Steve lets himself just stay on the cold floor of the prison cell for a moment. Whatever's in those little darts the HYDRA goons are carrying is potent. His limbs are shaky and he aches all over—his shoulders feel like they're grinding in their sockets. His face hurts. He might even be getting a black eye, and he hadn't thought the guards were hitting that hard, especially not through the mask.
That whole operation really could have gone a lot better.
He leans back on his ankles and cracks his neck. Ok. Time for steps two through four. Find Fury's operative, grab the gem thing the SSR insisted was real, get out.
"Well," a voice echoes off the stone walls from somewhere ahead and to his left. "You're new. And here I thought the pool of people HYDRA wants alive was a pretty small club."
Steve scans the cell. The light from the hall behind him doesn't help much, but there is a grayer patch of shadow back against the wall. The shadow moves as Steve shifts into a crouch, and he gets an impression of dark hair and a light shirt under some kind of heavy jacket.
"So," his cell-mate says, leaning further into the light. (Male, Steve notes, uneven facial hair—maybe he hasn't shaved recently. American accent with a definite New York edge. Age impossible to tell in the dimness.) "What're you in for?"
Steve doesn't answer. He needs more information. There's no guarantee this man is the person he's looking for. He's never heard of HYDRA or the Nazis fishing for intel through "friendly" fellow prisoners, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. He pushes to his feet and takes another look around.
The cell is a 15-by-15-foot room with stone walls on three sides and iron bars across the front. If they really are just iron they shouldn't pose a problem. It's the rest of the base Steve's worried about, especially if he's not going to be at 100 percent.
Stone floor, stone ceiling. A bench held to the wall with chains, occupied by the dark-haired man who is even now leaning back with a sigh.
"Don't tell me," he says. "Just stop me when this sounds familiar. You're on a top-secret mission. Probably to retrieve that glowing red rock from the lab in the center of this base. How far did you get by the way? Did you actually make it to the lab or did they catch you before that?"
It does sound rather like the orders Fury had given him, but most of that could be inferred by his presence here. He was caught. The gem is probably the most valuable thing HYDRA has at the moment. It doesn't take a genius to weigh those odds.
"I'm not sure how it's any business of yours," Steve says, moving back toward the bars. He can't stay in here, and there don't appear to be any actual guards posted in sight. If his cell-mate tries to raise the alarm, he'll deal with that when it happens.
"Wait, you're . . ." There's a rustle of cloth behind him, the scrape of steps over mortared stone. He turns to find the man standing now, head cocked to the side, his face pinched. He's wearing combat-grade boots and loose, rugged trousers The jacket is dark leather. There's a knife sheath and a holster on his belt, both empty.
"You are, aren't you," the man says. "The star, the stripes, all that blue. You're Captain America."
"I might be," Steve admits. It's not as though there's much point in denying it—even the enemy had recognized him. He'd tried to convince Fury to let him wear something else for what was supposed to be a covert operation, but the General had been adamant on the full Cap regalia. "Our operative needs to be able to recognize you," he'd growled. "Man up, Rogers. No one else is running around wearing the flag. It's as much of a message as we can manage right now."
Steve had allowed himself one rebellion—he'd thrown a jacket on so that the big white star wouldn't give him away while he tiptoed through the shadows. Not that it had done much good, and now the thing was in tatters on the floor somewhere, courtesy of Baron von Strucker.
"What the hell are you doing here? Has Fury lost his mind?" The man's agitated now, pacing a little, arms waving, and, ok, maybe this is the person Steve's looking for. Or maybe HYDRA's tortured the operative, and this is a trick.
"How do you know Fury?" he asks, testing the waters.
"He's a pain in the ass, and my opinion of him is going sharply downhill if his best back-up plan was another solo-run." The man sighs, shoulders sagging as he lets his arms drop. "I'm here on his orders, same as you. I'm—" he grimaces, "I'm Iron Man."
The call sign is right. Steve wishes Fury had given him more complete information. A name, a physical description, sign and countersign, anything.
"Then I'm here to get you out, Iron Man," he says, turning back to the front of the cell. Maybe it was a secondary objective in Fury's eyes, but Steve wasn't about to leave a man behind if he could help it. He studies the settings of iron in stone for a moment, looking for weak spots.
"Really," Iron Man says flatly. "And getting caught, was that part of your plan?"
Steve tugs at the door. It rattles a bit in its hinges and he can't help but smile a little. No one ever thinks to check the hinges.
"Actually, yes," he says, bracing one foot against the doorframe and reaching down for a better grip. "Once I figured out they had all the stairwells guarded it seemed like the simplest way to get further inside."
He hadn't been expecting the personal attention from the base commander though. That had been a surprise he could've done without.
"That's not a plan," Iron Man tells him. "Why would you call that a plan?"
Steve grunts as he pulls the door up a little. Then he re-balances and kicks the lowest hinge sharply. It breaks.
"It worked, didn't it?" he asks, positioning himself to hit the middle hinge. It's probably going to take a bit more force, at this angle.
"I —" Iron Man starts as Steve rears back for a second kick. The whole door shudders when his foot connects, and the last hinge is barely holding on now.
"I suppose it did," Iron Man says as Steve pops the top hinge and pushes the door open. The lock gives way with a screech of protesting metal.
“I'll check for guards,” Steve says, slipping out of the cell. “Stay here for now.”
“What?” Iron Man protests, but Steve's already jogging down the hall. He sidles up to the corner and listens intently for a moment, then takes a quick look.
No movement. The stairwell looks empty from here as well, though if they're guarding the main floors they probably don't need to spend the manpower down here.
Still. If the HYDRA forces are spread that thin, he might actually be able to get Iron Man out of here without trying to take on more than a few goons at a time.
“Hey, Star-spangled man,” Iron Man hisses down the hall. Steve turns back and finds the man out of the cell. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “There are elevators on this end,” he says.
Steve bites back a remark about taking direction, and another about noise protocol. Iron Man's supposed to be used to solo runs. He probably hasn't had anything like the group training Steve has. But that doesn't mean he can't jeopardize the mission through ignorance.
He stalks back to the cell, composing a careful request for Iron Man to follow Steve's lead that hopefully doesn't sound completely condescending.
Then he gets a good look at Iron Man's face and nearly swallows his own tongue.
"You're—you're Tony Stark," he stutters.
"Yes?" He looks puzzled. "Fury didn't tell you who you were looking for?"
"He, ah—" Steve racks his brain. He'd remember if Fury said anything about Tony Stark, he's sure of it. What was it Fury had said, exactly? “I think you'll know him when you see him."
Son of a bitch. His face feels hot. He's probably as red as the damn stripes on his uniform. God, why can't there be a convenient hole in the ground he can bury himself in? Or a window he can throw himself out of?
"He didn't mention a name," he manages to spit out. And now Tony Stark is looking at him like he has two heads Wonderful. Terrific. This is perfect.
"We should probably move on," the man—Tony—Mr. Stark says.
"Yeah," Steve agrees. His plan seems inadequate now. Tony Stark probably has some idea of how to sneak around hostile environments, even if he doesn't have much strict combat experience. “You said there are elevators?”
“In the center of the complex. If my intel's right it'll be easier to get to the lab and find the gem from there than trying to work our way in from the stairways.”
“Sounds good,” Steve says. None of his own briefing was very helpful on that front. Either Fury was holding out on him, or Mr. Stark's getting his information somewhere else.
There's a moment of confusion where Steve tries to lead the way—mostly out of habit, really—and gets another weird look for his efforts and falls behind, hovering just at Tony—Mr. Stark's—shoulder, caught between worry that someone will shoot at them before he can get his shield back and a sort of surreal giddiness spreading out from some obscure corner of his mind because he's going on an adventure with Tony Stark. Apparently he can't just set aside all the times he daydreamed about this when he was sick at home with a stack of magazines next to his bed.
