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They send Tony’s dog tags along with the ransom demand. Steve doesn’t know why – there’s proof enough that it’s him in the accompanying video, the one where he’s grey-skinned, lollingly half-conscious and with a filthy, bloodstained bandage wrapped around his chest. The dog tags are unnecessary. The demand wasn’t even sent to the Department of Defense, or to the base. No, they’re not interested in Tony as a soldier.

That’s why they send the demand, and the evidence, to Tony’s father instead.

Behind Steve’s outrage and Steve’s fear and Steve’s burning, helpless desperation, he’s upset because he knows that Tony would hate that. This, all of this was his attempt to prove himself as someone other than just his father’s son. To have his captors so totally ignore everything Tony has worked for…it’s just a further humiliation.

Howard Stark, as the man who keeps the US Military supplied with increasingly inventive and effective defense technology, has the Chief of Staff on speed dial because of course he does. The ransom demand gets to everyone who matters in the chain of command, everyone who knows how valuable an asset Howard Stark’s son is.

But it doesn’t get to the people who actually care about Tony until nearly two days after it’s initially sent. The rest of their platoon mutters or shouts or actively punches things, furious that one of their own is in danger and they’re not allowed to do a damn thing to help him.

And Steve…Steve stares at the command to stay on base in his hand, sets his jaw and knows that risking a court martial by disobeying orders will always, always, always be worth it when it comes to Tony. After all, he’d do the same for Steve.

They are not instant friends upon meeting, but neither do they immediately become mortal enemies, which is the way some people will later tell it.

Steve just remembers feeling mild irritation and disapproval towards the mouthy recruit each and every time he speaks up without being asked. For him, simply having finally being permitted to enlist is victory and honour enough that he’s mostly just concentrating on keeping his head down and fully applying himself to the legal torture that is Basic training. He is sure that he is physically capable, but the height, weight and strength he put on late in his adolescence are still so relatively new to him that he has yet to take them for granted. For him, enlisting is an opportunity that he never thought he would get and he is more grateful for the chance than anything else.

So hearing someone speak so dismissively of what they are aiming towards, sarcastic and self-deprecating in equal measures, irks Steve. Not enough, initially, to speak out against it, but just enough to annoy him, mostly because it jars his concentration. He is not stoic enough to properly represent the strong and silent archetype that many of his fellow recruits so aptly do, but he does err on the ‘shut up and focus’ side of things when it comes to concentrating on the task at hand. Stark, on the other hand, has already made himself the focus of their drill sergeants’ ire on multiple occasions, usually by seeming to ask for it by drawing attention to himself.

He’s not making himself popular with his fellow recruits either – their platoon has already been collectively punished three times now for Stark’s inability to know when to shut up, and guys with less restraint than Steve are already making their displeasure known. It’s the beginning of their second week and by now they’re mostly and numbly resigned to the drill sergeants finding something wrong with someone’s conduct, be it their own or that of the guy next to them. When someone makes a mistake, it sucks, but it’s accepted because they’ve all been the reason for the platoon being made to stand to attention for an extra half an hour in the middle of the night at one point or another.

Stark’s mouthiness is a different matter and the resentment towards him is rapidly escalating towards outright belligerence. The worst part is that the guy doesn’t even seem to notice. Or care.

“Is this a joke to you?” Steve finally asks, exasperated, once he is sure that the sergeant is out of sight.

Stark, who has just been assigned the last fire guard shift for the next three nights as a punishment for giving an answer that wasn’t ‘yes, Drill Sergeant’, ‘no, Drill Sergeant’ or ‘moving, Drill Sergeant’, simply shrugs. He looks remarkably unconcerned for someone who’s going to have to get up at two thirty in the morning for the next three days straight. “I’d rather star in a comedy than a tragedy, wouldn’t you?” he asks, airily and unsatisfactorily, then goes “Oh, goody, lunchtime, I wonder what luxury take on prison food chef will have prepared for us today,” and lopes off towards the mess.

Steve watches him go and concludes that he will never, ever understand that guy, nor does he particularly want to do so.

(That, obviously, changes.)

Steve finds Bucky first. Of course he does. Bucky has had his back since they were both eleven and Steve was still small enough to be shoved into a gym locker and left there overnight. A decade later plus nearly seven thousand miles away from the grubby Brooklyn block they once called home and that hasn’t changed in the slightest. If Steve is planning a forbidden foray into enemy territory, Bucky is the first person he’d pick to have watching his back.

Sam is a close second though. At this point, there’s barely anything in it. Sam dropped into Steve’s life in the middle of a firefight. Literally. Attached to a parachute. They haven’t really looked back from that since because it’s hard not to want to be friends with the guy willing to jump out of a plane into heavy mortar fire to save your ass. Steve is even willing to forgive him for being Air Force for that one.

Both of them are barracked in different sections of Kandahar Airfield, but a seemingly casual wander sees Steve finding Bucky first, then Sam, then all three of them making use of the crowds at the Boardwalk to hide their conversation in plain sight. Steve has always had mixed feelings about the place – there’s something so…commercial about being able to eat at a T.G.I. Friday’s in the middle of a tour of service in Afghanistan, but on the other hand spending time here also weirdly alleviates at least some of his homesickness for the most frivolous parts of his home town. Plus, Bucky loves the doughnuts.

