Tony was never going to forgive himself.
To be fair, Tony had hated himself since he was old enough to understand the concept of hate, which, being both a genius and a Stark, was too young for him to even recall. Self-hatred was in the Stark genetic code, but there was a special level of loathing, a special level of hell for people who caused the death of Captain America.
And no matter what anyone said, this was and would always be his fault.
He was the genius, after all, the futurist, the man fool enough to think he could prepare for everything. He should have amped up security. Should have planted trackers on his teammates the day they moved in. Should have known that Steve's daily runs would be used as an opening one of these days.
But he'd assumed—they'd all assumed—that Steve was invulnerable. He was their strong, fearless leader, after all, capable of warding off anyone or anything foolish enough to attack him. He held them together, he always had, and Tony cared about Steve; more than Steve knew, more than Tony himself cared to admit.
And yet, because Tony was a reckless asshole, the last thing they'd done was argue.
It was stupid and pointless and it had been the same as any other fight they'd had, Steve stubbornly insisting that Tony stop putting himself in unnecessary danger and Tony stubbornly insisting he was just doing his job. Steve had even given him an out at the end, but Tony had been too god damn proud to take it.
"Tony." Steve ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Will you just listen for once?"
"I told you, I calculated the risks, and it was the best shot we'd have at taking him down—"
"But at what cost?" Steve shouted, surging forward as if to grab Tony by the shirt but stopping himself at the last second. His hands were outstretched, and he quickly closed them into fists, "In exchange for you, for your life? That's not a trade I'm willing to make, even if you are."
"Can't afford to lose another soldier, can you?" Tony just sneered.
"Tony, for God's sake," Steve snapped, "It's you I don't want to lose. Not Iron Man. You. Why can't you understand that?"
Steve was vulnerable, then; he had a face like he couldn't make up his mind about saying more, like he was conflicted. Tony could have let it be, could have dropped the fight. Steve was clearly acting out of concern, nothing more. But that concern hit a little too close for Tony's comfort, so instead he opened his fat mouth.
"Oh, sure." Tony just rolled his eyes. "Like you give a damn about the alcoholic in a tin suit throwing himself in the line of fire. Let me guess, Fury rode your ass about watching out for your number-one source of funding, yeah?"
"Save it, Captain Perfect. Can't I just get ten minutes without you in my fucking face all the god damn time?"
A muscle went tight in Steve's jaw, but he turned and left the lab without another word. Tony considered it a win.
Now he just considered himself the lowest form of life to ever crawl out of hell.
If he hadn't told Steve to leave, Steve wouldn't have been out in the open, wouldn't have been shot at. If Tony hadn't been such a proud, self-righteous asshole, Steve wouldn't have died thinking Tony just wanted him out of his face. Instead, Steve died thinking Tony hated him, because Tony had been too afraid to tell him the opposite.
Tony was never, ever going to forgive himself.
"Anything?" he demanded over the com.
He and Thor were in the air, headed southwest following the reported direction the squad of helicopters had gone. Bruce was still on call, while Natasha and Clint were rounding up witnesses with SHIELD's assistance.
Four minutes and counting since the call.
"We've got witnesses aplenty. SHIELD's doing their best to minimize panic as we take them into custody but it's slow going." Natasha relayed over the comm.
"Anything I can act on?" Tony corrected.
"They're all pretty shook up, Stark," Clint added, "These guys made a hell of a scene. It's gonna take a while to sort out exactly what happened."
It was true, the whole thing was a disaster. They didn't know much yet, other than that there had been helicopters and a lot of shooting involved. It was confirmed that there had been multiple assailants, and preliminary reports indicated that they'd descended from helicopters, circled around Steve, and shot off at least a dozen rounds at passerby and Steve alike. When Steve went down, they'd scooped him up and taken off, all in under thirty seconds.
"Thank god," Clint muttered to himself, then, louder and to Tony, "Stark, those weren't gunshots, those were tranquilizers. We've got no reports of any dead or wounded civilians, we've got no reason to believe they used something different on Steve. Best bet says he's alive but tranqed to all hell. If we're lucky, they miscalculated dosage and he'll wake up and give em hell."
