It was about an hour after the man left that they were all carted into what seemed to be interrogation cells. Steve thought they seemed rather like the old-fashioned jail cells one saw on TV in soap operas. They were each deposited in a separate cell, though they could see each other through the bars.
Bruce had been on the verge of waking up as they had been retrieved, although he'd been thoroughly drugged with something that kept him subdued and slurring when he spoke.
And yet despite this, their captor went first into Bruce's cell. Steve thought this rather ridiculous considering Bruce couldn't even speak clearly; did he think he'd get a straight answer from him?
"Doctor," the man said charmingly, "I have heard such marvelous things about you and your work. What do you know of the bridge Tony Stark was working on before his death?"
Bruce blinked rather owlishly, looking up at the man through hazy eyes. "It's a bridge, isn't it," he slurred, the words running together. "Goes places."
"Yes. Where does it go?"
Bruce seemed genuinely confused at this question. "Places. 'S a bridge."
The man abandoned this question. "How does it work?"
Bruce tilted his head to the side. "Like a bridge? You walk…"
Steve repressed a hysterical laugh at Bruce's slurred answers. Drugged or not, Bruce knew exactly what he was doing.
"You can't walk from Earth to the realm of the gods." The man sounded skeptical.
"Thor's an alien," Bruce asserted firmly. "Use a…spaceship." He seemed particularly proud of this announcement.
"You cannot reach Asgard with a spaceship!"
"No?" Bruce furrowed his brow in confusion. Then it cleared and he nodded sagely. "Use the bridge."
"That is my question." The man was aggravated now. "How do you use the bridge? How did he build it?"
Bruce peered up at him. Then: "I don't like weed." He sounded petulant.
The man growled now, actually angered to a point Steve hadn't seen him before. "If you don't give me a straight answer," the man said slowly and clearly, "I will not hesitate to shoot you, Doctor."
"He doesn't like that," Bruce protested. "The other guy…gets mad." He giggled as if he had told a particularly good joke.
"I'm sure he and I could come to an agreement," the man said sweetly. "Would you like to test it?"
Bruce's head rolled from side to side, the entire movement utterly lazy. "You'll regret it," he sang in Mother Gothel's voice from Tangled.
The man's face twisted in complete and utter rage, and he gestured furiously at a HYDRA goon standing outside.
Steve watched in horror as a gun cocked threateningly; he opened his mouth to stop them when Peter burst out, "I know!"
The man lifted his hand to stop the goon from firing, his dark eyes turning to Peter, who was to the right of Bruce's cell and directly opposite of Steve. "Do you?"
"Oh yeah." Peter nodded vigorously. "I'm a scientist."
"You are a child."
"You know how young Tony Stark was when he was in college? Thirteen. He graduated at seventeen!"
The man narrowed his eyes, considering Peter thoughtfully. "This is true."
After another second, the man gestured sharply and left Bruce's cell, letting the HYDRA goon lock it behind him as he went over to Peter's cell.
This time the man didn't go in alone. A HYDRA goon followed him in, coming up behind Peter and shoving him to his knees.
"Unmask him," the man ordered softly. "I would see who I speak with."
Peter cringed. "Can we not? Because I have some really bad scars—" He broke off as the mask was wrenched off by the goon, flinching slightly as the man's eyes rove hungrily over his face.
"You are indeed young," the man noted. "What is your name?"
Peter swallowed visibly. "Spider-Man."
"Your secret name, young one." The man sounded forbidding. "I will tell you mine: I am the Mandarin."
The fruit? Steve frowned, glancing over to see Clint mouthing "Mandarin? Fruit?" in incredulous disbelief.
"Doesn't seem like an actual name either," Peter noted.
"It is who I am."
"So's Spider-Man." Peter wet his lips. "I think you can appreciate having some secrets."
"True," the Mandarin conceded. "Spider-Man then." He smiled, his eyes cold. "What can you tell me of this bridge that Tony Stark was building?"
Peter actually looked more confident now. "It's the Bifrost; that's what they call it. And Tony wasn't exactly building it; he was repairing it. See, it kind of got broken because the gods were fighting. They couldn't fix it themselves, so Tony offered to do it."
The Mandarin looked intrigued. "Did he succeed?"
"Oh yeah!" Peter nodded enthusiastically. "To be honest, no one really thought he could do it. But he did."
"The misunderstood scientist," the Mandarin murmured. "What were the mechanics?"
"The mechanics?" Peter repeated slowly. "Of rebuilding the bridge, you mean?"
"Yes." The word was sharp, impatient.
"I…" Steve could practically see his brain chugging away, trying to come up with a plausible explanation that would still be complete bullshit. "I don't know."
The Mandarin didn't accept this pitiful explanation. But Steve didn't expect what happened next. The goon struck Peter with a fist, knocking him to the ground.
Peter didn't whimper or make another sound. He pushed himself back up to his knees, shivering faintly. This time the Mandarin struck him across the face, his rings drawing blood as they pierced Peter's skin.
Steve could hear Peter sharply inhale in shock. He blinked, eyes tightening in pain as blood trickled out from the scratches the Mandarin's rings had made.
"I will not accept lies," the Mandarin said lowly, his tone dangerous. "You know what happened. Speak the truth!"
Peter swallowed, eyes flickering back and forth between the cells. He met Steve's eyes briefly before he returned his gaze to the Mandarin.
The Mandarin raised his hand threateningly, only to be cut off as Peter blurted out, "Quantum mechanics! All about reversing the polarity, see?"
The Mandarin's hand dropped. "Explain."
"Asgard didn't have the necessary equipment to reverse the polarity and they needed to do that to actually get the bridge to connect to the other side. They also lacked the energy needed to reverse the polarity, and Tony had to get that energy. The arc reactor, yeah? It's renewable energy, got enough to power the machines Asgard has.
"And then the physics were kinda really a lot different between Asgard and here. Gods, you know? Our physics and theirs don't really match, so Tony needed to go quantum. It's amazing how you can bend the laws of physics when you go quantum. So that's what he did when he reversed the polarity and got the energy needed to connect from here to Asgard and tell them he could get the bridge fixed."
Peter took a breath, looking entirely earnest as he continued, "So he got the information and the equations and the materials, but he didn't get the chance to actually build it. Because he ended up coming here to take care of weapons, and then you wasted him, and we can't exactly contact Asgard from the inside of a cell." He stopped now, inhaling deeply through his mouth and nodding once.
Even Steve, who wasn't anywhere near as intelligent as Tony, could tell that Peter's explanation had been 99% bullshit. But it would seem that the Mandarin was actually considering Peter's words, since his brow was furrowed but not in that thunderous way that meant he was likely to strike or kill Peter.
"Do you have these equations?" the Mandarin asked finally.
Peter blinked. "Yes?"
"You will give them to us."
"Ah, I don't—"
"You will give them to us, or your team will be killed."
"Okay!" Peter ducked his head. "I need some paper. And a pen. Maybe a pencil? Something I can erase if I make a mistake. I'm doing this from memory."
"You will have it." The Mandarin gestured to a HYDRA goon standing outside, and that one spoke softly in his helmet but didn't otherwise move.
"Can I also have a calculator?" Peter asked. "Just to double check the equations. I was just the assistant; Tony did all the work."
Within ten minutes, Peter was provided with paper, pencils, and a rather old looking calculator that he eyed dubiously but accepted wordlessly. Then, sitting down on the floor and propping the paper up on the clipboard he'd also been brought, he began scribbling quickly across the blank sheet. Every now and then he stopped and input something very carefully into the calculator, frowning and nodding and shaking his head as if he carrying on a mental conversation.
Steve watched him breathlessly, hoping that whatever Peter was putting down on that sheet looked credible enough to pass inspection.
Peter soon set aside his first sheet and moved onto the next, inputting more numbers into the calculator before beginning to write again, this time more slowly.
"This better be right," he muttered quietly almost as if to himself. "He didn't explain this very well…" He went back to the calculator.
Peter was halfway through the second sheet when two other people entered the area. Steve barely noticed the black-haired woman; he was far more focused on the man behind her. He had a mechanical arm and his face was half-covered with a black cloth, but it was the eyes that drew Steve's attention the most.
He knew those eyes.
"Bucky?" The name left his lips before he could stop it.
The Winter Soldier didn't look over, but the woman gave Steve a bored look.
"Are you almost done?" she asked the Mandarin.
"I almost have it," the Mandarin confirmed. He was looking down at Peter's work excitedly.
"I'm not yet done," Peter said, not looking up from his lap. "This is super complicated."
"You're trusting this child?" the woman asked scornfully.
The Mandarin looked at her balefully. "Tony Stark was much younger before he was recognized as the genius he was. Do not cast aside brilliance simply because the body is young."
"He's not even in puberty."
"I'm seventeen!" Peter said indignantly, looking up now to scowl at the woman.
"So he says." The woman didn't deign to look at Peter.
Steve swallowed thickly, eyes skimming over Bucky's form. He'd recognize that body anywhere. He'd grown up with Bucky, and arm aside, he hadn't changed much in the intervening decades. The one thing Steve couldn't understand was why Bucky didn't react to his name or to Steve.
Didn't he know who Steve was?
Steve was about to try to speak again regardless of his better instincts warning him otherwise when a couple of the goons burst into nervous chatter. Whatever they said evidently alarmed the Mandarin and the woman enough that they stiffened.
"We are leaving," the Mandarin snapped, exiting Peter's cell and leaving him looking rather confusedly after him. "Lock the cells."
"I'll just wait here?" Peter said, tapping the pencil against his knee.
No one spoke to him. The Mandarin, the woman, and Bucky left, leaving only the HYDRA goons there to guard the cells.
"Oh, thank God," Peter said, sighing in relief. He threw the pencil out the cell and hit one goon directly in the mask. "My hand's cramping."
Steve didn't comment, not wanting the HYDRA goons to know that Peter had been lying the entire time. He wasn't sure what exactly had distracted the Mandarin and the woman, but he wouldn't risk them being alerted to Peter's lies and coming back.
From beside him he saw Natasha fiddling with something down her chest. She moved up to the door of the cell and gave Clint – who was on Steve's other side – an arched eyebrow.
Steve glanced over to see Clint dramatically throw himself to the ground with a pained cry. "My shoulder! Oh, the pain!"
It was so over-the-top Steve wasn't sure how the HYDRA goons even fell for it, but they startled and looked to Clint, giving Natasha enough time to pick her lock and open the door. The hinges creaking alerted the goons to what she was doing, but by then she was already in their faces.