Now it serves its purpose in an unexpected way. He nods his thanks at the guy who just handed him his gyro and turns back to Bucky and Sam. In the central space, guys Steve recognises from the 95th are playing a spirited game of touch football. Normally, he would have cheerfully rallied his own platoon to offer them a challenge. It’s a beautiful day for it. But in spite of the sunshine, in spite of the lack of attacks, Steve’s world has shifted unpleasantly. It is too beautiful day for the grim, haggard resolution currently lodged behind his breastbone.

“How’d they even get him?” To all appearances, Bucky looks casual and insouciant, mouth full of grilled goat meat. But Steve knows his laid back exterior masks a razor sharp sort of alertness.

“He had permission to go to Kabul to meet his father, they ambushed his convoy just outside of Ghazni.” Steve doesn’t mention that Tony was going there in a civilian capacity, or that this would have been the first time father and son would have been within shouting distance of each other since Tony enlisted. That isn’t relevant. “The ransom demand got sent to Stark Industries before the base in Kabul even thought that the convoy might have been intercepted.”

Bucky whistles. “Working fast then.” He licks grease from the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “You gotta admit, that’s slick.”

On his other side, Sam is less invested in the casual act and slants Steve a visibly worried glance. “They sent proof of life with the ransom demand?” Just the thought of the alternative slams into the pit of Steve’s stomach like an avalanche and he can only bring himself to nod once. Sam looks relieved and then stifles it. “Good. I mean…there’s hope then.” He frowns. “So why hasn’t everyone been deployed to search that entire stretch of mountains for him?” As a pararescuer himself, he’s probably a little affronted that his division isn’t being made the most of. Not every military basis has access to so specialised a force.

Steve involuntarily grinds his teeth. “Howard Stark. He’s demanded full autonomy over any rescue efforts. He says the ransom demand isn’t treating Tony as a prisoner of war, so he gets to call the shots, not the Department of Defense. And his weaponry contracts with us mean that they’re actually letting him get away with it.”

“Wait, so he doesn’t want the military’s help in rescuing his son?” Bucky demands incredulously.

“He doesn’t want to rescue him, he wants to give them everything they’re asking for,” Steve says dully. The disbelief he sees in Sam and Bucky’s eyes is old news to him. He’s already gone through that, not to mention anger, not even coming close to anything resembling acceptance yet. “But he also wants to use Stark tech to try and pinpoint where the ransom demand was sent from before he accepts the terms of their demands and facilitates an exchange.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Bucky says hotly. “It’s fucking retarded. Like hell is this going to be an honest exchange. And, fuck that, we could still be out there looking for--.”

Sam nudges him with his elbow, interrupting the tirade. Steve is distantly grateful, but mostly he’s nauseated. Everything Bucky’s saying, he’s already thought himself. It’s up to Howard how he wants to go about this, Steve can’t even begin to imagine being faced with making decisions about your own flesh and blood son being held hostage by terrorists. But he simply cannot believe that the Army is letting the taking of one of their own be treated like…like a civilian issue. It’s not in Steve’s nature to do anything less than all he can possibly do to right a wrong, even if it involves risking his life. Even if it means disobeying orders.

That’s why he’s having this conversation now, isn’t it?

In front of them, someone scores a touchdown. Steve barely hears the cheers. It takes Sam looking straight at him, firm jawed and clear eyed and utterly resolute, to drag his mind away from obsessing about what they might be doing to Tony right now, about why Tony is the worst person possible to be left alone with people willing to hurt him at the slightest provocation. “So what are we going to do?” he asks simply and Steve’s throat tightens. Sam has always been like that, loyal without question, his commitment willingly and totally given.

That doesn’t mean that Steve doesn’t feel guilty though. “I’m going after him,” he says. “But it’s against orders. I don’t want you guys to have to--.”

“Oh, please,” Bucky scoffs and slings an arm around Steve’s shoulders, having to stretch up to do so in a way that has only been necessary since the year after high school that Steve had spent furiously working out so as to go and join Bucky in the Army. “Like we’re going to let you hare off into the desert after Stark and have all the fun on your own. Don’t be selfish, Steve, Wilson and I are big boys. We can make our own decisions, thank you very much.” He grinned, that cocky and lopsided smirk that hasn’t changed an iota since they were kids, even if Steve sees it from an aerial view now. “Besides, I’d like to think that you’d be doing the same if it were me trapped behind enemy lines.”

“You know I would,” Steve says with all the bottomless sincerity that comes from knowing something as deep as your bones.

“Great then,” Bucky says, unreasonably cheerful for someone about to wilfully disobey strict orders. “What are we waiting for then?”

“A plan probably,” Sam says dryly. He looks briefly thoughtful. “As touching as your Army bromance is, the three of us aren’t going to make it even halfway to Ghazni on our own. We’re going to need help.” In spite of the gravity of the situation, his eyes glitter with something like wickedness. “Air Force help. Or at least pilot help.” Bucky groans and even Steve snorts a little, earning a grin from Sam. “Don’t worry, you know these guys. And one of them knows someone who’ll give us all the access that we need…”

Phase I ends, Phase II begins and Steve still doesn’t understand Tony Stark in the slightest. That hasn’t changed. What has, annoyingly, is a sort of fascination with actually trying to do so. By the end of their fourth week, Stark is getting into trouble slightly less frequently, but only because he is just too flat out exhausted to have his mouth get him into trouble. Steve would have empathised, but he is too dead on his feet most of the time to feel much of anything for anyone. Prior to that, his exasperation with Stark had only grown. Mostly because there was no real reason for him getting into hack.

