away completely, though, Tony grabbed onto his fingers and held on tight.

"I'm here," Steve said. "I'm here."

****

In some ways, being sick wasn't all that different from being a Kree slave. Tony had long since become accustomed to a body that seemed to exist only to provide him physical distress. The source of his pain now wasn't quite the same, the fever and the cough were new, but the general feelings of ill health and malaise were all too familiar.

The difference was that he no longer suffered alone.

There was a time when he would have resented being coddled and treated this way. When he would have refused to get into bed no matter how badly the room was spinning around him. When he would have denied he was sick until his last breath, and gone on working and living his life like normal.

He knew, on some level, that he should feel that way again. That at the very least he should be humiliated by the way Steve hovered over him, bringing him chicken noodle soup and helping him sit up against the pillows so he could choke down a few mouthfuls before he couldn't pretend anymore and he had to stop. He wasn't supposed to be grateful for the glass of water and the yellow and white capsules of medication. And he definitely wasn't supposed to be so thankful that Steve was staying with him.

But he was thankful. And he was so pathetically grateful to Steve. For all of it. But mostly just for being there.

It was nice, not being alone.

He didn't have to lie on a cold, hard floor anymore. He had warm clothes, blankets to burrow beneath when chills wracked him and which made him unbearably hot when the fever burned bright. There were pills to make him feel better, soup for when he felt strong enough, and plenty of liquids to drink. One time Steve even brought him a bowl of ice cream, sweet and cold, soothing his sore throat and actually coming close to enticing his appetite to put in an appearance.

And always Steve. Sitting beside him, stroking his back or his hand. Helping him sit up, or wobble over to the bathroom.

Holding him when he woke from another fever-dream.

The nightmares were fractured and surreal, yet so vivid. More memory than dream, some of them, forcing him to relive the things the Kree had done to him. At times he wasn't even sure if he was awake or asleep, and only the heat of his fever anchored him in reality – because he had always been cold on Hala, always.

The room grew dark around nightfall. Or maybe a storm was rolling in. He no longer knew the difference. Or maybe an enormous Kree star cruiser drifted high in the sky, blotting out the sun.

The cruiser hung above his head, cutting off all escape. Another one had touched down in a large open area on the edge of what had once been a mighty city. That city lay in ruins now, the Tower crumbled into dust along with so many other once-glorious edifices. The bodies of some of his friends lay there too, slowly rotting under the cold gray sky.

He stood beside the cruiser, flanked by two Kree soldiers. He was naked except for the golden collar about his neck and a new adornment on his chest. They had branded him, marking him for all to see. Two concentric circles, a smaller Earth and the all-encompassing Kree Empire. So he might never again forget his place, and who he belonged to.

One by one, the people of Earth filed onto the ship. Walking, stumbling, clutching at each other. Some of them were crying. Some were too shell-shocked for tears or prayers. They all looked at him as they went past. They knew he was their betrayer. He was the reason their planet was in ruins and they, the unlucky ones who hadn't been killed, were being herded into slavery.

Help me, he wanted to cry. Please help me. But they all looked at him with such hatred, and he could not speak because of the collar, because he was nothing, he was a slave again, and the words echoed emptily inside his head, because this was all his fault, he had given them up, he had betrayed them all, he had killed them all, and he was screaming into the silence, screaming and screaming—

-- and waking up with a strangled sound that he quickly silenced because he must, he had to be silent or they would hurt him, he had to be good, he had to

-- and Steve was there, saying his name, a warm hand on his back and a soothing touch

-- and he was awake, and he knew where he was, and he was still sick but the Earth wasn't lost, not yet, and so he breathed again, and he slept.

And this time, thankfully, there were no dreams.

****

"I owe you both an apology," Thor said, his voice heavy with remorse. They stood in the hallway, their voices pitched low so they wouldn't wake Tony up. "I am the one at fault. I should never have taken Tony to the helicarrier."

Steve couldn't have agreed more, but he knew better than to say anything out loud. "It would have happened eventually," he said. "It's winter in New York. Everyone is sick."

"Yes, but I exposed him to that sickness," Thor said. "And for that I am truly sorry. Were it not for me, he would never have been there, and he would not now be too ill to leave his bed, and the television would not be full of hateful stories about him."

Steve chose to ignore that last comment. He refused to watch the news himself, but it was impossible to completely escape the media blitz, no matter how hard he tried. He knew what the pundits were saying, and all the cruel jokes, the fake concern, the calls for truth and disclosure.

"You must believe that I sought only to help," Thor said. "I saw that Tony had found courage enough to speak to me and make his request, and although I had doubts, I decided that honoring his request would be the better response."

"It was," Steve said. He couldn't blame Thor for what had happened, as much as a selfish part of him wanted to. Things like this were bound to happen. They would do everything they possibly could, but despite all their best efforts, Tony's recovery was going to be full of setbacks and obstacles, and it was foolish to think otherwise. He just hated that the first challenge to their progress had come so soon, when Tony had only just taken his first real steps forward.

"It's okay," he said. "It's not your fault." He put a hand on Thor's shoulder and smiled, trying to ease his friend's mind.

Thor did not look convinced. Like Steve, he was too quick to shoulder guilt and blame. "Will he be all right?"

"Yeah," Steve said. He lowered his arm back to his side. "It's just the flu. People get it all the time. It's hitting him harder than usual because his immune system is shot to hell."

Thor nodded. "The Kree would have had ways of protecting their slaves from illness. With that many different species living together, the risk of disease would be great."

"And now that he's not getting that…" Steve trailed off glumly. All these little things he had never thought of, all these repercussions of Tony's captivity that kept tripping him up and catching him unprepared. It made him wonder if he was really the right person to be in charge of Tony's recovery.

But there was no one else who could do it. He trusted his friends and teammates, but not with this. Too much was at stake. Only Thor and Natasha knew the truth of what had happened to Tony, and only Thor knew – or at least guessed – the actual details. Jim Rhodes was helping tremendously, albeit inadvertently, but he couldn't visit yet in person, and Pepper was too busy trying to keep Stark Industries afloat and out of the news.

And he had to think of what Tony wanted. So far Tony had shown no inclination toward anyone else, or indicated that he preferred one person over another. But he did want Steve there, that much was clear. And for that reason alone, to say nothing of his own personal feelings on the matter, Steve knew he could not step aside and let someone else take control.

Tony needed him. It was that simple.

****

Tony was sick for four days, although his fever broke on the third day. Even after that, he was too weak and exhausted to get out of bed. His body badly needed the rest, but more often than not, Steve saw him fighting off sleep and trying to stay awake. It was a battle he lost most of the time, but the fact that he fought it at all was enough to tug at Steve's heart.

He knew why Tony fought that battle. Now that the nightmares had descended, sleep was no longer an escape. They had not talked about it, of course, but Steve strongly suspected that Tony had slept a lot while he was the Kree's captive, taking advantage of the only refuge left to him. That was no longer an option, though, and so Tony struggled against sleep, and the horrors it brought.

It was snowing on the fourth afternoon, when Tony woke from a nightmare so violently that he sat up and was halfway out of bed before he comprehended what he was doing. He froze in place then, his chest heaving as he gasped for breath, his right hand clutching at the covers, one leg thrown over the edge of the bed.

Steve had been on the floor, doing sit-ups in an effort at keeping his blood pumping. He stood up in a hurry. "Hey," he said. "It's okay."

Tony closed his eyes and seemed to shrink in on himself. He sank down to curl up on the bed, but made no move to cover himself back up again.

Carefully, aware that any sudden move now would appear like a threat, Steve approached the bed. He drew the comforter and the green blanket up to Tony's shoulder. "It's okay," he said. He rubbed Tony's back through the covers. "You're awake. It's over. It was just a dream."

Tony shook his head. He was crying, trembling lips pressed together in an effort to remain silent.

Steve understood that to mean that whatever Tony had been dreaming about, it was something that had actually happened to him. Not a dream after all, then, but a memory. And it was wrong to tell him otherwise, to pretend that merely waking up could banish the horror.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"You didn't do anything wrong," Steve said – and wondered how many more times he would have to say it before Tony believed it. Gently he brushed a tear off Tony's cheek.

"I told them," Tony said, his voice thick with tears. "I told them, and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I couldn't help it. I'm sorry."

The Kree again, and their knowledge of Earth. Steve inhaled, trying to get a hold of his rage. He could never let Tony know the depth of his anger. He was Captain America. He wasn't supposed to hate.

But he did. Oh, he did.

"It wasn't your fault," he said. "You did what anyone else would have done."

Still, it made him wonder, and not for the first time. Would he have given in and told the Kree the location of Earth? Would he have been so desperate to end the pain that he said anything? He couldn't imagine himself doing such a thing. But neither could he imagine being naked and terrified amidst a group of people who considered him beneath them. Nor could he imagine the collar about his neck shocking him so badly that he would do anything to make it stop, or what it felt like to know that he was a slave for the rest of his life.

Tony knew, though. Tony could have told him in excruciating detail how all that felt. And no matter what Steve believed he might have done if he had been the one captured by the Kree, there was no denying the obvious truth. Given the choices facing him at the time, Tony had made the only decision he could have made. And it had been the right decision. He had given the Kree what they wanted, it was true, but in doing so, he had survived. He had stayed alive to go on fighting.

And ultimately, that decision had led to this very moment, to this snowy January day in New York.

"You did the right thing," Steve said. He stopped rubbing circles on Tony's back and let his hand rest there, only his thumb moving in a caressing motion. "You stayed alive. That's what matters. Because when it counted, you fought back. You stole from them. If you hadn't done that, we would never have found you. You saved yourself, Tony. And you started doing it when you gave them what they wanted, and you went on living."

Tony did not open his eyes, but he did stop crying. He shook his head, a barely noticeable gesture.

"Yes," Steve said. "I know they caught you, and I know they hurt you, but if you hadn't done it…" He couldn't bear to think of it. Because if Tony hadn't fought back by stealing from the Kree, if he had never been put up for sale, he would be dead right now. Steve believed that with all his heart.

He leaned down so he could kiss away the last of Tony's tears. "You saved yourself," he whispered. "Never forget that."

He turned his head, lightly resting his cheek on Tony's. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you. And I know what you're thinking. Because I would be thinking it, too. You don't believe it's worth it, your life for the seven billion people on this planet."

Tony's breath caught on a silent sob.

Steve sat up a little bit, but remained close. "But you're wrong," he said quietly. "It's not your fault, and you didn't betray the Earth. The Kree would have found us eventually, whether it was in five years or fifty. And there might be seven billion people on this planet, but you're the only one I want by my side. You are the one I love." He kissed Tony again, tasting the salt of fresh tears.

"There might be nothing to worry about," he said. "They might never come here." Unfortunately he didn't believe that, but it still needed to be said aloud. Anything to give Tony hope, and help him overcome even a small portion of his enormous burden of guilt. "But even if they do, I know we'll be ready for them. Because we have you."

"Steve…" He barely heard the sound of his name, it was so quiet.

"I'm here," he said. He shifted the hand on Tony's back over to his shoulder, and gave him a reassuring squeeze.

Tony opened his eyes, red from crying. "If they come…"

"I won't let them take you," Steve vowed. He knew that had to be Tony's biggest fear, possibly even greater than his guilt.

"Promise me," Tony whispered. He did not look up at Steve, but stared blankly straight ahead at a spot on the wall.

"I promise," Steve said. He had never meant anything more in all his life. He would do whatever it took to keep that promise – and without hesitation. Anything to protect Tony. "They'll never hurt you again."

"Promise me," Tony said, and the emotion had bled from his voice, and there was nothing but fear in his eyes, and Steve knew then, knew even before he said it, what was coming.