He really wishes he could go back to thinking of the man as Iron Man. He wishes they were both wearing masks. He wishes he hadn't thought about this enough to have his first instinct be to call the man “Tony” instead of “Mr. Stark.”
Maybe he can blame his tongue-tied bashfulness on whatever was in those tranquilizer darts, even if it does seem to be wearing off.
Tony—Mr. Stark—appears to be oblivious to Steve's internal troubles, at least. He seems almost to have dismissed Steve entirely as they slink down the hall. And that's fine, Steve tells himself. That's absolutely how it should be right now. Focus on the mission.
The cells go on for longer than Steve expects. The fortress must extend even deeper into the cliff-face than he'd guessed. They stick close to the walls and don't run into anyone, prisoner or guard, and Steve's not sure what that means. Iron Man—Mr. Stark had been right when he said the people HYDRA was likely to keep alive was a small club. He's pretty sure the reason he wasn't killed on sight is because Baron von Strucker answers to the Red Skull these days, and the Red Skull wants Captain America alive. And Tony Stark has history with von Strucker—he's the man who stole the Atlantis trident right out from under von Strucker's grasping fingers.
But if they're valuable enough to keep alive, why aren't they guarded?
Tony—Mr. Stark, he repeats to himself, Mr. Stark—stops at what seems to be the joining of two cell-blocks and reaches for something in his jacket. Then he frowns, clenches his eyes shut and grips his holster tight.
“What do you need?” Steve murmurs, trying to keep the sound from carrying as much as possible.
Mr Stark shakes his head.
“Just wishing for a slightly less competent enemy,” he murmurs back. “The elevators are right down here but they're probably guarded, and I don't have my mirror or my pistol. What've you got?”
“The uniform's mostly leather reinforced with silk and scale mail, and I heal fast,” Steve offers.
Mr. Stark squints at him.
“Let me go first,” Steve clarifies, “I'm more bullet-proof than you.”
“And people say my plans are risky,” Mr. Stark mutters, but he nods and side-steps back down the wall so Steve can switch places with him.
Steve takes a long breath and ducks around for a quick look.
“Two,” he reports. “About 75 meters ahead. Both armed.” He really, really wishes he had his shield. “I don't think they saw me.”
“Those helmets aren't good for peripheral vision,” Mr. Stark notes. “Thank God for small mercies.”
They'll have to do this fast. Steve rolls his shoulders and stretches up on his toes a bit.
He holds up his hand and counts down on his fingers for Mr. Stark's benefit.
Three. Two. One. Zero.
He darts around the corner and ducks low, sprinting on his toes. The charge feels a little unbalanced without the shield on his arm, but there's no helping it.
He makes it about half the distance before the guards notice him, and by the time they shout and swing around to pull their weapons up he's already on the first one, knocking his sidearm to the floor and shouldering him back.
The other guard, unfortunately, is able to step out of the way of his falling partner. And he's carrying one of the longer dart weapons.
Steve throws himself to the side and rolls, coming up in a crouch just as one of the little vials shatters on the wall behind him. He needs to get close, too close for the man to aim properly, and then—
—and then a shot echoes off the stone and the guard jerks convulsively, the weapon falling from his handsas he slumps to the floor.
“All right there, Captain?” Mr. Stark asks, stepping over the body. He has the first guard's weapon in his left hand, and when the man Steve threw to the wall groans and makes to move for the tranq rifle Mr. Stark shoots him too.
“Fine,” Steve says, slowly standing straight again. He's never really thought about Tony Stark killing anyone. That was probably naive, given his own experience with the war so far. Of course Tony Stark's killed people. People certainly seem to try to kill him on a regular basis. That's not the sort of thing you can generally get away from without taking a few lives yourself, Steve knows.
It just . . . hadn't made it into the stories. Steve's not really sure how he feels about that. It's a bit like part of his adolescence, something he though was safe from the war, has been ripped from him. Rubbed out or tainted somehow. But he recognizes the soldier standing in front of him, and it can't make him think less of the man.
“Come on then,” Mr Stark says. He scoops up the rifle and motions at the elevator. “Time's wasting. If they're keeping to the same cycles we've got a maximum of twenty-five minutes before someone notices these two missing.”
They position themselves on either side of the doors and Steve presses the button to call the car. Mr. Stark tries to hand him the rifle.
“I don't need it,” Steve insists. He's not used to fighting with more than the shield and a pistol. It would just slow his reflexes.
Besides, he wants nothing to do with the thing's ammunition.
Mr. Stark frowns and offers up the sidearm, but Steve shakes his head at that too.
“You're a better shot than me anyway,” he says.
“What, you're just going to punch your way through this place?” Mr. Stark asks, holstering the sidearm and checking the rifle chamber.
“Until I get my shield back, yeah,” Steve tells him.
"Your shield?" Mr Stark frowns at him. "Why do you have a shield?"
"It's useful?" Steve offers.
"For—hitting things and blocking bullets," he grits his teeth, angrier than he probably should be but still. What right did Tony Stark have to cast aspersions on Steve's choice of equipment? "Why do you care?"
Tony shrugs and leans the rifle against the wall. "I don't, I just thought it was an interesting choice in a war of guns and artillery. Besides, now you're actually looking at me again, which is a lot better than you looking all sad or like you think something's going to explode any minute. I do manage to live most of my life without the explosions, you know. They don't just happen spontaneously in my presence."
The sound of the elevator crank stops and Mr. Stark falls silent. Steve clenches and relaxes his fists, waiting.
The door opens, and the barrel of another rifle pokes out. Steve grabs it and heaves, hauling the surprised goon attached to it into the hall and wrenching it away. He sees Tony move out of the corner of his eye and hears two quick shots ring out as he punches the goon unconscious.
“Probably not getting by secretly now,” Mr Stark says. He's dragging a second man out of the elevator car. “I forgot that calling that thing down here breaks the routine.”
But they still only sent another two guards. It's possible the whole base hasn't been alerted yet.
“You sure you don't want a gun?” Mr. Stark asks, holding up another pistol.
“I'm certain,” Steve says. “Do you know where we're going?” he asks.
Steve shrugs. “Then we'll deal with it. If we move fast enough we might still be able to catch them by surprise.”
Mr. Stark grins at him then, bright and gleeful, and Steve feels his pathetic teenage daydreams flicker in his chest.
“Breaking me out of prisons, protecting me from bullets, and now you're jumping in with half a cock-eyed plan and two barrels of determination,” Mr Stark says as he steps into the elevator. “I'm starting to like you, Captain,” he adds as Steve follows.
Steve is not at all prepared for what those words do to him. He's caught somewhere between startled attraction (the man makes his rank sound like a dirty word, it shouldn't be possible) and childish joy that Tony Stark likes him.
He is so, so very screwed.
Mr. Stark pushes the button for the fifth floor and leans against the wall, rummaging in his pocket. He holds up two tiny vials. The needles on the ends glint in the flickering light as the car starts to move, and Steve tries not to fidget too noticeably.
“I wonder what's in these,” Mr. Stark muses, turning them back and forth.
“I don't want to know,” Steve says, and Mr. Stark raises an eyebrow at him.
“This is how they caught you?” he asks, and Steve nods shortly. Not that he hadn't been trying to get caught but . . . he hadn't expected to be drugged, hadn't expected it to affect him if he was. He doesn't want to know what those things would do to a normal person.
“Probably pretty strong then,” Mr. Stark says. “I read the reports on you, you know. They say you have the strength of ten men and can run faster than a jeep over rough ground.”
