The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 18-22
Chapter 18: The Bystander
Although they still couldn’t agree on how to proceed in their obvious conflict of interests, one fact didn’t require negotiating: Tony needed to eat.
After Tony’s injuries had healed and he was no longer reeling from that experience, his body promptly notified him it was lacking sustenance. The Commander had pulled some kind of power bar from his pocket, but Tony was leery of that and it wouldn’t have been enough to feed the two of them anyway.
So, the Commander accepted his role as provider and went out in search of more food.
Tony, unsurprisingly, found himself chained to the wall. To foil any escape plans, he was actually secured to something quite solid instead of simply having his hands tied, and in the pitch black it was impossible to see whether he could work himself free once the Commander left. Nonetheless, he attempted to feel his way around, but it ended up being one fruitless attempt after another.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, there was not much to see. The walls were too far apart from each other to actually be seen, and the echoes supported Tony’s theory that he wasn’t in a simple tunnel anymore. A decommissioned subway station seemed a likely option.
That information, if indeed fact, might narrow down the possibilities of his current location. Tony cursed himself for not being able to place the motel, but none of the street names he had been able to glance at had rang a bell – not that it was surprising because Tony had more important things to remember than back street addresses.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t sure how long he had been out after the Commander messed with Extremis. It could have been anything from minutes to hours, even days.
He had been so close to being freed, though…
Banging his head back against the solid wall, he cursed his newfound talent for being a damsel-in-distress. One of his armors had been close enough for him to hear it, so why hadn’t he made his presence known? To hell with the bruises the Commander would have inflicted upon him; he would have been located and rescued and this whole ordeal would have been that much closer to ending. He’d had a window of opportunity, but instead of seizing the moment he hadn’t been able to make the most of it. Now he was stuck here, wherever ‘here’ was, biding his time once again. Furthermore, he had blown his one chance to pretend he was playing along with his kidnapper; the Commander would not be giving him any more liberties anytime soon.
Tony felt stuck, and he didn’t like that.
Tony jerked at the sudden introduction of noise. Also, the voice calling out didn’t belong to the Commander – or anyone Tony thought he knew. The final syllable echoed on the walls, telling his brain it wasn’t just a hoax.
“This tunnel is closed!” the same voice yelled; a man, probably pushing seventy. Far, far away, Tony imagined he could actually see a weak flicker of a flashlight approaching. “If you don’t get out, I’ll have to call the cops,” the man added. He sounded a bit uncertain, but that could just be a combination of the echo and his age.
“Hey!” Tony yelled back to him. “I need a little help here!” He wasn’t exaggerating, but he also hated the whole needing-to-be-rescued bit, so he was trying to play it cool.
The flashlight moved across the walls, betraying the size of the tunnel he was coming from. “Hello?” he called out again.
Tony wondered if the man was half-deaf or something, or just not having expected to find someone who needed his help; a homeless person or some kids venturing into the tunnel was a far likelier option.
“Here!” Tony shouted. He knew they had limited time before the Commander came back. How the man had even known someone was in here, he didn’t know, but perhaps this was the break he needed to get out of this deeply unpleasant situation.
The shape of a man emerged from the tunnel and into the open area of the station. His flashlight was the only source of light, which didn’t give much to go on, but Tony could tell he was indeed an elderly man. Perhaps he was earning a couple bucks a night, patrolling an area where no one was supposed to be hanging out, seeing as there was no other reason he would have ventured into the tunnel.
“Sir, if you could just hurry up a bit,” Tony called out.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” the man said, pointing the light towards him, searching for the source of the voice. Clearly he hadn’t actually spotted Tony yet, just his voice.
“I will get out just as soon as you untie me,” Tony promised.
“Untie you?” the man asked, slowly climbing onto the platform from the tracks. “What the hell are you doing down here?”
“It’s a long story,” Tony said, knowing it was just a matter of seconds before Gramps got a good look at his face and recognized him. “Just get me free, okay, and we’ll both walk out of here.”
The man finally came close enough that they could more or less see each other. Grayed and wearing a faded uniform, the old man looked just like Tony had imagined him, and he congratulated him on having the guts to actually venture into the tunnels on his own.
Upon seeing Tony, the man frowned. “You’re not the fellow I saw running into the tunnel.”
“No, he’s not,” came a voice from the darkness, and then the Commander was there, appearing like a shadow come to life, and Tony opened his mouth in a shout just as the supersoldier reached out and seized the old man’s head, snapping his neck in an instant.
“Fuck!” Tony yelled. “You didn’t have to kill him!” he added as the Commander let the body drop.
The flashlight clattered to the floor, released from limp fingers, casting shadows on the nearest wall.
“He would have called it in,” the Commander said matter-of-factly, crouching over the body. Wasting no time whatsoever, as if this was a routine task for him, he went through the man’s pockets, tossing items on the floor; phone, wallet, keys, a whistle.
Tony stared at the dead man, realizing just then that he kept forgetting one important thing about the Commander, even though it was right there: he was a villain. Having been brainwashed by HYDRA for years, this was exactly the kind of thing he would do without hesitation. Killing an innocent man just because he happened to spot him sneaking into the tunnels.
He wondered whether the man would have ended up dead if he hadn’t found Tony. If he hadn’t been so keen on doing his shitty, low-income job just this one time…
The Commander picked up the phone and cracked it in half in his hands, then dug out the SIM card and snapped that one, too. “I found something for you to eat,” he stated, as if there was no dead guy lying right there.
“I’m not hungry,” Tony said woodenly, still staring at the body.