"Promise me you'll kill me first," Tony said.

Every fiber of Steve's being cried out in protest. He could not promise that. It went against everything he stood for, everything he believed.

"Please," Tony whispered.

No, he thought in anguish. Don't make me do this. There was always another way, always an answer. But not that. Not that.

He couldn't do it.

Tony did not ask again. His eyes filled with bleak despair, already accepting a fate he feared more than anything.

Time was running out. And Steve was suddenly terrified that if he did not make that promise, Tony would take his own life rather than face being enslaved again. "They'll never take you," he swore. "I won't let them. Whatever it takes, Tony. I promise you that. They won't take you." It wasn't what Tony wanted to hear, but it was the best he could do. He only hoped it would be enough.

Tony closed his eyes, sending fresh tears streaming down his face.

Steve leaned down and held him as best he could, and wondered if his heart would ever stop breaking.

****

Later that night, as snow continued to fall outside and Tony dozed in his arms, Steve's phone chimed with an alert from JARVIS. He had turned the volume down, but it was still very loud in the stillness of the room. Inevitably, Tony woke with a startled jerk and a silent gasp.

"Sorry," Steve said. He cursed himself for being so thoughtless; he should have put the phone on vibrate.

He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. You have a phone call from Director Fury. He insists on speaking with you. Beneath that, a new message appeared as he watched. I am sorry, Captain. I believed your phone was silenced.

It was hard to be angry at a computer, especially one that continually demonstrated how much it cared about Tony. Even now, JARVIS communicated to him via the phone, not wanting to speak aloud and give Tony reason to wonder why his AI was speaking to Steve and not to him.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "It's Thor… I'll be right back." He shoved the phone into his pocket and opened the circle of his arms.

Immediately Tony moved down on the bed, curling up tight and staring vacantly at nothing. It was impossible to tell if he believed Steve's excuse, or if he had even heard it. The horrors of the night were still very close for him; only half an hour ago he had finally relaxed enough to stop staring in dread at the closed door and start to nod off.

Steve pulled the comforter up over him, then the green blanket. "I won't be long," he said.

He took the call on the next floor up, not wanting to stand by the elevators and risk Tony overhearing his conversation. "Director Fury."

"Captain." If Fury was angry at having had to wait so long, he did not let that come through in his voice.

That was a wise move, as far as Steve was concerned. He hadn't really had a chance to talk to Fury about what had happened on the helicarrier, and the leak within SHIELD. It was on his list of things to do, but Tony's well-being came first and foremost, and so he had allowed himself to put off the talk that he didn't really want to have in the first place.

But the moment was here now, and there was no sense in wasting it. "I'm glad you called," he said. "We have some things to discuss."

"Yes, we do," Fury said.

"Good," Steve said. "I'll start. Did you find the person who leaked that video to the press?"

"No," Fury said tightly. "We're still looking."

"Damnit," Steve swore. If Fury hadn't found the culprit yet, it wasn't likely that he was ever going to. "And you're supposed to be the spy."

Fury laughed derisively. "That seems to be the prevailing opinion. Half the country is calling for my resignation."

Steve blinked in shock. He hadn't known that. Maybe avoiding the news wasn't the best idea, after all. "They are?"

"It's fine," Fury said. He sounded supremely unconcerned. "SHIELD has weathered worse before. It will again."

"I just… I didn't know that," Steve said. He felt most of his anger dissipating in a wave of sympathy. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Fury said. "The public loves their heroes. And they love seeing them taken down a peg. But what they don't love is when they aren't the ones responsible for it. And they love Iron Man. Only no one knows what happened to him. All they know is the man behind the mask is broken – and they didn’t do it. So that pisses them off. They need someone to blame. It might as well be me, and are we done talking about this yet?"

Steve didn't miss a beat. "Yes, sir."

"Good," Fury said. "What I really need from you is more intel on the Kree."

Any sympathy he had felt toward Fury died a swift death. "Are you serious?"

"I've never been more serious," Fury replied. "We need to know everything we can about them."

"After everything that's happened," Steve snapped, "and all you can think about is your damn database."

Even without a video image, he could almost see Fury's scathing look. "What I'm thinking about are the seven billion people on this planet. I'm thinking about an enemy that is smarter than us, outnumbers us by hysterical odds, likes to conquer and enslave entire worlds, and is so technologically advanced that they make us look like cavemen banging two rocks together. Did I leave anything out?"

It would have been easy – and no doubt wiser – to agree that Fury had a point and start cooperating, but Steve refused to back down. "Intel about the Kree. You realize what you're asking me to do?"

"I'm asking you to do your job, Captain Rogers. Or did you hang up your shield and I just missed the memo?"

He drew in a slow breath through his nose, trying to stay calm. He could see where Fury was coming from, and he knew it had to be done, but he hated it. He absolutely hated it. He had hoped to ease Tony into talking about what had happened, building off their first communication when Tony had written those awful numbers on his palm. Now Fury was forcing his hand, and in doing so, denying Tony the choice to face the past only when he was ready for it.

Just one more thing taken away from Tony. One more thing Steve could never reclaim for him, no matter how hard he tried.

"Captain?"

"No," he said, somewhat sullenly. "Sir."

"Good," Fury said. "I'll expect a report from you and Stark on my desk by the end of the week."

The call ended and Steve was left standing there in the hallway, wondering just what the hell he was supposed to do now.

Chapter Text

"Or…well, there's some of Clint's chicken soup left over. That was really good. Not too spicy, either. What do you think, Tony?"

His head bowed, his gaze downcast, Tony winced.

Steve shut the refrigerator door with a mental sigh. This was the first day Tony had indicated that he felt strong enough to get out of bed. Upon hearing that, Steve had jumped on the chance to suggest that they head for the kitchen and grab some lunch.

He was worried about Tony. The days of sickness had almost completely undone the progress he had made in the past couple weeks; he was far too thin again, his cheekbones prominent, his wrists spindly between thick sweater cuffs.

But this time Steve knew what to do. He despised himself for it, but they had run out of time. He couldn't afford to take things slowly anymore. Fury's deadline hung over his head, the media and the public alike were clamoring for even a glimpse of Tony Stark, and somewhere out there, the Kree lurked among the stars.

Slowly he crossed the kitchen and sat at the large table opposite Tony. "I know you're still not feeling one hundred percent," he said, "but you need to eat something. And if…if you need me to order you to eat, then that's what I'll do."

Across from him, Tony bowed his head still further. But his jaw clenched in a sign of anger, or possibly a cue that he was holding back words he wanted to speak. Whichever it was, Steve took it as a good sign, though. Anything was better than the silent submission that had been the norm since his rescue.

"Either way," he continued, "you need to eat. Because if this keeps up, you'll end up back at SHIELD Medical." It sounded heartless, and he hated himself for having to say it, but he knew it had to be done. Cruel to be kind, went the old cliché, and there was an unfortunate kernel of truth in those words.

Tony flinched. "I will," he said, almost a whisper at first, then stronger. "I will."

"Okay," Steve said quickly. He didn't want Tony to think the threat still stood, now that he had agreed to cooperate. "Good." He stood up. "I'll heat up some of the soup, then?"

Tony nodded, and Steve turned away quickly, so he wouldn't have to see the misery on his face.

****

Barely an hour later, Tony was visibly fighting off sleep, and it was clear that he wasn't going to last much longer. Steve figured the trip to the kitchen and the subsequent fright over the threat of having to go back to Medical had used up whatever strength he had managed to regain. When he suggested that they go back to their room, Tony just nodded wearily.

They rode the elevator together, and walked slowly down the hall. At the door, Steve paused. "Hold on a sec," he said. He recalled all too well those days in his childhood when sickness had been depressingly frequent, when he had struggled to remember what it felt like to be healthy. At times like that, it had been the little things that had made him feel human again. And everyone felt better when they were clean.

While Tony lingered in the hall, leaning heavily on the doorframe, Steve went over to the bed and quickly stripped it down. He piled the dirty sheets and the comforter on the floor, then walked back over toward the door. He gave Tony a grin as he passed by. "I used to be able to do this in one minute flat." He had to raise his voice as he moved down the hall toward the linen closet. "Want to time me?"

Tony didn't look at him, but his mouth curved in the faintest suggestion of a smile. It was the first time Steve had seen him smile since the night he had heard they were leaving SHIELD and going home. The sight of it made Steve felt almost sick with guilt. They had been back home for nearly three weeks, yet he hadn't once ever really tried to get Tony to smile.

He would try harder, he vowed. He would make Tony happy again, no matter what he had to do.

With his arms full of clean linens, he edged back into the room. "Okay," he said. "Start the clock."

He had no idea if Tony was playing along or not, but he had started the game, so he had to see it through. And it was almost fun, the way the old tricks and shortcuts came back to him. By the time the bed was made up, he knew he had gone over a minute, but he thought he had still managed a respectable time.

"Well?" he said. "How'd I—"

He stopped. Tony wasn't paying any attention to him. In point of fact, up until the moment he spoke and ruined everything, it looked like Tony was about to topple over, he was so close to being asleep on his feet. But when Steve spoke, Tony jerked into alertness, swaying to one side before coming to rest against the doorframe again and bowing his head.

"All set here," Steve said quietly.

Tony nodded while barely picking his head up. He began to shuffle forward.

Steve forced himself to stay where he was and not intervene. He watched Tony crawl wearily into bed, pull off his slippers and let them drop, then fumble at the covers. But when Tony began looking around, searching the pile of dirty linens on the floor with a surprisingly sharp gaze, Steve stirred himself and moved forward.

"Here," he said as he reached into the heap and picked up the green blanket.

Tony relaxed, although he also winced a little, appearing almost angry at himself.

Steve spread the blanket across the comforter. It needed to be washed along with the rest of the linens, but it could wait, he decided. What mattered now was letting Tony have what he wanted. For too long things had only been taken away from him. Steve absolutely would not contribute to that.

"Thank you," Tony breathed.

Steve leaned down to kiss his forehead. "Get some sleep," he said.

Later, when Tony had rested, he could bring up Fury's request.

And then they would talk about the Kree.

****

In his dream (but this really happened), two of the soldiers come into that room where he sits with the other slaves and works on repairing the Kree weapons. It's still early enough in his captivity that he doesn't connect their sudden appearance to himself, but when the quartermaster points to him, his heart nearly stops with the sudden terror that floods his entire body.

In his dream he is confused, uncertain, afraid. (But this really happened, and he knows what happens next and he screams at himself to wake up, wake up, please oh god wake up) But when he sees the dispassionate face of the accuser, he is not at all surprised. Where else would they take him, after all? Fear twists burning cold in his stomach, because he knows he is going to be punished for something, only he doesn't know what he did wrong. He doesn't know what can be worse than being tied down every night and raped, but he has the terrible feeling that he is about to find out.

In his dream, the accuser stands above him, judge, jury and executioner all in one. He's shaking, ready to fall to his knees, his head bowed like a good little slave. The only sounds in the room are the terrified gasps he makes as he tries so hard to remain silent.

(please wake up wake up oh god wake up please!)

The accuser says, "You—"

-- and Tony woke with a hot outrush of breath that wasn't quite a scream – he had learned that lesson too well. He fell back against the bed, panting and clutching at the sheets. He was afraid to turn his head, afraid to see the void waiting for him, that punishment that would forever remind him of what happened when he screwed up and got it all wrong.

"Tony? Hey."

The voice was close, and he jumped and tensed up in fright. It was just Steve, though, and an instant later he slumped back again.

"You okay?" Steve asked. He stepped into view, wearing a white T-shirt under a blue hoodie, his hair in need of a cut. Quickly Tony looked away, not wanting to be caught staring.