Steve's still not sure how he feels about there being reports written on him, let alone Tony Stark reading them.
He shrugs. “It's classified,” he says.
The vials, thankfully, disappear into one of the pockets in Mr. Stark's leather jacket.
"So, I guess you read Marvels?" He asks as they creep past the second floor. "That's usually why people recognize me."
"I, yes," Steve admits.
Mr. Stark nods, apparently to himself, and Steve just can't leave it there.
"I also . . . spent a lot of time in New York. Your picture was in the paper pretty often." He probably shouldn't be saying this. His identity's top secret, after all, and even if Tony—Mr. Stark—works for Fury, that doesn't mean he has the proper clearance. Besides, he really doesn't need to embarrass himself any further.
Mr. Stark just gives him a long look. Steve's pretty sure he can somehow see the hours he's spent just staring at those photos, or thumbing through the Marvel issues, or sketching that smirk.
"I suppose that's one of the downsides to living life in the public eye," Mr. Stark says. "I should probably be glad no one's used it against me yet. Unless there was a bounty put out while I've been in here?"
"Not that I know of," Steve tells him. If there had been, he might've known what he was getting into earlier.
"Maybe I should get a mask or something," Mr. Stark muses as they pass the fourth floor. "Do you like having a mask? Does it itch or anything?"
“It's fine?” This is really not the kind of discussion Steve ever thought he'd have with anyone. He kind of wishes he could stop being surprised like this.
The car shudders to a stop and Mr. Stark draws the HYDRA pistol, all business again. Steve settles into a crouch, ready to move as soon as a threat presents itself.
The doors slide open and Mr. Stark puts his finger to his lips. Then he pivots around the corner, still half in cover, pistol ready, and Steve can see the moment he freezes. It's just a second, but it's there, and then his shoulders fall back in a stance of practiced nonchalance. The gun doesn't drop though.
“Ah,” he says, and even in profile Steve can see something strange happening to his expression. “Speaking of masks.”
Steve peeks around the corner. There's a woman in a green mask and a handful of HYDRA soldiers waiting for them. The woman has a whip on her hip and a Karabiner service rifle in her hands and the overhead lights make her mask glow.
“Gialetta,” Mr. Stark says, confirming Steve's suspicions. This is Mr. Stark's former assistant, the one who betrayed him. “What a surprise.”
“Tony,” she sneers. “You probably thought I was dead, didn't you.”
“No, I'm never that lucky” Mr. Stark says, his voice light. “I just rather hoped you'd gotten your thirst for vengeance out of your system.”
“Tell your colorful friend to come out where I can see him,” Gialetta says.
“You know, I don't think I will,” Mr. Stark tells her, like they're just—having a conversation.
It's kind of surreal, and Steve suddenly feels like he's not-quite-there, like he's stepped out of his body, like he's watching a film. A film where Tony Stark cuts an impossibly handsome and dashingly heroic figure and has armed stand-offs with old nemeses that involve a lot more dialog than any armed stand-off Steve's ever actually participated in before.
He'd hoped that maybe Tony Stark in person would wear off a bit, or that his irritation would take over and he wouldn't feel like he's five years younger and has butterflies in his stomach random moments, but no. Apparently seeing the man smirk over a pistol-sight is enough to make Steve feel warm all over, to make him want to close the damn elevator doors and back him against the wall and—and—
He's not thinking about that right now, he's thinking about the quickest way to take out six enemies without his shield.
It's almost enough to make him wish he'd taken that second pistol after all.
“If you do not comply with my orders, Tony, I promise I can make things quite uncomfortable for you,” Gialetta says.
“Since I'm pretty sure you're still going to try to kill me, darling, that's really not much of a threat,” Mr. Stark says.
He holds up his other hand behind his back, well out of sight from the front of the elevator. He wiggles his fingers until Steve nods his acknowledgment.
Then he starts a countdown.
“You should've died years ago,” Gialetta says.
“You will beg for death for what you did to me,” she continues, and Steve crouches low, shifts his weight onto his toes.
Tony pulls the trigger, four quick shots, and by the time Steve gets out of the elevator two of the soldiers are bleeding on the floor and Gialetta's kneeling, clutching her leg and swearing a blue streak.
But that still leaves three armed enemies, and they're ready for him.
He drops and rolls to the side, springs to his feet and launches himself into a dive that at least manages to confuse and scatter them. He checks on Gialetta and sees her rising back to her feet, the light glinting off some kind of blade in her hand.
And Tony Stark's moved out of the elevator and has his back to her, apparently trying to aim for one of the goons on Steve's half of the room.
“Mr. Stark!” Steve yells as she brings up the weapon. “Behind!”
He kicks out at the man on his left and connects with his knee, plants his foot and swivels around to punch out the one coming up on his right. A thin line of cord sweeps through his vision and he jerks his hands up to his chin, just barely managing to get his wrists between the garrote and his neck. He pushes out his arms and backs up a step, until he can feel the ghost of the soldier's presence behind him. Then he jerks his head back and the helmet connects with something—probably the man's nose, if the yelp and dropped cord are any indication. Steve wheels around and drives his elbow into the man's solar plexus. He drops like his strings have been cut. The first man is groaning on the ground, clutching his leg, and Steve bends down and scoops up one of the pistols and puts him out of his misery.
By the time he looks back again Mr. Stark's got his arm across Gialetta's throat, pinning her against the wall with his bodyweight, her wrists caught tight in his other hand.
She struggles as Steve watches, and Mr. Stark just leans in and squeezes her wrists a bit tighter.
“I may never forgive you for what you did to Pepper,” he's saying, and his voice is terrible to listen to. “I kinda get the thing against me, even if you did try to kill me first, but Pep never did anything to you, and someday you're going to pay for that.”
She goes limp, and he lets her drop to the floor.
“But not today,” he sighs. He opens his hand, and one of the little darts falls beside her. “I think Pepper might skin me alive if I didn't give her a chance to have the last word.”
“You think that'll keep her down?” Steve asks.
Mr. Stark shrugs. “You'd be the expert,” he says, which Steve supposes is fair. “But if it can slow down a 200-pound super soldier, I'm pretty sure it'll work on a 150-pound baseline human.”
He shakes his head and backs away.
“We should move on. The labs are this way.” He waves at a door on the left side of the room and then suits words to actions, walking toward it.
Steve follows him, not quite certain how to navigate the convoluted emotions of the last few minutes. For a man who kills enemy soldiers so efficiently, that confrontation was a bit . . . intimate is the only word he can think of.
“Were you two . . .“ Steve trails off. He's not sure how much of Marvels was true and how much was editorial.
“Together?” Mr. Stark finishes for him. “Not as much as the magazine might want you to think, but, yes. We weren't in love, if that's what you mean. Or at least, not with each other.” He smiles a little. “If anything I think we were both in love with the chase. Speaking of which,” his lashes flick, and Steve realizes with a flush that he's probably being ogled right now. “Was that my imagination earlier, or were you enjoying the view?”
“You can't just—say that,” he starts, but Mr. Stark snorts, waving away his protest.
“If you want me to stop I will, but you have to say so. There's no policeman here to put you under arrest, no superior officer to give you a ticket home or priest to lecture you on your sins. It's just you and me, Captain,” he lingers over the rank and Steve thinks he might never stop blushing at this rate.
He'd thought his crush was harmless. Silly, and, given the object's highly documented love-life, ultimately safe. But nothing about this man is safe, Steve's coming to learn.
“So,” Tony Stark, apparently queer madman says, “What do you say? Were you enjoying the view?”
Steve keeps his eyes firmly ahead. He can't bring himself to admit it, or he's sure the whole thing will come spilling out of him. The little flame in his chest bare for scrutiny. At least right now the man just thinks he's interested instead of falling fast.