"Fingers crossed." Tony nodded his agreement, trying to keep his tone light, but he almost dropped out of the sky in sheer relief.
Steve wasn't dead.
Tony wasn't sure what he'd have done if he'd have caught up with the assailants and all he'd had to bring home was a body, but he knew it wouldn't have been pretty, and it wouldn't have ended well for anyone involved.
"Stark, you listening?"
"Uh," Tony coughed, "Yeah, yeah. What's up?"
"We've got a report of three helicopters—which preliminary witness reports agree on—southeast of your location. SHIELD's a minute and a half behind you."
"On it," Tony nodded, changing direction, "Thor, you with me?"
"Indeed, Man of Iron!" Thor boomed, furious, "I shall find they who have taken our friend from us, and I shall mortar the ground with their bones!"
"Me too, buddy," Tony chuckled darkly, "Me too."
In spite of everyone's best efforts, they lost track of him in the end.
Tony had to be all but physically dragged back to the Tower by Thor, who reminded him that Steve would be best served if Tony searched for him after "rest and repast". Clint and Natasha were hung up at SHIELD the rest of the day and late into the night dealing with the dozens of witnesses, not to mention the messy aftermath of a dozen civilians being tranquilized in broad daylight.
They didn't get much, just confirmation of all their initial suspicions, and no useful information. Tony insisted on being kept in the loop about everything anyway; he, Bruce, and SHIELD's top analytical brains were pouring over all they knew, but there wasn't much.
There'd been three helicopters, and indistinctive ones if the civilian reports were anything to go by. There'd been four shooters total, if civilian reports could be believed, and Steve had taken at least twenty tranqs before he'd submitted. This meant either the drug took a long time to take, or they didn't have any special drugs and had just managed to temporarily overload Steve's system. Tony sure as hell hoped for the latter.
The kidnappers were nondescript, dressed head to toe in black, ski masks and all. There were no distinctive features to identify them by, and none of them had said a word to analyze or interpret.
They were either professionals, or very, very prepared first-timers.
Tony could see it going either way, and he spent hours debating with himself, tormenting himself, changing his mind every few minutes. The attackers had known to cover their faces and wear black, the helicopters and tranquilizers meant they had resources, and that was a hell of a thing to try on pure guts with first-time nerves.
Then again, certain reports stated that they hadn't all been in uniform. Some of them hadn't worn gloves, some had worn sneakers instead of combat boots. A couple of the less shaken witnesses even claimed that upon retrospect, the shooting had been somewhat sloppy. The evidence might've even backed that up; it was hard to tell what shots had missed because targets had moved and what had missed because of the attackers' poor aim.
Then again, they might've just been more focused on Steve and not aiming at civilians except to keep them at bay, which would suggest having done something similar before, and…
It just kept going and going, round and round in his head with no end.
"You shouldn't still be up."
"I've stayed up a helluva lot later for things a helluva lot less important," Tony just snorted, slurring only a bit as he spun in his chair to face the intruder to his workshop.
"Perhaps," Natasha agreed, not moving from the entrance. She was eyeing him like he was another one of her opponents, assessing him and the best way to get him to do what she wanted, "But you'll function better tomorrow if you've slept."
"Can't sleep," Tony grunted, directing the comment more into his tumbler of scotch than to her. He knocked it back, savoring the crisp burn of it down his throat.
"Steve wouldn't like you drinking over him."
"Then Steve can get his star-spangled ass back here and stop me."
She eyed him a long moment. Then, because Natasha Romanov was nothing if not a woman who knew how to hit where it hurt,
"We're going to need you tomorrow, and any mistakes you make because you're too hungover to know better could hurt our chances of finding him alive. You can drink yourself into an early grave once we've got him back, but don't you dare take him with you."
Then she was gone, disappearing from the shop as silently as she'd entered. Tony stared into his glass a long, painful moment, swirling the amber liquid. He ached to taste that warm, smooth burn, ached to feel the pleasant numbness he knew would soon follow. The tingling detachment that would stretch through him from the tips of his fingers to the curl of his toes, washing away the guilt that threatened to consume him.