The Commander glanced up at him, then at the body, connected some invisible dots and then stood up, hauling the dead body with him. Tony watched as he took it to the edge of the platform, and although the flashlight’s beam barely reached there, it was obvious he just tossed the body onto the tracks. Then he turned and walked back, all but rubbing his hands together after a job well done. “Are you hungry now?” he asked, as if the absence of the body changed that.
“No,” Tony told him, voice cold.
“He was a threat,” the Commander stated, as if that made it all better. Perhaps it did, in his head.
“He was a guy doing his job. Probably couldn’t survive with his pension alone so he had to take this job to cover the costs of living – or he had too much of a work ethic beaten into him that he didn’t want to stop being useful to society until he died. You should know: you come from the era when people knew how to work.”
The Commander snorted. “Like you would know anything about it.”
“Just because I live in an ivory tower doesn’t mean I’m blind to the suffering of others,” Tony snapped. “Most of my life I’ve worked to improve living conditions of those in hostile environments; to give them pure water and crops to feed them. Not to mention putting my life on the line to protect people and their seemingly insignificant lives.”
“A true hero,” the Commander said, not without making it sound like an insult. It was so strange, hearing it come from Steve Rogers’ mouth. Sure, he wasn’t above questioning Tony’s integrity and intentions, but he would never, ever question whether people deserved to live, no matter what kind of conditions they were born into.
It was clear the Commander didn’t care – or even if he did, on some level, it was all shoved back in favor of focusing on getting Tony back.
Problem was, his Tony was dead and this one was a very poor substitute. The Commander was too stubborn to accept it – and unwilling to move on even if he did, because in his eyes even a poor substitute was better than none.
to be continued…
Chapter 19: The Clue
Manhattan, New York City, NY
After the deeply frustrating events in Brooklyn, the team headed back to the Tower. The trail had gone cold – not that they had much of a trail to begin with; half the team had gone back out there, out of uniform, to see whether they could sniff anything out, but it had been a dead end.
Beyond that it was all in the hands of J.A.R.V.I.S., seeing as the AI was much faster at checking out possible leads that might pop up. Steve wasn’t sure whether that was actually enough, but the general consensus seemed to be that there was no one better equipped or motivated to look for Tony Stark than his own AI.
For his part, Steve re-watched all the footage they had available on the Commander. His brain kept picking apart everything the man said and did; if he wanted to outsmart him, he needed to figure out how alike and unlike each other they were. Could he assume the Commander would be making the same kind of decisions he would under the circumstances, or did they have such a hard time locating him because of those vast differences?
Up until HYDRA found him, their background was the same. Whether any of that man remained in the Commander, Steve wasn’t sure.
“Have you figured him out yet?” Bruce asked when he came to sit in the chair beside his; the corner where Steve had set up his base of operations was quiet, separated from the larger space, and it seemed the others didn’t want to disturb him. Every once in a while, one of them would venture in, either to offer him food or check on his progress.
Maybe they were just checking that he was actually still there and not out in the streets in a futile search.
“I know we’re supposed to be the same guy, deep down, but I don’t see it,” Steve confessed.
Bruce leaned forward, elbows on his knees, fingers crossing in front of his mouth in thought. “Well, we know he’s obsessed with having Tony by his side.”
Steve nodded stiffly.
“You don’t approve?” Bruce asked him. It looked like maybe he was smiling, just a tiny bit.
“On principle or just because it’s Tony?” Steve challenged.
“Whatever your issue, you’re fully entitled to your opinion,” Bruce offered diplomatically, clearly not wanting to be argumentative.
“It doesn’t bother me, men being with men,” Steve revealed. “In my time, it used to be an issue, but that’s obviously not the case anymore.”
“So it’s because it’s Tony?”
“I don’t…” Steve frowned at the screen which was frozen on a grainy image – provided by the single working camera after the EMP – of the Commander carrying his unconscious captive out of the room while Steve lay incapacitated in the background. The armor couldn’t be seen from this angle, but he knew it was right there, outside the frame. “How do you fall for someone you’re fighting?” he finally spoke out loud.
“Chemistry, I suppose,” Bruce shrugged. “Or maybe our bad guy isn’t as rotten as he appears. He didn’t kill you when he had the chance. Perhaps all he’s ever needed is the right person to pull him out of the deep end HYDRA put him in. After all, he was Captain America before the crash.”
Steve nodded. “Still doesn’t explain how he and Stark… I mean, we hardly get along. I can’t imagine actively trying to kill him and ending up between his legs.”
Bruce looked at him, seeming amused.
“What?” Steve asked.
“I was expecting you to blush from tip to toe when you said that,” the scientist admitted.
Steve shrugged. “I’ve had ample time to wrap my head around that image. He wasn’t too shy about the details.”
“Doesn’t mean you actually had to think about it.”
“Kind of hard not to,” Steve sighed.
“Well, like I said… chemistry. Sometimes it takes time – and other times two things put together either blow up in your face or create the most beautiful synergy.”
Steve tried to envision it. His feelings concerning Tony Stark weren’t as negative as they used to be when they first met, but it was a far cry from an actual partnership. He wasn’t certain Tony was even capable of that, seeing as he seemed to have little regard for how other people wanted things done. There was a generous side to him, of which the Avengers Tower was a very solid testament, but he was still a self-centered, egoistical bastard the rest of the time.
Perhaps the Tony Stark of the Commander’s world had been different. That might explain most of it.
It should have also meant he’d have stranded Tony somewhere by now, having realized he wasn’t suitable boyfriend material.
“Tony respects you a great deal more than you realize,” Bruce said out loud. “You’re his childhood idol – but also the reason why his father spent most of his years searching for you and drinking his way through the failure of not succeeding. Plus the first time we met, it wasn’t the best of times for any one of us.”