Maybe Stark isn’t the biggest or the fittest or even the fastest recruit in the platoon, but he is still physically capable, or at least no worse than any of them when faced with the gruelling eighteen hour day that they may have learned how to survive, but in no way has become easy. And he’s smart, almost painfully so. He sails through classroom lectures and no one else in the platoon even comes close to his time for field stripping their assault rifles. Once, when called on by an irate instructor (presumably with the intention of humiliating him, or putting him in his place) Stark brazenly talks through the complicated inner workings of the M16, giving an airy lecture on its design history, flaws and potential improvements if only the Army would see the light. He’s not the best at firing the weapon in question, but Steve is pretty sure he knows more about them than their instructor.

Stark talks and behaves like a cross between a rocket scientist and a frat boy. He excels at some tasks, fails at others and rarely gives the impression that he actually wants to be there. But where some guys with more visible motivation than him break and wash out, either with a whimper or a bang, Stark endures. He appears to have no reason to want to stay with his lack of obvious determination, and yet he perseveres. And, occasionally, there’s a glim of sheer, stubborn, cast iron defiance within him that usually precedes him applying himself to a task with more focussed intensity than Steve has ever witnessed in a person before.

Half the time, Stark earns every rebuke, punishment and yelling session that the drill sergeants dole out.

The other half, he surpasses everyone’s wild expectations.

He is an enigma that Steve simply cannot figure out. He doesn’t understand the guy. He’s fairly sure he doesn’t like him. But he also can’t deny that Stark is a puzzle, an irritatingly captivating one, and that’s all on top of the fact that Steve has never been very good at leaving things alone. Particularly when those things run the risk of utterly ruining the budding faith that the recruits are learning to have in each other.

See, Stark is alternately brilliant and mediocre, his focus erratic in its intensity. On his own, there are some tasks where he is unquestionably the best in the platoon. But, invariably, he falls apart in team building exercises. It’s not even that he’s selfish or rebellious or deliberately making decisions that will hinder the team, it’s just…he makes all the right choices for the wrong reasons. Which, in command tasks, is basically the same thing as making the wrong choice. When it comes to getting their squad over an electrified fence with one plank between them, Stark ignores their discussions, goes off into his own world and then interrupts with an admittedly brilliant plan to achieve their objective. But he shames and embarrasses the nominated squad leader for the task in the process. He condescends to everyone in earshot. He is impatient and dismissive and no one whose orders anyone would want to follow, even if he had been the one in charge.

The squad completes the assignment, apparently in record time, and yet no one feels good about it. It’s a bad day for morale, for cohesiveness, and Stark doesn’t even seem to notice. He has to be aware by now that he’s successfully rubbed most of his platoon mates up the wrong way – he’s too smart, Steve knows, to be that oblivious – but he either doesn’t care or is tremendously skilled at acting as if that’s the case.

To all apparent appearances, Stark enlisted on a whim. That’s how casually he seems to be treating training. But Steve knows that can’t be right. People don’t just put themselves through hell based on a whim. Or, if they do, they wash out, and fast. Based on visible levels of demonstrable commitment, Stark ought to have quit in the first week. On the first day.

But, against all the odds, he’s still here.

…like he said, Steve just doesn’t understand Tony Stark. But he also knows that if they’re all going to pass Basic (and however much he likes or dislikes any individual recruit, Steve is the sort of person who wants them all to pass) he knows that someone needs to do what the Drill Sergeants have inconceivably managed to fail at doing so far, which is to find out why the hell Stark joined the Army and use it to convince him to do better at actually giving a damn all of the time, not just when he feels like it.

Steve doesn’t generally tend to reduce ‘rights’ to something one person deserves more than another, but if there’s anyone who’s justified in being even more worried about Tony than he is, it’s James Rhodes. The fact that he hasn’t thought about him until now just shows how self-involved he’s been so far and he mentally kicks himself for that selfishness and lack of common sense.

Lieutenant James Rupert Rhodes, United States Marine Corps Aviation, is a combat pilot qualified to fly both F-18 Hornets and AH-1W SuperCobra helicopters. A rare enough feat in the Marines, but his even more unique credential is having spent the majority of Tony’s adult and young adult life keeping him out of irredeemable trouble and being one of the few people he might listen to even when he’s at his most stubborn. He is on the fast track towards test pilot status, decorated in multiple combat engagements and one of the Marines’ rising stars.

Right now though, like everyone else huddled together in this hastily organised covert gathering, he is someone who has something to offer to the rescue mission they are throwing together. And, as well as having known Tony for the longest out of all of them, he has a contribution that none of the rest of them can even hope to come close to being able to pull out.

He puts a satellite phone down on the table they’re all clustered around. Steve sees the Stark Industries logo discreetly etched into the metal and unobtrusively clenches his fist underneath the table while Rhodes gesture at it. “Pepper has a direct and secure line to this number,” he’s saying, face nominally stoic, with only his burning eyes betraying his personal investment. “She says that SI’s tech department is pretty close to tracing the path the demand took.” His lip curls. “There’s some pretty fancy encryption on there for people hiding out in a cave somewhere. No wonder they’re not willing to settle for anything less than SI’s most cutting edge specs.” In spite of his composure, his voice is bitter and angry. “But the moment they have coordinates, Pepper will send them to us. Even if Howard thinks that he can give them what they want and that they’ll just hand Tony back over to us, no harm no foul, I’m not so trusting and neither is she. The coordinates will give us a headstart.”

“I’m not saying I’m not in this,” Sam says carefully, arms folded across his chest, his face guarded, “but are we sure that Howard doesn’t have his own plan for getting his son back? The guy’s an engineer worth billions of dollars, with more degrees to his name than I have letters in mine. He specialises in warfare. Surely he’s not actually dumb enough to believe that they’ll actually release him.”