Shame swept through him. He had to do better than this. He wasn't a slave anymore, and he had to remember that (but still he couldn't look Steve in the eye). He couldn't lie here, weak and sick, when there was work to be done. He had sold out the Earth, betrayed seven billion people to the Kree, and he had to make that right. He was the only one who could.

Steve's palm curled about his forehead, testing for fever. Tony lay very still, relishing that brief moment of kindness, drawing strength from the physical contact. He wanted to stay here, to curl up in Steve's arms and tell himself the lie that he was safe.

But what he wanted didn't matter, and he had to remember that.

"No fever," Steve said with a faint sigh of relief. "You're definitely on the mend."

That was true. For now. He wasn't stupid; he could expect to get sick again before everything was said and done. Physically he was in terrible shape and he knew it. But that too did not matter, because his body was just a hateful inconvenience anymore. All that mattered was that right now he was the only thing standing between the Kree and another conquest.

Awkwardly, he pushed the covers back and sat up. It was warm in the room, but he still let go of the blanket with a pang, needing it not so much for its thickness, but just for the sheer fact of it. He knew he should be ashamed of himself for needing it so badly, but he couldn't bring himself to feel that way just yet. Being allowed to keep things was still a novel concept, and he meant to hang on to that feeling for as long as he could.

"Can I get you anything?" Steve asked.

Tony shook his head. He kept his gaze on his lap, and the white strain in his knuckles as he clutched the hem of the green blanket.

Steve let out a slow breath, then sat cross-legged on the bed, facing him. "There's something I need to tell you."

Tony said nothing, his head bowed, his eyes downcast. Properly submissive. Waiting to hear what he had done wrong, and learn his fate.

"Nick Fury called. He's demanding a report on the Kree by the end of the week. He wants everything we've got on them." Steve sounded apologetic, but firm. "I'm sorry. I wish we had more time, but we don't. We're gonna have to give it to him."

Fear clutched at his throat. A report. On the Kree. What was he supposed to say? How could he tell Fury – or Steve, or anyone – what he knew? He couldn't put into words the terror the Kree instilled in him, or the sick anxiety he felt even just thinking about them. He couldn't describe the horror of being their captive, of knowing that they didn't even think of him as a person. He couldn't explain how it felt to have everything stripped away from him, dismantling his very identity.

But he had to find a way. This was his penance and his punishment. He had told the Kree about the Earth. Now he had to tell the Earth about the Kree.

"Okay," he whispered.

"We don't have to do it right now," Steve said quickly.

But they did. He had screwed up and now he must be punished. He had only to remember his dream (but that had really happened) to know how bad punishment could get. This would be easy, in comparison.

So he tried. For nearly an hour, in fact, he tried his best, forcing himself to push aside his fear of speaking and drawing attention to himself in order to do what Steve wanted. And it wasn't too hard at first, speaking in clinical terms of numbers, both of soldiers and the fleet, extrapolated from his brief sight of the hangar where the cruiser had landed. He had seen so little of Hala, though, that all too soon his objective information ran out, and he had to begin speaking of the personal.

And that was much harder.

The bedroom was warm, but all he could feel then was the unending cold of Hala. He didn't see the green blanket or Steve's blue hoodie, but the sterile white and silver of the Kree compound. He covered up his scarred left hand, not wanting to see that reminder of the price he had paid for daring to believe that he was human.

"You can't bargain with them," he whispered. He stared at his hands and shivered. "You can't negotiate."

"Yeah," Steve said. He had remained largely quiet while Tony talked, only speaking up every now and then to offer encouragement. Tony was grateful to him for that silence; it made it easier for him to say what needed to be said.

"We're nothing to them," he whispered. Less than nothing, really, remembering how horrifying it had felt to walk through the hangar and be utterly ignored by every Kree he saw. Beneath their notice, the way a man walked down the street, completely ignorant of the ants he crushed underfoot. "Earth is just another planet to be conquered or…or…enslaved."

Steve nodded, a gesture he only glimpsed from the corner of his eye. "So how do we respond to that kind of attitude?"

"I made myself give in," Tony whispered. "It was the only way."

In the ringing silence that followed, he wanted to shrivel up with shame. The question had been rhetorical, not personal, he knew that now. Yet he had answered it that way without even thinking about it.

One more mistake. One more reason to withhold words and maintain the silence the Kree had taught him.

Steve said carefully, "You had to. They didn't give you any other choice."

No, they hadn't. He had tried once to take the only other choice left to him, but ultimately he hadn't been able to go through with it. He supposed he was glad for that, but when he remembered the devastation that came from knowing he wasn't brave enough to make his own end, he couldn't help but wonder if he had made the right decision.

He would find out one day, though. They all would.

"I stopped fighting them," he said. "I stopped thinking, even."

"But you survived," Steve said. "That's what matters. You survived, and you did fight back when you had the chance. You're here today because of it."

He had heard this before. Maybe it was true and maybe he even believed it. He didn't know anymore. But suddenly he had to make Steve understand, to make Steve believe what was true.

"You can't fight them," he said. He could feel tears stinging his eyes, but he blinked rapidly, trying to push them back. He didn't want to cry. He was so tired of crying and being afraid all the time.

"None of them ever touched me," he whispered. He tried looking at Steve, needing to see something other than his own hands, something to anchor him in reality so he would remember where he was. But he couldn't do it. He couldn't even lift his head. The past was too close, and it was cold in here, and he was never going to be warm again.

"Except to…to brace themselves," he said. He blinked, and he could see the silvery curtain that hung over the steel bars, separating him from the soldiers so they wouldn't have to look at the slave they were fucking. "I used to think, sometimes, maybe it would be better if they had. If they…if they had hurt me. At least then I would have felt like a human being. Not just…not just a hole."

And then he was crying, and he didn't want Steve to see him like this, he didn't want to be saying these things. Oh God, he didn't want to have to remember them, to know they had really happened to him. He raised his hands to cover his face, but at the last second he remembered the scar on his left hand, and he recoiled in revulsion and dropped it back to his lap.

"Oh, Tony," Steve breathed. The bed shifted as he moved forward, and then he was there beside him, strong arms wrapped around him.

And thank God the Kree had never touched him, because he couldn't bear to think that if things had been different, he wouldn't be able to have this, that the memory of their hands on him would have driven him away from the comfort of Steve's arms. Thank God he was able to hold onto Steve with all his meager strength and rest his head on Steve's shoulder and breathe in great, near-silent gasps as he struggled to leave the horror behind and get control of himself.

"You aren't," Steve said firmly. "That's what they tried to make you, but it's not true. You were never just that, Tony."

Like so much of what Steve offered, it was a lie, but it was one he accepted gratefully nonetheless.

One of Steve's hands rubbed up and down his back, never dipping too low, though, never getting too near those places where the Kree had touched him. "What you are is the man I love," Steve said. "The man I want to spend the rest of my life with. You are Tony Stark. You are Iron Man. You are an Avenger. You are a hero. And you deserve so much more than you give yourself credit for."

More lies. Some of them, anyway. And though he was trembling and still fighting against the tears, he knew at least one of those things was true.

He was Tony Stark. He was the one who would stop the Kree. Because he had to.

He was fighting back again. And this time, he wouldn't give in.

****

Fury got his report on time, but Steve did not talk to Tony about it again. Instead he got together with Thor and they pooled their knowledge on the Kree, filling in the gaps as best they could. It took two days and a lot of debating back and forth, but in the end, they produced a ten-page document that Steve e-mailed to Fury with an audible sigh of relief.

Thor laid a hand on his shoulder. "It is done."

"And good riddance," Steve muttered.

"Aye," Thor said with a heavy sigh.

It wasn't all bad, though. He only spent part of his time with Thor discussing the Kree and their bloody empire. The rest of the time he looked after Tony, who was slowly but surely recuperating from his bout with the flu. On the second day, as Steve huddled with Thor, Tony went down to his workshop for a little bit. He was still coughing occasionally, and he was bundled in layers of thick winter clothing, but Steve was pleased that he went at all, instead of using his illness as an excuse to give up on the work he had just barely begun.

Tony didn't stay long in the workshop, though, and within a few hours, he was back in their bedroom, deeply asleep. By then Steve had finished the report for Fury and sent it off. With no other pressing demands on his time, he stood by the window and stared out at the gray winter sky. He thought about how cold the air felt this high up, and the cold of the city, all the people who went about their lives without a care for the other people they passed on the street.

He thought about the green of the Forest on Ernor, antithesis of this gray city. Just before casting the spell that had changed their lives forever, the Matriarch had said, My sages have assured me that in you two they have seen the potential for much greatness. Steve couldn't help wondering now what else they had foreseen. Had they known what would happen with the Kree? Had the sages of Ernor known these horrors were lurking in their future?

And if they had known, if they had said something, could there have been any stopping it?

Behind him, Tony rolled over in bed, but was silent. Steve exhaled slowly and bowed his forehead until it touched the glass, and thought about punching the window until either his hand broke or the glass did. But fifteen minutes later, when Tony woke with a shocked gasp from yet another nightmare, he was all patience and smiles.

And later that afternoon, when he and Tony sat in the kitchen and shared some scrambled eggs and toast, he felt a ridiculous surge of hope, lifting his spirits and making his smiles genuine. Sitting there, coaxing a tiny smile from Tony, he really felt like things were going to be all right.

And then the bottom fell out.

****

It was just after lunch when the Green Goblin attacked the city, green smoke billowing into the sky. JARVIS alerted them four minutes before SHIELD did, which was just enough time for the Avengers to get into a rapid-fire, heated argument.

"We're going out there," Steve commanded. He was already halfway to the elevators, his pulse racing. It was the first call for the Avengers since his return, and he was a bit surprised by how eager he was to respond.

"I'm pretty sure Spider-Man has this," Clint said. He was following along, but only at half-speed.

Steve shot him a look over his shoulder. "Since when do some of us have dibs on a bad guy? And in case you hadn't noticed, Spider-Man is just a kid. I'm sure he could use our help."

A few steps behind Clint, Bruce spoke up just as Steve slammed his thumb on the elevator call button. "No one's saying he can't. I think what Hawkeye is saying is that we're just wondering if this isn't maybe…"

"Maybe what?" Steve demanded. The button lit up; the elevator was here.

"Personal," Bruce said.

Steve drew himself up. "Damn straight it is. Now suit up. We leave in five minutes. Anyone not ready is getting left behind." The elevator opened up and he stepped inside. "I'll meet you at street level." Before anyone could protest, the doors were closing and he was headed up.

He had to get in uniform and retrieve his shield, and he had to be quick. But first he had to talk to Tony. It wasn't fair to run off and leave him here, especially since JARVIS had made his announcement to the entire Tower, which meant everyone had heard it – including Tony.

He found Tony in their bedroom, which he had expected. What he didn't expect was to find Tony standing in the middle of the room, one shoe off, looking around uncertainly.

Steve stopped dead. The Green Goblin was loose in the city and seconds mattered now. At any moment some innocent civilian could be crushed beneath falling debris and injured the way Tony had been, or worse, killed. That thought was bad enough, but the sight of Tony standing there, uncertain and afraid, made his chest constrict so he could barely breathe. Because even now, when he was still so broken, Tony had the courage to at least try. He didn't know if he could ever be Iron Man again – and yet here he was anyway.

"We're going," Steve said. "It's okay. You don't have to come."

Tony bowed his head slightly and nodded.

"It's just… We can't…" Steve clutched the door with one hand so hard the wood creaked in protest. "I'm sorry, Tony."