Steve knew Howard Stark had looked for him, long after fishing the Tesseract out of the ocean. He had also discovered through his own research that he had been just about as fond of having a drink in his hand as his son was – not that he had seen enough of Tony out of the armor to know if that was still a thing for him. Saving the world kind of got in the way of your buzz, if the Howling Commandos were any indication.
But it had just meant hitting the bottle twice as hard when you had the chance.
‘Work hard, party harder.’
It sounded like a motto Tony could get behind, but in all honesty, Steve didn’t know him well enough to make that assumption.
Perhaps he should fix that, once they got him back.
“Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly, “there may be a lead.”
“I’m listening,” Steve acknowledged, straightening slightly in his seat.
“A member of a security team down in Brooklyn has gone missing. His work area suggests proximity to a decommissioned underground line – quite close to where we lost track of the Commander.”
“A perfect place to hide, and we know he’s already used the underground to get around unnoticed,” Bruce perked up.
“Prep the jet,” Steve ordered, standing up. “Keep us posted on whether the man is found.”
“Of course, Captain. Shall I notify the other Avengers?” J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t seem to feel the need to differentiate between official Avengers and their assorted backup.
“Please do,” Steve nodded and headed out, picking up his shield and tightening his uniform where he had slightly unfastened it when it looked like they might have to wait for news. It was possible this was a false alarm, but it was better to check it out than to sit here twiddling his thumbs.
to be continued…
Author’s note: Non-con warning for this chapter!
Chapter 20: The Resistance
Even though the body was out of sight, Tony couldn’t seem to forget it was there; he kept staring in its general direction in the darkness of the underground station. For a man who had seen bodies before – and made plenty of his own – he seemed quite rattled by it.
Perhaps he felt responsible because he had asked the man for help, but Steve would have killed him anyway after the old man happened to spot him slipping back inside the tunnel. He wasn’t taking any chances at this point, after what had happened at the motel.
He should have known Tony would try to engineer an escape the moment he had the chance. Digging out the signal dampener was just one sign that he wasn’t going to be deterred by something as simple as pain.
That was a trait he certainly shared with the man Steve had loved in his own world. It reinforced his belief that as different as this Tony claimed he was, they were made of the same ingredients. Steve just needed to stir things up the right way to bring out the results he wanted.
“You need to eat,” Steve called out. He had left the flashlight on and positioned it so that it created a small circle of light, but it would run out of juice soon. Still, the light was better than darkness, especially if he wanted to keep Tony even remotely happy.
Tony didn’t reply, morosely staring into the darkness. Every now and then he would shift a little, to accommodate his sore body where it was still tied to the wall – another precaution Steve would have loved to avoid if at all possible – but other than that, he was still and quiet. His mind, of course, would be actively working to plan his escape, and Steve needed to find a way to redirect all that energy into accepting that he should give this a chance.
It didn’t look like Tony was about to come to terms with that scenario, though.
Steve didn’t need him to be a voluntary participant from the beginning, but he would have preferred it. Forcing him now would pave a path that was filled with hardship and resistance, but if that was how it had to be…
He moved over to the other man, holding up a sandwich he had procured earlier. “Eat,” he repeated.
Tony’s eyes momentarily checked out the item, as if expecting a weapon – then moved to the side as if the Commander wasn’t even there.
Like he was air.
It pissed Steve off. Love or hate, he had always had Tony Stark’s attention. Perhaps that’s how it needed to be now, too: start as mortal enemies and make their way from there. He would have preferred foregoing that, but he understood why this Tony had such a hard time coming to terms with what had already happened in Steve’s own reality.
“Fine,” he breathed out. “We’ll do it the hard way, then.”
Tony’s eyes flickered towards him – he couldn’t help it. Obviously, he still thought it had to do with food, but Steve broke that illusion by tossing the sandwich to the side. That seemed to startle the other man into giving Steve his undivided attention.
Steve smiled, satisfied – then leaned in and kissed Tony, pressing hard from the start while he still had the element of surprise. It wasn’t like his kisses in the past, where his Tony had either been kissing him back or biting him in aggression that was just a sparking layer covering the passion he actually felt.
His kisses with this Tony had none of that, but he supposed that was to be expected when he was skipping half the history he had built with the man in his own world. He wasn’t about to wait, though, because he didn’t have the luxury of time here.
Tony began struggling, trying to turn his face away and kicking out with one leg. Instead of backing off, Steve pressed further against him, one hand securing Tony’s face in a firm grip that would leave bruises along his jaw.
The other man let out a furious sound of protest and it made Steve hot under the skin. His other hand moved down to unfasten Tony’s pants, not stopping to hesitate the same way he had last time; Tony was going to fight him every inch of the way, so what he had to do was assert his dominance over the situation and just make him see the truth. It might take a while, but Steve was certain they would reach a consensus eventually. He would wear down Tony’s resistance until he saw what was right in front of him.
He wasn’t seeing it yet, though, the way he kept fighting, but with his arms tied to a railing above his head and Steve’s body easily overpowering him, it was all a fruitless effort. Steve yanked his pants down past his hips, and that made Tony freeze for a couple seconds before he really started to try and twist away – which only served Steve’s purposes at pulling his pants off altogether.
“The more you struggle, the more it will hurt,” Steve informed him. There was no reason for him to be unkind – no more than Tony made him. He would try to make things easier for him, but if Tony optioned to fight him, that was his choice. Steve didn’t think he actually liked pain, especially since his Extremis wasn’t as advanced as his Tony’s had been; he couldn’t play with fire and heal from it, quite literally.