His hand tightened at that until his knuckles were white, and before he could register what he was doing the glass was shattering against the opposite wall and he was stalking out of the workshop. Who was he to try and quell his guilt when Steve was out there, potentially dead, all because Tony couldn't keep his fucking mouth shut?
He deserved his guilt.
Tony didn't manage to sleep that night, or the next. SHIELD was pulling all their resources, and both Clint and Natasha were working around the clock. Thor and Bruce kept themselves busy as best they could, and Tony tried to do the same. He went into SHIELD a couple times, did anything they asked of him—patrols, background checks on potential suspects, anything. But when they couldn't use him, Tony just felt…lost.
He tried to eat, but it only made him feel sick. He tried to sleep, but just ended up tossing and turning until his thoughts were too much to be alone with. He couldn't bring himself to drink again, Natasha's words ringing too painfully in his head, so he turned to work. For the first time in his life, he begged Pepper for it; tech work, maintenance work, even paperwork. She gave it to him with minimal prying into his emotional wellbeing—they both knew he was a wreck and was going to be until they found Steve, any fussing was pointless—and he drowned himself in it.
Then, a week after Steve's kidnapping, they got the video.
Steve was still depressed at times.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, they called it now. Most soldiers had it in some form or another once they left the battlefield, at least according to his SHIELD-mandated therapist, and Steve wasn't surprised. When your entire day-to-day life was once consumed by nothing but gunfire and strategy and survival, it was hard to wake up one day and have someone tell you that just like that, it's over.
Because that's what we won meant, really.
And what's left, after that? After war, after sweat and blood and battle, how do you find something else to fill your time that matters the same way war did? War was purpose, war was strength and honor and courage, and it was hard to feel the same enthusiasm for anything else.
At least, that was how he'd felt about World War II. He'd considered re-enlisting; hell, it had been the first thing on his mind once he'd gotten over the I've missed 70 years of my life thing. Then he'd done his homework, gone to the library and the bookstore and read everything he could get his hands on, educated himself the only way he knew how in this modern world where the only connection he had lied for a living.
And he knew he couldn't enlist again.
This wasn't his war. This was about oil and drug trade, not about human lives and protecting the little guy. Thing was, the more he read, the more he learned that even his war wasn't his war. War, the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing he'd ever thought had been unequivocally right—had changed. His war had been in Europe, had been in liberating civilians and pushing out invaders and spreading the idea of freedom. The more he read about the war after he went down, the more he felt sick—the US had launched aerial attacks on the Japanese, had bombed civilians.
His country had done the very thing they'd been condemning others for doing, but like everything else in America these days, they'd had to do it bigger and better than anyone else.
Steve hated it.
Hated himself for not being there, for not staying alive long enough to fight his superiors and change people's minds against bombing civilians. Hated his country for changing, for not upholding the ideologies it had sold him, for being just as capable of destruction and massacre as the enemies they'd fought against.
To be honest, for a while, Steve had just hated everything.
He'd been dumped into this century, where he could read about the aftermath and wonder if he'd made any real difference at all. Where he could read about things like Watergate and Vietnam, about the war in Korea and the lack of action in Rwanda. Where he couldn't help but wonder if America had ever really been the way he'd seen it and they'd just lost their way, or if he was the misguided one, naïve enough to believe he'd ever really been fighting for anything as simple as truth, justice, and the American way.
Once, a long time ago, he could remember asking Bucky what purpose Captain America served outside of combat. It was a foolish question—there would always be something to fight for.
He would always be a soldier.
He was just a different kind of soldier now, a soldier for the Avengers. The Avengers had given him a new purpose, a better one; there was something so much clearer about fighting a supervillain. They were bullies who wanted to hurt people, control them, manipulate them, and stopping them was perhaps harder than gunning down a Nazi, but it was clearer.
It was unquestionably right.
Not to mention he didn't know where he'd be without his teammates. Chances were he'd still be drowning in that gulf of uncertainty about his usefulness in this new world, but they never let him dwell. They never treated him in either of the extremes, like he was so fragile he might crack at any moment or like he was some invincible, untouchable perfection.
