When Tony escapes into the caves, he does it in such a rush, busy with evading pursuing AIM agents, obscuring his trail and getting rid of the trackers they planted onto him that he hardly has time to truly notice beyond theoretical knowledge that the rendezvous point he set up with the Avengers is a cave. His brain only computes the fact that it is hidden, has a known water source within it, and that all that rock will hide him from any satellite tracking. It seems perfect.
It doesn’t seems perfect twelve hours later, when his heart has calmed down from all the adrenaline. He spent the first four hours securing the entrance of the caves against possible intruders, and the next couple of hours exploring the warren of tunnels and passages that unfolded before him while his electric torch still had a sufficient battery life.That ran out several hours ago, and JARVIS hung on only for a couple more hours and then he’s alone, able to see only from the light of the arc reactor.
The caves are dark and damp from the river that runs through them, and feel emptier than they actually are when they are bathed in the blue glow from his chest, spooky with shadows twisting and flickering in the corner of his eye. Tony’s breathing sounds loud in his own ears, and he really should have known better than to suggest a cave as a good pick up point. They have no wifi and no beds made up with egyptian cotton and silk sheets. Well, too late now. Tony gropes around, counting steps and passages and trying not to trip on uneven ground made even more difficult with the dim lighting, swinging about every time he takes a step. It would almost be better to close his eyes and try in the dark, except when he does that he thinks he back there, without the arc reactor, and starts to panic until he opens his eyes and clutches at his chest to reassure himself. Jesus. He really shouldn’t have chosen a cave as a pick up point. Pepper’ll lecture him about actually going to his therapist, and he won’t even be able to argue with her.
A long time later Tony has stopped wandering around stupidly inside the caves. The warren was much bigger than he initially thought, and at a certain point he realized it would probably be a good idea to stay near the entrance, so as to be more easily found by his team-mates. Of course, that was when he also realized he was lost. Without JARVIS to watch through his lenses and record his route, compile the data and begin drawing a map, no matter how Tony tried, he couldn’t keep track of all his movements. Anyone would be challenged to count steps endlessly, not lose count and remember the length of dozens of tunnels, especially when they got frequently distracted by slipping on loose rocks and falling on their arse, or barely avoiding falling into unseen chasms, noticed only at the last second, when the light of the reactor keeping your heart beating was close enough to reveal them.
It was a very understandable situation to be in, being lost. But it didn’t undo the fact that Tony was lost, and he had no idea how close or far he was to the entrance. He’d tried to circle back, using some silly rules of thumb that were supposed to help you in a maze, like taking only right turns, or something, until he admitted he was probably was only making it worse. After that, he continued on only until he came upon a cave with cracks along it’s ceiling, letting some faint moonlight in and alleviating the gloom just a bit, and filled with the sound of the underground river running at its back. If Tony wants to go on, he’ll have to wade through it to the opening to the next cave on the other side. He squints at the ceiling, concludes it’s not in danger of collapsing from the cracks and falling on him, and abruptly decides he’ll just be staying here. He finds a stretch of rock that isn’t too pointy and sits down for the first time in hourst, resting his back against the cold wall. He has no idea how long it has been since he first ran into the caves, but it seems like it’s been days. He reminds himself that the Avengers are on their way, and that all he has to do is wait it out. He leans his head back against the stone and hopes they hurry.
Tony is folded into the smallest corner of the cave he´s in right now, shaking, head hot with fever. It’s not the same cave he woke up in, but a smaller, more hidden one. It is also filled with tiny, sharp gravel-like chips of rock, and is very cold and damp. He wonders why he left the other cave, with it’s soothing starlight and rushing water. He’d really like a drink of water, right now.
He remembers waking up in the nice cave very clearly, because he’d woken from a nightmare, heart trying to beat itself out of his chest and Yinsen’s kind voice and his captors rough tone echoing in his ears. By then, the cavern was pitch black, the moon having set and the sun not yet up. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, exhaustion muddled his brain, snatches of his dream kept coming back and setting his nerves on edge. He’d started getting jumpy, and decided to go for a walk. Bad idea, because he’d got lost again, and to top it off, slipped badly on the rocks and bashed his head on a boulder on the way down. After that, things got hazy. He thought he might have crawled along for a while until he found this spot, not even a cave properly, just a hole in the wall, a dead end where the tunnels curved away. Its more comforting to curl up here than lie out there, where he could feel the emptiness like a weight bearing down on him. His head hurts, his skin buzzes with heat all over, but he’s shivering with cold.
He wishes for water, and relief.
He waits, and waits, until he hears footsteps, and thinks “They've come for me”. He's not sure who he means, the Avengers or his captors.
24 hours, 13 minutes.