Tony hissed a partially muffled threat at him, and Steve released his jaw in favor of forcing his legs apart. “This isn’t what you want,” Tony told him, desperation creeping into his voice. “It most certainly isn’t what I want.”
“Clearly you have no idea where my desires lie,” Steve retorted, pressing close to him. Tony was in no position to actually dislodge him, the way he was pressed into the wall, and that freed both of Steve’s hands to prep him; he was only going to hurt Tony as much as the other man forced him to, after all.
Tony’s struggles were ceasing, his eyes growing wide with alarm. “Did you rape him, too?” he asked, voice strained. He was trying to keep his cool but actively failing.
“I didn’t have to,” Steve told him coolly and spat in his hand before reaching down to get a slick finger inside the other man.
Tony tried to twist away one more time, then let out a small whine of pain as Steve pressed him a bit more firmly between his own body and the wall in order not to have him moving around while he worked to open him up.
“Please,” Tony begged, “don’t do this.”
Steve pressed his face into the curve of his neck and shoulder. “You’ll enjoy it, eventually,” he promised, kissing the skin. He even smelled like his Tony had, with only a subtle difference that was probably Extremis’ doing. He was very warm on the inside, though, body resisting the single digit Steve pushed inside him. No resistance would be enough to stop it from happening, though, and the sooner Tony realized that, the better.
The other man’s brain seemed split between the desire to struggle and the instinct to freeze. Steve much preferred the latter, even though he loved the thrill of a fight and winning the right to claim his lover. There was something feral about it, and Steve had always liked allowing that side of his psyche to come out and play. However, if he let it happen now, he might end up truly hurting Tony, and that wasn’t something he wanted for their first time.
After all, the less this Tony hated him, the easier their future would be, despite the rocky start. It hadn’t exactly been flowers and sunshine for Steve in the past either, when it came to Tony Stark, and if he had to do it all over again…
He had simply hoped they could skip to the good stuff this time around.
Tony’s body was tense against him, but Steve could tell when the other man felt his finger purposefully stroking against his prostate, over and over. He wouldn’t be able to be this precise later, so he wanted to see if he couldn’t win Tony over by making it pleasurable for him.
The tension was probably watering down his attempts, however, but aside from striking Tony unconscious, Steve doubted he could make him relax enough to actually enjoy the act. He was getting impatient and angry with the other man, though; he had tried playing nice, but since Tony was not appreciating it…
He would submit to it eventually, one way or another. Steve didn’t want to break him, but every man was malleable to a point. Even those who covered themselves with a metal cocoon.
Tony’s breaths were getting short and sharp, his eyes alternating between staring at Steve and then away, as if he were trying to block this from happening. He clearly wasn’t registering the good feelings Steve was trying to give him, so he gave up on stroking his prostate and worked another finger inside beside the first. That was received with a tiny sound of pain, the brown eyes checking his face again, and Steve cocked his head and tried to kiss him.
In a heartbeat, Tony’s teeth were digging into his lip and Steve pulled away, tasting blood, the sting already fading.
“Really?” he challenged, licking the blood off his lips, tasting it properly – then spat it out, blood and saliva landing on Tony’s tightly closed lips. To show just how little Tony’s resistance affected him, Steve leaned in again, kissing him anew, his fingers working a bit harder inside Tony’s ass, forcing the muscles to yield.
Tony made a loud sound of protest, lips still squeezed shut, face attempting to twist away along with his body, but Steve only had to lean in a bit more and the other man began to have a hard time drawing air into his lungs.
Just like the Tony Stark he had known, this one stilled as well, the lack of air bringing back old ghosts. Extremis or no – arc reactor or no – some things were rooted too deep to ignore, even in times of distress.
“Please,” Tony whispered, as if attempting to reason with him one last time.
Steve removed his fingers from him, and the startled look on Tony’s face was almost comical; the ray of hope that he was getting through to him. Taking as much twisted satisfaction from that as he could, Steve ruined the illusion by moving to undo the front of his uniform’s pants in order to get his cock out.
Tony’s eyes had always been the most expressive part of him, and this alternate version of the man did not disappoint; Steve could read his fear in them even when Tony tried not to show it on his face, as well as the flash of disappointment and despair when his plea went unheard. He knew Tony wanted to fight, but Steve had secured him to prevent just that.
No reason to make it harder than it had to be, especially while they were on the run.
“One day, when you say ‘please’, it’ll be asking me for more,” he mused and spat on his hand to get his cock slicked up.
Tony had to be biting his tongue not to answer. He turned his face away and closed his eyes, jaw tight, and Steve didn’t waste time, yanking his knees up and pushing inside him. Tony’s eyes shot open and his fingers squeezed around the railing hard enough to make it complain a bit. He didn’t voice the pain he was feeling, but his breaths were almost sharp enough to cut air.
Steve knew he wasn’t tearing the other man, but that didn’t mean it was pain-free, especially in their current position. To him, the squeeze of Tony’s body was heavenly, bordering on painful, and he cherished it, not moving for a bit. A lesser man may have pulled back and done something to lessen the painful clutch around their dick, but Steve had long since learned to find pleasure in pain because one was more frequent than the other.
With Tony, there had always been pain, whether it was teeth pressing into his skin, fingernails leaving half-moons of blood on his shoulders, or the heat beneath his skin searing into his own.
One day, he would have that again.
He began thrusting, not bothering to move more than was necessary to bring himself off. There was no proper lubrication and the longer he went on, the closer Tony’s breaths bordered on crying. He didn’t catch a single tear, however – at least, not before he adjusted his position, yanking Tony’s hips into his lap for a better angle, and knocked over the flashlight, plunging them into the shadows as the device rolled away, pointing its light in a different direction.