Natasha punched one in the face and locked an arm around the second, throwing herself backwards and flipping over him, her feet kicking the third goon upside the chin. He fell backwards, colliding with the bars of Steve's cells. Before he could recover, Steve had him locked in an unrelenting chokehold.
The fourth and fifth goons were raising their guns threateningly, but were thrown backwards as the first goon was thrown into them by Natasha spinning around #2 – the one she still had in her grip – and then kicking #1 – the one she'd punched – in the head.
In a blur of moves Steve could barely follow, Natasha had #2 on the ground, falling to a crouch herself directly in front of the goon's head. She grabbed his gun and pistol-whipped #4 and #5 in the heads, knocking them out for the count.
Still choking his own goon, Steve relaxed his grip momentarily before slamming him back up against the metal bars, knocking him out. Once the goon had slumped in his hold, Steve let him drop.
"That was freaky," Peter said, blinking and swallowing. "And awesome."
"Thank you." Natasha pinched the keys from the guards' belts, flipping through them and unlocking Steve's cell. She gave him the second set of keys, moving over to unlock Clint's cell.
"Bit of overacting there?" she asked nonchalantly.
"You know me," Clint said, grinning. "Can never do things half-baked."
Steve had unlocked Bruce's cell now. "Bruce." He crouched besides the drugged doctor.
"Steve." Bruce squinted up at him, eyes still hazy. "You're glowing."
"That's nice." Steve kept his voice soothing. "Now why don't you climb on my back? I'll get you outta here."
Bruce went without any struggle onto Steve's back, cooperatively winding his arms around Steve's neck.
"We all good?" Natasha asked, stuffing the keys she had down the front of her uniform.
"Can I ask how you managed to unlock the door?" Peter asked.
Natasha smirked. "They didn't check my bra."
"Wimps," Clint said, grinning broadly. "You okay there, Steve?"
Steve nodded. "Good."
"I'd ask how Bruce is doing," Clint said, "but seeing as how he's as high as a kite right now it's probably no good."
"You're all glowing," Bruce said.
"High as a kite," Clint confirmed, nodding.
"Not to burst anyone's bubble," Peter said, "but how are we getting out of here? I don't know if you've noticed, but they took all our gear."
"I'm not leaving without my shield," Steve said.
"Might be a bit of a problem then, Captain," Natasha said, gesturing at Bruce.
There was an odd smell then, and Peter started, looking up with wide eyes.
"I see my help was unneeded," a German-accented voice said from above their heads. "You've all escaped. Super." The last word was in German. "Das macht mein Arbeit leichter."
Looking up, Steve was startled to see a blue-skinned being with a forked tail hanging onto the ceiling. The hands only had three fingers. But while Steve didn't recognize the being at all, it was the outfit that had him hoping. The insignia of the X-Men was on it.
"Nightcrawler at your service," the being said, flipping down to land lightly on the floor in front of them. "Can I help?"
"You're an X-Man," Steve said, inanely stating the obvious.
"Ja, Kaptan." Nightcrawler blinked his red eyes. "You haf seen me before."
"I'll take your word for it," Steve said. "What can you do?"
"I can take you to the plane," Nightcrawler said. "They haf yours, but ours is still safe."
"Who else is here?" Steve asked.
"Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, and Jean Grey." Nightcrawler grinned toothily at their surprised expressions.
"We'll talk later," Steve said, shifting Bruce to a more comfortable position. "How many can you take?"
"As many as I need, Kaptan," Nightcrawler said. "Shall we go?"
"I'm staying," Steve said, Bucky's face flashing through his mind.
"And I as well, Captain," Natasha said firmly.
Steve turned to her. "Black Widow—"
"The Winter Soldier and I have some unfinished business," Natasha said crisply. "Either way, I won't leave you here alone."
"The others then," Steve said, bending down to let Bruce off.
"If I may, Doctor," Nightcrawler said to a demure Bruce, "you seem very drugged."
Bruce squinted at Nightcrawler. "You're blue."
Nightcrawler seemed to take this blunt observation in stride. "I am."
Peter had by now tugged his mask back on and was standing next to Nightcrawler. "Does teleporting hurt?"
"You vill not notice a thing," Nightcrawler promised.
"Come back safe, you hear me?" Clint told Steve and Natasha. "No stupid sacrificial gestures." He looked at Steve as he said this last bit, and Steve simply inclined his head to acknowledge he'd heard it. He could make no promises.
"Achtung," Nightcrawler said, his eyes flicking between his passengers. A second later he was gone with that same strange smell Steve had noticed before.
"Brimstone," Natasha noted, her nose wrinkling slightly.
Steve said nothing, instead tugging on his cowl. The feel of it made it easier to slip into Captain America. Steve Rogers couldn't last much longer.
"We're staying close," he said.
"Might not be able to manage that," Natasha said evenly.
"No one's separating," Steve said. "We've already lost too many."
Natasha's lips thinned, and her voice was crisp as she said, "Understood."
Bending down to take a gun from one of the HYDRA's goons, Steve walked towards the exit. He nudged the door open, peering down the hall cautiously. Thankfully the lights were still working, not that that said much considering it was all torchlight.
"Clear." Steve moved forward, stepping lightly on the rough floor.
He could feel Natasha close behind him, and the knowledge was comforting. He wasn't alone here (not like Tony had been).
They came to another door, and here Steve stepped aside to let Natasha open it. She smirked wryly at him, pulling out a white card and swiping it in the scanner by the doorframe. There was a click as the door unlocked, and Steve pulled it open, blinking as he was met with fluorescent lights and gleaming white tile floors, though the walls were gray metal. It was a startling contrast to the tunnel they had just come from.
"Right, Captain," Natasha said from behind him.
Trusting in her judgment, Steve turned right, sticking close to the wall as he picked up his pace.
As he approached another hall that branched off from theirs, Steve heard something that sounded like footsteps. He readied his gun, prepared to shoot if he needed to.
"Don't shoot," a familiar voice growled. "Friendly fire ain't friendly."
Logan in Wolverine's costume rounded the corner, his face set in a disgruntled mask.
"Wolverine," Steve said, relieved.
"Fancy meeting you here." Logan's eyes flicked between Steve and Natasha. "Nightcrawler got the others?"
"Yes," Steve said.
"Then what are you still doing here?"
Steve's voice stuck in his throat. How could he begin to explain that his old friend was here? That he was alive?
"The Winter Soldier," Natasha said calmly from behind him. "We need to bring him in."
Logan's lips curled. "Personal?"
This Steve could answer. "Yes."
"Better hurry then." Logan twisted round to walk in the direction Steve and Natasha had been going. "We're on the clock."
Steve picked up his pace to keep up with Logan's. "What do you mean?"
"Stark's AI's got the entire base ready to blow in twenty-five."
Steve's heartbeat picked up. "Black Widow—"
"I'll get our supplies," Natasha said. "Do you have a radio to JARVIS, Wolverine?"
"Got an extra two." Logan reached into a small pouch he had on his waist and took out two earpieces.
Steve put his in. "JARVIS?"
"It is good to hear from you, Captain." JARVIS's English accent was unusually crisp. "I will direct Black Widow to where your weapons have been stored."
Steve gave Natasha a nod as she slipped away from them, running down the hallway to their left. "And Bucky? The Winter Soldier? Can you tell me where he is?"
"I cannot tell you his exact location, but most personnel are one level above you. Wolverine can lead you to the access point."
"No stairs, no elevators," Logan said, grunting in disgust. "Goddamn ladders."
Steve had no comment on the matter. He followed Logan to where the so-called ladders were.
"They watch a lot of Star Trek, don't they," Steve said once he saw the ladders, conveniently located in an access shaft.
"Don't ask me." Logan stepped to the side to let Steve up. "Upper levels are where most the goons are."
Steve took less than a minute to reach the next level and jumped out of the access shaft, pulling out his gun as he landed lightly on his feet. Logan joined him seconds later, coming up behind him as Steve double-checked that his gun's safety was on.
"Follow me," Logan said. "I'll betcha your guy's where Cyclops and Jean are."
The floor they were on was so similar to the base Steve had invaded back during World War II that he kept being hit by nostalgia whenever Logan ducked down a different hall or the wall curved so they were running at an angle.
Their speed was such that any goons they ran past had no time to react to their presence before they were gone.
The floor shook beneath their feet, startling Steve into saying, "JARVIS?"
"Countdown is still eighteen minutes, Captain."
"Jean," Logan grunted. "I bet she's pissed."
Steve didn't ask why; this wasn't the time to do so.
They were approaching a doorway to their left when someone stumbled out. Steve's heart stuttered when he recognized Bucky.
Bucky froze, glancing back to Steve and Logan. There was no recognition in his face, and he sprinted away a second later.
"Damn it!" Steve took off after him, only vaguely aware that Logan wasn't following.
Bucky wasn't faster than him, but he definitely knew the base better than Steve. He slipped down a hall and was down a ladder before Steve could realize where he'd gone. Steve took hold of the sides and slid down, aware of the air whistling past his ears dangerously quickly.
Managing to slow his speed down before reaching the bottom of the shaft, Steve jumped off the ladder and into a dead sprint after Bucky. They were in what looked to be the bowels of the base. Heating and cooling systems and other strange machines filled the entire area. There were also catwalks hanging from the ceiling with metal staircases leading up to them.
Steve tried calling again. "Bucky!"
There was no response from the other, and Steve had to duck under a metal beam as he squeezed between chugging machines that were glistening with moisture.
"Your current location is where the base will combust," JARVIS said in his ear, his voice rather crackly with static.
"Don't have much choice here." Steve saw Bucky escaping through a gigantic square frame and the metal door above it begin to slide down. Putting on another burst of speed, Steve dove, sliding forward on his stomach and emerging on the other side seconds before the door slammed shut.
Scrambling to his feet, Steve pelted down the hall they were now in. "Bucky!"
"Thirteen minutes, Captain."
"I know!" Steve nearly slammed into the wall as Bucky took a sharp left. He pushed off with his hands, pumping his arms to regain his speed.
He ran past an open doorway when an explosion rocked him off his feet, throwing him into the wall on his right. Dazed, Steve scrambled to get to his feet, looking up in dismay to find Bucky slip through another door.
"What was that?" Steve pushed himself to his feet.
"Uncertain, Captain. Cameras are distressingly sparse down there."
Steve opened the door to find himself back in the room from earlier. He almost groaned in dismay when he noticed that he couldn't see Bucky anywhere.