“I guess the papers weren't exaggerating your tendency to flirt with strangers, Mr. Stark,” he says, hoping his mask hides at least some of his expression.
“I'll take that as a yes then,” Mr. Stark says. “Also, you should call me Tony."
"I wouldn't—" Steve protests, but he's already jumping tracks inside his own head, his thoughts switching back to Tony this and Tony that where he'd only just managed to insert Mr. Stark.
"Come on, Captain,” Mr Stark—Tony peeks through the panel of glass in the door, then opens it onto an empty room, flashing his picture-star smile Steve's way. “We're on an adventure, you can't go on an adventure expecting to shout 'Mr. Stark' when we get to the fighting for our lives and running away part. I'll think I'm being chased by reporters."
Steve tries not to grin. "Are fighting and running away compulsory, in adventuring?" he asks, stepping into the room.
"Nah," Tony wrinkles his nose. "The necessary ingredients for a good adventure are treasure, explosions, and romance. Fighting and running away are just added fun. Or don't you agree, Mr. I-don't-want-a-gun-for-a-one-man-assault-on-an-enemy-fortress.”
Steve decides he probably doesn't need to answer that. "I guess that explains why you seem to get blown up so often," he says as seriously as he can manage.
"It's very rarely accidental. I'll try to warn you first," Tony teases.
“I appreciate that,” Steve says.
He looks around the room. There are no other doors. If the shelves along the back wall are any indication, they've simply walked into an unused storage room.
“Are you sure you know where you're going?” he asks because—well there were an awful lot of secret passages in the recorded adventures of Tony Stark, but he can't see anything here that looks remotely like a trigger. He's also never gotten the impression HYDRA was that inventive when it came to hiding their secrets.
“One of my contacts managed to dig up some blueprints,” Tony says. He strides over to the right-side wall and runs his fingers over the mortared stone. “This wasn't always a HYDRA base, you know. They're quite used to re-purposing other people's things.” He grimaces.
“What are you looking for?” Steve asks, joining him. He starts at the opposite end of the wall, poking at the stones experimentally.
“Something that seems out of place,” Tony says. “If the blueprints were accurate this used to be a nursery. There should be an escape passage here somewhere, in case of invasion.”
A nursery. Steve steps back for a moment. There's a vague starburst pattern in the way the stones are arranged, too regular to be accidental. He goes back to the corner and starts paying more attention to the area at about hip level instead of shoulder and eye level.
There. One dark-stained stone surrounded by lighter ones, just slightly out of place with the rest of the pattern. He feels around it, and the edge depresses under his fingers.
“I think I found it,” he says, and then feels a bit stupid because that whole part of the wall's swinging back now, so of course he found it.
Tony claps him on the shoulder as he passes, stepping into the dark space without hesitation.
“Nicely done,” he says, and Steve feels like he's walking on air as he follows.
He's a bit less enthusiastic when he realizes the passage wasn't built for six-foot-tall, fully grown men and they're going to have to hunch over most of the time. Then Tony reaches around him and shuts the passage door and they're plunged into complete darkness.
“47 steps,” Tony says, close enough that Steve can feel his shift in weight as he turns back around, his arm sliding past Steve's side and his leg brushing Steve's thigh.
It's just the fact that he can't see, Steve tells himself. He can't see and they're in a tight spot and it's unexpectedly warm. Tony's lowered his voice so that they won't be heard, making their way between the walls. Steve is almost certain the jolt of tingling lust running through his limbs isn't a reaction Tony's provoking on purpose.
Almost. His memory of that flick of dark lashes is pretty clear.
Tony takes a step, and then another, and Steve follows, trying to keep close enough to stay together but not so close that he'll run the man over if they have to stop suddenly.
He keeps blinking, as if that'll help his eyes focus better in the pitch black passage. He tries to focus on counting steps—23. 24. 25. 26.—and not on the smell of leather and gun oil that's starting to fill the small space.
31. 32. 33. 34.
Tony stops for a moment and Steve freezes, waiting and listening hard. There are vague sounds of voices to their left, but he can't make out any words. Tony steps off again and Steve realizes he's been holding his breath.
35. 36. 37. 38.
The passage gets even narrower, the walls closing in until Steve thinks he might have to turn sideways and side-step along soon because his shoulders are bushing the stones now and he feels like he's going to clip his elbow on something any second.
Then Tony hums under his breath and surges forward and Steve's left groping after him, trying to clamp down on the panic clawing its way up his throat. It's just dark and he doesn't know how to get out, it's not nearly as dangerous as half the things he faces on a daily basis anymore and he's pretty sure Tony wouldn't just leave him here, no matter what interesting thing caught his attention. There's no reason he should be feeling so suddenly cold.
He runs into the man's back before he realizes how close he's gotten, practically leaning on him, his face pressed against his jacket, and he backs off hurriedly.
“Almost there,” Tony murmurs. There's a faint sound of metal clinking together. “Sorry. Probably should've asked how you were with tight spaces.”
“It's not that,” Steve tells him. “I'm fine, just—I've got pretty good night vision. I'm not used to not being able to see in the dark.”
The clinking stops.
“Huh,” Tony says, but then the clinking resumes and there's a sound of stone griding on stone. And then Tony's hand splays over his chest, pushing him back a few steps. There's a crack in the wall ahead of them, outlined in yellow incandescent light and getting wider. By the time the grinding stops there's a hole big enough to squeeze through and Steve's eyes have adjusted.
Tony is standing very close, his hand still on Steve's chest, over the star, but he's turned away, watching the opening. There are no shouts of discovery from the other side, no clatter of feet or click of weapons being readied. They're probably safe.
Steve takes another step back for his own peace of mind and Tony shoots him a puzzled look, letting his hand drop.
“How're you feeling?” he asks, and Steve is really not up for explaining that pretty much every part of his uniform feels too tight and he might be having some kind of personal crisis involving the conflict between his incredibly stupid crush, the sudden very real presence of Tony Stark in his immediate vicinity, the fact that the man keeps touching him, and his need to focus on doing his damn job.
“I'm fine,” he says tightly.
Tony purses his lips doubtfully, but doesn't comment further. He shakes his head.
“Let's go then,” he says, and leads the way into what looks more like a factory than a lab to Steve's eyes. The space is crowded with tables and shelves and large metal machines. There's still no sign of hostile contacts—Tony mutters something about checking the more usual doors before they leave, but Steve gets the impression his attention is about as far from planning their escape as it can get at the moment.
He feels a bit like he's at a fair as Tony flits from one table or bank of blinking things to the next. He's waving his hands excitedly and keeping up a steady stream of chatter—something about power outputs and scan displays, capacitors and energy fields. He tries not to think about the way that excitement lights the man up from the inside, or what it makes Steve want to do.
“Oh,” Tony says, and the shift in his voice is enough to put Steve on alert.
“What is it?” he asks, scanning the room for enemies again. There are plenty of places to hide, really.
“I just—figured out what those darts are for.” Tony waves a sheaf of papers. “Someone's doing experiments. On humans. It's . . . not pretty.” He clears his throat. “Moving on.”
Steve just stares after him for a moment, suddenly intensely grateful Fury had made him come alone instead of sending the whole unit with him. The thought of any of the Commandos laid out on a table—no. It can't happen. He won't let it happen.
"Any idea where we can find this gem?" He asks, poking at something that looks more like part of a Jeep than what he usually thinks of as science experiments. One of them should probably be keeping their mind on the mission at hand, and it should really be him.
"Mmn, probably in the vault," Tony says. He's bent over something with lots of tiny dials.
"The vault?" Steve asks. He scans the room for something that might fit the description.