The darkness amplified everything, narrowing his senses: he could hear their breaths echo on the walls, the shuffle of their bodies. Steve was quiet, not feeling like this was the time to pretend he was actually enjoying this more than he was. A quick relief, nothing more, staking claim on what was his. It would be better in the future, when he began wearing down Tony’s resistance or they weren’t being hunted by the Avengers.
He fully expected a red glow to appear at some point. In the darkness it would have been easy to spot, but it never happened. Steve thought he could feel things moderately heating up around his cock, especially when he started to get close to shooting his load, but Extremis never rose to the surface, staying dormant deep within Tony’s body.
The tension pulled on his balls and he let it go, not trying to hold it. All things considered, this wasn’t the reunion he had wanted, but he could pretend. Tony’s body was familiar in his arms, the taste of his skin almost the same when he mouthed at his neck as he came, breathing hard through it.
Tony was very still afterwards, only wincing when Steve pulled out and shifted his body back to the dusty floor. The bindings shifted slightly against the railing Tony’s hands were tied to, but he was still securely held in place.
Steve got his feet under him and reached out to fetch the flashlight, bringing it back around.
Tony recoiled from the light, slowly pulling his knees up, face turned away. There was a faint line drawn on his cheek, possibly a trail left by tears, but Steve didn’t brush his finger against it or leer; it was smarter to leave him be for now, then approach him with kindness afterwards. Steve could almost smell the humiliation Tony was feeling, and it served him better not to aggravate the man more at this moment.
He positioned the flashlight so that it left Tony in a bit of shadow, then got up and tried to clean himself, fastening his uniform again. Finding release eased some of the anxiousness he had been feeling inside, but it also threatened to make him lower his defenses, which would be dangerous right now.
“You’ll get used to the idea of us,” he murmured, knowing Tony could hear him. “No one’s going to threaten what we have; not the Avengers, not HYDRA. Not Bucky.”
Tony snorted, but it lacked some of its usual sharpness. “One of these days, that bubble of yours is going to burst. I sure as hell hope I’ll be there when that happens.” He shifted again, trying to curl up, but with his arms held above him he couldn’t actually do that.
Steve felt a rising urge to hurt him, to make him stop saying that, but he told himself to be patient.
Tony would come around. It was destiny, the natural order of things, and if Steve had to force it a bit to speed things along… he supposed he was fine with that.
to be continued…
Chapter 21: The Trail
The tunnel loomed in the pitch black beyond the reach of the piercing beam of light.
“Which way, Cap?” Clint called out.
Steve looked around. Altogether the area was mostly closed off warehouses, train yards and lengths of tracks that led nowhere. Some of the land had been re-purposed, but it was quiet enough to serve as a viable hiding place.
“Choose a direction you like best and we’ll start with that one,” Natasha stated. “The Commander is likely to pick the same option as you would.”
“Or not,” Steve reminded his team. “He knows who’s after him. He might actively choose something else.” Besides, their similarities were limited, as far as Steve could see. Just because he would think to pick one option over another didn’t mean a HYDRA agent would do the same.
The beam of light moved to the side, away from the gaping entrance of the decommissioned underground tunnel. It was the most tempting option, and the moment the light moved, Steve felt like calling out and redirecting it back towards the tunnel.
It would have been his first choice. There were multiple points to connect to the rest of the underground network, and while getting simple supplies like fresh water might be trickier, there were more exits to be had. More alternatives…
“We just need to decide on a starting point,” James Rhodes spoke up. “If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll widen the search.” The beam of light moved back to the tunnel entrance, and Steve nodded his head in approval. Clearly someone was agreeing with him, even when it wasn’t an actual living being; Tony’s armor was pointing the light, controlled by J.A.R.V.I.S., and it was easy to tell the AI liked the tunnel as their best option as well.
It was also the least appealing one, because it would make their work so much harder.
“The armors cannot enter the tunnel,” Steve said out loud. “While the rest of us go check for signs inside, I want Iron Man and War Machine out here, forming a perimeter. The wider the better. If they come out in the open, we cannot miss them again.”
Rhodes grumbled but didn’t protest; he outranked Steve, but this wasn’t a military mission and the only option for him to enter the tunnel was out of his suit. “They won’t slip past us again,” Rhodes vowed and Steve could hear him getting back inside the armor and then take to the skies, a cloud of dust rising in the aftermath of his takeoff.
Iron Man remained on the ground, still pointing the powerful light at the tunnel. Steve turned to look at the armor, wondering if there was something J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn’t telling them.
“Good luck, Captain,” was all J.A.R.V.I.S. offered him once his eyes landed on the golden faceplate. “I shall inform you of any new developments. However, the signals are going to be weaker underground, and there is a chance of us being cut off from one another.”
“Understood,” Steve nodded, having expected it. For the most part, Stark’s tech had worked flawlessly, but if they ventured too deep, it might become an issue. “Let’s go,” he called out to the others. “Anyone who doesn’t feel like coming in is welcome to stay out here and start a patrol.”
No one volunteered to stay with Rhodes and J.A.R.V.I.S. – not that Steve had expected it. Well, perhaps Bruce, who could put them all in danger if the Hulk was unleashed – or Clint, seeing as he liked to be up and above the action if at all possible, but he also knew the armors had that part covered for the time being.
As the Iron Man armor shut off the light and joined War Machine in the air, the others began to turn on their lights, most of them mounted on their shoulders to leave their hands free. Steve adjusted his own, making the light slightly less bright in hopes that his eyes would better adjust to the darkness.