"Okay," Tony whispered. It was difficult to make out his expression. Steve didn't know if he was relieved that he wasn't expected to join the other Avengers, or if he was angry or ashamed. And there was no time to find out.

"We shouldn't be gone long," he said. He hesitated, then let go of the door and hurried inside. He knew his mistake the moment he did it, but by then it was already too late, and even though Tony flinched back, Steve continued on his course and gave him a quick hug. "I love you," he said. He kissed Tony's cheek, then he let go and backed away.

Five minutes later he was hurrying into battle. Black Widow was on another assignment in Madripoor, and War Machine was in Washington, but the other Avengers were here, ready to go, and finally Steve was one of them again.

It felt good to be back out here, in full uniform, the shield on his arm. This was where he belonged, giving orders to his team, making sure civilians were safe, formulating a plan to take down the bad guy. After an initial embarrassing bit of awkwardness when Spider-Man wasted everyone's time with his befuddled shock that the Avengers were coming to his aid, everything went perfectly according to plan.

Steve remained on the ground for the next several minutes; he couldn't exactly chase after the Green Goblin in the air. He followed the battle through commentary from his teammates and what he was able to see with his own eyes. And when the end came, he was ready.

It happened fast. Spider-Man had strung lines of webbing between some of Manhattan's taller buildings, creating a large loop in mid-air. Cackling and capering, the Goblin swooped past on his glider, tossing silvery grenades as he went – and for a split second he was in the center of a ring of spider webs.

With a loud shout, Thor lit up the webbing with Mjolnir.

Blue lightning crackled along the lines, creating a circle of fire and electricity. The Goblin's laughter abruptly turned into shrieks of fury. He banked hard left – and slammed right into the Hulk's fist.

Still connected to his glider, the Goblin went spinning off, head over heels. Hulk roared, but did not leap after him, having learned after the Battle of New York that people did not appreciate when he wantonly destroyed property.

He was not needed, anyway. From his perch atop a fire escape, Hawkeye fired a single arrow at the Goblin's glider. It found its mark with precision. Three seconds later, still tumbling, the glider exploded.

On the street, Steve stepped up. He took a moment to line up his shot, then he flung the shield skyward.

As soon as the shield left his hand, he knew he had succeeded. The disc ricocheted off the nearest streetlight, then zinged off the façade of the building across the street. It rebounded again and this time it smashed into the Green Goblin as he plummeted downward from the remains of his glider.

And still the shield kept going on the trajectory Steve had mapped out for it in his head. It came back to him, spinning and whirling – carrying the Green Goblin with it, straight into Steve's waiting arms.

The Goblin was reeling from being electrocuted, struck by the Hulk, and having his glider blown up beneath him all in short order. It was a simple thing to put him down with two solid punches, and then, when he staggered backward, finish him with a roundhouse kick. He collapsed in a heap, and Steve stood there on the balls of his feet, fists raised, his entire body strung taut and still ready for action.

Down, but not out yet, the Goblin laughed. It was high-pitched, almost a hysterical giggle. He flopped over onto his back, arms splayed, and looked up at Steve. "So you got me," he laughed behind his mask. "Big bad Captain America. So fucking what. In three months I'll be back on the street. You and I both know it. And in the meantime, where is your precious Iron Man?"

Steve's thinking brain vanished under a sheet of red rage. He bent down and picked up the Goblin with both hands latched onto the man's armored flightsuit.

He didn't make the conscious decision to beat the shit out of the Goblin. His hands just acted on their own. Without thinking, he drove his fists forward, battering the helpless man's face, chest, and stomach. When the Goblin fell – still laughing, damnit, still laughing – he picked up his shield and began to smash the green armor lining the man's back.

"How does it feel!" he yelled. With every hammer blow of the shield, he thought of that day in the autumn sunshine. He remembered how happy he and Tony had been. He remembered the white terror in Tony's eyes when the stone broke his back, fully aware of what had just happened to him.

If it weren't for this hideous laughing creature, he and Tony would never have needed to go back to Ernor. And Tony would never have lost over three months of his life and most of his soul to the Kree.

"Cap!"

"Steve!"

The voices barely registered in his ears. He heard nothing but the Green Goblin's laughter, weak and blood-choked now, but still there.

A hand seized his shoulder. He felt himself yanked upright and spun about. Then he was suddenly airborne, shoved backward so violently he actually left the ground for a few moments.

He landed on both feet, sliding in the dust and debris that littered the street from the Goblin's destructive flight throughout the city. He looked up, determined to return to his vengeance – and he saw them.

The other Avengers were standing in a protective circle around the Green Goblin. Thor was two paces in front of the others, Mjolnir raised, ready to bodily move Steve again if necessary. Spider-Man stood behind a growling Hulk, using him as his own shield, his shoulders twitching upward in silent distress. Hawkeye had an arrow set to his bow, although it was aimed at a point in no-man's land, halfway between where the Green Goblin lay and Steve was standing.

"Stand down, Captain," Thor commanded.

Steve glanced behind him and saw the Goblin lying unconscious – or possibly even dead – in the rubble on the street. He looked down at himself, at the quivering rage that still made his whole body shake and his hands ball into tight fists.

He saw the blood splattered on his shield.

"Jesus, Cap," Hawkeye said. "What did you do?"

What had he done? He had nearly beaten a man to death with his bare hands and his shield. He had given in to his anger and his hatred. He had tried to take his revenge for what had happened to Tony.

Oh God. Tony. What would he do when he found out what Steve had done?

He let go of the shield. It clattered to the street, rolled once, then was still.

Thor called his name, but he did not respond. He walked away from the scene, his back straight, his shoulders up. All the way to the Tower, ignoring the yells from people who clustered on the street or hung out of windows. Some cheered him on. Others shouted that he was no better than "they" were.

He knew he had blown it. After what he had just done, Nick Fury would demand his resignation, strip him of his rank and leadership. He would not fight it. He deserved it. Whatever punishment fell on his head, he would accept.

But he didn't for a moment regret what he had done.

****

He had enough sense not to go straight to Tony. He couldn't do that, not as he was, covered in dirt and sweat and blood. He knew he couldn't wait too long, though. He couldn't let Tony find out through JARVIS, or worse, by turning on the TV and seeing the video footage from some idiot civilian who had hung around during a major battle, recording it all with his cell phone.

He wanted to get drunk. Stupid, sloppy, black-as-night drunk. He wanted to forget the sight of Tony sitting beside him on the Ernorran ship, clutching at that awful green blanket draped about his shoulders, asking if Steve now owned him. He wanted to forget that the man he loved still could barely look him in the eye, a month after his rescue.

He wanted to throw his head back and scream until his voice gave out. He wanted to smash something with his hands, with the shield, like he had smashed the Green Goblin, until what was left wasn't even recognizable.

He wanted Tony back, the Tony he had fallen in love with, always ready with a sarcastic barb and a quick smile. He wanted to feel Tony's body beside his own, heat rising between them, out of his head with a pleasure he hadn't even known existed before. He wanted to be happy and in love again, and take a walk through September sunshine in this city that he loved, and not fear it ending in pain and horror.

He wanted a thousand things, and he could have none of them.

He stumbled into his bedroom. His chest felt too tight, his throat too small. It was like the asthma attacks of his childhood, only this time he was choking on grief and anger, not his own inadequate lungs. He tore his uniform shirt off, but even without the fabric clinging to his skin, he still felt like he was suffocating under the weight of an immense, yet invisible, pressure.

None of them understood. None of them knew. Around the other Avengers, he had to be normal Steve Rogers, like nothing had happened, like everything was just fine, picking up the threads of a life he had left behind four months ago. Around Tony, though, he had to be perfect. Everything he did had to be just right, everything he said had to be correct. And instead, he just kept making mistake after mistake, fucking it all up instead of actually helping Tony get better.

He wanted to grieve for what he had loved and lost, but that was impossible. Why should he grieve? He had not lost anything, after all. He had found his prize, he had Tony back.

None of them understood what it was like to find someone you had lost – only to realize that you hadn't really got them back at all.

"Steven."

He grunted in surprise and whipped around, fists raised.

"We must talk about what happened," Thor said. A smudge of dirt marred one cheek, but other than that, he appeared unscathed from the battle. He held Steve's shield, which he carefully set down to lean against the wall.

Half-undressed, one glove still on, Steve shook his head. "No. We don't."

"I know you are angry," Thor began, and Steve was so infuriated by the patronizing tone in his voice that he couldn't stop himself from interrupting.

"Don't," he snapped. "Don't even start." He scrabbled at the remaining glove, ripped it off and flung it to the floor.

"I only want you to know that you are not alone," Thor said. "I know what you are feeling and—"

It was the final straw. "You don't know!" Steve roared. "No one does! Everyone thinks everything is just fine, because we won, right? We got Tony back. But that is not Tony!" He pointed wildly in the general direction of the bedroom where he slept every night on the floor so he would not frighten the man he loved. "Tony is dead! And he's never coming back!"

The words hung in the air between them. Steve could only stand there, his chest heaving as he fought for air.

Thor gazed at him for a long moment, his eyes dark with sympathy. "You think I do not know this grief?" he said quietly.

Steve couldn't speak; his throat was tight with unshed tears and his eyes burned.

"Loki fell into the abyss between worlds," Thor said. "And I grieved for my brother as one who was dead, only to learn later that he was alive and committing terrible crimes against your world. But my brother remains dead. It is only Loki who survived." His jaw worked for a moment. "Do not make the mistake of thinking you are alone with your pain, Steven."

He didn't want to hear about Loki. He didn't want to accept the comfort Thor offered. "Get out," he said dully. "I have to talk to Tony."

"I will do it," Thor said.

"No!" Steve exclaimed. He was horrified at the thought of anyone but himself telling Tony what had happened today. The news had to come from him, and it had to be said in just the right way. A wrong word now would be disastrous.

"You need to clean yourself up," Thor said. "I will do it."

"No, it has to be me." Tony would blame himself for what Steve had done. At least, the old Tony would have. He was less sure about this new Tony, who was only now rediscovering that he was allowed to get angry about things. This Tony might very well be pleased that he had beaten the hell out of the Green Goblin.

"Why? Do you fear Tony's reaction to the news?" Thor asked.

"Don't you?" Steve retorted.

To his amazement, Thor smiled a little. "Nay," he said. "Tony is stronger than you believe. He may be hurt by what happened, but not as much as you fear."

Steve shook his head in denial, but could find no words.

"You love him," Thor said. "And that love blinds you. But I promise you, Steven, Tony will be all right."

He wanted to believe that. He truly did. But all the terrible, hopeless things he had been thinking recently rose up in his mind, and he could not bring himself to agree with Thor. Unable to speak, he clenched his jaw and willed himself not to cry.

"I will not tell you to be patient, because I know how maddening such advice is," Thor said. "I will only say that I have already seen great changes in Tony. And he has a goal now. I believe we will see even greater changes within him, and very soon."

Thor was right. Thor was always right. Steve prayed that this time he was right again, and that Tony really was going to get better.

He let out a long, shivering sigh. "God. What am I going to say to him?"

"You will say nothing," Thor replied. "I will do it." He spoke quickly then, overriding Steve's automatic sounds of protest. "You will rest now."

"I can't," Steve said.

"Maybe not at this moment," Thor said, "but you will."

"No," Steve said. He had to look away then. He couldn't bear to see the kindness in Thor's eyes. "You don't understand. I can't."

Silence drew out between them. Then Thor said, "Steven, I ask you this only as your friend. Today I saw you finally give in to your anger. But have you allowed yourself to grieve?"

Steve didn't look up as he nodded.