It’s a valid concern, but Rhodes bristles. Steve can’t pretend that he doesn’t feel an irrational surge of the same protectiveness towards what they’re doing here, but that’s from the part of him that hates being helpless, that hates anyone who dares try to stand between him and a chance to help Tony. He gets where Sam is coming from and respects him all the more for being willing to voice a potentially unpopular opinion.

“It’s not a risk I’m willing to take,” Steve says firmly. “I just…” He pauses, unable to put it into words. How he believes in the Army, but that he believes in individual people more. That he respects a father’s right to fight for his son, but trusts in his own knowledge of how Tony would want to be fought for more. How, at the end of the day, this is his own selfishness because there is nothing in him that can just sit by and do nothing while other people work to bring Tony home.

He just can’t.

“No man left behind, right?” Bucky says casually, as if he’s not saving Steve from his own failure to express how much Tony means to him and smoothing the moment of anguish over, like it’s no big deal. “What sort of pararescuer are you, Sam?”

Rather than taking this as an insult, Sam snorts and smirks good-naturedly. “Sorry, I forgot for a moment that you Army guys needed mission motivations that only involved words with two or fewer syllables,” he drawled.

Next to him, the end of a long, blonde plait got tossed when Carol Danvers chuckled. “Be nice to them,” she chided. “It’s not their fault they need us to get to Ghazni in the first place.”

Normally, Steve would have happily bickered with Carol over that. Their friendship involved a lot of Air Force versus Army insults and commiserating about being blonde-haired and pale-skinned in a country where temperature highs of one hundred and ten degrees were not uncommon. Now he just tries to convey his gratitude for her willing participation in this through his eyes and she smiles crookedly at him in return, but otherwise doesn’t embarrass either of them by verbally acknowledging feelings.

“And you’re sure that you can get us there?” Rhodes quizzes her.

She tolerates this with her usual good-natured confidence. “SI tasked me with field-testing their latest attempt at a stealth device for larger planes,” she says. “We’re far enough along in the process that they won’t question me taking a plane out at night if I say I’m looking to investigate a specific bug.” The corner of her full mouth quirks up. “They’re basically endorsing this rescue mission, if you think about it.”

Bucky chuckles, but Steve doesn’t quite have it in him to be humourous about his defying orders, not to mention having convinced others to do the same. He knows in his gut that this is the right decision, the only one, since there are some things worth breaking the rules for…but he’ll never be glib about it. Not with all that’s at stake. Tony’s worth his career, no doubt about that, but it’s not just his career that he’s risking. Rhodes has his own personal stakes in this, but Bucky, Sam and Carol…they’re all doing this for him. Because Tony is important to him.

Something of that guilt must have crept into his expression because Carol suddenly looks stern. “None of that, Rogers,” she orders. “If you even try and ask me whether I’m sure about this, I’ll damn well order you to get in my god damn plane, so don’t even think about it.”

“Look at you, playing the rank card,” Bucky says, sounding impressed.

Carol just sniffs and stares Steve down until he finally nods. He’s not going to patronise her by further questioning her commitment. She knows the risks involved. They all do. And his guilt about involving her is his own personal burden.

“Let’s get airbourne ASAP then,” he says briskly. “I want to be as close to their last known location as possible when Pepper gets the coordinates to us. There’ll be no time to waste, especially if Howard has his own move planned.”

Sam nods. “The Carter sisters can cover our absence for twenty four hours,” he says, “but that’s it. After that, the shit will hit the fan.”

“Well,” Carol says brightly, “hopefully when we give them Howard Stark’s son back without them having to hand over the best weapon prospects the US has, they’ll forgive us for a little bit of rule-bending.”

‘A little bit of rule-bending.’ Ha. That’s putting it lightly. But seeing her implacable confidence, Bucky’s familiar certainty, Sam’s unwavering loyalty and Rhodes’ grim passion…well, Steve somehow feels it’s worth it.

“So long as we get Tony back, I don’t care about their forgiveness,” Steve says, and means it.

It takes a fight for Steve to find out why Stark even enlisted in the first place.

Said fight is not something of which Steve is hugely proud. It is also probably why, to this day, people still try and claim that he and Tony hated each other from the start, even if hate never came into it and the fight did not actually occur until the sixth week of Basic. They fight because they were each others Battle Buddies for the confidence course and Stark’s usual lack of teamwork ability is not helped at all by a challenging series of obstacles that they’re meant to tackle together. They fight because in spite of preferring to stay calm and in control Steve has always had a bit of a temper, especially when he’s already tired and fraught and disappointed in his own performance. They fight because, in the end, when they’ve failed, Steve is gutted and Stark seems not to care and their disagreement over that fundamental reaction escalates from there.

Steve is annoyed. Stark is dismissive. Steve is further incensed by his protests being treated so flippantly and grows increasingly more aggressive. In turn, Stark is scornful and mocking and belittles how seriously Steve is taking what he describes as ‘a stupid exercise in seeing how many hoops they can make you steroid monkeys jump through holding hands’. And it’s that lack of respect that makes Steve forget about honour and sportsmanlike behaviour because then he takes a dig at how disappointed the famous Howard Stark must be in his son for not being able to even jump through one hoop. Because of course he knows who Tony Stark is by now, he’s just so far tried not to judge anyone for their background, even the son of one of the richest men in the world.