He was just human. They all were, no matter what the public seemed to think of them. They all had their fair share of skeletons in their closets, nightmares that kept them awake at night, and they managed to strike the balance of having people to talk to, without anyone pushing too far too fast. They understood each other in a way almost no one else quite could; they learned to trust each other, to rely on each other.
It was more than Steve ever would have hoped for in those first months out of the ice. He'd fallen into this life, embraced it as best he could, and he was…he was honestly happy. It was a strange thought, but when he didn't think about it too hard, he just was.
He got up early, went for a morning run every day. He cooked breakfast for the team with Clint, their other early riser to everyone's surprise. He usually read some in the late mornings, then wrestled with Thor or did hand-to-hand with Natasha. He had his afternoon chat with Bruce over tea, then made himself and Tony sandwiches so the man didn't pass out in the workshop again. He usually spent the rest of his day down there, sketching or reading or just talking. Then they all ate dinner together and argued over what movie to watch that night, and once or twice a week they'd save the world.
That morning, he'd gone about his day like he went about any other day, with the steadfast determination that this team, this family, was something worth fighting for, worth living for. The idea that he'd been brought to the future for a purpose, that there were no accidents, that he belonged here because he was needed here.
Start and stop. Rinse and repeat.
Then they'd taken him.
Whoever they were, they hadn't been cautious—they were either very stupid, or very well-prepared. Considering they'd developed a drug strong enough to knock him out, and had him in restraints he couldn't break through by the time he woke up, he suspected it was the latter.
He came to groggily at first, but after a moment or two he could feel his head clearing. He didn't know how long it had been since he'd been taken, but judging by how hungry he was he'd guess at least half a day. He was pinned to a wall, and his head ached something fierce. His memory was somewhat lacking, and he could vaguely remember running, lots of shots, but other than that it blurred.
Never a good thing.
He was held down spread eagle, and no amount of tugging could so much as loosen his hands and feet. They were held in place by small, pebble-looking things, each no larger than a penny. There was one in the palm of each of his hands, and one on each of his ankles. Interestingly enough, he didn't feel them straining; he was vertical against the wall, his hands and feet should ache from being used to hold up all his weight, but he didn't feel a thing.
Steve couldn't help but think that under different circumstances, Tony would find the little things endlessly fascinating.
As it was, Steve just found them frustrating. He craned his head to get a look at his surroundings, but didn't get much. There was a cabinet to his right, a table on the other side of the room, a number of chairs, nothing particularly telling. He was on some kind of stone tableau backed against a wall—he was beginning to sense a medieval theme, which might mean Asgardian or some other realm's involvement, or might just be a poor choice of location—and all he could see was a blinding light.
He took stock of his person next, stretching his neck to look himself over. He was still in his running clothes, a white t-shirt and running shorts, though they'd taken the sweatshirt he'd been wearing, the blue Captain America shield one Tony had given him for Christmas. He'd been stripped of his shoes and socks, and they'd taken his only possessions, his phone and wallet.
Steve doubted they'd be able to break into his phone, since Tony had personally upgraded everyone on the team's phones so only they could access them, security measures for just this sort of situation. It was still a possibility, anything was, but even if they did, Steve didn't have the sort of confidential stuff on his phone Natasha or Clint did.
All his captors would have access to were some random photos of the team, his music library, and his texts. Steve considered his texts for a minute, but couldn't think of anything secretive or important in them. They were all to Tony, since no one else thought he could text, but they were purely conversational, nothing of value to anyone but himself.
His contacts lists contained plenty of unlisted and rather high-up numbers, but they were still just phone numbers. Not to mention, if they had the technological ability to break into a Stark-upgraded phone, they could probably get SHIELD numbers in other ways too.
His wallet wouldn't be of much value to them either. A couple credit cards, a handful of coupons, some cash…oh. Well, there was a picture tucked into one of the folds that he'd be rather upset to lose, but it wouldn't be anything valuable to his captors, so he hoped it was safe.
Then he caught sight of something in the upper right corner.