Judging from the marks on the tunnel floor, people liked to venture inside through the gate that had been cracked open one too many times for it to keep anyone outside. There were old piles of burnt wood from fires and arrays of empty bottles and cans of food. However, after half a mile, such signs vanished and it was just the emptiness around them, silent and somewhat suffocating.
“Someone’s been through here,” Natasha said, checking the tunnel floor.
Steve agreed but said nothing, following the weak footprints further inside.
They ended up following the tracks, finding them here and there, depending on the amount of dust and gravel on the floor. Steve hoped they belonged to the missing guard; he may have simply been injured and in need of assistance, but there was also a distinct possibility he had unknowingly walked into the Commander’s hide-out.
Either way, following the tracks was the best way to proceed as long as they couldn’t find other signs of the Commander or Tony.
“We should be nearing a station,” Bruce called out after several long minutes had passed. He had several maps on a tablet he was carrying, and trying to read it in the dark had caused him to stumble multiple times. Still, Bruce seemed drawn to the screen, perhaps to distract himself from the enclosed space around them.
“Any news from the outside?” Steve asked out loud, pressing a finger against the earpiece in his right ear.
“It’s quiet out here,” Rhodes reported back, only minor static affecting the connection.
The tunnel widened suddenly, a platform appearing on their right side. Behind him, the team adjusted their lights, and Clint jumped up onto the platform, his flashlight sweeping the floor. “Someone’s been here,” he reported.
“But they’re not here anymore,” Sam added, hoisting himself up to the platform as well.
Steve continued along the tracks for a bit longer – then noticed a lump in the middle of them. Experience told him it was a human being, too still to be alive, and he walked over to check it, Natasha, Bruce and Thor on his heels.
“Alas, this must be the missing guard,” Thor lamented as they gathered around the body.
Natasha crouched down and Bruce leaned over to get a better look as she moved the body. It was an old man, and only his worn uniform revealed that he was indeed the missing guard. Steve felt a pang of guilt, thinking how unfair it was that the man had met an end such as this instead of living out his days in peace he must have deserved.
“He didn’t just fall and break his neck,” Natasha observed.
“I would say the falling took place after he was dead,” Bruce agreed.
“The Commander,” Steve guessed. He knew how easy it was for him to break a grown man’s neck, and out of the two of them, the Commander would have much more experience with it.
“Cap!” Sam called out, and Steve turned away from the dead man, jumping up onto the platform. Sam and Clint were standing on the far edge of the platform where steps disappeared into the darkness. Steve spied an abandoned sandwich on the floor – odd, considering how hard finding food would be when one was on the run.
“I would say they were definitely here,” Clint mused, pointing at something.
Steve approached and saw what he meant: there was a railing bolted to the wall, and a section of the floor beneath it was disturbed. Someone had sat or lain on the floor, leaving marks in the dust, and it wasn’t for just a few minutes either.
Natasha joined them, taking in the marks. “Tony must have been here,” she decided. “There are marks on the railing: he was tied up.”
“Didn’t put up too much of a fight,” Clint noted.
“Which is smart,” Steve cut in before anyone would suggest otherwise. “Stark knows he can’t just fight his way out of this, so conserving energy is what he should be doing.” He stepped up to the smudged floor and touched it, as if he could draw more information form it. As his flashlight’s beam lit the floor even further, he could see faint smudges on the concrete. He trailed his fingers through it, deciding it was not blood. Not water, either, because it wouldn’t have left that much of a stain, faint as it was.
“We’re on their trail,” Natasha said, as if to encourage him. “Tony’s alive, and seeing as there’s no blood all over the place, I would venture to guess the Commander isn’t keen on hurting him.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Bruce mused as he climbed off the tracks.
Thor relied on Mjolnir to get up, creating a bit of a gust as he soared upwards and then landed on the platform, looking around. “Which way did they go? We did not see their tracks while coming here?”
“Must have gone deeper,” Sam decided and looked down the awaiting darkness of the tunnel where it continued on past the closed station.
“Look for tracks,” Steve ordered. “If they don’t know we’re onto them, they might not be hiding their progress, but just in case, keep an eye out for what might be a false trail.”
Clint and Sam headed up the stairs to check that section of the station, and the others spread out to check the rest of the station and tracks.
“This way,” Natasha called out soon after. “Two sets of footprints – one of them dragging their feet too much to try to be stealthy.” A smile was tugging her lips. “Tony’s trying to make it easier for us to find him.”
Steve hoped that was the case, and not some injury they weren’t yet aware of.
“We can’t just leave the body here,” Bruce mused, standing over the dead guard. He looked apprehensive; he wanted to come and help rescue Tony, but if it came to blows, the Hulk wasn’t their best choice for a fight underground.
“I’ll help you get him out,” Sam volunteered. He looked at Steve, meeting his eyes, letting him know he wanted to be more useful than that, but leaving a man behind didn’t sit well with any of them.
Steve nodded. “Stay in contact.” He looked at Natasha, Clint and Thor. “We move fast and quiet. If he hears us coming, the Commander will disappear.” His eyes lingered on Thor, asking whether silence was something he could do.
Thor nodded, accepting the terms, and the two groups split up.
to be continued…
Chapter 22: The Clash
Tony stopped mid-step and stomped his foot down, hard gravel shifting beneath his shoe. “I’m tired of walking,” he declared.
The darkness moved as the Commander turned, their single light source weakening by the hour. Tony expected to be backhanded or scolded, but the super-soldier simply took a step towards him, his eyes moving over his body.