"It should be over there," Tony waves his hand vaguely. "We'll have to figure out the locking mechanism. I don't think they left any relevant notes out in the open, and it's probably been updated since the Middle Ages."
There's a poorly framed painting on the far wall, above a drafting station. It's a map, but it isn't of any country Steve remembers ever seeing. As he gets closer he realizes that's because he's used to looking at it from a different angle. This is Wakanda, but mirrored.
There aren't very many reasons for HYDRA to have a map of Wakanda in their secret lab. He touches the discolored frame and it thunks gently against the wall. Probably not the face of a safe then. He lifts it up and it comes away easily, revealing blank wall behind it.
“What are you doing?” Tony asks, and Steve holds up the painting.
Tony squints at it and weaves around the tables between them. When he gets close enough he reaches out and Steve lets him take the thing.
“Hm,” he says turning it back and forth. “Maybe . . .” He hands the frame back and pulls a knife out of his belt. Steve's pretty sure it's the one Gialetta was wielding earlier.
Tony steps up to the drafting table and starts tapping at the wall with the knife handle.
He frowns and stands back. He pivots slowly, looking around the room. Then his expression clears.
“Hold that up again, Captain?” he asks, and Steve lifts the painting obligingly.
Tony nods to himself and gestures at the drafting table.
“Set it down here, will you?”
Steve puts it down, oriented the same way it was on the wall, but Tony shakes his head and reaches between his hands, turning the thing upside-down, and then face-down.
He starts tapping around the edge of the frame with the point of the knife this time, and Steve catches himself holding his breath. This is the part Virgil always drew out, in the stories, and now Steve's pretty sure that had more to do with Tony's showmanship than the chronicler's editorial style. Completing a mission objective doesn't usually feel quite so much like searching for treasure in a Mayan temple. He thinks maybe he's starting to get a hint of what Tony meant when he said he was in love with the chase.
Tony grins and flicks the blade a little, and a compartment opens up, not more than two inches on a side. There's a small box inside it.
“There's someone new on the HYDRA payroll,” Tony says as he pulls it out. “Red Skull and von Strucker aren't this subtle. They seem to go more for the foot-thick bank vault approach.” He sets the little box in the middle of the canvas. The burnished metal gives off very familiar reflections.
“But why go to all that trouble when the thing you're hiding is so small?” Tony muses, poking at the tiny latches on one side.
“Is that vibranium?” Steve asks, hovering and trying not to let anticipation make him jittery.
“It must be,” Tony says, as the first latch snaps open. “It's the only metal strong enough to contain what this gem's supposed to be able to do.”
He flicks the second latch up and a spark jumps from knife to box as the top springs open.
The thing inside could be described as a gem, Steve supposes. Some kind of ruby, maybe. But he's never seen anything pulse like that, like it has its own heartbeat, and the red glow of it extends well beyond the confines of its case.
“Close it, close it now,” Tony's saying, his voice high and strained. He's backing away, stumbling over Steve's feet, and Steve reaches out and flips the thing shut hurriedly. The case feels warm even through his glove.
“Oh,” Tony says. He's clutching his chest, his face pale.
“What is it?” Steve asks. It's not the stone, not anymore, he's pretty sure. The container seems perfectly innocuous now. Even the heat is fading, enough that he feels safe slipping it into one of the empty pockets on his belt.
“I have a —” Tony shakes his head and closes his eyes. He take a deep breath, almost bent over he's so curled in on himself now, and Steve can feel real fear settling into his gut now. Something's wrong.
“I need to go back over there,” Tony points at the other side of the lab, where he'd been messing with the buttons and dials. He opens his eyes, his expression grim. “Quickly. And I'm going to need you to help me.”
“Of course,” Steve nods. “Whatever you need,” he blurts, but Tony doesn't seem to notice his mortification over that phrasing.
“I'm going to have to lean on you,” Tony says, stretching out his arm, and Steve shuffles closer. Tony gives him an exasperated look and slings his arm over Steve's shoulders. Most of his weight is leaning into Steve's side as he cautiously snakes his arm around Tony's torso—he doesn't know what's wrong, what if it's Tony's ribs, what if he makes it worse?—and Tony grunts, but doesn't flinch away the way Steve's half-expecting him to. His grip on Steve's shoulder tightens.
“Now, Captain,” he orders, and Steve starts walking, trying to move quickly and not drag Tony off his feet at the same time.
Tony stumbles before they get halfway across the room, his legs folding up underneath him, and Steve scoops him up before he really thinks about it. He gets a few steps before he registers that he is holding Tony Stark in his arms and he stutter steps for a second before he gets his stride back. Which means that Tony's clinging to him now, his arms around Steve's neck and one of his hands holding onto Steve's collar.
He can't think about that right now.
He quickens his pace, dodging around tables and equipment.
“That one, on the right, the one with all the dials,” Tony directs him, and Steve veers toward it.
He stops in front of it and Tony slides out of his grip and leans against the machine. His hands slide over the controls for a moment, and then he sighs.
“Can you pull this cover off?” he asks, running his fingers along the lipped edge of the workstation. Steve sets his grip and wrenches it up without comment and Tony just shoves his hands into the thing's internal wiring. For a moment Steve thinks he's just ripping things out, but no, he's sorting wires.
“Go turn that black knob until the dial reads 400, will you?” Tony says. He's wincing, sinking to his knees, and Steve still isn't sure what's happening here. He paces down the workstation until he finds the right knob.
“What—“ he starts, but another look at Tony's waxen expression keeps him quiet.
“Ok,” Tony grits out, his hands still picking through the wires. “After you get that, I'm gonna need you to take off my belt and unbutton my shirt.”
Steve's hand slips on the knob and the machine starts screeching. He cranks it back down hurriedly, hands shaking.
“What did you say,” he asks. He's pretty sure his voice jumped an octave there and he doesn't really care.
“Belt and shirt, Captain. Off. I'd do it myself but I really need to make sure I've got the right connections here and I don't have a lot of time right now.”
He looks stretched thin and pinched, and Steve swallows back his protests and questions and does as he's told. He has to take his gloves off, and there's a little part of him that he hates at the moment that's wishing for better circumstances for this. Circumstances involving a lot more flirting and a lot less of Tony looking like he's about to pass out or vomit or both.
The belt slips out of worn belt loops easily despite the holster and knife sheath, the buckle heavy in his hand, and he sets it to the side and starts on Tony's shirt buttons.
And then he sees what's under the shirt and he can't stop the widening of his eyes or the half-spoken question that slips past his lips because that is—well it's not anything he was expecting, that's for sure.
“There's a catch on the cover plate, can you—”
Steve flips the little metal hook, and if his hands are shaking a bit he's pretty sure Tony's not going to hold it against him.
There's a rubber pump in Tony's chest. It looks like something out of science fiction.
“All right,” Tony says. “Here goes nothing.”
He grabs his belt with one hand, the other grasping two little bunches of stripped wires.
“I'm going to count to three, and you're going to press the red button up there,” he jerks his head at the workstation. Steve manages a nod and kneels up to get a better look. The button's in the middle of a line of blinking yellow and green lights.
And then Tony says “If I die, make sure you get the gem to Fury,” and sticks his belt in his mouth, and Steve doesn't have time to do more than stare incredulously while Tony flashes his fingers—three, two, one. He presses the button and Tony presses the little bunches of wire on opposite corners of the thing in his chest and . . . well it's a good thing Steve doesn't need to hold the button down, because he's back down at Tony's side pulling the wires away as quickly as he can move.
There's still electricity sparking between the wires, and he lets them fall to the floor and watches Tony's eyelids flicker, watches the pump in his chest settle into a regular rhythm.