Steve is worried. He tries not to show it in front of the team, event though they know it, because it’s something to focus on, instead of coming with ever more tragic scenarios of what might have happened to Tony. It’ been 24 hours and 13 minutes, 43 seconds since Tony’s tracker went dark (Jarvis has kept the timer displayed on his fancy smart wristwatch Tony gave him for his birthday), and every minute that adds up is another pound of worry and responsibility Steve feels settle on his shoulders. It doesn’t matter that Tony was the one to insist on this pick-up place, it doesn’t matter that Steve couldn’t avoid AIM dealing a little more quickly than usual with the distraction Tony had set up to cover his escape, and thus following him a little too close to the caves for the Avengers to swoop in only a couple of hours after Tony disappeared into their depths. They’d had to wait for AIM to clear out first, lest they give Tony’s position away, and then Clint had been landing the Quinjet as fast as possible, smooth landing be damned. Steve had been the first off the ramp, and this the first to fall into one of Tony’s booby traps at the mouth of the cave.
It hadn’t been badly hurt, thankfully, though probably only because of his serum-reflexes. But it had meant that they’d lost several more hours disarming them enough to enter (Natasha turned out to have excellent booby-trap disarming skills), and had proceeded cautiously. Round the third intersection in the paths, the team had realized that (1) the complex of caves and tunnels was like a maze and (2) Tony hadn’t made it easier by hiding close to the entrance. Steve tramps through narrow passages and low -ceilinged chambers and is trying so hard not to think about how far the caves can extended beneath the cliff wall they burrow into, that he almost misses the streak of dark, tacky mud on the large boulder in the path. He holds his breath, and clicks him mic to tell the team he’s found a lead, , but doesn’t wait for them to catch up to him, just speeds up, following the trail of blood drops and spatters. Eventually, it peters out, but by then he can hear the harsh breathing of someone in pain, and besides, there are no passages branching off, just a tunnel going straight forward. .
Steve stops himself all of a sudden. Up until now, it’s all been about racing to find a team-member, but he finds himself remembering that Tony isn’t just any of them, he’a Tony, suspicious and jumpy at the best of times, much less of over 24 of hiding in a place that haunts his nightmares. He comms the others again to say he’s found him, and to not come too close, lest they scare Tony into running further into the caves. Then, , Steve takes a deep breath, and advances slowly and cautiously, making sure to make plenty of quiet noise, just enough to announce his presence without spooking a traumatized engineer.
Almost immediately, a pair of eyes, shining strangely in the reflected blue light of the arc reactor, peek out from an alcove in the cave wall, just before the tunnel bends and goes out of sight. Steve meets Tony’s eyes steadily, but from this far, he can’t tell he recognizes him or not. He keeps moving forward slowly, until Tony jerks, as if he were about to hide away, but couldn’t bear to to lose sight of a threat. He breathes slowly and smoothly, until the urge to scream has passed and then ambles over to a spot by the wall, and slides down it to take a seat. He sprawls out in a deliberately relaxed position, legs extended, but comfortably bent, hands relaxed, head tilted slightly, so as to show just a bit of vulnerable, if strong, neck. Tony’s eyes widen slightly, whites flashing in the semi-dark, presumably in surprise. Steve smiles in return, and says “Hi, Tony.”.
The eyes narrow in suspicion, this time, and a low growl resonates in the corridor, but Steve pays it no mind, just adjusts himself to be even more comfortable in this very rocky and uncomfortable space, and tries to exude a calm, trust-inducing aura. “How are you doing, pal? Sorry we took so long to find you, boy are these tunnels confusing. Even worse than that time we had to chase that plant-villain through his crazy maze-garden. Less venomous, mobile plants, here though, that’s pretty awesome.” Steve starts chatting away in a conversational tone, hopefully soothing and gentle enough to ease his friend. As Steve talks about how they had to wait around to finally come and get him, complains about how stubborn AIM agents are before they give up on a search and compliments Tony on the ingenious booby-traps set up at the mouth of the cave, he watches as Tony’s shoulders come down from around his ears, and he leans a little further out towards Steve, a glimmer of understanding gradually lighting in his eyes the longer Steve speaks.
He knows Bruce is anxious to get Tony out of the cave, get him checked up on, so Steve takes that as his cue to give his next step forwards. “Wow, that looks like a cool hidey-hole. You were so clever to find it! Can I come a little closer and take a look at it?”
Tony responds to this uncertainly, his head wobbling strangely as he tries to nod and shake his head simultaneously. “It’s alright, I promise I won’t touch you, I just want to come a little closer. Here, I’ll start moving, and you tell me when to stop.”