It was only about an inch in diameter, small and black and circular, and Steve probably wouldn't have even been able to see it without his enhanced vision. He casually looked away, making sure not to make eye contact with it again. With any luck, whoever was watching the video either hadn't seen his brief glance, or assumed he wouldn't know what it was.
Most people assumed he didn't have a clue about modern technology, and it was a mistake he was happy to let his captors make.
He picked up technology a lot quicker than anyone had thought he would. He got the feeling it was sort of expected that he'd be scared of technology somehow, but he'd never found it anything less than fascinating. He preferred old-fashioned methods from time to time, they could be quicker and more effective than people assumed, but technology was still of great interest to him.
He would never quite be able to keep up with Bruce and Tony when they got going, but then, most people couldn't. Tony had been a lot of help, in the beginning. After their initial rough start, Tony never underestimated him or his ability to pick things up quickly. He was the one who showed Steve how to use a cell phone, a laptop, a tablet—even how to manipulate his personal workshop interface, which was a lot more complex than anything available to the public.
So Steve knew his way around modern technology, and knew full well there was a camera in his cell. There was no way to know if it was recording, if it was a live stream, or if it was off entirely—he hadn't seen the red dot, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Better to assume they were recording at all times, and act accordingly.
The real question was, were they just monitoring him, or did they have other plans?
As his eyes began to adjust to the light, Steve realized he had company. A man, maybe, or a very tall woman. The ski mask stayed on as they moved forward to examine him, brushing their hands almost reverently over his shoulders, his chest, his arms. They were muttering to themselves, and Steve focused on the language instead of their hands, only to hear the phrase "gescheitert vermächtnis" and feel the beginnings of dread.
It was German, meaning something akin to "failed legacy", and generally speaking, people that considered Steve's transformation a failure tended to be Nazi's.
Then the hands were slipping lower, to his waistband, and Steve spoke up, if only to see if his captor even spoke English.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I think you're supposed to buy a fella dinner first."
"You're not here to think." Definitely a male voice. Raspy and low, with a very thick German inflection.
"Care to tell me what I'm here for then?"
"An example." The man patted Steve's cheek. "You are America's golden boy. She loves you, and the dream that you stand for. Break that dream, and her hope will drain out with your blood. I wonder, just how much can a supersoldier bleed?"
Steve stayed silent.
"I'll be back for you later, mein bursche."The man patted Steve's face again. Mein bursche…Steve's head was still pretty foggy, but he was pretty sure it meant "my lad", or "my boy". Something diminutive, anyway.
The man swept out of the room after that, leaving Steve alone. Steve didn't struggle in his absence. He kept silent, still observing his situation, and two more captors entered within moments.
"I hear you're ready for me?"
It was a woman this time, short and curved and sounding altogether very eager. Young, even.
"Aw, no answer?" She bounced a bit as she walked, striding alongside Steve's table, running her fingers over his arm, "It's more fun when you talk, dolly."
Steve had no intentions of making this fun for her.
"Boo, you talked for Lion!" She seemed upset by this, though it was all very put on, still likely a show. "I haven't even begun the interrogation yet, why're you clamming up? Tiger, tell him he's being unfair!"
The other captor, this…Tiger, a broad-shouldered man who kept to the corner of the room, stayed silent.
"Tiger's not much of a talker either, really. He's just here to make sure I don't eat you right up on the first day. You ought to thank him! You know what they say about people who like to kill for fun," the woman told him, running her knuckles over his cheek before slapping him soundly. Steve made no sound, no indication of pain, though her glove had a prickly metal on the back that stung something fierce, "Not to be trusted, really. And oh, I can tell, we're going to have lots of fun, you and me, lots and lots of fun. The strong, silent types are always the best when they break."
She resumed her stroking of his cheek, moving closer, cupping his face in her hands and examining him.
"Such a lovely little boy…funny, really, Hitler would've loved you. Blonde hair, blue eyes, rippling muscles…have you got a girl at home, dolly? Am I making her jealous?"
Steve didn't give her the reaction she wanted, though his mind flickered briefly to Tony before he clamped it down. Not that his captors seemed able to read minds, but they might be able to read his reactions if he wasn't careful.