Steve leans over him, checks his pulse and his breathing and tries not to think about the fact that he could've killed the man. He should've asked the damn questions.
Tony's eyes blink open, and he pulls the belt out of his mouth and smiles a bit vaguely.
“Wow, you are way more attractive than the face I usually wake up to after this kind of thing. I should file a note with Jarvis. The airship needs more eyecandy,” he says. Like this is perfectly normal. Like flirting is more important than the fact that he was convulsing a moment ago.
Steve is just—done.
“This isn't funny,” he bites out.
Tony frowns at him.
“I'm not being funny, I'm being—”
“You could've died,” Steve interrupts.
Tony just sits up and closes the little plate over the pump.
“Well, since the alternative was definitely dying, I thought this would be better.”
He buttons up his shirt and reaches for his belt, but Steve keeps hold of it, white-knuckled. There are toothmarks in it. They're deep.
Tony sighs and pushes himself to his feet.
“The repulsor pump keeps my heart going,” he explains as he tucks his shirt back in. “But I have to charge it sometimes, and that spark from the gem drained a lot of that charge all at once. It was a bit of a shock, and I had to act fast. I'm sorry.”
Steve stands too, and this time when Tony reaches for the belt he lets him take it. He can't frame the right words in his head. He doesn't have any claim over this man. He has no call to dictate what he does to his own body. But he's very sure he never wants to see anything like that ever again.
After a moment Tony ducks his head and moves back to the panel.
“Thank, you, by the way,” he says.
“For what?” Steve's pretty sure there was nothing about that situation he should be thanked for.
“For helping.” Tony shrugs and turns to look him in the eye. “You didn't have to, but you did anyway. And you probably saved my life. So thanks.”
His expression's terribly sincere and his eyes are a much brighter blue than the Marvel artists had led Steve to believe. Steve finds himself nodding despite his reservations, and the little smile Tony turns on him then is warm and intimate and nothing like the one he wears in all the press photos.
Then he bends over the mess of wires again and Steve's left feeling a bit adrift. He pulls his gloves back on slowly, trying to push the image of lively eyes and dark lashes to the back of his mind.
“We've got the gem, now we need a distraction,” Tony says. He flicks a few switches and does something with the wiring again.
“Can I help?” Steve asks.
“Actually, yes,” Tony says. He steps back from the wires. “Pull out all the green ones and turn that dial up to 1200. I'm going to go work on that,” he gestures at the tank of liquid.
“Should I ask what you're doing?” Steve asks, starting on the wires.
“Not unless you want a lecture on proper lab protocol and how HYDRA really, really needs to review it,” Tony tells him.
“Tell me anyway?” Steve asks.
“If you like,” Tony says, sounding dubious. But he launches into a stream of words that only barely make sense to Steve, talking about things like splash radius and containment protocols. It's almost relaxing, combined with the clank of metal and sometimes a rhythmic pounding like hammer blows. It's reassuring to know Tony's nearby while Steve works at a task he doesn't fully understand the purpose of. Distraction could mean a lot of things, really.
There are a lot of green wires, he finds, but he does his best to be thorough. He has a crick in his neck when he finishes and his hands are cramping a little, but it's nothing a little stretching won't take care of.
Tony stops talking, and Steve pushes himself to his feet again.
“So, what can I—” oh.
Tony stopped talking because someone pressed a gun to his head. A small man in horn-rimmed glasses. And there are more men pouring into the room now, HYDRA soldiers, and really, Steve should've expected something like this.
“I believe you are both required for an audience with the Baron,” the little man says, and Steve already knows there's no point in struggling. Trying to fight his way out will only get Tony killed and himself pumped full of another dose of that tranquilizer, back in a cell. Probably with a proper guard this time.
That doesn't stop him from wincing at the pinch of the cuffs over his gloves, or from gritting his teeth against the rage under his skin when one of the solders slams his rifle into Tony's left shoulder.
The trip through the halls is a stumbling mess of a journey, the HYDRA soldiers so crowded they can't keep out of each other's way, and it would be easy to get free of them, to snap his cuffs and run, but he's not going to leave Tony here now, not after they've gotten so far.
They're escorted to a different room than the bare closet Steve's original interrogation took place in. This looks more like a personal study, with a polished desk along one wall and a little sitting area in front of a fireplace.
And Steve's shield, leaning against the chimney above the mantelpiece. Baron von Strucker's there too, adjusting his monocle and grinning madly, but Steve can't take his eyes off the shield.
So close. Just a few slight shifts in circumstance and he can have it in his hands again. And then he won't have to fumble around with straight punches and worrying about bullets and darts, he can clear the room whether Tony's able-bodied and armed or not.
Tony stumbles into him, and Steve does his best to steady him when they've both got their arms behind their backs. Then he realizes Tony's eyes are flicking between Steve and the shield and he nods slightly.
Tony smiles like he has a secret, but then the soldier on his elbow hauls him back around and shoves him forward.
One of the others tries to push Steve to his knees and Steve stays standing out of pure stubbornness, because it's not like the guy can force the issue.
But Tony doesn't have the benefits of the serum—he's already kneeling, glaring up at von Strucker like he wants to set the man on fire, and Steve doesn't have the shield yet.
He sinks down next to Tony, trying to keep the shield in the corner of his vision. The floor is cold, and the stones are uneven under his shins and knees.
“Search them,” says the Baron, and Steve grits his teeth as their accumulated tools are laid out on the desk. The pistol, the knife, the second tranquilizer dart Tony picked up and two extra clips of ammo he hadn't known Tony had. A scattering of small mechanical pieces. And from Steve, a set of lock picks he doesn't remember ever seeing before, and the gem case.
He tries to look at Tony without actually turning his head, but all he can get is a hint of movement that might be a nod and might be Tony trying to reposition his knees on the cold floor. But that secretive smile . . .
“Hm,” von Strucker picks up the case. “It seems your design was not quite so foolproof as you supposed, Doctor.”
“Given your particular opponent's skill at retrieving things that do not belong to him,” the little man in the glasses says, tugging his suit jacket straight, “I hardly think your own design would have done better.”
“Indeed,” von Strucker grins down at them, but Steve's pretty sure his attention's entirely on Tony, who's cursing under his breath now. He's half convinced Tony's trying to keep that attention for some half-baked plan Steve can only guess at. He tries to count the number of enemies in the room. At least five, possibly up to nine, not counting the ones probably stationed outside the door. And the doctor may not be a trained combatant, but he's still armed.
“Such a shame we've had so long a delay, Mr. Stark,” von Strucker's saying. “I was so hoping we'd have this whole mess over and done with by now. But I'm sure you understand how . . . delicate the Zemo formula can be. We must have everything exactly right.”
“I would rather die,” Tony spits out, and Steve's distracted from his calculations of space and angles by the vehemence in his voice. This is nothing like the confrontation with Gialetta, but he has no idea what von Strucker's talking about.
“I know,” von Strucker agrees. “That's why I'm doing it. Your brain is quite valuable, of course, but you have personally caused me quite a bit of trouble, Mr. Stark. It's only fair I get something of a return on that.”
“I'll kill you first,” Tony says, struggling to his feet. Von Strucker sneers at him and kicks him in the stomach.
Or, he tries to, but Tony's not there anymore. Tony's dropped low, kicking out at von Strucker's planted leg. Steve has time to note that his hands are definitely cuff-free before the kick connects, but then—
—then he's scrambling forward on his knees and snapping the chain on his own cuffs, trying to catch the little metal case that's fallen out of von Strucker's hand.
It clatters to the ground before he can quite get there and the latches snap open. Steve clamps his hand over it before the lid can spring up too and forces the latches back down.