He covered his eyes with one hand. He didn't know why; Thor had seen him cry before. It was nothing new. But this was different, somehow. It was as though Thor's question had unlocked a heavy door deep within him, and everything, all the pain and grief that lurked behind it, was now spilling out. Everything he had kept locked inside for so long, everything he had refused to let himself feel, was finally here.

When the first sob shook him, he didn't even try to silence it. He just opened his mouth and made a terrible noise that barely sounded human.

Thor came over and held him, and Steve shut his eyes and sobbed out all his heartbreak and loss, and thought he would never stop.

****

He didn't know what woke him. He wasn't sure how much time had passed. He was lying on his left side, the pillow bunched up beneath his cheek.

He looked up, and saw Tony standing beside the bed.

Steve didn't dare move. He lay very still and he looked at Tony and he felt a sharp stab of pain in his chest all over again. Tony was so thin and pale, his hair brutally short, a dark sweater obscuring the light of the arc reactor. But his eyes were alive as he looked at Steve.

As he looked at Steve.

"Thank you," Tony said. His voice was pitched low, and somewhat scratchy. From coughing, Steve hoped, not from crying. Tiny shivers went through him, but Steve didn't know if that was a result of his lingering fear of breaking the rules and looking someone in the eye, or from something else entirely.

He said nothing as he lay there. What exactly was Tony thanking him for? Did he know what Steve had done to the Green Goblin?

And what was Steve supposed to say in response?

"Thank you for everything you did for me," Tony said. He looked like he was about to say something else, but then he changed his mind. He turned and he began to walk away.

He did not leave, though. At the foot of the bed, he hesitated, plainly unsure about his next move. Then he turned and made his way around the bed, coming over to the other side.

Steve watched him approach, and did not move. He wondered what was happening, or if he was even awake at all. Maybe he was just dreaming all of this.

Slowly, like he wasn't at all sure that he really wanted to do this, Tony got in bed. He pushed at the covers with a hand that visibly trembled, shoving them down just far enough so he could slide beneath them. Then he inched forward until his chest was pressed to Steve's back. For a long moment, when Steve did not breathe and it seemed like even his heart stopped beating, that was the only physical contact between them. Then Tony slipped one painfully thin arm about Steve's chest, holding him tight.

This has to be a dream, Steve thought. This can't be real. I am asleep and dreaming and this is not really happening.

And as though in a dream, he saw himself slowly reach down and take Tony's hand. The fingers were ice-cold and shaking.

He raised Tony's hand to his lips and kissed those cold fingers, each one, including his thumb. Then he lowered their hands and on Tony's exposed palm, he wrote, I love you.

Behind him, Tony shivered and sighed. His breath was warm on the back of Steve's neck.

Steve thought about what Thor had said. Tony is stronger than you believe. While he had spent the last few weeks steadily falling apart, Tony had been working to put himself back together. And here was the proof, evidence of Tony's indomitable will and courage, and a heart that would never give in, no matter what.

He felt ashamed for not seeing this himself, for not believing in Tony. And from that shame, other, even uglier thoughts tried to intrude. The blood on his shield. The revulsion in Clint's voice. Jesus, Cap, what did you do?

But he refused to listen to those memories. They did not belong here. He had finally found some peace, and he meant to have it. He snugged Tony's hand to his chest, made sure his ass and legs were aimed away from Tony's body, and closed his eyes.

Feeling better than he had in a long time, Steve closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen when Steve woke to the sound of Tony leaving. It was late enough that the worst of the evening hours, when Tony was consumed with memories of his captivity, had passed them by. He felt disoriented from sleeping for so long in the day; he couldn't remember the last time he had done such a thing.

In spite of the circumstances, his head was clear. As a young man, sleeping for too long had been a surefire way to wake up with a head feeling like it was stuffed full of cotton wool. But not now. He felt a welcome clarity to his thoughts that had been lacking for far too long.

He knew what he had to do next. Calmly he rose from his bed, remade it, then went into the bathroom. He took a scalding hot shower and shaved, then dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. "JARVIS, could you please ask the Avengers to meet me in the living room? I'd like Tony to be there too, if possible."

"Mr. Stark has gone down to his workshop," JARVIS replied. "Do you still wish me to invite him?"

Steve hesitated. He didn't want to take Tony away from his work. But Tony had a right to hear what he had to say, and furthermore, he had a right to hear it as an Avenger. "Yes," he said. "But make it clear that he doesn't have to come if he doesn't want."

He combed his hair and put on his shoes, taking his time, giving the Avengers time to assemble. When he was as ready as he could be, he walked over to where his shield still leaned against the wall, in the exact same spot Thor had left it. He picked it up and stood there for a long moment, savoring the familiar weight on his arm. The shield was an extension of himself, something he rarely let out of his sight for very long. During the months on Kree-Lar and Hala, he had missed it terribly, although he had never said anything to Thor about it.

Now he would have to part from it for good.

He drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. Carrying the shield, he left his room and headed down to the common floors.

The Avengers were already gathered. Natasha was there, which surprised him; he hadn't known she was back from Madripoor. Tony was there, too, sitting on the couch between Thor and Bruce, hunched over with his hands tightly clasped between his knees. Only Jim Rhodes was absent, being stuck in Washington still.

"I owe you all an apology for my behavior today," Steve said. He looked at Natasha as he spoke. "What I did went against everything I stand for. And it won't happen again." He raised his arm with the shield on it. "Effective immediately I am resigning from the Avengers. This belongs with someone who deserves to wield it. Not me."

He had thought they might all protest at once. Instead, no one spoke. Bruce and Clint looked away. Thor frowned in consternation. Natasha's mouth thinned. Tony hunched his shoulders still higher and ducked his head.

"And who should take your place?" Natasha asked coolly. "Got any suggestions?"

"That's your call," Steve said. "Not mine." He looked at each of them. "You did just fine without me before. You can do it again."

"That's not the point," Natasha said. She continued to gaze at him quite calmly, but with a distinct aura of challenge.

"Look," Steve said. "I fucked up, okay? I—"

"Yeah, and who hasn't?" Clint said. "We've all fucked up, Cap. That's what makes us human." He looked over at Thor. "Even you, big guy."

"Not like this, you haven't," Steve insisted. He was grateful for the support, but he couldn't let them dissuade him.

"You might be surprised," Bruce said mildly. That gave Steve a moment's pause. Clearly he was missing something, something that must have happened while he and Thor had been halfway across the galaxy searching for Tony. He had thought he'd heard all the stories from that time, but maybe not.

"The point is," Clint said, almost in a rush – and with a sharp look at Bruce – "we all screw up. And let's face it. You only did what we've all wished we could do at one time or another."

"Maybe," Steve said, "but I'm the only one who did it." He raised his arm a little, holding up the shield. "I'm not worthy of this anymore."

Natasha started to say something, but before she could even get the first word out, a quiet voice said:

"My father made that for you."

Everyone went very still. In the shocked silence that followed, Tony huddled in on himself even more, trying to make himself as small as possible. He looked utterly terrified.

But he had spoken up. Not just to Steve, but to all of them. In a setting already filled with tension. Steve's heart swelled with pride and love then, and he knew more than ever that he was doing the right thing. Tony deserved someone better than the person he had become.

"The shield belongs to Captain America," Steve said. "And I think we'd all agree that I'm not the best person to bear that title right now."

No one spoke. Natasha glanced over at Tony, then quickly looked away.

"It's yours," Tony whispered. Even his incredible courage failed him then, and he shuddered a little as he fell silent.

"Tony's right," Bruce said. "You might as well face it, Steve." He glanced at Clint and Natasha. "Besides, we already had this conversation once, while you were gone. Your shield stayed up in your room the whole time, gathering dust. It belongs to you. No one else."

"We can find a new Avenger," Natasha said. "But they won't be Captain America."

A lump rose in Steve's throat. He had to swallow hard in order to speak. "Are you sure?"

"Pretty damn sure," Clint said. He looked at the others, who all nodded along with him – except for Tony, who was still staring down at the floor.

"We are with you, whatever your decision," Thor said firmly.

Knowing they had his back made all the difference. He still would have stuck to his decision, but now he could do so with the knowledge that his teammates supported him. "Thanks, guys," he said. "I'll speak to Fury first thing in the morning."

"He's already called," Clint said.

"I figured," Steve said.

"Five times," Natasha said.

Steve winced.

Bruce stood up. "Do what you need to do, Steve." He nodded a little, indicating that he wasn't passing judgment.

One by one the others filed out. Clint clapped him on the shoulder. Natasha met his eyes briefly, then looked away. Thor was the last to go. "Seek me out if you should need me," he said. Then he too was gone, and only Tony remained.

Steve walked over and sat down beside him. He leaned the shield against the couch on his left. "I'm sorry."

Tony did not speak for a while. He continued to stare at the floor, and his hands gripped each other tightly. Steve said nothing, though, giving him the chance to find the courage he needed.

And eventually Tony whispered, "Where will you go?"

For about half a second, Steve didn't get it. Then the realization slammed home, and he inhaled sharply. "No! Tony, I'm not leaving. I'm staying here, with you." Although it occurred to him suddenly that maybe he didn't deserve to stay here. This was Avengers Tower, after all, and he was no longer an Avenger. "If you want me to, that is."

Tony nodded quickly, still unable to look at him. A shiver ran through him, and Steve kicked himself for being so thoughtless. He should have talked to Tony in private first and explained what he meant to do. He should have reassured Tony that removing himself from the Avengers didn't mean he would leave the Tower – and Tony himself.

The familiar frustration bit through him, making him feel taut and angry. Only hours ago, Tony had come to him despite his fear, and offered him comfort. He had taken it, too, and given nothing in return – except yet another stupid mistake that had hurt Tony.

"Then I'm staying," he said.

Tony breathed in deep, and lifted his head. Slowly, in stages, he looked over at Steve. It took him a long time, and he could not sustain the eye contact, but it lasted long enough for Steve to see his relief and gratitude.

"I'll be right here," Steve said. He slid his arm about Tony's shoulders – and Tony came easily into his embrace, holding him back.

"I'm not going anywhere."

****

What Steve had done to the Green Goblin was all over the news, of course, shaky cell phone camera footage and all. According to flash polls, public opinion was sharply divided. Half the people were pleased with him, proud, even. One random guy on the street, standing there for his impromptu interview, seemed to sum it up. "Cap did the right thing. These guys like Gobby think they can get away with murder – literally. There's never any consequences. They go to jail for a few months, then they're back out again, worse than ever. Maybe after this they'll think twice."

The other half of the world was shocked and dismayed by what Steve had done. They wanted him censured for his actions, although few went so far as to call for his resignation. "Captain America is supposed to stand up to bullies," said a woman on the street. "Not become one of them. Everyone thinks the Avengers are so great – and they are. But who polices them? Where is the oversight?"

Steve turned the TV off. It was well after midnight, and he had seen enough. Several floors up, Tony was hopefully asleep in their room, unaware of what he was about to do. "JARVIS, please contact SHIELD. Have them send a chopper over. I'll be waiting on the roof."

Twenty minutes later he was on the helicarrier, standing across from a very angry Nick Fury. As he had with the Avengers, he wasted no time. "I'm here to tender my resignation. Sir."

"Like hell you are," Fury snapped. "And deprive me of the pleasure of firing your ass?"

From anyone else, Steve would have thought it was something of a joke meant to defuse the tension. With Fury, though, he was pretty sure it was real.

"I don't know what the hell you were thinking," Fury said. "I don't even want to know. What I do know is that you aren't setting foot back on this team again until you get your head screwed on straight."

Eyes front, head up, Steve nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Ask Agent Barton, he'll tell you how much I mean that," Fury said. "Talk to someone, Rogers. SHIELD or your own private therapist, I don't care. But get it done."