He’s too angry at the time to regret the words as they come out of his mouth, but he remembers extremely clearly the way Stark’s blue eyes suddenly turned to ice. If Steve has complained about him not caring before, about him not taking anything seriously, the look in his eyes in that moment make a lie of everything that came before. Stark can care. He can definitely care.

It devolves spectacularly from there and the only reason it doesn’t turn physical is because the drill sergeant turns up and assigns them both the task of cleaning the entire barracks while the rest of their platoon eat dinner.

It is not an uncommon punishment. Tempers fray, it’s fairly natural and expected given the pressures loaded onto the recruits. But this has the sullen, furious edge of something that has turned personal to it and Steve resents Stark with every silent, sullen minute that passes as they scrub and sweep and polish. Or at least he does until the adrenalin and testosterone begin to fade and he comes back to himself a little. He has a temper, but he’s not brilliant at holding grudges, and in the spirit of fairness he has to acknowledge his own part in provoking Stark.

He covertly studies Stark from the other end of the building. At the beginning of their punishment, the more slightly built man had muttered to himself a lot, his movements aggressive and jerky, as if he was trying to scrub through the concrete rather than just getting rid of all the dirt and dust. Now, though, he too has subsided a little, and from what Steve can see of him he just looks…weary.

Steve has always had more pride than common sense, or so Bucky says. But someone has to swallow theirs here and if he genuinely means what he’s said when he’s coaxed, cajoled and reprimanded his fellow recruits through failures of cooperation prior to this, then he needs to put the spirit of the platoon ahead of his own personal grievances. And it’s not as if he hates Stark, he just…doesn’t get him.

Well, here was an opportunity to fix that. At least a little.

“I was out of line,” he says into the hollow silence of the otherwise empty barracks. “I’d say you should make a crack at my father, but he’s dead.”

“Lucky,” Stark grunts, and it sounds almost automatic.

Steve thinks that’s the sort of comment that someone privileged enough to still have both of his parents would say, but he holds his tongue on that one. Instead he pauses in his scrubbing, sits back on his heels and waits for Stark to grudgingly make eye contact with him. He wants to make sure the other recruit knows he’s sincere. “I’m sorry.”

There’s a long enough pause that Steve thinks this was a mistake, that Stark isn’t going to accept his apology…but after squinting suspiciously at him for a moment, a miraculous change seems to come over Stark. He shrugs and apparently that’s that, because all of that previous tension just flees his body. When he speaks, it’s with the sardonic, flippant tone that Steve has come to expect as Stark’s baseline way of talking. “Nah, it’s fine,” he says, too easily for someone who had almost punched Steve less than an hour ago. “I fucked up. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t play that well with others.”

“Really?” Steve replies dryly. “And there I was thinking that you were in hack so much because the Sergeant objects to your face.”

“Hey, jealousy is totally understandable.” Stark’s smiles are all sharp cheekbones and white, white teeth in the middle of a tanned complexion. He rubs a thumb over his jawline. “Though I’m pretty sure it’s racial discrimination to expect an Italian man to be clean shaven at all times. Fucking hell, at this point at least a hundred of the ‘drop and give me twenty’ times have been because Sarge can’t deal with my face not being baby butt smooth.”

Steve, who admittedly is pretty lacking in the body hair department, feels it’s probably unfair for him to comment. Nonetheless, it’s the remark that triggers the first time Tony Stark ever makes Steve Rogers smile. He tries to hide it, but it’s there. “So, you’re saying that he hates you for being too hairy?”

“No, he hates me because he doesn’t see the beauty of a nice, rousing debate,” Stark counters blithely. “He’d much prefer that I was like you, an Aryan blonde with a completely ridiculous shoulder to waist ratio who doesn’t question being drilled endlessly in how to kill everyone who isn’t American.”

Steve, out of habit, starts to bristle defensively…but then he makes himself take a breath. Stark, as usual, is offensive without even trying, but that’s the thing – Steve doesn’t think he’s trying. He’s just…careless. And sharp edged. And perhaps compensating for his own failures by acting as if he doesn’t care in the first place.

So Steve makes himself take a breath, counts to ten in his head and tries again…perhaps taking an overly reckless route, but Steve used to confront quarterbacks in high school in spite of being weedy, asthmatic and malnourished from being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Never let him being nice fool you into thinking that he’ll ever choose the easy path over the most direct one. And he doesn’t think he can, in good conscience, continue to make no effort to understand Tony Stark anymore. Not if it’s clearly starting to affect the dynamics of their platoon.

“Your own personal war with the Sergeant aside,” he says, “do you mind if I ask a question?”

“Other than that one?”

Steve lets that particular bit of clichéd facetiousness slide and forges onwards. “When I enlisted, I definitely wasn’t expecting to go through Basic with Howard Stark’s son.” He sees a hint of that winter forming in Stark’s eyes again, but it’s too late to back down now. “I’ll admit, I don’t know much about your family, other than the big pieces of tech we buy from your father, but this can’t have been the career path he wanted for you.”

“I still haven’t heard a question, Rogers.” There’s a warning in Stark’s voice and he’s started scrubbing again.

Steve decides not to press his luck any longer. “Why the Army?” he asks bluntly, cutting to the chase. “And why not go to Officer Candidate School?” It just makes no sense to him that Howard Stark’s son enlisted rather than going after a commissioned officer seat that he could have presumably walked into based on his lineage alone.