Warily stepping into the room, he let the door fall shut behind him.
Steve said nothing in response to the warning, instead doing a slow 360, his ears pricked for any sound that would tell him where Bucky was hiding. Unfortunately, the hissing and clattering of metal popping drowned out any noise Bucky would have made.
Steve slipped between a giant boiler and something that looked like a weird cooler when he heard a loud clattering noise from above his head. He looked up just in time to be hit in the face by Bucky's feet as he swung down from a catwalk.
Stumbling back into the heater, Steve dropped in time to avoid Bucky's punch. He heard the other's knuckles hit the heater, but paid no mind to it, sweeping Bucky's legs out from under him.
Bucky hit the floor hard, and Steve jumped on top, pinning him. "Bucky—" Steve grunted in pain as Bucky head-butted him. "It's me."
There was no response from his old friend, but Steve could make no further ventures to get through to him. The sound of an explosion shattered the air and Steve was only vaguely aware that something else had detonated directly next to him, propelling him off Bucky and across the confined space.
Steve hit something hard, blinking stars out of his sight as he tried to see what had happened.
There was nothing but white steam obscuring his sight, but Steve swore he saw something black and red drop from the ceiling to the floor.
Faint grunts of effort sounded from the steam, and then Bucky was thrown in Steve's direction. He flipped through the air, landing neatly on his hands and legs. He ignored Steve, instead facing the steam where Natasha stepped out, shaking her hair out of her face.
"Remember me, James?" she asked calmly, her green eyes studying Bucky. "It's been a while."
Now Bucky spoke. "Natasha."
"So you do remember me." Natasha smiled. "I wasn't sure. But do you remember who always won our little sparring matches?"
"I've gotten better."
Natasha's smile turned sly. "Have you really? Shall we see?"
"Five minutes," JARVIS warned.
Steve had no breath to say anything. All his focus was on Natasha and Bucky and how they were just dancing around each other. Natasha's fighting style had always been sinuous and smooth, consisting primarily of using her opponents' strength against them. Bucky seemed to be more of a head-on fighter, primarily brute force with some sneaky moves thrown in.
And it was painfully clear who had the upper hand.
Both used their surroundings to maximum effect, but it was Natasha who got the drop on Bucky first and threw him to the floor with her infamous "thighs of death." She grabbed hold of his hair, slamming his head into the floor once for good measure.
Bucky fell still, lax beneath Natasha's weight. She exhaled, brushing a hand across her face to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She looked at Steve, eyebrow raised. "You good, Captain?"
Steve nodded, pushing himself to a sitting position. "Yeah."
"Two minutes," JARVIS said.
"We can't get out of here in two minutes," Steve said, sliding over to Natasha.
"Don't have to." Natasha was smirking, looking at something at Steve's side.
"Hallo," Nightcrawler said, resting a hand on Steve's shoulder. "I think we should go, ja?"
Steve saw Nightcrawler put a hand on Natasha's shoulder before he felt like he was being squashed into something dark; then he found himself inside what could only be the X-Men's jet.
"Just in time," Scott said from the front, flicking the switches above his head before resting both hands on the joystick. "JARVIS—"
"Thirty seconds," JARVIS said from the speakers and in Steve's earpiece. Steve pulled the cowl down, feeling the cool air-conditioning of the jet hit his sweaty hair. The machine room had been far hotter than he'd realized.
"We're good," Ororo said, sitting next to Scott. "Take us up."
Steve could feel the jet vibrate beneath his feet as it began accelerating, yet he barely noticed as the jet's wheels left the ground to become airborne. Tony would have something to say about that.
He felt sick at the thought of Tony. Now that the danger was over and he was out of HYDRA's base, the emotions he had pushed aside earlier were coming back with a vengeance.
"Sit down before you fall, Steve." Natasha's voice was worried, her hand on his elbow as she guided him backwards to a seat.
After a few seconds, Steve felt his shield being nudged against his shin. He looked up to see Natasha smiling softly at him.
"I did manage to get it," she said.
"Thanks," Steve croaked, his fingers going for the metal. The familiar feel of it soothed him a little. He saw Nightcrawler move behind him, probably to sit in the back.
"That was super intense," Peter said from the other side of the cabin. Clint and Bruce were sitting next to him, though Bruce was unconscious, head lying on Clint's uninjured shoulder. "You guys really cut it close."
"Speaking of cutting it close," Clint said, "what was that back there with the math?"
Peter shrugged, his mask hiding whatever expression he was making. He did sound amused. "I just put together a bunch of numbers and letters. Most of it was bio-chem stuff with a little bit of physics. Looks legit enough to a guy who doesn't know anything about science."
Jean stepped into view, and Steve noticed Bucky lying on the floor behind her. "He's not going to wake up until we get back," she said, buckling into a seat behind Scott and Ororo. Logan stood next to her, arms folded across his face and a black scowl on his face. He had soot on his cheek.
"How did you find us?" Natasha asked.
"The professor," Scott said.
"It was actually Tony," Ororo said.
"He went off grid," Logan said, looking at Steve. "Couldn't find him at all, and the professor couldn't reach you. Figured we should come check it out."
Steve swallowed thickly, simultaneously relieved and dismayed. "Why? There's nothing in it for you."
Logan snorted. "Stark's one of us. Might be an Avenger, but he's also a mutant."
"We don't leave our men behind," Scott said.
"He's not an X-Man."
"Isn't he?" Logan lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. "Good as, just a different team and uniform."
They were all speaking about Tony as if he was still alive. "He's…he's not…" Steve took a ragged breath. "He's dead." Speaking the words had his stomach twisting into even more knots. "Tony's dead."
"No." Jean's words were calm. "He's not. The Mandarin lied. He doesn't know where Tony is, but he knows Tony's not dead. Something went wrong when he tried to kill him."
Steve blinked, painful hope rising within him. "He…he is?"
"I wouldn't lie, Steve." Jean gave him a sympathetic smile. "But wherever Tony is, he's not on Earth."
This bit of news had Steve struggling to focus and figure out where Tony could be. The only thing that struck him was that they needed to go to Reed. "We need to call Reed."
"Damn quantum physics," Peter said. "I guess this means it's Bifrost related?"
"Dr. Richards has been alerted," JARVIS said. "He seemed most exuberant."
"I almost get why Tony doesn't much like the guy," Clint said.
Huffing out a half-hysterical laugh, Steve thumped his head back against the headrest, closing his eyes as utter relief swept through him.
Tony wasn't dead.
They dropped Bucky's unconscious body off on the Helicarrier, Fury giving Steve a despairing look.
"This is rather unexpected," Fury said. "And Stark?"
"Working on that," Steve said, glad his voice was even.
"I see." Fury gave Steve an inscrutable look. "Well, then, don't be a stranger, Captain. We'll keep him"—he nodded to Bucky—"in good condition."
"Preferably without any access to anything he can use to escape," Natasha said. "Treat him as you would me."
"Oh dear," Coulson said, frowning. "That rather complicates things."
They left S.H.I.E.L.D. to figure out how to contain a mercenary with Black Widow's skill level. The X-Men dropped them off at Baxter Building, though Jean and Logan joined them while Scott flew the others back.
"This concerns us as well," Jean explained before anyone could ask why.
"Can always use a nose," was Logan's brisk explanation.
The first point of order once they were in Baxter Building was to get Bruce to a bed so he could sleep off the rest of the drugs he'd been given; Ben went with him to be sure he'd be okay. Then they could do their best to explain things to Reed.
"You don't know what happened?" Reed asked, frowning in displeasure. "Look, I'm good, but even I can't work off of no data."
"He had ten rings," Jean said, reaching for her pouch and handing it over to Reed. "I took them off his fingers."
"You managed that?" Clint asked, letting Sue tut over his shoulder.
"He didn't have much choice." Jean's smile was cold. She spoke to Reed again. "What I saw was that he attempted to kill Tony with magic, but something happened. There was light, and Tony was gone."
"Light," Reed repeated dubiously. "That's rather vague."
"Where's Jane?" Steve asked, unable to stop a note of desperation from creeping into his voice. "She can help, can't she?"
"I've already called her, Steve," Sue said, not looking away from applying ointment to Clint's wound – he'd refused to have it treated on the Helicarrier. "She's been a bit upset with the lack of progress."
"Scientists, I tell you," Johnny said.
"We're the ones who give you all the technology you're so fond of," Jane said pleasantly from the entry of the room. "Now that I'm here, I need details."
"Light," Reed said unhappily, looking up at the ceiling in dismay. "That's all they know. Light."
Jane seemed disconcerted. "Can I have it from the top?"
Jean explained it again. When she was done, Jane was frowning.
"Reed's right," she said finally. "That's too little data for us to work with. How do you know Tony's not on Earth and not dead?"
Steve was unable to keep from wincing, though thankfully nobody seemed to notice other than Natasha, who squeezed his arm comfortingly.
"We have a device that senses mutants across the planet," Jean said calmly. "And it doesn't pick Tony up anymore. There are only two options for that: he's dead or he's off-planet."
"And he's not dead because?"
"Because the magic the Mandarin used wasn't lethal by itself. He meant for it to drain Tony dry, but something interfered."
"He's got that energy in his body," Steve said, mouth dry. He swallowed as everyone looked at him. "It was the arc reactor; Extremis absorbed it. JARVIS has the details."
There was light dawning in Jane's and Reed's eyes.
"The arc reactor," Jane said slowly.
"It runs on vibranium," Reed said. "Just like the Bifrost. What if magic is the key?"
"English for us poor mortals," Johnny said, handing Sue a roll of bandages.
As Reed went over to a computer and began typing frantically into it, Jane began to explain, "We were stuck on a way to solidify vibranium, the material that makes up the Bifrost. Tony had a way to manufacture it, but we needed it to be solid to create the bridge. The problem was that we couldn't find anything that would work."
"But magic!" Reed exclaimed, eyes gleaming in that way Tony's did whenever he'd hit upon an exciting discovery. "It's energy of a sort, and mixing it with vibranium might give us the right combination."
"We don't have that kind of magic here," Jane said. "Other than those rings, I suppose." She gave the pouch Jean was again holding a dubious look. "I don't fancy using something we don't know how to use."
"We can learn," Reed said.
"We want to get Tony back quickly, don't we?" Sue asked sweetly.
"Yes, please," Steve blurted out.
"We'll need to contact Asgard," Jane said, frowning. "But how is the question… It's not like they've got cell phone reception there."
"You've got the TV," Clint said, gesturing at the TV that was standing proudly in the middle of the room. It was tuned to what looked like a picture of a large banquet in a smaller house.