Steve bobbed his chin again in a signal of assent. He had expected this. It wasn't the first time he had been ordered into therapy, and it probably wouldn't be the last.

"And while you're at it, get Stark to go, too," Fury said. "We could use him out there."

Steve looked over at Fury. "With all due respect, sir, I'm not going to make Tony do anything he doesn't want to do."

"Then tell him I ordered it," Fury said. "I really don't care how you do it. Just make it happen. I need my people back out there."

Fury was only thinking of the Kree, and how to best protect the Earth, and Steve knew that. But he still bristled at the command. "Tony doesn't answer to you," he said. "And neither do I anymore." He turned around to leave.

"Captain." Fury's voice halted him in the doorway. "Where's the shield?"

"Someplace safe," Steve said, and walked out.

****

"Should I begin the calculations?"

It was the middle of the night. Tony stood in front of the Mark 9, studying with a critical eye (he could see how to shave half a second off his reaction times) the gleam of light off the crimson armor. He was thinking.

Steve had resigned in disgrace. Steve was no longer an Avenger. Steve was not even Captain America anymore.

And he? He was not Iron Man. Not now and possibly never again.

(but that half a second…)

"Sir?"

"No," he said faintly. He raised one hand, ghosted his fingertips over the dark circle in the suit's chest, where the arc reactor was meant to glow.

He had seen the footage from earlier today – yesterday, technically speaking. JARVIS had played it for him, albeit somewhat reluctantly. He had watched it from start to finish, holding his breath while Steve brought the shield down on the Green Goblin over and over, his face a frozen snarl of rage.

Even now he didn't know what to think. Logically he knew he should disapprove of Steve's actions. But he didn't blame any of them for what had happened to him. Not the Green Goblin, not Spider-Man, and especially not Steve. That was life. Shit happened and sometimes you got crushed by it and sometimes you didn't. It was nobody's fault.

He had sat quietly in the penthouse while the Avengers were out fighting the Green Goblin, waiting for news. The angle from up there was all wrong and he hadn't been able to see any of the actual battle. He had told himself that they would be all right, that Steve would be fine, that sooner or later the door would open and Steve would walk in and tell him how things had gone.

And eventually the elevator doors did open, and someone entered the penthouse. But it wasn't Steve who walked toward him. It was Thor. He saw that, and his heart began to beat faster.

Thor smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "The foe calling himself the Green Goblin has been captured, and none of us took any injury, including the youth calling himself Spider-Man. He handled himself well today; I would be proud to fight alongside him again someday."

Tony just stared at the floor and tried to remember to breathe. There had to be a reason why Steve had not come. There had to be.

"Steven wished to speak to you," Thor said, "but I urged him to rest instead."

He liked that about Thor, the way he used Steve's full name, but only one correction, back when they had first become a team, had been enough to ensure that he would not be called Anthony. And then the significance of what Thor had said crashed home, and he forgot all about stupid shit like names.

"Something has happened," Thor said, and the room seemed to tilt and yawn all around him. He had to look down at his feet where they were anchored firmly on the floor in order to keep from sliding off the couch in a dazed heap.

Thor crossed the room and sat beside him. "This is not easy to say," he said quietly. "Steven has been under great stress, although he hides it well. You probably did not even know it. None of us did."

No, but he should have, and shame curled up small and red in Tony's chest. He was a wreck, and he knew it. Nothing but a burden, he saw that now. He thought of all those hours Steve had sat with him, holding him, talking to him, reassuring him that he was safe and that everything would be all right. What had that cost Steve?

"I do not say this so you might blame yourself," Thor said. "We all share in this guilt, although I must claim a larger portion for myself. I should have known."

Tony risked a glance upward and saw Thor was sitting with his head bowed, his shoulders tight with tension. "I'm sorry," he said. Thinking of all that time wasted, when he had done nothing to atone for his betrayal of the Earth, and Steve had been forced to do nothing except sit here and watch over him.

"No," Thor said. "Do not apologize. You are not at fault."

That was a lie. And unlike all the other ones he had been told, Tony did not let himself believe this one. "What happened?" he asked, staring down at his feet, squeezing his fingers so hard they hurt.

Thor sighed. "After the Green Goblin was subdued, Steve began to beat him, with fists and with shield. He would not stop, nor listen to reason. In the end I had to push him aside. He would not have stopped even then, but he saw us gathered around the fallen man, ready to defend even one such as him."

Tony sat frozen still, unable to believe it. Thor would not lie to him, and so it must have happened, and yet –

"I have seen such rages before," Thor said heavily. "I have even been overcome by them myself. The guilt and remorse afterward are never worth the satisfaction of unleashing such violence."

Silence fell between them. Tony said nothing, still trying to imagine Steve doing such a thing.

"He needs you now," Thor said. "As much as you have ever needed him."

The guilt and shame were overwhelming. He had taken everything Steve gave to him and never once thought of how much it was costing Steve. He had thought of nothing but his own selfish need.

"Will you talk to him?" Thor asked.

Tony nodded, too stricken to speak.

He had to do better, stop being so selfish. Empathy had always come hard for him; there was a reason he needed people like Pepper and Rhodey in his life, people who didn't take his shit. For once he needed to think about someone else. He needed to think about Steve. He needed to remember waking up after his first disastrous bath on board the Ernorran ship and seeing Steve sitting in the corner, softly crying. He needed to remember all those times Steve's arms had been around him, holding him tight, making him feel safe.

Who was keeping Steve safe?

"I'm sorry," he said again, and he was crying, stupid, weak tears, and he had never hated himself more.

"Tony. Please." Thor's hand was warm and large on his shoulder, the way it had been so many times before, starting with that day in the galley of the alien ship, the day Thor had given him the sweet pink drink that had briefly made him feel better.

Thor, too, had done nothing but give to him – and he had done nothing but take.

He choked back the tears and made himself stop crying. He wiped at his eyes and sat up a little. "I'm sorry," he said yet again. "I'll do better."

"You have already come very far," Thor said. He removed his hand from Tony's shoulder and brought it back to his lap. "It will take time."

He didn't want to be let off the hook that easily. Somewhere in this huge Tower, Steve was lying there all alone, so full of ugly things he couldn't express that he had beaten a helpless man today.

And he had never known, never even guessed at what Steve was feeling.

"I'm so ashamed," he whispered.

"Do not be," Thor said. "You survived where many others would not have. You have astounding courage, Tony Stark. I stand in awe of you."

That was not what he had meant, and he had heard all that before anyway. But this time it was different somehow. Steve was obligated to tell him how brave he was. Thor was not. This time he let himself actually hear the words.

"Not so brave," he muttered. "You would have fought back."

"No, I would not have," Thor replied gravely. "Under such conditions I too would have chosen life – and surrender." He paused, maybe waiting for Tony to answer. Then he said, "What you did was neither weak nor cowardly. Do not tell yourself otherwise."

Steve had told him that, too. And he wanted to believe it, to believe that he had done the right thing by giving in to the Kree. Hearing it from Thor, however, lent the words more weight and made them more credible, as though they might actually even be true.

If he was supposed to be so brave and strong, then it was high time he began acting like it. And that meant leaving behind his selfish weakness, and remembering that other people were affected by what had happened, too.

"I never thanked you," Tony said quietly. He took a deep breath and looked up, directly at Thor. "For…everything you did. And for…how you talked to me."

Thor's brow furrowed in a puzzled frown. "And how was that?"

He had to look away; eye contact was still difficult to maintain even after all this time. "Like I was still a person," he whispered.

Thor said, "My friend, I never thought of you as anything different."

Tony closed his eyes and told himself furiously that he would not cry again, he would not.

"And I know you remain the same brilliant man you have always been," Thor said. "You will do what you set out to do. You will find a way to stop the Kree from taking Midgard. They will not have this world. Never again will they do what was done to you."

What was done to you. The words echoed in his brain, calling up images of sterile white walls, a silvery curtain and steel shackles. What was done to you was a terrifyingly high number that lurked in the back of his mind, night after night of rape and torture, and a life that had been so very cold and empty. What was done to you was sick and wrong and utterly horrifying.

And that simply, the day's events slotted together in his mind. He saw how they all connected, so brightly illuminated that the revelation they led to was almost outshone. Steve and Thor blamed themselves. Steve was filled with angry guilt and took it out on the Green Goblin, blaming him for the accident that had led them to Ernor again. But that was all wrong. It had nothing to do with Steve or with Thor or even with the fucking Green Goblin.

It was all about the Kree.

"They had no right," he murmured. Working it out, using the words to guide his racing thoughts, speaking not to JARVIS as he often had over the years. Certainly not to Thor, although the other man gave him a somewhat concerned look in response.

The Kree and their mighty empire. Attacking innocent worlds and abducting whomever they could find. Attacking Ernor time and again, so even the people on a planet where magic was the norm found themselves helpless against such an enemy.

Attacking Ernor…and abducting himself. Another innocent. Visiting an observatory in the mountains with a man who might have been his friend under different circumstances. An astronomer he had last seen in the dining hall of the Kree compound on Hala, serving tasteless food to all those other slaves who had been cruelly ripped away from their lives and their worlds.

"They had no right," Tony said again. "I didn't deserve it." He had done some terrible things in his life, he would be the first to admit. But nothing he had ever done merited the punishment the Kree had delivered. "They had no right!"

Anger made his hands clench into fists. He surged forward, almost rising off the couch before suddenly remembering where he was and how dangerous it was to show any emotion.

(but damnit I'm free now!)

He was free, yes, he was safe, yes, he was back on Earth. Not a slave anymore, but Tony fucking Stark. And Thor was right about one thing: he would stop the Kree.

He was going to finish his work (and not fuck it up, no not that, never) and he would stop the Kree. And when he was done with that, he was going back to Hala. He was going to save all those other slaves, the ones who had no one coming to rescue them, the ones who didn't look up in fearful hope when they heard mysterious explosions in the dark hours before dawn, the ones who weren't cruelly fooled into believing that they might get out of there. They didn't believe they would ever be free. But it didn't matter what they believed.

Because he was coming for them anyway.

That was what he remembered now, standing there in the workshop, contemplating the light reflecting off the Mark 9. While Thor had still been there, his anger at the Kree had quickly subsided, taken over by the need to see Steve and speak to him. But he had not forgotten, and he damn sure had not forgiven.

He had done as he had said, and gone to see Steve. Taking his turn to stand watch while Steve slept, while he made promises to himself to be there for Steve, to get this right, to not fuck it all up like he had been doing. And when Steve woke, he had said thank-you, but it hadn't been enough, not by far, so he had gathered his meager courage (because he was supposed to be so brave and strong now) and climbed into bed with Steve.

He was through sleeping, though. He had work to do.

He reached out toward the dark circle on the suit's chest. He stared for a long moment at his trembling hand, then he shoved it forward so his palm impacted the spot where the arc reactor's glow would be.

Not today. Not tomorrow. Not even next month.

But soon.

"I'm coming for you," he vowed.

****

Steve released a carefully worded statement to the press, apologizing for his actions with the Green Goblin and announcing his resignation from the Avengers. On Pepper's advice, he added that he was going to take some time to reflect on his role in today's modern world, then concluded by saying that no one would be taking up the shield in his absence.

The questions came fast and furious after that, asked over and over on TV talk shows, 24-hour news stations, and Internet message boards. Was he truly sorry or only saying that he was? What was he going to do now? Would he be evicted from Avengers Tower? And why was there still no word on Tony Stark and whether Iron Man would ever return to the Avengers?

Steve answered none of them, either by another statement or by agreeing to the many interview requests he received. He just hunkered down in the Tower and waited for the feeding frenzy to die down.