"Oh, you simply must. A face like yours?" she cupped his chin in one hand this time, and he resisted the urge to shake her off. It would only be playing along with her game. "Bet she likes that soldier boy mouth of yours, doesn't she? Very demanding, I'm sure. Are you like that in the sack, lovely? All commandeering, and the like?"
Steve didn't react.
"Well, we'll find out if you're a kinky little boy soon enough." She released his face to circle in front of him, tracing her gloved hands over his shoulders and down his arms, eventually splaying her hands across his chest. "Don't you even want to know my name, dolly? You'll be screaming it later."
When he still didn't react, the woman gave a bit of a huff, abruptly stopping her stroking to stalk over to the cabinet to his far right. He couldn't see what exactly she was doing though, too far out of his field of vision.
"You know for all the fun you'll be later, you're rather dull now. It's Mantis. I know you've got that charmer on your team—the Black Window, isn't it? Delightfully deadly, that one, really lives up to the name."
She was back now, a whip in each hand. One was longer than the other, a dark rawhide handle with a thin metal wire, the other a brown leather that broke off into at least six or seven frayed cords.
"But you know what can kill a Black Widow, dolly? A Mantis can, quick as a whip." Mantis advanced forward, letting the brown leather whip crack in the air by his ear, a warning. Steve wasn't particularly well-versed in whips or how to use them, but he knew full well what someone who knew exactly what they were doing looked like, and this woman was very well-practiced with her weapon of choice. "Climb on back, sever the neck, fast and vicious and over in the blink of an eye. Think I could do the same to your Russian friend?"
Steve didn't say a word, but the look on his face apparently spoke volumes.
"Oh, you doubt me, that's adorable. You think just cause I'm an itsy bitsy girl I'm not capable of much."
That wasn't true. Steve had never been one to think less of an enemy—or an ally, for that matter—just because they were a dame. Peggy had almost shot him in the face once, Natasha pinned him in the gym more often than not, and Pepper had on more than one occasion threatened him bodily harm he had no delusions she would follow through on if he hurt Tony, so no, Steve was not particularly inclined to view women as helpless. Not to mention, Steve could easily see that this Mantis was more than capable with those whips, but he didn't bother to correct her.
"Suppose I can hardly blame you, I've done nothing but chat away, haven't I? It's about time we get started, you're quite right."
Mantis dropped the whips at his feet, reaching to her leg holster and unsheathing a long hunting knife with a mild curve. She ran it down Steve's shirt, slicing it open and leaving a trail of blood on his chest. She pushed back his shirt to leave his chest bare, taking the knife and carving out looping, swirling patterns across his chest. It stung like hell, but the knife was sharp and the pain wasn't as bad as it could've been. Steve winced a bit, but otherwise stayed as motionless as he could.
"Anything you want to tell me before we really get into it, dolly?" Mantis asked, finishing her work and re-sheathing her knife.
"Rogers, Steven G. 193-47-0275, USIN, B," Steve rattled off his dog tag information without missing a beat.
"Oh, poo. You're no fun at all." Mantis retrieved the wire whip from the floor, caressing it like one might something precious, "Anything you care to share before I begin, dolly? If you start moaning and writhing about with pleasure instead of pain, I imagine that's going to be rather embarrassing for you."
Steve's expression didn't change.
"I thought for sure that'd get a rise out of you. Nothing? Ah, well." Mantis lashed forward, the wire cutting into his skin right across the previous lacerations. Steve couldn't help the hiss of pain, and Mantis just smiled. "Now, we're starting you off nice and easy, because I've got a nice and easy question for you to answer. You tell me what I already know, I let you go back to your cell for the day. Understand?"
Steve didn't so much as blink in response.
Mantis lashed out again, two fast, smooth strokes, obviously skilled. They struck Steve square across the chest in an x, drawing fresh blood from already tender wounds. Other than a small wince, he didn't react. She gave a disappointed little noise, moving forward to trace the whip over the still-stinging markings she'd left.
"Answer me when I speak to you, dolly."