“Captain!” Tony yells as he sits up, and Steve rolls up to his feet and catches the shield as it flies past his shoulder. He swings it around to smash it into the first guard's helmet and the man stumbles back, clutching his head.
Seven, he amends his count. Two are on the ground, still but not bleeding, and he gets a glimpse of Tony braced in the corner next to the fireplace with a tranq rifle in his hands before two of the soldiers raise their weapons at him.
He flips into a back handspring, brings his legs up to keep most of his body behind the shield and lands behind the desk.
He tucks the little box back into his belt pocket, grabs the pistol off the top of the desk and fires a few shots at the wall and ceiling, herding one soldier a little more into the center of the room.
He takes one final look around, shifts his weight and throws the shield.
It doesn't work exactly as he'd hoped, but Tony gets the one who manages to step out of the way and it does still clip von Strucker's shoulder as he tries to stand up.
Tony seems to take a significant amount of joy from that image before he hits von Strucker with a dart too.
The doctor is nowhere to be seen.
“You have the stone?” Tony asks.
“Yes,” Steve confirms.
“Good,” Tony says, surveying the room. “I see why you wanted that shield back. No wonder you recognized the vibranium, if you're carrying that thing. But now I think we've overstayed our welcome.”
“I think you're right,” Steve agrees. He settles the shield back on his arm and rubs his hand over the rim of it. “Thank you, by the way.”
“Least I could do, Captain,” Tony shrugs. “Besides, seeing you in action is like watching the Olympics. You should sell tickets.”
Steve blinks at that, looking back at Tony. He's crouching over one of the soldiers, pistol in one hand and a spare clip in the other, but he's looking at Steve.
Steve can't tell if he's laughing or smirking, but he gets the distinct impression he's being ogled again.
“Where'd you get the picks?” he asks instead of trying to come up with a response for that.
“Gialetta,” Tony says, standing. He moves toward the door. “She taught me to pick cuffs, actually. Years ago.”
“Guess it came in handy,” Steve says, feeling awkward again.
“You can stop looking like you're walking on eggshells, Cap, I'm really not broken up over it.” Tony checks over the pistol and leans against wall next to the door. “You're far more interesting than she ever was,” he adds.
Steve's pretty sure he shouldn't be feeling quite so happy right now, in the middle of a HYDRA base with enemies on every side.
Then Tony raises an eyebrow at him and Steve hurries into position opposite him, ready to turn the knob and shield them from any enemy fire on the other side.
“Cap?” he asks, not quite able to help himself.
“It's shorter,” Tony says. “And I don't actually know your name, so.” He shrugs. “You ready?”
“I—” Steve swallows back whatever he was going to say to that. It's not important. “Yes,” he says.
Tony gives him a significant look, and Steve realizes that means go.
He turns the knob and pushes the door open, shield ready, but there aren't any guards on the other side. Either they were in the room after all or the doctor took them with him when he ran off.
They're probably going to regret losing that man, Steve thinks.
“This way,” Tony points down the hall, the opposite of the way they arrived.
Steve turns, settling into a patrolling stride and keeping his eyes peeled for movement.
Tony huffs and shoves at his shoulder.
“Go, go, run,” Tony says dragging him along by the arm, and Steve breaks into a jog he knows non-super-soldiers should be able to keep up with.
Apparently Tony doesn't think that's fast enough because instead of running beside Steve he's dropped behind and is pushing at his back, still urging him forward and saying Now, Captain, this isn't the time for lallygagging , MOVE!
And then Steve hears a dull crack somewhere in the depths of the base and feels a breeze cross his cheek and realizes that whatever “distraction” Tony set up has probably started. And since it's Tony Stark, Steve's pretty sure he knows what kind of distraction it is after all.
He picks up the pace and Tony pulls up alongside him, short sprinting steps settling into long, ground-eating strides that look far too controlled to match the exhilarated expression on Tony's face.
“I thought you were going to warn me about the explosions!” Steve yells over a sound like thunder.
“I thought you'd know what I meant by distraction!” Tony yells back. He takes a sharp turn to the left and Steve nearly overshoots the doorway and has to scramble a little to keep up.
“Are you sure you know where you're going?” he asks.
“Pretty sure,” Tony says, grinning like a maniac. Steve should probably be more worried about that, but he's not. He can feel a similar grin stretching over his own face, a match for the bubbling thrill in his chest because this, this is his favorite part of the serum. The ability to run without faltering, being able to trust his body to do exactly what he needs, when he needs it.
Even knowing that the whole building could collapse around them he can't quite bring himself to be afraid. This is exactly the sort of thing his body was made for.
There's an even louder crash behind them and a rush of heat on the back of his neck, and he tightens his grip on the shield straps and surges forward. There's a door at the end of the hall, and he ducks his head a bit as he lunges for it.
It crashes open and he skids into the opposite wall shield-first, trying to keep his feet under him. Tony falls half into him, laughing, and then pivots and starts running again.
There are HYDRA soldiers ahead, startled and milling. Steve tries to slip around Tony so he can knock them aside but Tony's pulling his pistol out of its holster and one of them's down before Steve even draws level, and a second's falling back clutching his knee.
Steve barrels through them and doesn't stop when he crosses the doorway they were guarding. Tony's footfalls are steady behind him.
“Left here,” he says, “then the next right.”
Steve swerves around the corners and finds himself in a long hallway. He lengthens his strides.
He can see daylight through the windows now. They're almost out.
The door at the end of the hall opens onto a balcony—not too high, but not a height Steve would've been comfortable jumping from before the serum. He skids to a stop, looking to Tony, but the man's already climbing up on the railing.
“Don't leave me hanging now, Cap,” he says. “We've got about thirty seconds to get clear of the last blast.”
And then he jumps off with a whoop, his jacket flapping open as he falls.
Steve can't take the time to make sure he lands safely. He backs through the doorway a few paces, takes a running start, and hopes he'll be able to jump out far enough that he won't land on Tony.
A hot rush of air blows past him as he falls, and he shifts his grip on the shield and does his best to roll with the landing, bringing the shield up over his head in case of falling debris.
Tony's already running again, zig-zagging across the open area around the base. Steve double-checks that the gem case is still secured to his belt and follows him.
He gets about ten steps before the he's lifted off his feet by a blast of heat and sound so loud it makes his ears ring.
He sends up a spray of pine needles and dirt when he hits, and for a moment he just sits there on his hands and knees, blinking and shaking his head against the din in his skull. But then there are hands hauling him to his feet and Tony's half-dragging him along, stumbling through the sudden interruption of what was probably a quiet morning.
Come on, come on, Tony's saying, and Steve gets his feet under him and then they're running full tilt for the forest again.
There's a trench just past the treeline, and Tony slides into it. Steve follows as closely as he can and holds the shield over both their heads until the ground stops shaking and he no longer feels as if a tree's going to drop on top of them.
He peeks up over the edge of the foxhole. The building's a ruin, two of the towering stone walls blown open and one of HYDRA's added-on guard towers burning merrily.
He can feel Tony shaking against his legs, and he bends down to check him for injuries—he could've been hit with shrapnel, he might've fallen badly trying to get in the trench—but then he realizes Tony's laughingand he slides down next to him, giddy with a heady combination of relief and adrenaline.
Tony twists around, his grin wide and his eyes sparkling, and Steve can't help but grin back at him.
And then he notices that Tony's looking between his eyes and his mouth, little flicks of his lashes, and he nearly chokes on his breath.
A good adventure has three main elements, he remembers, and they've certainly covered the first two.
He licks his lips, swallows against the tightness in his throat when Tony's grin turns sultry. Steve tries to shift a little, change the angle, and his foot slips and then he's practically kneeling over Tony Stark, who's looking at him like he's a particularly interesting piece of treasure. Like he's the most interesting thing in the world.