Tony stood his ground. For the time being, he was completely unrestrained, but he had no illusions that running away or trying to find a weapon lying around would get him anywhere. He had enjoyed the limited freedom of walking on his own, but he was reaching his limit. “What’s the plan?” he asked the Commander bitingly. “Are you going to punch me out and carry me, caveman-style, or maybe threaten to drag me by my hair?”
“That would hurt you unnecessarily,” the Commander replied. “I don’t want that. I can see that your feet are weary and your body aching; there’s no reason to apologize for that.”
Tony felt the heat of shame on his face for being found out. He didn’t think the other could see it in the dark, but there was something the Commander had to be seeing, the way he was looking at him. “Then I suppose we’ll take a break,” Tony ventured to say.
“Perhaps,” the Commander mused, taking another step towards him. The way the light was pointed, it left half his face in shadow, and Tony could see the parts that were identical to the Steve Rogers he knew. He looked perhaps a second too long because a smile teased the stern lips. “What do you see, when you look at me?”
“A whole lot of ugly,” Tony replied, with as much spite as he could.
He got a chuckle in return. “Yes, that is what people see. Not very stealthy, and it certainly has made my life more difficult. It’s a good thing I’m adaptable.”
“Clearly not enough because you keep going after the same thing,” Tony muttered.
“You’re more human than he ever was,” the Commander stated, taking the last step that brought them chest to chest. Tony tried backing away and felt an arm wrap around his waist, keeping him right there. “I forget, sometimes.”
“Well, I’ll be happy to remind you. Also, should you decide I’m just an inferior version of him, feel free to just leave me right here and keep on walking; I’ll find my way out,” Tony said.
Another chuckle, and then the Commander leaned forward and laid a tender kiss on Tony’s forehead. There was no other way to describe it, and Tony wanted to shudder at the sensation, but his body was too worn out to execute the command. Or, his body just didn’t think it necessary, even though it really should have, all things considered.
“I don’t have anything else,” the Commander murmured, breaths ghosting against Tony’s hairline. He was so close Tony could smell him, and if he had ever been close enough to Steve to smell him, he could have compared whether the two were the same. It certainly wasn’t the scent of apple pies that filled his nostrils, but it wasn’t pure evil oozing out of his pores, either.
There were times Tony had a hard time telling himself to hate this man; to blindly ignore the fact that he was a human being who had gone through something terrible and couldn’t really be blamed for any of it. No more than Steve was blaming his old pal Bucky who was now the Winder Soldier.
“I’m sure you could find other things if you tried hard enough,” Tony mused, forcing his body to stay tense and not accidentally lean into the body in front of him. He didn’t want to unintentionally instigate physical contact.
The Commander made a dismissive sound, his chin leaning itself on Tony’s head. The arm around him wasn’t unyielding like a prison, but more like an embrace.
Tony jerked back, almost breaking free until the arm stiffened and shifted, a hand clamping around his wrist to keep him from putting more distance between them. His wrists still ached from being bound before, making him hiss.
“I’m sorry,” the Commander murmured. “If you wouldn’t fight me…”
“You’re not sorry,” Tony snapped. “If you actually gave a shit about how I feel, you would have let me go days ago.”
The blue eyes flashed, searching his gaze. “It might take time, but you’ll get used to the idea.”
“You don’t know that!” Tony’s voice echoed in the tunnel long after he was done shouting out the words.
The fingers tightened around his wrist in warning. “We had something special. I want that back,” the Commander ground out. “My intention is not to hurt you.”
“My asshole disagrees,” Tony spat back.
The Commander dared to chuckle at the crude words, his hold on his wrist easing just so that his thumb could draw circles on Tony’s skin. “You’ll learn to enjoy it.”
“Maybe he did, but I think I’m the best person to decide what I do and do not enjoy. I have preferences, and the thing we did earlier doesn’t even remotely fall within my comfort zone. Either you get that through your thick skull of you’ll find me stabbing you in the back –”
A tiny bang echoed up the tunnel they had been walking in for the last few hours, the sound cutting Tony off. The Commander’s thumb stopped caressing his skin, for which he was glad, and they both listened for another sound. Tony tried to make a quick calculation of odds between the hope of a rescue and fearing another innocent person stumbling across their path, but he wasn’t fast enough to decide which was more likely before the Commander yanked him back against his chest, a firm hand clamping over his jaw and mouth, muffling a startled yelp.
There were a few other sounds in the next minute or so, too far apart to immediately assume they might have originated from the same source. It may have just been old pipes groaning, or a train passing by somewhere.
At least, that was what Tony thought, but with the Commander’s hand blocking his airway, he was getting slightly too preoccupied to listen as he struggled to draw in air past the fingers blocking his nostrils. Tony tried to hint at his impending suffocation with a growl, but that was completely ignored. Next, he tried to stomp down on the Commander’s foot, already feeling the tension growing in his chest as he wasn’t capable of drawing enough air into his lungs, and that got him a low growl of annoyance and an even firmer grip around the lower half of his face.
Growing desperate and still remembering the nauseating feeling of falling unconscious from lack of air, Tony clawed at the arm holding him captive, not caring whether someone was coming towards them or not; the need to survive overrode all other thoughts. Unable to dislodge the arm and growing weaker as he grew more frantic, Tony knew he was facing grim odds all over again. His mind screamed at his body to do something about it.
He felt hot, all of a sudden, with dread and animal fear, the urge to fight an extension of the need to survive. Breathing was a natural state, and being denied the ability to do so sent his body into overdrive. This had happened before, not too long ago, and that knowledge fed the fearful anxiety that demanded that he prevent it from repeating itself, somehow.