"It's just a window," Reed said.
"Windows go both ways, don't they?" Clint said as if it should be an obvious fact. "We can see them; who says Asgard can't see us?"
"They haven't." Jane was scowling at the TV. "We've been looking at the most awful things, and no one's seen us!"
"By awful," Clint said, "do you mean porn?"
Neither Jane nor Reed deigned to respond to this.
"Then again…" Jane sounded considering now. "Maybe we haven't been looking at the right things?"
Reed was looking at her now. "What do you mean?"
"Thor told me of Heimdall; he sees everything." Jane looked up at the ceiling. "Maybe it's as simple as calling out for him?"
"Impossible." Reed sounded disbelieving.
"The only way to find out is to try it." Jane was looking around her now. "We need to get our things together."
"So, when?" Steve asked, anxiety gnawing at the pit of his stomach. The possibility that they were only hours away from getting Tony back was nerve-wracking.
Jane gnawed at her lip, tapping her fingers against her elbow as she folded her arms. "I don't think we can manage it today," she said slowly, regretfully. "We weren't expecting something like this, and our stuff is all over the place." She gestured at the mess surrounding them. "We need to make sure we have everything, and that's going to take several hours." It was already getting dark outside.
"Then tomorrow morning," Sue said, packing up the first aid kit. "You can stay here for the night. Bruce needs time to recover anyway."
"Logan and I need to contact the professor before we can leave," Jean said.
"I'd offer a phone, but you probably already have one." Sue gave her a wry smile. "I can at least show you to your rooms. Natasha, that means you, too. We don't have that many."
"I'll be with Bruce," Steve said.
"You're stuck with me, squirt," Clint said to Peter.
"I don't mind." Peter shrugged.
"I'm not rooming with hothead," Logan said.
"That's fine," Johnny said, wrinkling his nose. "I don't wanna room with a drunk."
Logan eyed him menacingly. "You wanna say that again?"
Barely noticing Sue's resigned sigh at her brother's antics, Steve's eyes were fixed on Jane and Reed as they moved around the room, arguing about what they needed to take to Asgard and what definitely didn't need to go.
Tomorrow morning was too far away…
It was dark, and it was cold. He couldn't breathe; he couldn't move. Somewhere there was dripping, and it was slowly driving him mad.
Then there was light. He reached out for it, fingers coming to rest against red and gold metal and against a blue circle of light. He looked up to meet an imposing blank golden mask, but he felt no fear at the sight. Instead there was only a deep calm.
He moved to flatten his hand against the light, only to have the suit shatter into a million pieces beneath his fingers.
Steve jolted awake, breathing heavily and his entire body drenched with cold sweat. The nightmare held him tight in its grip, and he could only think about how Tony was gone. Not dead – thankfully not dead – but gone nonetheless. He was somewhere Steve couldn't reach him easily, and that just made him ache.
Turning to look at the clock, Steve was dismayed to find it was only two. He tucked his head down, squeezing his eyes shut as he focused on calming down.
He wasn't very successful, so Steve got up to sit by the window. Pushing the curtains aside to let the moonlight in, he pressed his back against the cool glass as he slid down to sit. He curled his knees up to his chest, hugging them tightly to himself.
Tony being gone like this wouldn't have hit him so hard – probably – if he hadn't just gotten him back. Steve had almost lost him a little while ago, and this…this so close on the heels of that was really fraying his nerves.
Burying his face in his knees, Steve focused on the last night he'd spent with Tony. It had been warm and loving; it was exactly what he needed to calm himself down.
Up until the point it hit him like a sledgehammer that they had no idea where Tony was.
Pressing his lips together tightly, Steve brought his head back and rested it against the glass. He focused on breathing – just breathing – and he almost didn't notice when Bruce stirred.
Steve didn't move; Bruce had woken up earlier but gone right back to sleep. Now Bruce actually sat up, frowning slightly as he looked over at Steve huddling there, curled up like a small child.
Steve didn't budge, not even when Bruce got out of bed to slowly walk over and sit down next to him. Bruce mirrored his pose, sighing lightly as he rested his head against the glass.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, softly.
"For what?" Steve asked dully, not looking over. "Tony's not dead."
"He's not?" The surprise in Bruce's tone reminded Steve that the other man had been unconscious the entire time and had only heard that Tony was dead before he'd been drugged again.
"No." Steve sighed softly. "But he's not here. We're going to Asgard tomorrow."
"Oh." Bruce shifted so his knees were slightly further out from his chest. His hands lay at his sides. "I…don't think I should come." The words were heavy with regret. "Don't know how the other guy might react to that kind of travel. Especially since it's not with the bridge…"
Hulk hadn't reacted well at all the last time they'd done anything related to the Tesseract. But to be fair, that had been with Loki around.
"I understand," Steve said.
"So if he's not dead," Bruce said slowly, "then he's in Asgard?"
"No." Though Steve wasn't sure. Something just told him that if Tony was in Asgard, he would've come back by now. "But they can help us. Reed and Jane figured out how to fix the Bifrost."
"Without Tony?" Bruce sounded mildly surprised. "He's not going to like that."
Steve chuckled weakly. "Actually, it's because of Tony they even figured it out. The Mandarin used magic to try and kill him; interfered with the vibranium in his body, I guess."
"Talk about luck," Bruce said.
"If you can call it that."
"He's not dead."
"True." Steve took a ragged breath.
They sat in silence for a while.
Finally, Bruce stirred again. "Did you have a nightmare?" he asked quietly.
Steve shrugged noncommittally.
Bruce rested a hand on Steve's shoulder, squeezing. "It'll be all right. Tony's come this far. This isn't going to kill him."
"How do you know?" Steve surprised himself with the question. "This could be it. The last thing until his luck's gone and he's dead."
"Tony's resourceful." Bruce was calm. "He didn't die in Afghanistan even though he honestly should have. He had absolutely nothing other than his brains at that point, and that's what he used to get out. Now? He's…he's happy, Steve. He's not going to just lie down and let himself be killed. This is going to sound awful, but"—he laughed—"he's like a tick, all right. Sticks to you and refuses to let go; doesn't die easily either. Only Tony doesn't suck you dry…" He drifted off into thoughtful silence.
"Pepper would disagree with you there," Steve said dryly.
"I don't think so." Bruce smiled ruminatively. "She likes to say that Tony's too much, but she likes it. That's their relationship."
Steve was silent for a few minutes. "Not a tick," he said. "He's just Tony Stark."
"Sounds about right." Bruce extended his arm, wrapping it around Steve's shoulders to tug him in.
And Steve went, resting his head on Bruce's shoulder.
In about half an hour Bruce's breathing evened out into the steady rhythm of sleep. But Steve remained wide awake, the nightmare prickling at his senses.
It was eight the next morning when they all convened on the very top of Baxter Building. Jane and Reed had a couple of large suitcases with them, but that was about it. They'd be going, and so would Steve, Jean, and Logan, but everyone else would remain on Earth.
"I expect souvenirs," Clint said loftily.
Steve managed to dredge up a small smile, but he spoke to Natasha. "You're in charge while I'm gone."
Natasha nodded. "Good luck, Steve."
"None of this actually involves quantum physics, right?" Peter asked, gesturing at the suitcases. "Or reversing the polarity?"
Reed frowned. "No. Where would you get that idea from?"
"No reason." Peter shrugged. "Just wondering."
Clint snorted loudly, but said nothing to elaborate on the joke.
"I'd step back now," Jane said, "unless you're coming with. I'm not exactly sure what this is going to involve, but better safe than sorry."
The others obligingly huddled against the wall near the door to the roof.
Taking a breath, Jane turned her face to the skies. "Heimdall, I'm not sure if you can hear me, but if you can, please give us a lift to Asgard. We've figured out how you can rebuild the Bifrost, and we also need help. Tony Stark is missing, and we believe that he's somewhere else on Yggdrasil."
Steve didn't know what he was expecting, but he was still disappointed when absolutely nothing happened within the next five minutes.
Jane didn't look worried. "They're using the Tesseract. It's going to take time."
Five minutes stretched into ten, and Steve fidgeted on his feet, fingers digging into the straps of his shield.
He kept his head craned back, eyes fixed on the blue sky. Finally, several minutes later, unable to bear the fact that nothing was happening, he let out a low word: "Please."
Nothing happened, and Steve had to choke down the awful feeling of fear and disappointment. If Jane was incorrect – if Heimdall couldn't see them – then Steve had no idea where they'd go from here.
He dropped his eyes from the sky, only to widen them when he saw the blue light flickering in the middle of the air. It seemed to shrink in on itself for a few seconds before exploding out with a ring of energy.
Steve braced himself, exhaling in relief when he saw the blue shape of the Tesseract being placed at the feet of Thor. "Thor." He sounded as relieved as he felt.
"Heimdall received your summons," Thor said, looking at them all. "Is Anthony indeed missing?"
"Yes," Steve said. "He is."
"Heimdall is even now searching for him," Thor said. "But it is inadvisable for us to use the Tesseract in search for Anthony."
"We can fix the Bifrost," Jane said. "We figured it out, Thor."
Thor's eyes were soft as he looked upon her. "This is excellent news, Jane. We shall leave now if you are prepared."
Hefting the Tesseract up, Thor stepped over to them, placing it in the middle of them. "I have not yet used the Tesseract for such a large group." He was frowning.
"Can I?" Reed asked, looking down at the cube with a gleam in his eyes.
"Actually," Bruce said, "let me. I had a hand in designing that case."
Another ten minutes and they were ready to leave. A circle had been outlined around them, Thor providing the Asgardian runes required to limit the energy of the Tesseract. And with a twist of the case, they were gone.
It was like a vortex. Steve could only see blue around him and the vague outlines of the others that were traveling with him. Then they were landing abruptly on a rainbow-colored stretch of floor that was hanging suspended in what seemed to be space.
"Oh wow…" Jane's words were awed.
"It is beautiful, is it not?" Thor sounded proud.
Steve wasn't looking at what they were. He was staring at the tall man with gold eyes in golden armor who was looking at him with a serene expression.
"Ah." Thor had noticed his preoccupation. "This is Heimdall. He heard your summons, Jane."
"I see all," Heimdall said in a deep voice. "Though my sight is now restricted." He looked off to the side, where Steve could see where the bridge had been broken. On the other side of the gap was what looked like an observatory made entirely of gold.
"What about Tony?" Steve asked, looking back at Heimdall. "Can you find him?"