Steve didn't respond. This earned him more lashes, each more expertly placed than the last. They criss-crossed over his chest like latticework, his skin red and raw and dripping with blood in just under a few moments. Steve never said a word, just ducked his head and gritted his teeth.
"High pain tolerance, hm? I was right, you are going to be fun," Mantis purred, ceasing her whip-work long enough to sidle up to Steve, stroking a hand across his face, through his hair, "Your safe word here, dolly, is the Black Widow's name. First and last now, don't be cheap on me."
Steve remained predictably silent.
"Keep in mind, darling, I know her name. There's no betrayal here, no reason not to speak. You just need to show me you know how to work that pretty mouth of yours."
Mantis ran the knife along Steve's cheek, not enough to draw blood, just toying. Steve didn't so much as flinch. It didn't matter if she knew Natasha's name already. What mattered was that Steve knew enough about torture methods to know she was trying to lead him into it. If he talked about something unimportant now, he might be easier to convince to talk about something bigger later.
He kept his mouth shut.
"Oh, goody. I was so hoping I'd get to work for it."
Steve grit his teeth as she went to work with the wire whip, each lash drawing more blood than the last. Each strike whizzed through the air, the crack of it against his skin deafened by the pain. He quickly lost himself to the pain, and if he cried out after that, he didn't know.
He closed his eyes and went somewhere else.
He thought of Tony. He didn't think about their fight, because it wasn't important. They'd had hundreds of fights, and they'd have hundreds more. It was who Steve was, who Tony was, and Steve wouldn't have changed him for the world. Instead, Steve thought about the way Tony smiled when he was trying not to laugh. His lips got a little bit of a quirk at the corner, and he'd look up at Steve through too-long lashes, mischief in his eyes.
Pain burned through Steve, drawing him away from thoughts of Tony, the hard sting of metal slicing through his chest and bringing him back to reality.
"Trying to ignore me, are we?" Mantis purred.
Then she was prodding the metal end into his wounds, wiggling the tip under his skin in ways that made him writhe in anguish. Steve bit his lip until it bled, his nails digging into the stone, until he finally let go and screamed. The further under his skin the metal twisted, the louder Steve screamed. He screamed and screamed until his head hurt and his throat was raw and his vision went out; in a flash, all he could see was light.
It reminded him of Tony. He thought of the light Tony radiated when he pieced something together, the way he'd jump out of his chair a bit, too excited to sit down. If he had a free hand, he'd run it over the arc, skimming the edges and tapping the surface in a quick one-two, one-two beat. If he wasn't too lost in his work to remember Steve was around, he'd often wave impatiently at Steve to hurry over, already rattling off technobabble Steve couldn't hope to understand but enjoyed listening to.
He thought of the way Tony laughed off things like praise and gratitude, side-stepping them with a snarky remark or a self-depreciating wave of the hand. He craved them though, and Steve could see it in the childlike hopefulness for attention Tony displayed when he was too excited about his latest invention to remember to cover it up—
He was brought back to reality with a sharp snap, a ferocious pain blooming in the back of his skull. Too consumed by pain to think straight, he'd thrown his head back against the stone table and nearly cracked it—not to mention his skull—wide open. Steve could feel the blood dripping down the back of his neck, and his vision went a bit blurry.
"Ooh, that looked almost concussion worthy, dolly. Best not lose yourself too much."
Mantis didn't seem overly concerned that Steve had nearly cracked his head open, but then, she didn't seem the sympathetic type.
She didn't so much as pause in her strikes, the whip already cracking against the flesh of his chest once more. He tried to lose himself again, but before he could even begin, the wire was slicing across his cheek. Steve couldn't help himself; he let out a choked, guttural shout. The blow had thrown his head to the side, and Steve looked at the floor for the first time since the whipping had begun.
Blood pooled under him, thick and bright, too much of it to disappear down the drain beneath him all at once. Steve swallowed, thick as the blood under his feet, and gave a dry cough that sent pain spiraling through him. He hung limply, no strength to lift his head again, just watched his blood with sudden, morbid fascination, the old man's words from before ringing in his head.
Just how much could he bleed?