He can't help but notice the sheen of sweat on Tony's skin, the flush in his cheeks. His collar gaps open, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of neck and shoulder, and Steve leans forward a bit, stretches one hand out to brace against the wall of earth next to Tony's head.
“Um,” he says and inwardly curses himself. Very intelligent, Steve. You're making a very smooth impression here.
Tony reaches out and grabs hold of his uniform and reels him in, one thumb hooked under Steve's collar. His other hand slides up Steve's neck and over his cheek, guiding their lips together.
His lips are dry and chapped, and his beard is prickly, but it's still one of the best kisses Steve's ever had—hesitant at first, and then soft and languid, slow, like they have all the time in the world, like nothing else matters.
Tony's hands stroke over his neck again and Steve can't help but arch into the touch a bit as Tony's fingers slide up to the edge of his helmet. Tony just hums and licks over his lips, coaxes Steve's tongue into his mouth and sucks on it.
It can't be real. He feels too-warm and too-big, clumsy and hamfisted, like he'll fall into Tony and crush him on accident.
It occurs to him that, for someone used to living Tony's life, this kind of thing probably happens more often than one would expect. Adrenaline. The rush of discovery and the heat of the moment. He hasn't even seen Steve's face—he knows practically nothing about him.
Steve leans back and opens his eyes. Tony's thumb is steady against his pulse, his hand a warm curve around the back of his neck. He doesn't look like a man carried away by adrenaline and the thrill of the moment. He smiles, the same little genuine smile he'd flashed in the lab after thanking Steve for his help.
It's as close to perfect as he could ever think to expect. But it's not nearly everything he wants.
He slides the shield off his arm and sets it aside. Then he reaches up for the clasp under his chin and keeps his eyes on Tony's face as he loosens the strap. Watches his eyes go wide and his mouth drop open a little. He looks like he's holding his breath. Steve hooks his fingers under the ridge of tough leather across his cheekbones and peels the whole thing off.
He has to close his eyes for that part—it always leaves him feeling like he needs to squint a bit to rearrange all the muscles in his face—but when he looks again Tony's still watching him, his eyebrows high on his forehead, his eyes tracking over Steve's face.
“I, um, thought you'd—” Steve waves his hand vaguely and realizes he's still holding the mask. And also, his hair is probably sticking straight up off the top of his head. He scrambles for more words.
“If we're going to—I thought it'd be better if—”
Tony's hand tightens on the back of his neck and Steve stops talking.
“You didn't have to do that,” Tony says. He looks almost as serious as he had in the lab, asking Steve to help him save his own life.
“I know,” Steve says, “I just thought—I wanted to,” he finishes, feeling silly. Silly and presumptuous and like he's probably being a pain in the neck, complicating something that could've been simple. He stares down at his mask and grips it tight. Any minute now he's going to get the brush-off, and this'll be the last he's sees of Tony Stark.
“Hey, don't spook on me now, I didn't say it was bad,” Tony says. His hand slides around Steve's jaw, nudging his head up until they're eye-to-eye again. “I just wasn't expecting it,” he adds.
Steve's probably a little too conscious of Tony's fingers under his chin, his thumb just under his lower lip.
“Didn't seem fair,” he says, trying to keep eye contact instead of just staring at the man's lips. “Since I know so much about you.”
Tony's mouth quirks, his expression turning a bit more knowing than Steve's really comfortable with.
“I also wasn't expecting the all-American perfection to be quite so thorough,” Tony teases. “I feel like I must be corrupting you terribly.”
The pad of his thumb slides over the edge of Steve's lip and Steve presses his tongue to it. Licks under it and closes his lips and sucks lightly, because all-American he may be but he'd hardly be kissing a man in a foxhole if he were quite that innocent.
“Or I could be wrong,” Tony breathes, his voice gone a bit high and strained as Steve slips his lips over the first knuckle. “I'm happy to be wrong, really.”
He pulls his hand back and surges forward, and this kiss is nothing like as relaxed as the first one. Steve's holding tight onto Tony's belt with one hand and stroking over his ribs with the other, and Tony's got a double handful of his hair, not quite tight enough to be painful, and this is definitely Tony Stark on the offensive. He nips at Steve's lips and kisses hard and presses his tongue into Steve' mouth and for a moment Steve just lets him, dizzy with the rush of it.
But if he's only going to have this one chance he better make it memorable, and after that moment he shifts his grip and presses Tony back against the side of the foxhole and does his best to kiss the man breathless.
Eventually he leans back again and tries to contain the little thrill in his gut when Tony keeps one hand stroking at his hairline, more caress than encouragement.
"How're you feeling now, Captain?" Tony asks. His lips are swollen and his eyes are hooded, his shoulders lax. Steve's a bit proud to have put that thoroughly kissed look on the man's face.
"Wonderful,” he admits. He ducks his head to hide his blush, but it probably doesn't matter. Not this close. He sneaks a glance back up at Tony's face and turns his head just enough to ghost another kiss against the inside of Tony's arm, where his shirt and jacket pull away from his wrist. “Terrific,” he whispers.
He can't read whatever's happening to Tony's expression, but it doesn't look anything like rejection.
There's a sound of whistles in the distance, and he jerks back to himself abruptly, sitting back on his heels and trying to ignore the fact that Tony doesn't just let his hand fall—he keeps contact as long as possible, his fingertips sliding down over the star and tracing the stripes.
Steve might never be able to look at his uniform the same way again. He scoots back and clears his throat.
“That'll be the cavalry,” he says, re-settling his mask and reaching for the shield.
“Fury's dog pack,” Tony quips, shifting to his knees.
“The Howling Commandos,” Steve corrects him, but Tony just offers up a wry smile.
Steve checks the surroundings again, but there's no sign of movement. He climbs out of the foxhole and offers Tony a hand up. If the touch lingers a little long he'll think about that later, in the relative privacy of his tent.
“Well,” Tony says, gesturing at the spray of rubble and blackened stone, “at least we've got something to show for our efforts.”
Steve nods, at a loss for words. He wants to say something meaningful. Something real, before the Commandos arrive and they get roped into reports and debriefs and Tony flies off to wherever it is he stays between adventures.
Instead he's just standing there, clutching his shield like maybe it could provide some inspiration.
“We should do this again,” Tony says. He's not looking at Steve.
“Do what?” Steve asks, and promptly wants to kick himself.
Tony shoots him a sly little side-eyed glance and a cocky smirk.
“Well, all of it, preferably,” he says. “Maybe I can talk Fury into some kind of team-up. We worked pretty well together. Could be useful.”
They had, and it really could. Steve tries not to pin too many hopes on the possibility, but it's probably a vain effort. At this point he's pretty sure the torch he's carrying is going to be a permanent feature of his life.
“Also,” Tony says, and now he turns to face Steve properly. “You should look me up when you get some leave. If you want to, that is.”
“Yes,” Steve says, almost before Tony's done speaking, and now his smirk is definitely amused.
“I'll make sure you get my contact details,” he says.
“Great, that sounds,” Steve flexes his hand around the edge of the shield and tries to sound like less of an idiot. “That sounds great,” he finishes.
“Great,” Tony repeats, his eyes shining with mirth. “You going to tell me your name now or do I have to go snoop through Fury's files?”
He'd taken off the mask, and he was just kissing the man. Secret identities probably aren't relevant, at this point.
Tony holds out his hand to shake, and Steve takes it.
“Nice to meet you, Steve,” he says. “I hear you're a hell of a soldier.”
“It's nice to meet you,” Steve replies. “I've heard a lot about you, too.”
Tony laughs. “Who knows,” he says, winking. “Some of it might even be true.”