For a few long moments, the only sound in the room is Stark’s angry scrubbing, but eventually even that stills. Into that new silence, he sighs gustily, but it is not necessarily an angry sound. Or so Steve hopes anyway. He might be reading it wrong. “God, you don’t ask the easy questions, do you, Rogers?” Stark says, but not with any noticeable malice.

Steve shrugs. “We might fight together one day,” he says candidly. “It’d be nice to know why you’re fighting.”

“And I suppose you won’t be satisfied with ‘for Old Glory’, huh?” Stark asks, but Steve gets the feeling that it’s a rhetorical question and waits him out. He clearly makes the right decision because after another pause, this one with a more contemplative quality, Stark starts talking again. He doesn’t look at Steve, but still, words. Potentially an explanation. A chance to, for once, try and understand his fellow recruit.

Steve will take that.

“It’s pathetic, really,” Stark says, overly light in tone, but Steve is already starting to recognise a defense mechanism when he hears one. “Like, really, really clichéd. The biggest one of them all, actually, because there’s nothing new about teenage rebellion.” He barks a laugh and there’s nothing humourous about it, unless you count self-mockery (and Steve doesn’t). “You’re damn right that Howard didn’t want this for me. It was all lined up, actually, I spent more time in boardrooms when I was a teenager than I did in school. And, I know, rich white kid, complaining about having no choice in inheriting the family business, oh how he must have suffered, but Howard didn’t even have the time to teach me himself. And Mom…she tried to stand up for me, but she didn’t really get it. She just thought I needed a hug from him or something and, God, what was the point in being so smart that people told you you could be anything you wanted to be, when that was just the biggest fucking lie of all because it was all decided for me in advance.” Stark’s started scrubbing again, the tempo of his brush matching the increasingly frenetic pace of his words. He’s heated and he’s hurting and he’s as bitter as strychnine.

He’s also one of the most compelling things Steve has ever seen.

Stark carries on, caught up in the tirade and therefore (thankfully) oblivious to the way that Steve must be staring, helpless and slack-jawed. It’s the mixture of clichéd material and the first glimpses Steve is getting into the person behind Stark’s staged carelessness. This Stark is selfish and self-loathing and full of a restless, burning energy that lights him up like an unhappy sun. It’s an age old story spun anew and Steve thinks, distractedly, that he had been expecting a glib answer. Instead he’s getting honesty so raw that it hurts, unfiltered and unpretty.

“I told him that if he so desperately wanted me to carry on the family business, then what better way than me becoming a soldier?” Stark was saying. “That way, he could invent the weapons and I could use them on the ground. Really, though, I just thought that was what would piss him off the most. He sells his stuff to the Army, but he’s so disparaging about them, thinks they’re a bunch of idiots. That’s why I didn’t want a commission. He’s always telling me about how he built himself up out of nothing, so why shouldn’t I do the same? Really earn my place in the world.”

For a man who has been so impossible to read until now, Stark has completely let down his barriers. It’s a violent, painful thing. The juxtaposition is so very jarring that Steve can only stare. Stark is like an entirely new person, speaking like this. Steve asked for an inch and got a mile, and it’s almost too much. Except, no, it’s exactly what he wanted. It’s what he needed. And, like the mathematical calculations behind a car crash, it makes horrible and beautiful sense, the contradictions that lie between Stark’s seeming lack of motivation and his conflicting, dogged determination to see this through, even if he’s clearly not suited for the soldiering life.

What do you say to that?

Luckily, Steve doesn’t have to think of something appropriately…honest, yet not dismissive of the insight Stark has just given him, the other recruit is still talking. Almost rambling at this point. Maybe that’s a defense mechanism as well. “So, there it is, Lifetime movie writers couldn’t write shit this bad. But no one can ever accuse me of not committing to a really stupid decision, just to be a dick, so please, do feel free to go ahead and make me feel suitably childish by telling me your presumably horribly noble reasons for enlisting.” Steve is just staring at him and Stark makes an embarrassed, impatient shooing motion at him. “Go on.”

This turned around on him very quickly and, usually, Steve has no issues at all talking about why he joined the Army, given that it’s been his dream since the first time he felt the need to stand up for someone (if you are curious, he was five). But he must be a little dazed in the aftermath of Stark’s unexpected honesty and he just can’t seem to order his thoughts. Nonetheless, Stark is looking increasingly awkward and therefore mutinous, so Steve knows he has to answer and answer fast.

“I don’t like bullies,” he blurts out…

…and then flushes beet red. Because compared to Stark’s story it’s downright pathetic and, yes, Stark is starting at him now, surprised and more than a little incredulous. But then, inexplicably, he bursts into laughter.

“You joined the Army because you don’t like bullies?” he repeats, hooting.

“Well, I don’t!” Steve says plaintively, but his protest doesn’t matter, Stark currently looks like he’s about to cry with laughter.

“I, ahaha, oh man, that’s--bullies.” Stark is actually pounding a fist on the (very clean) floor now, which Steve thinks is somewhat excessive.

He’s trying to look as dignified as he can, but it’s hard when a recruit who has always been unfathomable and irritating until now, but who has also just essentially bared his soul to Steve is rolling around on the floor, cackling. In spite of his pride, Steve cannot help but smile sheepishly, even if he tries to hide it. “It’s not that funny,” he protests lamely, mouth still twitching upwards reflexively at the corners. This is all so very ridiculous right now, it’s almost farcical. “You can’t talk, you just told me you enlisted because you wanted to piss off your father.”

“And I’m starting to think that’s a better reason than I thought.” Stark, like all the recruits, is out of necessity an extremely fit person. Regardless of that, he’s wheezing now, like the asthmatic that Steve used to be. “Oh, man, who knew you were a comedian, Rogers, I completely did you an injustice by thinking you were the most boring guy in the platoon.”