“Fuck!” the Commander hissed, suddenly letting go and shoving him to the side so hard Tony had no chance of finding his footing. He crashed down to the tunnel floor, forearm colliding painfully with the tracks, but he was able to breathe again and that meant more to him than a belated radiation of pain along his limb.
Something swooshed over his head, and the tunnel exploded with light. It was blinding, but Tony’s entire body was already burning up so his brain simply registered it at a sluggish pace. An instant later his eyes took in a flash of metal – just before the Commander swung out with his arm, smacking aside the flying object. It rebounded off the floor and then skidded down, sparks flying as it slid along the tracks before coming to a halt under a dark blue boot.
The Commander growled, and from the corner of his eye Tony saw him flexing the arm he had used to defend himself from the projectile.
“End of the line, pal,” Steve Rogers’ voice called out.
Tony turned his face towards him, watching him pick up the shield. Behind him, Clint Barton had his bow cocked while Natasha Romanoff and Thor were spreading out, effectively blocking the way they had come.
“Stark, you okay?” Clint called out.
Tony made a sound that may have been meant as a ‘yeah’, but he was still sucking in precious air, head feeling hot as it spun a little.
“He doesn’t look well,” Thor murmured, voice carrying in the tunnel. Something was still casting light around them – a special arrow-fitted flare, Tony’s brain supplied.
“I’m fine,” Tony murmured, voice barely there. He felt funny, all tingly, and when he looked down at his arm that was still aching, he saw his skin was faintly radiating with red.
Well, that explained Thor’s statement.
“You shouldn’t have come after us,” the Commander said, taking a step towards Tony.
Clint shifted his bow, Thor raised his hammer-arm, and Steve adjusted his hold on his shield. Natasha didn’t bother with a weapon just yet, but she was cautiously watching the scene unfold.
“Get Tony,” Steve ordered. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Didn’t end so well for you last time,” the Commander sneered, removing his shield from his back.
“This is going to be different,” Steve promised. He didn’t sound like Captain America, exactly. There was too much anger in his voice, plus the hint that he was going to enjoy what happened next.
“I say we play this safe,” Clint offered. “Sit Mjolnir on his chest and see how tough he is, flailing around like a tortoise.”
“No,” Steve refused.
“We can’t afford to let him slip away again,” Natasha reminded him.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Steve snapped. “Not without his prize.”
“Then we better secure the prize before he makes away with it,” Thor decided and began to stride forward.
“You are treating this whole episode like a nuisance,” the Commander stated, taking another step forward.
“Don’t move!” Steve barked.
Tony could hear a smile in the villain’s voice when he replied: “You couldn’t stop me from taking him before. This isn’t going to be any different.”
One moment it was a Mexican standoff of two sides – but no less filled with tension – and then something snapped: Steve attacked, two vibranium shields clashing together and threatening to break Tony’s left eardrum, and all he could do was roll to the side to avoid being stepped on as the supersoldiers clashed.
Thor was there a moment later, crouching over him and pulling Tony to his feet with too much force to be comfortable. He followed, though, trusting that he was relatively safe from abduction as long as he stayed near the Asgardian, and followed his lead back to Clint and Natasha.
“Should we do something?” Clint asked, and Tony turned around to find the Commander and Steve engaged in a fight that lacked any of the grace he was used to seeing in Cap’s fighting style. The beating they were giving each other was brutal and mean, the tunnel almost trembling whenever one threw the other against the wall and tried to move in for an incapacitating attack. Every blow that landed made Tony grimace and jump, but the two seemed immune to the strength of it in the frenzy of their battle.
“Maybe we should just let it play out,” Natasha suggested, even though she didn’t sound like she considered it a good idea. “Cap’s been itching for a re-match.”
A matter of pride or principle, Tony couldn’t help but be a little concerned their man was going to lose: Steve took a few hard hits in the head, then a knee in the gut, and almost crashed into the tunnel floor.
“Thor, be a good boy and wrap this up,” Tony begged, just wanting this nightmare to come to an end, and the Asgardian nodded and transferred the job of supporting Tony to Natasha before striding forward, hammer sparking in anticipation.
The Commander looked up at him, shifted his stance, and told Thor to bring it.
Too late Tony realized just how bad an idea this had been.
“Thor, no!” he and Clint yelled at the same time as the magical hammer and the unbreakable shield met.
Once upon a time, the impact had leveled a surrounding forest. This time the space was limited, the pressure wave slamming Tony and his companions off their feet, landing them down hard a few second later. The air was rumbling and dust coated everything, falling off the ceiling.
“We need to get out, now,” Natasha urged them then coughed.
“Cap, Thor!” Clint called out.
“Dammit,” Steve hissed – or possibly it was the Commander, Tony couldn’t quite tell.
Thor stumbled towards them, dragging Steve along with him. “The villain has escaped,” he reported.
Tony was mildly surprised, but he supposed the Commander had known he couldn’t take the entire team on his own.
“We had better move or we’ll be gone as well,” Clint stated grimly and pulled another arrow from his quiver. Instead of firing it, he thumbed off the tip of it and dragged it against a nearby wall, triggering the flare and filling their surroundings with an almost blinding amount of light. In the dense cloud of dust, however, it soon dimmed to a bearable level.
“Let’s go,” Natasha ordered and followed Clint’s lead, pulling Tony along, half-supporting him as they walked. There were no protests from Thor or Steve, and Tony wondered whether both of them were thinking this could have gone better.
It certainly could have, but Tony was going to count his freedom as a win – if he didn’t get buried alive in the next few minutes.
to be continued…