Which it did, five days later, when Victor von Doom launched an attack against the Fantastic Four that prompted the Baxter Building to seal itself off like some shining chrysalis in the middle of Manhattan. All the talk after that was centered around questions of how far diplomatic immunity stretched, and just how crazy was Reed Richards for giving an entire building such major defenses.

Despite the media furor, and especially after the spotlight slid off himself, those were quiet days for Steve. He worked out daily with Thor for a few hours, burning off his excess energy and anger. He met once with a SHIELD-appointed therapist and set up weekly appointments. He intended to keep them, too, even though he didn't expect them to do any good.

January slid into February, and still winter held New York in its grip. The Tower was well-heated, though, especially any room where Tony might be. Even so, Steve occasionally found himself shivering for no reason at all, momentarily overcome by a cold dread he could not explain.

He wasn't alone in that regard, either. Sometimes he looked up and saw Tony shuddering, caught in the memory of a horror only he knew about. All the same, as the days slipped past, dull and uneventful, Steve saw a slow but unmistakable change in Tony.

The physical alterations were the easiest to see. Now that he was eating regularly, Tony steadily gained weight, his face filling out, losing the too-sharp angles from before. With his body no longer on the brink of starvation, freed from the outward stresses he had endured, he began to regain some of his former grace and stamina. His hair grew in thick and dark, still shorter than he normally wore it, but with no sign of gray. He still carried an aura of physical frailty about him, but that was rapidly diminishing. To look at him, the only visible signs of his ordeal were the scars on his left hand from whatever the Kree had done to him, and the burn scar on the back of his neck.

Less tangible, but far more important as far as Steve was concerned, were the internal changes. These days Tony was much better at sustaining eye contact and feeling comfortable with speaking up. He still did not initiate dialogue, and he did not divulge any more details of his captivity to Steve, but he would respond if spoken to. With ever-increasing frequency, Steve could easily pretend that they were having a normal conversation.

Best of all, that passive submissiveness that had characterized so much of Tony's behavior since his rescue was all but gone. He remained quietly watchful, always on the lookout for something he had done wrong, but he seemed to finally be leaving the worst of the fear behind.

Not always, of course. Tony continued to wake up almost every night gasping and shaking from another nightmare. The evening hours were also still somewhat rough, but Steve expected that to be the case for quite some time. And he was sometimes caught off guard by some random word or experience that set Tony to trembling uncontrollably. But those occasions came less and less frequently, and by the fourth day of February, over a month since their return to the Tower, Steve dared to hope that soon they would cease altogether.

He left the gym on a blustery cold morning, freshly showered after his workout with Thor. His hair was still damp as he rode the elevator up to the floor where he and Tony still shared a room. He didn't really expect to find Tony there – Tony spent most of his time in the workshop nowadays – but it was habit to look there first.

The bedroom was empty. Steve stood in the doorway and felt his blood run cold. For it wasn't just Tony who was absent – all his possessions were gone, too. Clothes, toiletries, shoes, all gone. Most conspicuous of all, the green blanket was no longer folded up at the foot of the bed.

Panic settled behind his breastbone, completely undoing the relaxed state he had achieved after his workout. "JARVIS? Where is he?"

"Mr. Stark is in the workshop," JARVIS replied.

"But where did he go?" Steve insisted. "His things are gone."

JARVIS paused infinitesimally, maybe checking to see if his programming permitted him to reveal that information. "Mr. Stark has moved his belongings back to his own bedroom."

Steve stood still, too shocked to react at first. Tony had left. Without telling him.

He told himself that this was a good thing. Changing bedrooms seemed like a small step forward, but Steve knew how huge it really was. Not only had Tony decided that he was ready to reclaim another part of his old life, he had actually taken action toward achieving that goal. The Kree had ripped away his ability to control his life, his surroundings, even his own body. Moving out was Tony's way of taking some of that control back.

But still. "Why didn't he tell me?"

"I believe he only made the decision this morning," JARVIS said. "It seemed somewhat…impulsive. I believe the term 'having second thoughts' might apply."

Steve huffed out a little chuckle at that. When he had first met Tony, "impulsive" had been one of his defining traits. It made him smile to think that maybe those days might come again.

"Okay," he said. "Thank you."

He left the bedroom, ignoring the question of what to do with his own belongings. He would talk to Tony first and find out what Tony wanted him to do. During those few short months when they had first begun their relationship, they had shared both their bedrooms equally. He thought they had maybe spent more nights in Tony's bed than his own, but he honestly couldn't say for sure. All he knew was that he missed those nights, wherever they had occurred.

Since returning to the Tower on New Year's Eve, he had only been in Tony's room a few times, mostly to gather up things like clothes and shoes. As he walked in the room now, he saw no obvious sign that Tony had moved back in. Even that damn blanket was still missing, which made Steve frown in puzzlement; he would have expected to see it draped across the bed again.

He stepped further inside, looking around curiously – and a flash of green caught his eye.

His heart sank. He had found Tony.

"Hey," he said quietly.

Tony looked up at him from his spot on the floor. He was sitting in the corner, the blanket tight across his shoulders, holding onto it for dear life. Miserable shame crossed his face when he saw Steve, and he looked away again quickly.

"You okay?" Steve asked. He walked over to where Tony was sitting, but stopped a few paces away. He sat down, cross-legged, and prayed to God his dismay did not show on his face. In the past couple weeks he had seen Tony backslide a couple times, but nothing this drastic. It worried him – and it made him curse his absence, made him wonder if this would have happened if he had been there when Tony made his move. "JARVIS said you were in the workshop."

"I told him to say that," Tony murmured.

"Oh," Steve said, and then could think of nothing else to say.

Tony stared at nothing, his shoulders hunched up about his ears. "I'm sorry," he said.

"It's okay," Steve said, and wondered how he was going to find out what had caused this, if Tony could not bring himself to say it on his own.

"I thought I could," Tony said, his voice not much above a whisper. He looked angry and ashamed, and still he could not look at Steve.

Thinking he understood the problem now, Steve said again, "It's okay. We can go back downstairs. You don't have to stay here."

Tony shook his head. Although he was much better these days at indicating when he didn't want to do something, he still found it difficult to actually speak the words out loud.

"What was it?" Steve asked. He glanced around, looking for something that might have stricken fear in Tony's heart, enough to send him down here, huddled in the corner. Maybe it was the shower curtain in his enormous bathroom, a cause for terror for reasons Steve still didn't understand. Maybe it was something else, something innocent that he would never even guess. And maybe it was nothing at all, just the enormity of what he was doing suddenly sinking in, filling him with fear at his audacity, reminding him of what had happened the last time he had tried to take bold action on his own.

"Too many…things," Tony said. He closed his eyes. "Stupid, I know. I just…"

"It's a big change," Steve said. "It's only to be expected."

Tony nodded, but he clearly did not believe it.

"But it's not…" Steve paused, trying to phrase it just right, not wanting to deepen Tony's shame with a thoughtless word. "I mean, your workshop is kind of the same. Lots of stuff down there. Did that bother you, the first time you went down there?"

Tony sighed, shaky and unhappy. "Yeah." He opened his eyes, glanced up at Steve, then looked away. "But it's different."

"How?" Steve asked.

"It's work," Tony said. "I don't know. It just is." He breathed out through his nose, clearly disgusted with himself.

"Hold on," Steve said. He stood up. "I have something for you." He ignored the way Tony flinched, held up one hand in a just wait gesture, then turned around and hurried out of the bedroom.

He had thought of it as soon as Tony said "too many things." But he had dismissed it again almost right away. Until Tony said that being in the workshop was all right because it was about his work. He had a goal now, something to aim for. Thor had suggested once that this was the main reason for Tony's improvement over the past couple weeks, and Steve was not inclined to disagree.

And now he had something to give Tony, something he had been holding onto. Something that might help with that work. He didn't know what that might be, but then, he didn't have to. He wasn't the engineering genius.

His room was dim and cool, everything in its place, his shield leaning up against the foot of the bed. He went over to the closet and opened the door, then stood there for a moment, scanning the contents, searching for one item in particular.

And there it was. With a smile, he grabbed the bag that he had brought back to Earth with him from the Ernorran ship, and headed back to where Tony waited.

****

After Steve left, Tony remained sitting in the corner for a little while. He burned cold with shame, but he still couldn't get up. Not just yet.

This morning everything had seemed so easy. He had woken up to a note from Steve saying he had gone down to the gym. It was this way most mornings, but he still appreciated the thoughtfulness.

He had lain in bed for a bit, wonderfully warm beneath the covers, oblivious to the winter cold outside. He had felt healthy, almost normal. This sensation was not unique to today, but still new enough for him to marvel over it. The headache that had plagued him for so long was a thing of the past. The tight knots of tension in his chest and stomach were history as well, although they were apt to come back without warning; and though the evening hours were still full of anxiety, it was more manageable these days. The burn on his neck was fully healed, and no longer pained him. He didn't get out of breath just from walking down the hall anymore. In plain truth, he felt physically better than he had since the accident in September that had started it all.

He blamed that sense of well-being on his impulsive decision to return to his own bedroom. This wasn't the first time the idea had occurred to him, but for some reason today he had decided to go ahead and do it.

By the time he had walked in, though, his arms full of clothes, shoes dangling from his fingertips, this stupid blanket lying on top of everything, his heart had been pounding and he had known his mistake. He barely remembered dumping everything into the closet and slamming the door shut, not wanting to see it all. He didn't even know how he had ended up here, curled up in the corner like he was back in his cell on Hala.

He didn't want Steve to see him like this. Bad enough that Steve had already seen it. He couldn't still be here when Steve came back.

He forced himself to stand up and walk over to the king-sized bed, then sit on the edge. His hands didn't want to let go of the green blanket, though. In the end he was only able to do it by draping it across the bed at such an angle that he could still see it. He hated himself for needing that, but it was the only way.

After that there was nothing to do but sit and wait for Steve to come back. He found himself counting in his head, filling up the blank spaces with numbers, the way he used to. He had only made it up to 31 when Steve returned.

Immediately he stopped counting. He kept his head down, not looking, being good (stop that damnit!). It went deeper than habit, a part of him now – a part of himself he hated. Habit could be unlearned. Instinct could not.

He made the conscious choice to look up, to see what Steve had brought. It looked something like a small suitcase, but both the craftsmanship and the material it was made from were a dead giveaway of its alien origins. It wasn't Kree, it wasn't Asgardian, and just as he realized what it must be through process of elimination, he recognized it as being Ernorran.

Steve sat beside him on the bed. "I brought that with me," he said. "From the ship."

Tony thought back, but he didn't really remember their sudden departure from the Ernorran ship, brief stop on Asgard, and subsequent arrival at SHIELD. He had barely been lucid then, too dominated by pain and fear to feel much of anything else.

"I meant to give it to you before," Steve said, "but I kept forgetting. And then you said that about working, and I thought… Well, there might be something in there that could help you out with that." He smiled a little, tentative in hope, then sort of held the bag out, shifting it over a little on his lap, somehow managing to make it seem an invitation, not a command.

It was obviously harmless and it came from Steve, but Tony still reached for it with dread crawling all over his skin. He was never going to forget what the Kree had done to him with that silver ball they had made him hold, and the excruciating hours afterward, kneeling in chains with his hand screaming in agony.

But this was just an alien suitcase, and he settled it on his lap. He was hardly shaking at all as he undid the clasps and opened it up.

There were two items inside, nestled atop a bundle of gray clothing. The first thing he saw was a knobby stick of wood. It was about six inches long, with a couple of forking branches at one end. The wood was a dark brown, and rough to the touch.