There is something utterly inexplicable about Tony Stark that makes that somehow sound like a compliment. Steve squints helplessly at him for a moment, then gives up on trying to decide whether he should be offended or not, resignedly asking “Are you quite done yet?” instead.

It is, of course, not quite as easy as that. It takes more than one unexpected heart to heart to truly seal their friendship. But it has its seeds in this moment. And, later on, as they’re chatting while they finish up their allocated punishment and Stark is chattering away about something with casual, sardonic brilliance, Steve looks up to find him close by. Very close. And he experiences a resurgence of that prickling, uncomfortable disquiet that he usually associates with Stark being a pain in the ass.

He’s still a pain in the ass. He’s still someone that Steve doesn’t quite understand. But, seeing him from this angle (close, closer than he ever expected to get to him) makes Steve want to try at least. Because Stark’s—because Tony’s motivations might be clichéd, but nothing else about him is boring.

They’ve barely had time to set down at Tony’s last known coordinates and wolf down some MREs when the call from Pepper comes with the coordinates from the SI techs, plus the outline of Howard’s plan to capture the terrorists at the exchange site. If Steve had been prone to ‘I told you so’s he would have been extremely vindicated in choosing to be suspicious of the man’s strategy. As it is, he’s too busy rushing everyone back into the plane.

To her credit, Carol had been coming off a long mission when Sam dragged her into this, but if she’s tired now, she doesn’t show it. She just flings herself into the pilot’s seat and pulls every trick she knows for speed with as much stealth as she can. Sam’s the one with the biggest hand in planning the actual escape, he’s had the most experience with extractions after all, but Rhodes has served the longest and has a few key suggestions to make. When they touch down a few miles away from the hidden village, Bucky goes ahead to scout. By now, ever atom of Steve’s being is screaming protest against any and all delays, but he reins himself in. This may be a reckless, unauthorised mission, but there’s still no point in being stupid about it. So he sets his jaw, takes advice from his friends and makes himself think of the optimal way of doing this.

After what feels like an eternity, they’re in position. Steve and Carol will take point, while Sam and Rhodes have their backs and can form a secondary team if a divergence in the unseen interior path necessitates them splitting up. Bucky, as always, will provide covering fire.

It’s in the not-light just before dawn when Steve lifts his hand, ready to signal their advance, that the cave entrance in front of them belches sooty, unholy fire. In spite of all his training in stealth and staying composed under fire, a shout of horror leaves Steve’s lips. No. No. Tony is in there! Is this some self-defense mechanism of the terrorists? Do they know Steve and his people are here? Or is this Howard? Has some rescue mission gone horribly wrong? What--.

A figure moves amidst the flames. It’s gigantic. Human-shaped, but beyond reasonable proprotions, and moving ponderously. Jerkily.

“What the hell?” Steve hears Carol murmur beside him. Mentally he echoes the sentiment, but he’s too stunned to actually say anything out loud. Another gout of fire shoots forwards, this time more visibly from the figure’s over-sized arm. Then, as the flames die away, Steve finds himself standing up, silhouetted against the rising sun in the east.

Down below, the thing reaches slowly and awkwardly towards its blocky head…

Struggles for a moment…

Removes what suddenly becomes clear as a helmet…

And Tony – bruised, bloodied and utterly filthy – smiles at him with aching bittersweetness before collapsing loudly to the sand and lying very, very still.

Steve doesn’t ever let himself kiss Tony for multiple reasons.

In Basic, it’s because Tony needs someone who isn’t his commanding officer to tell him to focus, to steer him back onto the right path whenever he gets distracted or demoralised. He needs someone to help repair the damage he’s done with the rest of their platoon, and even if no one will ever quite manage to make an amazing team player out of him, Steve takes it as a personal mission to make sure Tony remembers not to let his brilliance be an excuse for going over the heads of his commanders.

Then it’s because, in many ways, Tony becomes a lot like Bucky, not just because they’re both sarcastic assholes a lot of the time. Tony doesn’t have the same feeling of coming home that Bucky does, and he likely never will. But like antagonistic muscle pairs they work well together (when they’re not squabbling anyway) and Steve becomes used to the certainty of having Tony around. He tries to keep up with the quickness of Tony’s mind, and actively taunts him when it comes to keeping ahead of him in the physical challenges with which they’re faced over the course of their training. There’s a moment in their final Physical Training Test, in the last leg of their two mile run, when Steve looks back over his shoulder, not even really out of breath at this point, and there he is. Tony is sweatier than he is and more visibly tired, but he’s also grinning like a mad thing and Steve just…knows that he wants it to be like this for as long as possible. It doesn’t matter if Tony comes to his senses at some point and goes off to change the world of defense technology, Steve will take what he can get of them serving together.

And Tony stays, which means that Tony is Steve’s comrade. So even if Steve occasionally feels his honest admiration of his friend drift into a very uncomplicated sort of want, the situation itself is complicated.

Well, actually, no it’s not. It’s really very simple. At the end of the day, Steve serves with Tony, and serving with him is more important than anything else. They survived Basic together, then their Advanced Individual Training, then their first and second and now third tours together. That vastly supersedes anything baser that Steve might occasionally want. And it’s not a case of being ‘just’ friends, as dismissive as that saying is. It’s because they’re friends, Steve thinks, that he didn’t turn grim and worn down the way he might have without Tony’s annoying propensity to refuse to take things too seriously, especially the insidious sort of despair that might sneak into an honest man’s heart after seeing too much horror. It’s possibly arrogant to claim, but Steve is realistic enough to guess that Tony’s probably done better in the service than he might have done without Steve there to prevent him from letting some of his more naturally…argumentative tendencies do him a disservice in a pretty autocratic system.