"There are nine realms, Captain. Your friend could be on any of them. But peace, for I am looking."
Swallowing, Steve nodded.
"Vibranium and magic," Jane was saying to Thor. "Tony found out it was vibranium, but we couldn't figure out that we needed magic until he disappeared."
"Do you have this vibranium?" Thor asked.
Jane held up what looked like a small black USB. "JARVIS gave this to me. It's got instructions on how to make vibranium. We couldn't bring the materials ourselves, but you made it once before so you probably have it anyway."
"The Bifrost has been here for millennia," Heimdall said. "The machine that built it has long since been taken apart, but the pieces we still have. They will need to be reassembled once again. This is no simple task."
"How long?" Reed asked.
Steve swallowed thickly at the announcement. Two days wasn't too bad.
"Two days in this eyesore of a place?" Logan didn't sound at all pleased. "Someone kill me."
"That can be arranged," Thor said.
"No one's killing anybody," Jane said sharply, her face fierce enough that Thor bowed his head.
"Logan can't be killed," Jean said, amused. "Only thing you can do is get him mad."
"Wanna try it?" Logan said.
Steve dropped his chin to his chest, shoulders shaking in barely suppressed giggles. He was really losing it.
Tony wasn't exactly claustrophobic. Come on, he flew around in an enclosed suit of armor. He couldn't be claustrophobic. That said, he was generally uncomfortable in small places that he couldn't actually get out of (call it a remnant of Afghanistan if you will).
And being stuck under a mountain was something he couldn't get out of. Not easily at any rate.
Tony hadn't been crushed when the mountain crumbled. He'd formed a mental shield around him that stopped that from happening. The problem was that it was pitch black except for the lights on his armor. Air wasn't much of a problem because of the little oxygen that still remained inside this rubble, the rebreather built into his suit, and the oxygen also stored in his suit. That meant he had several hours to figure out what to do next. Considering he was currently buried alive, his first priority would be digging his way out.
His sensors didn't say anything about the monster being alive, so that at least was a good thing. The only thing, really, because Tony had yet to figure out how the hell he was going to get out of this.
He had an excellent mental map so he knew exactly where the exit had been. His sensors also told him where airflow was closest, and it definitely wasn't above him (because mountain) or behind him (because mountain), so he had to go forward.
Squinting ahead, Tony kept his focus on the mental shield, groaning as he felt a soft twinge in his temples. He was probably going to have a hell of a headache by the time he managed to get out (don't think 'if,' don't think 'if').
Crawling forward as best as he could given his cramped surroundings, Tony began to move aside rocks with his telekinesis, wincing whenever he dislodged something that seemed to threaten to bury him again. Not wanting that to happen, he had his HUD give him a 3-D render of everything his sensors could pick up.
With that done, he picked his way out carefully, forced to use only his telekinesis given that he didn't want to shoot a repulsor with his mental shield up and risk it rebounding.
It was thirty minutes of painstaking work before he hit something that wasn't rock. It was a leg.
Tony wanted to cry. Moving around this thing wouldn't be easy.
But it was only the leg. The rest of the body was more to his right. He could do this.
Think of Steve…
Focused on the feel of the ring resting against his sternum, Tony turned as much as he could to his left. He was now in a tunnel of his own making; he'd left the little hollow he'd originally created behind.
One hour later and Tony's right temple pulsed steadily with pain. He breathed out sharply, squeezing his eyes shut as he used Extremis to access the morphine injections his suit had stored for situations like this. It was a small dose; he couldn't afford more and have his brain inhibited.
Tony waited for the pain to become blunter, the sign that the morphine was working. Then he took a lungful of stale, recycled air and pressed onward.
Thirty minutes later and either the morphine had already worn off or his headache was worsening. Tony knew which one was more likely, but he didn't dare chance another injection.
"Come on, Stark," he muttered to himself, waving the lights in his fingers so he could get another look at his surroundings. Not much to see, really. "You can do this. Just like back home."
"Clint would so poke fun at you if he knew what the hell you were doing now. Buried alive? So last century, Stark. Now, being shot is more like it. But, wait, you already did that, didn't you? And you didn't die then, so why would you die now? Being buried alive is a sad way to go…"
Continuing to mutter to himself, Tony managed to distract himself from his burgeoning headache, which had now blossomed to hammers banging away on the inside of his skull.
His 3-D render of his surroundings – updated with every foot he managed – showed that he was maybe ten feet away from freedom.
At five he could chance using his thrusters and blasting his way out.
"Just five feet. Barely Natasha's size. You can do this."
He could barely see for pain now. Whining softly, he discarded another rock, resting his head against an arm.
That was it. He couldn't…
Firing his thrusters, Tony gave one last push with his telekinesis. The rocks around him rumbled threateningly, but Tony was already moving and leaving them behind.
Within seconds he'd burst out of the rubble with an explosion of snow and rocks. Thrusters still firing, he spiraled up into the air, eyes watering with the pain of his headache.
Picking a random direction, he flew off, wanting to put as much distance between himself and that accursed mountain as he could.
It couldn't last. He was in far too much pain to keep the suit operating, and soon he began to lose altitude. He managed to soften his landing in time, but it still hurt to hit the ground.
Groaning, Tony flopped onto his back, lifting his faceplate and taking a deep gulp of freezing cold air (so cold). It helped a bit with his headache but not much.
Tony took several more gulps of fresh air before it got too cold and he had to close his faceplate. The temperature readings informed him that it was currently zero degrees, and Tony supposed that explained why his tongue felt rather stiff now.
It was dark out, indicating it was probably night here.
Tony really wanted to sleep, but sleeping while in so much pain might mean that his suit would retract and he'd be naked.
Sinking back into his mind, Tony reached into Extremis, sighing in relief when that didn't worsen his pain any. Then he installed a subroutine that would ensure his undersuit would stay on regardless of what would happen (essentially just a "keep at least one layer!" order since he was too exhausted for anything more complicated). Hopefully it'd work, but if it didn't, Tony figured he was screwed either way.
He had to keep breathing. And moving, too.
Flopping back onto his stomach, Tony pushed himself to his knees. He stayed there for a while, just breathing. He didn't really want to move, but he had no choice if he wanted to live. He really couldn't afford to stay still in the frigid cold and the blizzard surrounding him.
Stumbling to his feet, Tony began the painful task of trudging through the snow. There was no light, so he could keep his eyes open without any fear of light worsening his headache even more. He kept the HUD blank except for the night vision, relying on Extremis's link to the suit to keep the data feeding directly into his mind.
"You'll stay safe, right?"
Goddamn it, Steve, I'm trying. Can't expect more than that, right?
He really wanted to go home…
Stumbling as a particularly fierce gust of wind caught him, Tony fell to his knees. He could rest right here for a bit…
There was a fierce roar in the distance. Extremis chimed in, giving him the stats for how far away the source of the sound was and how fast it was traveling.
"Can it be a fluffy polar bear this time?" Tony murmured, nearly slumping over. "Please?"
Another roar contested this statement.
"Damn it." Tony struggled to his feet, squinting into the darkness despite his night vision trying its best to compensate. There just wasn't enough heat for it to do much good.
Telekinesis was definitely not an option given how much his head was still hurting. But he still had power and could fly.
"Give me a map," he murmured, waiting for his HUD to pull up the map of the terrain. If anything, the amount of flying and traveling he'd been doing had given his suit an opportunity to create a rough draft of what the land looked like.
The crevasse he'd walked by earlier wasn't far off. Maybe…
Inhaling deeply, Tony readied himself.
It was five minutes before the beast revealed itself, its body a tiny speck in his night vision. It grew quickly, a testament to fast it was running.
When it came closer, Tony could tell that it was just like the one he'd faced while in the company of those blue giants.
"Fuck." Tony fired his thrusters and blasted off into the air, grimacing as a strong gust of wind hit him.
When the beast came close enough, Tony fired off a repulsor to get its attention before he set off towards the crevasse. His sensors told him the beast was following him, bellowing.
Man, he must have pissed it off earlier (that is, if it was the same one).
Tony drew to a stop directly before the crevasse, hovering there as the beast grew closer. "Come on," he urged softly. "Come to Papa…"
Just as the beast was about to jump on him, Tony darted backwards, directly over the crevasse. And then he was flying up out of the reach of the beast's claws as it jumped.
And, man, could it jump. It was practically across the entire crevasse before it fell, howling with rage (it certainly didn't sound scared).
Looking down at the black abyss of the crevasse, Tony hovered for several minutes more just to be sure. Then he was abruptly reminded of his dire situation by the pounding pain in his head and the HUD warning him of his current power levels (25%).
Flying back to solid ground, Tony landed roughly, falling flat on his face.
Just five minutes to rest…
Those two days on Asgard were some of the longest of Steve's life. It might've had something to do with the fact that he didn't sleep, too wracked with nerves to manage it. Jane and Reed were helping to rebuild the machine with other Asgardians. It was easy but tiring work, and Steve didn't spend his time there because he felt absolutely useless.
Jean and Logan wandered about Asgard, shown the sights by Thor's friends. Steve had been extended the same offer and had gone with them for about two hours before his black mood had thoroughly pissed Logan off and he'd skittered off back to his room.
Odin and Frigga didn't spend much time with them either, beyond welcoming them to Asgard and giving them rooms to spend the nights in.
That first night Jean had talked to him, coming into his room when his watch said it was midnight.
"You're not sleeping?" she asked quietly.
Steve gave her a tired smile. "I can't. It's all right; I can handle about five days with no sleep."
"It doesn't mean you should have to."
Simply offering a shrug, Steve returned to studying the view from his balcony. They'd all been put up in similar rooms, though he hadn't seen Jane or Reed return to theirs.
"He's going to be all right," Jean said. "I may not have known him as long as you did, but what I do know…Tony's resourceful. Wherever he is, he's made the best of it."
Steve managed a small smile, laughing shortly. "He'll probably be grinning and laughing when he sees us, asking what took us so long."
"Exactly." Jean gave him a bright smile. "Do you think you can sleep now?"
Looking down at his feet for a few seconds, Steve offered up a rueful smile. "Thanks, but no. It'll be fine. It's only one more day, right?"
Jean studied him for a long moment, her sharp eyes seeing far too much for Steve's comfort.
"I see," she said finally, softly. "I understand." She reached out to give him a reassuring squeeze on the arm. "I'll see you in the morning, Steve."
The second day Heimdall reported that Tony was in Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants.
Thor's face turned dark upon receiving this news. "That is troubling. Jotunheim is most unkind to humans."