Tony still looks doubtful, but Steve starts moving, slowly but purposefully, until he’s just out of arm's reach. This close, Steve can tell he has a gash on the side of his head, blood all dried and crusted into his hair and down his neck - probably where the trail he followed came from. Aside from that, Steve can make out some scrapes and bruises, and that Tony looks dead tired. To know anything more, broken bones, internal damage, he’ll need to touch him, and who knows about psychological hurts…
Tony’s been doing his own assessment, eyes roving Steve’s figure, up and down, noting the buckles and straps of his uniform, bulges where supplies and weapons are stored. His eyes catch on Steve’s right ear, where his communicator is nestled, then flicker up to Steve’s eyes, narrowed in suspicion. Steve doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “Oh, this? This is just my communicator, so I can talk to the rest of the team, tell ‘em to start packing up the jet so we can go. Pretty handy, huh, much better than the radios we used to have to jimmy back in the day.”
He lifts the communicator out of his ear, and holds it out to Tony, palm flat out. “Want to take a look at it?”
Tony watches him for a second, still as a statue, and then he grabs the small device, quick as a flash. Steve watches Tony’s fingers grasp the wire that turns it on, ready to rip it out and disable the communicator, and thinks “Ah, well.”. Tony freezes at his sigh, just before the wire get yanked out entirely, and looks intently at the device. His fingers brush the tiny SI letters engraved onto the side of it. Steve holds his breath for a moment, then tries “D’you recognize it, Tones? You made it, for Christmas about two years ago, ‘cause the regular ones were too loud and hurt my ears.”
Tony continues examining it intently, holding it near the reactor where the light shines best, turning it ‘round and ‘round in his hands, fingers tapping all over and pulling gently on the pieces without taking it apart. Finally, he sniffs it and then holds it cautiously up to his ear. His face immediately twists into a funny expression, probably when he hears all the Avengers going crazy on the line when they realize Steve’s taken out the communicator. Tony’s nose scrunches up progressively, and his eyebrows jump around until he finally says “ Shhhhhhhh”, very loudly. Steve can’t hear anything from the communicator, but he can imagine the surprised silence on the other end. He can’t help it, he starts laughing, and immediately claps a hand over his mouth to avoid startling Tony, but it’s already too late.
Tony’s attention snaps to him like an elastic band, and for a moment, his face is a cross between surprise and confusion, his eyebrows and mouth doing funny things, and then suddenly he’s scuttling out of his hiding spot, coming right up into steve’s face. His laughter cuts off abruptly, and Tony frowns even further in consternation, and tugs at Steve’s hand, trying to get it off his mouth. Steve lets his arm go easily, and asks “What do you want, Tony?”
Tony opens his mouth and makes a series of half-words that could be a phrase, but his mouth is so dry, he can’t actually get the words out. He huffs through his nose in obvious frustration, and in a minute steve has his canteen out and is pouring water carefully down Tony’s throat. Tony grabs the canteen in one hand, and steve lets it go, though he’s worried tony will try to drink it all at once and be sick, while the other begins patting all over Steve’s face and mouth. Tony has another swallow, not too big, and then “Steve,” and “Again.”. Steve’s mouth drops open, which immediately gets him fingers in his mouth, as if Tony wants to pull a laugh out of his throat, and the thought is so absurd, and he was so worried and he’s so relieved, that he laughs again, and sweeps Tony into a big hug. Suddenly, he’s crying, and so is Tony, their tears soaking through fabric, and Steve can’t stop babbling. With their heads pressed so close together, he can suddenly hear the team on the comms again, franticly asking what is going on, why they’re crying and that grounds Steve a bit. He takes a deep breath and pulls back, wiping under Tony’s eyes for him, though his cheeks immediately get wet again. “We’re okay,”, he says, loud enough for the comms to pick up “He’s okay!”. He can’t hear them anymore, but he can imagine Bruce elbowing his way to the front so he can ask about Tony’s health, and so he adds “A couple scrapes and bruises, and a laceration in the temple area, but its stopped bleeding, so.” He takes another deep breath, and focuses on Tony. He’s still crying and clutching tightly to Steve, mumbling something about caves and “Yinsen” and “my turn”. Steve gives him another hug, and replies “Not yet, babe. I’ve got you, it’s not your turn yet. Here, lets get on back to the helicarrier, where we can get you all checked out, and we can get away from this miserable cave.”
He hoists Tony up so he can carry him, and Tony clings to him like a monkey and makes it so he’s clinging to his back in piggy-back style. Like this, the light of the reactor is pretty dimmed, sot Steve holds onto to his charge with only one hand for a moment while he unclips a torch from his uniform, hands it to Tony, who point it forward helpfully, even if his hand is shaking so much the light swings wildly, and Steve starts trudging back to the entrance of the cave. He doesn’t check his watch on the way out. It doesn’t matter anymore if it’s 2 hours or 25 hours. They’ve got him, and Tony will be alright.