They had their own reasons for enlisting. Seriously different ones. But, now, they have pretty similar reasons for staying. A lot of Steve’s have to do with how, in spite of being an average sharpshooter compared to someone like, say, Bucky, Tony still usually has this stupid, wicked little grin on his face anytime he’s got his eye lined up with the sights of an assault rifle, as if he’s just so proud to hold a beautiful example of weaponry in his own two hands and to get to use it.

This is why Steve doesn’t kiss Tony.

(Even if he wants to.)

The next time Steve sees Tony, he’s getting off a plane back at Kandahar Airfield. It’s not too hard to pretend to act surprised and relieved, even if he isn’t half the actor that, say, Sam and Bucky are.

That had been Tony’s idea actually, and Steve had hated it. But once he had regained consciousness and had been filled in on everything Steve and his companions had done to ‘rescue’ him (including the long, long, long list of orders they had defied and rules they had broken) Tony had been adamant – if they weren’t going to be missed for twenty four hours, then they were damn well going to be back before their time limit ran out. Steve had protested, of course he had, but as Tony pointed out the terrorists who had kidnapped him clearly weren’t a threat anymore, thanks to them being stupid enough to supply him with weaponry components because they thought he was trying to buy his own safety by building Stark Industries tech for them. In a way, he had…it just hadn’t been anything they had asked for. Or had, ultimately, survived.

In the end, will full daylight rapidly approaching, Tony had finally snapped and played dirty, going “For fucks sake Barnes, will you for once in your life agree with me and take him back with you – violently if you have to.” And, given that Tony and Bucky had pretty much never been willing to cooperate over anything, Steve felt that it was pretty unfair that Bucky had simply saluted and then proceeded to drag him back to where Carol already had the plane fired up.

As for how the official rescue party took finding Tony not only alive, but presiding over the destruction of his own kidnappers, Steve had to hear that through the grapevine, which actually ended up being through Rhodes, via Pepper. He had another resurgence of almost crippling guilt when he heard about the severity of Tony’s injuries, the damage done to his heart and the strange stroke of his own genius that had saved his own life as well as given him the means to rescue himself, but Sam was a calming influence and Bucky a staunch one. He was fine, they reminded him. He was coming home.

…but not forever. And not the same, healthy man he’d been before the ordeal.

Steve can see that the moment Tony gets off the plane. He’s all cocky smiles and pandering to the applauding crowd, but he’s pale and seems to have lost a stone in weight. Because Steve knows what to look for, he can’t miss the way Tony holds onto the stair railing for a moment too long before making himself let go of it.

There are formalities to be seen to, but in no time at all Tony is standing in front of him. Steve clinically knows that the rest of their platoon is standing behind him, but his focus is all for his friend, for the circles under his eyes and the surgical sutures he knows are hidden under that expensive suit. For the world-changing device that is apparently content to let itself be concealed by shirt and jacket and tie.

But Tony is alive and this is what Steve makes himself focus on. He even manages to smile crookedly as he holds out a closed hand. “Try not to lose these again, Stark, you’re not too old to get into trouble with the Drill Sergeant again.” He opens his hand, revealing Tony’s dog tags, which he’d asked for special permission to return to him.

Steve can already tell that Tony is wearing his public mask, the one he’d once fooled him with years ago now. It’s cocky and theatrical. It’s devil may care and it holds people at a distance. But this is Tony, his Tony, and Steve knows what to look for, so he sees in perfect detail the momentary stricken look. The grief. The wry acceptance.

“You keep them for a while,” Tony says, not quietly, but not loudly enough to indicate he’s making a show of this. His wide, expressive mouth quirks up more on one side than the other. It gives mixed messages and, in that way, it perfectly sums up everything Tony has ever been to him, annoyance and friend and enigma. “I have been informed by medical experts that shrapnel in the old ticker disqualifies you from good old honest warmongering.”

So this, Steve thinks disconnectedly, is what it feels like to get Tony back and lose him in the same instant. It’ll be an honourable discharge, that’s for sure, and he’ll probably be decorated in the process. He’ll go back to the States to get the medical care that he needs, which is a good thing. The best thing.

But it also means that they won’t be serving together anymore. The look on Tony’s face is bittersweet and shows the acceptance he’s had more time to reach than Steve has. And Steve…Steve is going to miss having his friend by his side.

He cannot, however, find it in him to be disappointed that this is the outcome because at least Tony is alive. He is alive and breathing. He is in possession of a beating heart and less trauma in his eyes than Steve might have expected.

Tony sighs gustily. “So I suppose I’ll finally have to give up my teenage rebellion and grudgingly relinquish my plan to die nobly on the battlefield in service to my country so that I can take a disgustingly well-paid job where I get to make geeks all around the world cry because what I invent in a cave in Afghanistan is better than anything they can even dream of coming up with,” he says, making an effort to sound long-suffering, but there is an unexpected glimmer of mischief in his eyes.

Steve might not trust the face that Tony sometimes puts on, but he trusts those eyes.

So of course he leans forwards to kiss this brilliant, insufferable man, the one who never knows when to shut up and be serious. It is horribly, wonderfully inappropriate.

Then again, so is Tony.