Steve felt panic twist his stomach, but since this had already been an ever present state since arriving in Asgard it barely registered. "What does that mean?"
"That we must hurry."
Thor wanted to talk to Loki, and Steve let him, But when Thor returned with news that Loki would be willing to help given certain terms, Steve had put his foot down.
"My brother could help," Thor said. "He is of Jotunheim."
"He was raised in Asgard, wasn't he?" Steve shook his head. "He can't help anymore than you, Thor. And I don't trust him."
Thor's face turned rueful. "I realize this, Steven. For your peace of mind – and I must admit, my own – we will do this without him."
The second night Logan came into Steve's room and stayed there the entire night, a silent sentinel.
The bridge still wasn't ready the morning of the third day, but Steve was there as they began the process of reforming it at noon. It was absolutely stunning, taking place in the observatory that he had seen when first arriving. It was thanks to Jean's telekinesis that they could even go there and begin the process of rebuilding.
Like the rest of the observatory, the machine was gold and inscribed with intricate Asgardian runes. It was enormous, taking up practically a third of the space in the observatory. The side facing the room and the large platform in the middle had a wheel that would turn the machine on. Thor stood by it, prepared to spin it the moment Jane gave the signal.
After giving a resolute nod, Jane waved at Thor. Thor grabbed hold of the wheel, pulling down with an almighty heave and stepping back as it took on a life of its own, spinning rapidly.
The peak of the machine began glowing in brilliant rainbow colors. It took several seconds before a stream of light burst out, touching the other side of the broken bridge.
They watched breathlessly as the bridge slowly rebuilt itself before their eyes.
It was over in ten minutes, maybe less. And when it was done it gleamed absolutely brilliantly, sparkling rainbow-colored lights. Tony would have found that hilarious.
Steve's throat felt thick, also a normal occurrence over the last two days. Tony had put in a lot of work to make this possible; he should've been here to watch it come to fruition.
"When can we go?" he asked, trying not to sound utterly desperate.
"Heimdall?" Thor looked at the tall god.
"The Bifrost has been rebuilt," Heimdall said. "I can see now. Anthony Stark resides on Jotunheim, but where exactly I cannot say. Something clouds him from my sight."
"The vibranium," Jane murmured, resigned.
"Can you send us there, Heimdall?" Thor asked. "Anthony has been there for four days."
Heimdall looked vaguely affronted. "I can."
"I'm going, too," Steve said.
Thor looked sharply at him. "Are you certain, Steven? Jotunheim is a land of ice and snow. With your history—"
"I'm going." Steve made certain to sound firm. "I can handle it." He tugged at his uniform, which he'd been wearing for the last several days. "This conserves heat."
"Jotunheim is far colder than Anthony would have prepared for."
"I'm still going."
"Logan and I will go as well," Jean said. "I can sense his mind, even if it won't be clear."
"I can smell 'im," Logan said.
"Cold and me don't really mix well," Reed said, making a face. "Sorry that I can't go."
"It is well, Reed." Thor smiled at Sif, who smiled back. "Sif will accompany us."
"We will leave within the hour," Sif said. "Preparations must be made, and clothes provided. Jotunheim is not kind to Midgardians."
Despite his desire to get going immediately, Steve didn't protest. The Asgardians knew far better than he when it came to Jotunheim's climate, and he did still have problems in cold weather, especially when snow was involved.
In an hour they were all bundled up in extremely warm clothing and provided with horses. Only Thor and Sif remained in their normal battle regalia, their Asgardian physique better able to handle Jotunheim's extreme cold. They did have brown cloaks to shield themselves from the wind, but that was the extent of their additional protection.
"Heimdall, open the Bifrost," Thor commanded, his horse stomping slightly on the floor.
If there was a response, Steve didn't hear it. He was staring straight ahead into empty space, the observatory turning away from Asgard. He did feel the bridge activate, taking them all into a vortex of rainbow-colored light and to Jotunheim.
Five minutes stretched into an hour, but eventually Tony managed to haul himself to his feet, shivering profusely as the cold settled into his joints despite the protection of his suit.
It seemed that as his energy drew low, the more he could feel the cold.
Maybe it was the energy in his body that had been keeping him warm all this time. And…what?…four days of this had definitely sapped that energy down to the point where it could no longer keep him warm.
Tony was definitely shivering enough for that made-up-on-the-fly hypothesis to hold some weight.
To keep himself warm (or warmer than freezing anyway), he kept walking. The blizzard had ended with the arrival of the "day," so he could at least see where he was going and didn't have to worry about falling over because of a particularly strong gust of wind.
At this point he'd take anything good, even if it was only the little things. (He could do that, Pepper!)
Still, it was so tiring to walk across ground where he could slip the moment he stepped wrong. The snow wasn't deep, but it was deep enough that he had to be careful or he'd be flat on his face in no time.
But it wasn't all bad. After some hours of walking, Tony stumbled upon the edge of a cliff. He stopped before he could go over it, but did stand close to the edge, breathless with awe. This was much more wondrous than what he had seen before with the crevasse.
"One does not simply walk into Mordor," he breathed, lifting the faceplate so he could get a proper look.
Splayed out before him was a huge mountain range. They were thousands of feet lower than where he stood, giving him an unparalleled view of what it must be like on top of Mt. Everest. There was snow on every peak, but there were spots where he could see gray rock underneath the white.
"Whew." Tony dropped to a sitting position, deciding that this was as good as any place to rest (if not better because of that incredible view). He brought the faceplate down, not wanting to lose anymore heat. His headache was still pounding away but not as badly as it had been the previous night.
He sat there for close to half an hour before he sensed it.
It was a humming other than his suit. And it was loud.
His head snapped up, whipping to the place he could sense it coming from. He couldn't see anything, but he could definitely sense it. There was nothing else technological around – of course he'd sense the first thing that came!
"Steve." The word was a rasp.
Tony pushed himself to his feet, powering on his thrusters without a second thought. The humming was subsiding now, but it was still there.
"Don't go, don't go, don't go." He was pouring on the speed despite the warnings blaring across his HUD.
And yet it wasn't fast enough. The humming was gone a minute later; Tony wanted to cry.
Still, he had the rough idea of where it had come from. He kept on his path, dodging around mountains when he had to.
Cold crept through his chest and even Extremis was blaring warnings now. Tony ignored it all.
He would've missed if he hadn't seen such a sight before: a perfect circle with Asgardian letters on the edges and practically no snow within it.
There was also no one there.
Tony restrained a sob as he practically crashed into the ground. He gasped for air, whimpering slightly as the cold spread through his extremities.
Crawling to the center of the circle, Tony collapsed face first. It took all his strength to roll over on his back, and then he couldn't move anymore.
He was so cold…
When the light cleared from his eyes, the first thing Steve saw was snow. The second thing he saw was snow, too. And then there were mountains. And everything was bluish-white and kind of dark. Then he saw Thor step forward, his cloak billowing in the freezing wind.
Steve shivered slightly, suddenly terribly glad of the clothes Thor and Sif had given him. His shield remained a comforting weight on his back, reminding him that he was still alive and not frozen in an ice block.
"What do you sense?" Thor asked Jean.
Jean frowned, pressing her fingers to her temples. She stood like that for several minutes, the furrow between her brows growing deeper as the seconds passed.
"Nothing," she said finally, letting her hands drop. "There are other beings – I sense their thoughts though I can't understand them – but I can't hear Tony."
"What does that mean?" Steve asked. He was too numb now to feel much panic.
Jean gave him a look, concern in her eyes. "He's weak."
"Anthony has spent four days here," Sif said. "It is likely he has encountered the Frost Giants."
"We shall speak with them," Thor said.
There was no other conversation. Steve could see Logan frowning, his nose twitching as if he was trying to catch Tony's scent but failing.
The horses were sure-footed, and they quickly covered the ground to their destination. Steve didn't see anything that would count as landmarks, but apparently Thor and Sif did.
As they continued onward, Steve hunched over more and more, unable to restrain his fear of the cold. He could tell that Jean was shooting him concerned looks – her telepathy doubtlessly telling her what was going on in his mind – but she said nothing. Probably because Steve was bound and determined to do this.
Tony needed him.
They eventually arrived at buildings that seemed to be made out of ice. Thor didn't go straight up to them, stopping a fair distance away but still within sight of the guard towers. Steve could see what looked to be blue people looking out at them.
It didn't take long before an entourage of the blue people met them, and Steve was surprised to note that they were really blue. And had red eyes. Their skin was also inscribed with strange lines and lettering.
"We do not seek war," Thor said to the leader of the group.
The Frost Giant responded, but his language was one Steve couldn't understand at all. It sounded extremely harsh and full of clashing teeth.
Thor apparently understood what had been said. "We come in peace. We seek one of our own." There was another response and then Thor said, "He would not have looked like us. He is from Midgard and wears a suit of metal."
This garnered a reaction that wasn't at all positive. Steve could see that the Frost Giants were looking practically murderous now. The leader's words to Thor were laced with venom.
Thor was absolutely unruffled. "Then you have not seen a man in a suit of metal? At all?"
The leader growled out another answer, this one longer than the last.
Frowning now, Thor nodded. "I see. Then you do not know where he is now. I thank you for your time. Peace and be well."
Turning his horse around, Thor gestured briefly for the others to follow him. But then the leader spoke again, causing Thor to pause. When nothing more was said, Thor nodded at him and continued onward. Sif was first to follow him, and Steve was close on her horse's heels.
Glancing over his shoulder, Steve could see the Frost Giants glowering after them but making no move to follow.
"What happened?" Steve asked lowly.
"They saw Anthony," Thor said. "They had him in their grasp for several hours, believing him to be a Dwarf from Nidavellir because of his armor. Thinking him an enemy, they threw him into the arena." He smirked. "Anthony rather surprised them by escaping." He sobered abruptly. "They have not seen him since, although he told me that they sent a beast of theirs out to retrieve him. They do not know if he survived, but the beast has not returned."
"Then what?" Steve was unable to keep the distress from his voice. "We walk through the whole of Jotunheim?"
"Nay, that would be impossible." Thor looked troubled. "But we cannot simply leave. Jean, what do you sense?"
"I sensed them." Jean flicked her head back towards the direction of the Frost Giants. "But nothing else."
"I can't smell squat here other than ice and snow and death," Logan said, sniffing imperiously. "And my nose is freezing off."
"He did say that there was a disturbance the previous night," Thor said slowly. "A mountain crumbled. We should perhaps head there."