The Forest. His experience with this wood was through touch, not sight. Not until the very end, when the spell had been lifted and he had been able to see again. By then he had been out of his head from fever and infection, and he hadn't really been able to trust his senses. But now, holding the twig in both hands, he remembered so clearly.

"Why?" He looked up at Steve.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Steve said. "It was with your things. At the Citadel."

He didn't remember taking it, although he did remember that he and Steve had gone out there one day after the Matriarch had healed his broken back, walking through the Forest that had nearly killed them once before. He remembered standing up against a tree as he and Steve kissed and pawed at each other, holding Steve's cock with his own –

He shuddered and nearly dropped the stick.

"Do you remember why you took it?" Steve asked.

Tony shook his head. He had no idea. He didn't want to think about that day in the Forest anymore.

"Okay," Steve said, thankfully not pushing the issue. "That isn't what I thought might help, though."

The other item in the suitcase was a rolled-up tube. Not exactly paper, but the Ernorran equivalent. He pulled it out and unrolled it, and his heart started hammering in his chest.

He recognized the drawing right away. After much pestering of the Matriarch's steward, he had been granted a tour of one of the spaceyards where the Ernorran ships were built. He had spent hours happily wandering around, asking question after question, committing as much as he could to memory. Later that night he had attacked the page, drawing what he could remember, trying to get as many details down as possible.

Not that I'm not grateful, because I am, I really am, I mean, how often do I get a chance to steal alien tech? But the next time you take me to a planet where I, you know, get a chance to steal alien tech, could you at least bring along a StarkPhone so I can just take pictures of the damn stuff?

The words echoed in his memory, words from a time when he hadn't known what true fear was, or how it felt to lose everything that made him who he was. A time when the idea of stealing alien tech had come with a thrill of excitement, not a violent dread of being caught and punished.

He shoved the drawing away, jostling the bag as he knocked the paper from his lap. He didn't want to look at it. He already knew it would be of no help in his work, but more than that, he didn't want to be reminded that he was a thief, that he had been deliberately marked so the entire galaxy would know this about him. His left hand throbbed with phantom pain, and he shivered in a sudden draft of cold.

There was something else in that alien suitcase, he saw. Something glinting gold, mostly buried beneath the gray Ernorran clothing, revealed now that he had shaken up the contents. He wasn't even remotely curious anymore, but he knew he had to look, because Steve had brought this for him and he had to act grateful, even if that was the last thing he was truly feeling.

He reached into the bag, beneath the drab clothing. His fingers closed about the golden object and started to pull it free.

Beside him, Steve inhaled sharply. "Wait!"

Too late.

The collar was just the same as he remembered it, smooth and shining gold, the oval disc set in the back. Tony stared down at it, his hand shaking wildly, and then he flung it away with a sharp cry of terror.

He heard himself make that noise, and then he couldn't hear anything at all over the terrified pounding of his heart. He slid off the bed, down to his knees, his head bowed, eyes squeezed shut, and he thought why and despair mingled with his fear because why please why and then suddenly he couldn't breathe.

It was the collar, already locked about his neck, the disc in place over his spinal column, ready to attach itself, tuned in to his central nervous system so it could shock him whenever he broke the rules and disobeyed. The collar tight about his throat, strangling him, no no no please God what did I do and he didn't understand, he didn't know why, he didn't know what he had done wrong.

"Tony! Oh God, Tony, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

The voice (steve) washed over him, the words meaningless. He wanted to ask what he had done wrong, to plead with them not to do this, but speaking was forbidden, and he had to be good, he had to be obey, and still he couldn't breathe…

"Tony, please. Don't. I'm sorry! It's not, it's not for you. It's for me!"

None of that made sense, because Steve wasn't, Steve couldn't, but the pure shock of it enabled him to pick his head up and risk a glance upward, quick and darting, not long enough to be caught and punished, but enough to see.

Steve was kneeling in front of him, chalk-white, blue eyes wide with horror. "I'm sorry, Tony. I'm so sorry. I forgot it was in there. I'm sorry."

Steve's abject apologies pared away the worst of his terror. He breathed in deep, but didn't raise his hands to his neck, because touching the collar was forbidden (no no I'm free), because the collar wasn't there, it wasn't, it wasn't.

But it's for me Steve had said and what did that mean, and Tony lifted his head and this time he managed to keep it held high – but he still couldn't look Steve in the eye.

"It was for me," Steve said. "I'm sorry. I should have told you. I was going to tell you. I forgot it was in there."

"For you," he whispered hoarsely.

"Yes," Steve said. "We didn't…we didn't know how to find you, Tony. An entire empire of planets? How do you even begin?" He paused, and Tony heard him breathing in and out, agitated. "We went to Kree-Lar first. That was my decision, and it was wrong. But we went there, and we started talking to the slavers, asking if they had seen anyone fitting your description."

Tony did not speak. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want to know. He had been forced to accept once before that Steve was not coming for him, that there was going to be no rescue. He didn't want to know what Steve had been doing during those cold days and nights when he had been the Kree's slave. He didn't want to know, but there was nothing he could do, so he just knelt there on the floor, the bed at his back, his gaze fixed on a spot right in front of his knees. He knew if he moved at all, even to glance at Steve again, he would simply break into a thousand pieces.

"We couldn't just ask them, though," Steve said. "They wouldn't have told us. So we had to play a role. Thor was the exiled Asgardian looking to buy a human slave. And I…I was his slave."

Tony swayed and closed his eyes against a wave of faintness.

"I wore the collar. It was mine. It didn't work. It was just for the role. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I should have told you."

Steve wearing the collar. Steve with that golden disc on the back of his neck. Steve walking after Thor, his head bowed, his eyes downcast. Steve never needing to fear what would happen if he uttered a forbidden whimper or a helpless sob. Steve not fearing the punishment that would befall him if he did not instantly obey every command given to him. Steve never sitting in terrified dread as the evening grew late and the hour drew near when the door would open and he would be led down the hall on a leash to that room with the silvery curtain and the steel shackles and that cry of Next!

"We tried everything, Tony. We didn't know what else to do. I would have worn it for real, if I had to. Anything to find you. If I could have traded places with you, if I could have suffered it all for you, I would have."

But Steve hadn't suffered. He had worn the collar and he had played the role, but it had just been pretend. It hadn't been real.

Steve didn't know.

"And I'm sorry," Steve said, and he sounded like he was in tears. "If we had gone straight to Hala, maybe we could have found you quickly, and you wouldn't have had to suffer for so long. It was my decision, and it was my fault, and I'm so sorry."

So many apologies, and none of them mattered, because Steve had only been playing. While he had been raped and tortured and forced to submit to people who had only acknowledged his existence when they were hurting him, Steve had been free to take the collar off any time he wanted.

Steve didn't know.

The anger he hadn't even realized he was feeling suddenly swept to the surface in a rush of violent heat. "No," he said in fury. He looked over at Steve, and this time he did not look away. He saw everything, rage blazing through him, giving him incredible clarity of vision.

He saw everything: Steve's guilt and shame, the way Steve blamed himself for everything. He felt no pity for Steve then, not one bit. Because Steve had worn the collar, but Steve didn't know a fucking thing. "No, you don't."

Steve flinched back in shock. He was still very pale. "I don't what?"

"You want to beat yourself up?" Tony fired at him. "You want to blame yourself? Fine! Be my guest! But don't you dare do it in front of me. Don't you fucking dare!" He covered his face with one badly shaking hand, struggling not to cry. He didn't want to cry, damnit. Not now. Not like this.

Steve's face twisted in anguish. "Tony, please."

"Get out," Tony said thickly. He couldn't bear to be around Steve right now. If he had to stay here he was going to explode. But still Steve did not move, and Tony raised his voice in a strangled shout. "Get out! Get out!"

Steve lingered for a moment longer, his eyes wide and shocked. Then he lurched to his feet and walked swiftly from the room. He hesitated in the doorway as though he wanted to say something, but then he turned and was gone.

Tony pressed his other hand over his first one, still over his eyes, and crumpled forward and cried – but silently, the way he had been taught.

Chapter Text

Steve fled to the gym. He didn't know what else to do. He had to unleash his pent-up anger and frustration somehow.

He still couldn't believe what had happened. He had remembered that the collar was still in the bag just as Tony reached inside for it. Horrorstruck, his first instinct had been to smack the bag down to the floor, but by then it had already been too late.

He would never forget the look on Tony's face. The raw betrayal. The sheer terror. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that in that first instant, Tony had thought the collar was meant for him, that he was going to have to put it on and wear it again.

Guilt writhed in his stomach and made him hunch his shoulders. He ducked his head and stared at the punching bag hanging from its hook. They were never going to be free of Hala and the Kree, no matter what might happen in the future. Even if the Kree were miraculously held at bay and the Earth remained free from their grip, the shadow they cast would forever darken his and Tony's future.

He could see them now, their impassive faces and cold eyes. The Kree, at least, had been honest about how they dealt with Tony. They had never lied to him, as Steve had.

I should have told you. The words beat out a staccato rhythm in his head. His fists pistoned forward in time with that beat, slamming into the punching bag and setting it to shuddering on its chain.

I should have told you.

I should have told you.

He was on his third punching bag when he looked up and saw Natasha standing there watching him. He had no idea how long she had been there, and he didn't care. He was tempted to ignore her and pretend he hadn't seen her, but he knew she would just continue to stare at him until he gave in. So he stepped away from the bag and beckoned her over.

She settled in before him without a word, padded gloves on her hands. He lashed out, landing punches squarely in the center of the gloves. They turned in a slow circle, Steve moving on the balls of his feet, Natasha's eyes fixed on him as she rotated in place.

After a few circuits, she said, "You want to tell me what happened?"

"What makes you think anything happened?" Steve grunted as he landed another punch.

"Because you've been down here for four hours," Natasha said calmly.

He hesitated, punched out again, then said, "Tony kicked me out."

Her eyebrow lifted.

He was going to have to tell her. And truthfully he kind of wanted to. She had proven to be very astute when it came to dealing with this new Tony. Maybe she could help him out now.

"I fucked up," he said bluntly. He made to punch at her hand again, then let his fist drop with a sigh. "I thought I was helping. But as usual, I was just making things worse."

Natasha did not ask how, or scold him for being melodramatic, or even tell him that he wasn't making things worse. She just gazed at him, not judging him, patiently waiting for him to go on.

"Do you know what Thor and I did while we were looking for Tony?" he asked her. "Did he tell you how we pretended?"

She nodded. "Yes."

He hadn't been sure if Thor had told them or not. In a way he was glad, because it spared him from having to tell that story. On the other hand, it made him inexplicably angry to know that they all knew the degrading truth.

But then again, they didn't really know the truth. Not all of it.

"Then you know I had to pretend to be his slave," Steve said. "And that meant I had to wear a collar."

Comprehension lit up Natasha's eyes. Her chin came up as she reacted, shocked and dismayed.

"It came back here with us. I threw it into a bag, I forgot it was even there," he said. The story was already dragging on too long. Only one thing mattered, and he said it. "Tony found it."

Natasha stared at him, her expression unreadable, her nostrils flaring. "How?"

"Because I fucked up," Steve said flatly. "I forgot it was there and I let him find it."

"What did Tony do?" she asked.

"He freaked out," Steve said. He shook his head, wishing he could turn back the clock and go back to that moment when Tony had just started to reach inside the bag, when it was still possible to stop him. "He thought I was going to make him wear it. I know he did. And I almost lost it, trying to apologize and explain why I had it. I didn't think I would be able to get through to him at first." He remembered the utter relief he had felt to see that Tony was listening to his words and using them as a way to le