"Do you know where that is?" Steve asked.
Thor gestured to the front of him. "He told me it was in this direction. But it is a mountain; we cannot miss such a sight."
Huddling back into his clothes, Steve kept his chin up. He was thankful for his cowl, for it protected his ears and most of his face from the worst of the cold. He could hide the rest in his scarf.
They'd find Tony.
Or, he mused later, they'd find where he'd been. As Thor had said, they couldn't miss the sight of half a mountain in ruins, even with most of it covered in snow.
"Tony's under there?" Steve could barely get the words out.
Jean frowned, drawing her fingers to her temples. After a few moments she said, "I can't get anything."
Logan took a deep sniff of the air, promptly screwing his nose up afterward. "Something died here, but it wasn't Stark. Doesn't smell human."
The confirmation had Steve practically slumping over in relief. Only the cold kept him upright. "Then?"
"We'll ride on for a while yet," Sif said. "Circle around. Perhaps we'll see something else."
With no other plan, they did exactly that.
Eventually, Thor said, "We cannot stay the night, Steven. Jotunheim is unfriendly to humans in the day; the night is much more unforgiving."
"If we don't find him, can we come back tomorrow?" Steve wasn't about to give up.
"With every night, the chances of finding him alive decrease."
Steve blinked back tears. "We can't just stop."
"I know, Steven." Thor gave him a smile, though it seemed forced. "We have time yet."
"But only a few hours still," Sif warned.
"He was trying to comfort him!" Logan snapped at her, drawing an unimpressed look from her.
"It is not comfort if it is a lie," Sif said, arching an eyebrow.
"Sif," Thor said reprovingly.
Sif shot him a look. "I speak only the truth, Thor."
Steve spoke before anyone else could. "Can you just be quiet?"
Although they shot each other looks, they did fall silent.
The rest of the way was traveled in silence. They went a wide circle, going as far as they could until they had to loop back because it was getting dark.
Steve was shivering constantly now, but not just because of the cold. He rubbed his fingers together, massaging the base of his left ring finger. Tony hadn't been able to get him a ring, but that wasn't what Steve was thinking of. He was thinking about what would've happened later if things had gone differently.
They shouldn't have waited, but Pepper would've killed them if they'd had a shotgun wedding with absolutely no time to prepare.
Steve found it increasingly difficult to gather his thoughts, sluggish as they were. And it wasn't just because of grief. The cold was biting at him, threatening to send his body into unconsciousness to defend itself. He'd managed to stave it off with hope, but now with even that dwindling along with the light, Steve found he couldn't be bothered anymore.
"Steve." Jean's voice was sharp, snapping him out of the lethargy he'd fallen into. "Stay awake."
He grunted softly, blinking rapidly. The lack of sleep over the last three nights was also getting to him.
They were almost at the place where they had arrived, Thor explaining that it would be easier for him to use the runes already in place to return to Asgard.
Steve looked ahead, blinking in the gloom that was settling over the land. Then he blinked again, squinting as he thought he saw something on the ground.
Logan was sniffing the air. "Hang on…"
But Steve was already falling off his horse, almost slipping until his boots grabbed traction and he was sprinting to the circle.
Tony was lying there. Flat on his back and without his armor and without a blue light glowing in his chest. The undersuit was black against the stark white of his skin, a harsh contrast of colors.
"Tony." Steve didn't recognize his own voice as he collapsed to his knees besides Tony. "Tony."
Was he breathing? Steve couldn't tell. But Tony was too still to be okay.
Steve tried to check for breath, growling in frustration when his gloves got in the way. He tugged them off impatiently, brushing his fingers over Tony's blue lips – blue – and then over his skin. It was too cold. Far too cold. And there was no light.
Pulling Tony into his lap, Steve curled over him, desperately trying to see if he was still alive. Please, God, let him live. It wouldn't be fair if he died because they had to look elsewhere and couldn't come straight back.
The voice wasn't his own, and Steve looked up to see Jean before him, face worried.
"We've got him," Jean said, but it wasn't to Steve. "Thor, take us back."
Since he wasn't needed, Steve returned his attention to Tony. He was too still.
He barely noticed when the Bifrost activated again, taking them all back to Asgard. He barely noticed when he wasn't cold anymore. In the normal light of Asgard it was all too easy to see how white Tony was and how blue his lips were. And how dark the center of his chest was without the familiar blue light.
Someone was tugging at him, trying to get his attention.
Steve. It was that voice again. The doctors need to get to him. He's alive, okay? He's alive, but they need to do their work. Can you let him go?
Steve blinked, dazed. Was Tony still alive? It was difficult to tell, but maybe there was a faint rise and fall of his chest?
His grasp loosened slightly on Tony.
That's it, Steve. Let him go. It'll be fine.
And Steve did, watching in a daze as Asgardian doctors swept Tony from him and bundled him up.
Someone was helping Steve to his feet now, talking in soothing tones that he wasn't registering. His focus was on Tony, who was now being spirited away over the bridge to Asgard.
Steve must've blanked out then, because the next thing he registered was sitting and staring at a closed wooden door. Jean was sitting next to him and Thor standing before him.
"Steve, are you with us?" Jane asked lowly.
Blinking in response, Steve found his voice wasn't quite working.
"I have spoken with the healers, Steven," Thor said, seeing that Steve was listening. "Anthony will be fine. He was cold and drained of energy, but these are things that can be rectified. You will see him shortly."
When? Steve wanted Tony.
"I know." Jean's voice was soothing and she was rubbing circles into Steve's back. "It's only a few more minutes. They just have to be sure that he's absolutely fine and there's no permanent damage from nearly freezing to death."
The reminder that Tony had almost died was enough to make Steve start shivering again, even though the air wasn't at all cold. He noticed he had a thick blanket around his shoulders and he was no longer in his uniform.
"Almost, Steve." Jean pulled the blanket more firmly over Steve's shoulders. "Can you ask again, Thor?"
Thor left then, but Steve wasn't sure where. He was just aware of that wooden door and the fact that Tony was behind it.
Why wasn't he in there with him?
Then Thor was there again, and Jean pulled Steve to his feet, saying, "You can go in now, Steve."
The door was opening, and a woman in white robes stepped out, letting Steve by. He heard voices, but he didn't understand what was being said. His entire focus was on the bed in the room and who was lying in it. And the blue glow that was thankfully there.
He was up against the side of the bed now, and the blanket was falling to the floor. Steve desperately wanted to climb in there with Tony, and why couldn't he? The bed was big enough for two.
Making up his mind, Steve pulled back the blanket and slid in besides Tony, curling up against him. His skin was warm now, so different from how cold he had been before. And the light.
Shivering lightly, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony, tucking himself close. He pressed his face into the hollow of Tony's neck, the blue light of Tony's arc reactor – former arc reactor – illuminating the inside of his eyelids and warming his chest as he pressed against it.
Slowly, by increments, the tension seeped out of Steve's muscles. He didn't even notice when he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
That was the first thing he noticed. It wasn't cold anymore.
The second thing he noticed was that there was no pain. At all. Even his head was good. His limbs were all in perfect working condition with no tingling or burning to signal that they were coming back to life after being frozen. Extremis was buzzing in his head and he could sense humming.
The third thing he noticed (and probably the first thing he should have) was that someone was cuddling up to him. Or maybe not "cuddling" so much as borrowing directly into his body.
Something tickled his nose. Tony exhaled, shifting his face so he could clear his nostrils. Then, blinking blearily, he opened his eyes.
The decor of the room surprised him. It looked kind of old-fashioned even as it was richly decorated with elaborate tapestries, fur rugs, and a gigantic bed that he was in the middle of with whoever was snuggling him.
Who was actually Steve now that Tony got a better look at him. And he didn't know how he'd ever not known it because Steve snuggled in a very specific way. His head was tucked right under Tony's chin and both arms were wrapped tightly around him, Tony's right arm lying over Steve and his left trapped between their bodies. Their legs were tangled and their bodies pressed tightly together.
Frowning, Tony tried to remember if he'd missed anything. The last thing he could remember was collapsing in the middle of a circle. There was nothing after that until waking up in a strange bed in a strange room.
Evidently, sometime in the middle something had happened. Something that involved Steve and strange rooms that Tony should be able to recognize (never mind he'd never seen this one before).
Sighing, Tony buried his nose in Steve's hair again, inhaling his scent. He'd missed it.
Tightening his arm around Steve, Tony didn't miss how he murmured softly before sighing and snuggling closer (if that was even possible). Checking to see that his ring was still around his neck, Tony closed his eyes.
He was still tired, and as warm as he was now, he couldn't resist the allure of sleep.
The next time he woke up, he could tell that Steve was awake. His breathing had shifted from the deep rhythm of sleeping to the shallower rhythm of consciousness, though it was still deep and even.
Steve didn't react as Tony shifted, arching his back and straightening his legs to work out the lethargy. After he stopped stretching, Tony returned to burrowing his nose in Steve's hair.
He almost missed it when Steve murmured, "You're awake."
Rather than move, Tony just gave a lazy, noncommittal hum.
"It's been a few days."
Now Tony frowned, trying to verify this with Extremis. Unfortunately, it seemed that its sense of time was a few days off because there was nothing here he could use to update it. "Didn't know that," he said eventually, turning his face so his cheek was resting in Steve's hair.
Steve's voice was subdued as he said, "I thought you were dead."
Tony felt very alive. "I'm not."
"You almost were." Steve was very quiet.
There was nothing he could say to that. Searching for a way to change the subject, Tony noticed that he was wearing dark red clothes with a fabric so soft it didn't feel real. That left him with the question as to how they'd gotten his undersuit off. "Where's my undersuit?"
Steve gave him a look that told Tony he knew what he was trying to do but was going to humor him anyway. "Your undersuit?"
"You know, it's black and tight…" Tony trailed off, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
Steve's face shut down, alarming Tony. What had he said?
"I don't know." Steve's tone was carefully even. "They must've gotten it off."
Tony turned his focus inward, checking to see if he could see if it was inside him. After a moment he felt the cloth slither over his skin; he retracted a second later. "That answers my question about that subroutine." If they'd put blankets over him, that might've fooled Extremis into thinking he had a layer on.
"Where are we?" Tony asked instead of answering Steve's question.
Steve frowned slightly, but answered anyway. "Asgard."
"Oh." Tony gave the room another look, realizing it did look very Asgardian. "Figures. And where was I?"
"Jotunheim." Steve bit his lower lip. "Where Loki's from," he added lowly.
Tony wasn't too surprised at this bit of news. "That explains the unfriendly natives."
"They thought you were a Dwarf."
"Did they?" Tony wrinkled his nose. "I suppose to them I might've been one. They were awfully big."
Steve was smiling now. "It was your armor. The Dwarves build things, and the Frost Giants thought that was something they'd built."
"Is it an insult that they never considered a human as an option?" Tony mused.
Steve's smile was fond. "You're probably the only one who'd think something like that."
"Probably." Tony pulled away from Steve to sit up, pulling his shirt away so he could study the blue light in his chest.
Steve sat up as well, still keeping an arm looped around Tony's waist. "It was completely out." His voice was so quiet Tony almost missed it.
That explained why he'd been feeling so cold at the end. "I'm not surprised," he said, letting the shirt go.
Steve waited, saying nothing.
Tony took several breaths, staring ahead at the wall as he asked, "Can you explain what happened? From the top."
"Yeah." The word was quiet. "JARVIS alerted us the moment you were taken down. We didn't manage to get there until the next day, and Charles was the one who told us where you'd been taken to. We couldn't find the base, so I let them subdue us and take us in. Then…" His breath hitched slightly. "This guy called the Mandarin told us you were dead. He wanted information on the Bifrost, only none of us knew anything so Peter began making stuff up." He laughed. "It was brilliant. He stalled until the X-Men came. Natasha broke out first, and Nightcrawler got the others out. Natasha and I…we stayed."
Steve looked at Tony with bright eyes. "The Winter Soldier… He's Bucky, Tony."
Tony blinked. "Bucky? Your friend?"
"Yes." Steve swallowed. "I couldn't believe it. But…he didn't react. He remembered Natasha, but not me. He's with S.H.I.E.L.D. now." He wet his lips. "We managed to get out before the base blew up. Jean had managed to find out you weren't dead." His arm tightened around Tony. "We went to Reed and Jane."
"They managed to figure it out?" Tony groaned. "Without me?"
Steve's lips quirked into a smile. "Actually, it was because of you that they did. Jane thought your vibranium interfered with the Mandarin's magic enough so that you were transported elsewhere. She called Heimdall, and Thor came with the Tesseract. They rebuilt the Bifrost and we went to Jotunheim."
Steve bit his lip, looking away. "We couldn't find you," he continued softly. "Thor talked to the Frost Giants, but they didn't know where you were either. We kept searching…until we went back…" Steve was trembling now. "And you were there." His voice was so quiet. "You were so cold. And there was no light." He rested trembling fingers against Tony's chest. "I thought you were dead."
Tony half-turned, wrapping Steve in a tight embrace. He pressed his face into Steve's hair as it was returned, Steve burying his face in Tony's neck.
"I'm fine," Tony murmured. "You brought me back. I'm fine."
"You almost weren't." The words were muffled against his skin.
"But I am." Tony rocked them back and forth.
Steve's voice was thick. "I kept wondering if this was it. If this was the time you wouldn't come back."
Tony said nothing, his right hand moving in soothing circles over Steve's back. "I can't promise anything," he said finally.
There was no response, and Steve didn't move.
Sighing softly, Tony shifted both of them so that they were lying back on the very fluffy pillows the bed provided. He kept circling his hand over Steve's back, pressing his cheek into Steve's hair.
"I don't expect you to," Steve said eventually, almost inaudibly. "It was just…difficult."
The only response Tony could think of to say to that was trivializing, so he didn't bother at all.
But Steve didn't give him any chance to think of another response. "But what about you? What happened?"
"I… It was cold." Tony chuckled once humorlessly. "Thought I was in Antarctica at first, but there was nothing Extremis responded to. Then there were the giant blue people. Wasn't too pleased with their hospitality; they had lousy service. When I checked out"—Steve snorted—"I found a cave. Turned out to be something's home and it wasn't too pleased. I…uh…well, it collapsed the mountain on me." Steve didn't stiffen or do anything else to signal that he'd heard.
"We saw it," Steve said when Tony didn't continue out of concern. "But Logan said he couldn't smell you, so we went on."
"Logan? He was there with you?"
"He and Jean. They said it concerned them, too."
"That makes no sense," Tony muttered.
"Said you were as good as an X-Man," Steve said.
"Well…that's…more than I expected." Tony didn't quite know what to say to that, so he continued his story. "Anyway, I managed to burrow my way out of the mountain. Then I was just walking. A giant monster wanted to attack me, but I dumped it down a crevasse. Kept walking again until I hit the entry to Mordor." He could see Steve giving a small smile (success!). "I took a short break. Then…I felt the Bifrost activate. But when I got there…there was no one."
"I'm sorry." The words were whispered.
Tony shrugged lightly. "You couldn't have known. You did show up in the end."
"Almost too late."
"Are you still hung up on that?"
"I'm not just going to let it go, Tony," Steve said snappishly. "You almost died."
"Because you did the smart thing and looked everywhere else. Statistically, it was the right thing."
"Wasn't very smart."
"Because you were dealing with me. I blow statistics out of the water."
Steve huffed out a small laugh. "Sounds about right."
"Speaking of numbers"—Tony dropped his voice to a murmur—"what do you say about taking a vacation here?"
Steve craned his head back to eye Tony strangely. "You're serious?"
"Yeah, come on. It's not like we've ever had one back on Earth. We deserve a break."
"I don't know…"
"Consider it an apology for not staying safe."
Steve was frowning now. "I don't see that you have anything to apologize for."
Tony shook his head. "Let's not squabble."
"No squabbling." Tony pulled back so he could meet Steve's eyes comfortably. "We're vacationing here. I think they can put us up for about a month after I helped them rebuild the Bifrost."
Steve was giving him that soft grin Tony loved. "It was Reed and Jane."
"They wouldn't have managed it without this." Tony tapped the energy source in his chest. "Ergo, they owe me."
"We need to send a message back home."
"I'm sure Reed can. He's not one for staying somewhere without Sue."
"You've really planned this out." Steve sounded amused.
Tony raised an imperious eyebrow. "Don't I always?"
"There was that one time with Bruce—"
"It was a drunken bet. I thought we agreed not to talk about that."
"You weren't even drunk."
"I wonder how fast I would've flown if I had been," Tony mused.
"Let's not find out." Steve pressed closer, sliding up so that he could rest his forehead against Tony's. His fingers came up to fiddle with Tony's ring. "We should get married soon." His voice was quiet.
Tony looked at him intensely, but Steve didn't meet his eyes, instead looking at the ring. "We could do an Asgardian shotgun wedding."
Steve looked up at him now. "Are you serious? Pepper would kill us both."
"Yeah, you're right. So would Natasha. Let's do Vegas."
"We're doing a proper one," Steve said firmly. "When we get back."
Tony wisely decided to let it go (besides, a proper wedding sounded awesome). "Sounds good."
Steve grinned, eyes crinkling happily. "Great." He leaned in to draw Tony into a sweet close-mouthed kiss, his hand curling around Tony's neck and tangling in the hairs at his nape.
Wrapping his arms around Steve to pull him even closer, Tony eagerly reciprocated, opening his mouth and coaxing Steve's tongue into the proceedings. After a few seconds, Steve moaned. Tony hummed, pleased, pushing Steve on his back so he could roll on top.
Grinning into the kiss, Tony rolled his hips once, twice, eliciting another broken moan and a hitched breath from Steve as he broke the kiss to pant raggedly into Tony's mouth.
"Tony…" Steve's voice was husky.
Tony looked down at him innocently. "Yes, dear?"
Steve gave him a not very effective glare considering the heavy flush on his face. "If you don't finish what you started, this isn't going to be pretty."
"Temper, temper…" Tony grinned again, but stooped down to kiss Steve, wiggling a hand between their bodies to shove their pants down.
Steve groaned into his mouth, hips jerking into Tony's grip.
"One month," Tony whispered into Steve's mouth.
This glare was much fiercer. "Tony."
They still had their issues to work through and things to take care of back on Earth, but for now… For now, Tony could put that behind him – could be something else. They could take this time for themselves; life had taken enough already.
On S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier, Natasha stood outside the windows that looked into the medical bay. Nick Fury stood just behind her.
Natasha had an unhappy slant to her mouth, though only close friends would recognize it as such.
She knew the man lying in that room, though she had never suspected that he was James Barnes, Steve Rogers's childhood best friend. It was an unpleasant surprise, to say the least, because it complicated matters drastically. Natasha was used to making sacrifices, but Steve… Steve wasn't.
And to find his friend after so long? After thinking he was dead? And to learn that his friend didn't recognize him? Had no idea who he was? It must hurt.
There was no sign that the Winter Soldier remembered who he had been. Whether the memory loss was because of Bucky's fall from the train or because of HYDRA's influence was unclear, though Natasha suspected it was a mixture of both. Either way, it would be difficult to find out whether Bucky was still there inside the Winter Soldier.
But for Steve…for her friend…Natasha had to find out.
"We have him sedated," Fury told her, breaking the silence.
"I noticed." Natasha's response was dry, and she didn't look over at the director, though she could feel his eyes on her. "Has he regained consciousness at all?"
"Once." Fury's answer was calm. "He was rather violent, which is why he's now sedated."
Natasha said nothing. Jean, Logan, and Reed had returned from Asgard yesterday. They'd left her the message that Tony and Steve would be staying in Asgard for a month's vacation, leaving her in charge of the Avengers during their absence. Natasha privately thought the two deserved it after everything they'd been through the last couple months.
In any case, it gave her more time to figure out what to do with James.
"Wake him up," she said finally, looking at Fury.
Fury's face revealed nothing. "Are you sure?"
For giving her a home – for giving her a family – Natasha could do this for Steve. She could find out if his friend was still inside the cold killer HYDRA had created. Love was for children, but this was family. And she helped her family.
Like I said, the series is mostly finished. Obviously I'm going to deal with what happens to Bucky. But it's not going to be as long as previous stories have been. There'll also be some fun side stories set in this universe, namely this Tony meeting the comic versions from 616 and Ultimates! And for fun, this Tony also meeting ACTUAL MCU!Tony who isn't a mutant. So, yeah, I've got other things in store for this universe. What about you guys? What do you want to see happen?
On the list also include Steve's POV of the latter part of An Alternative State of Mentality, particularly the shooting, and the wedding since Steve and Tony are engaged. For the wedding I'm not sure if I do a sex scene... But that's something I'm going to be doing for sure.
Drop a note and let me know what you thought! And also go and give digitalwave some love for the work she put in!