Tony's open on the operating table when Steve finds him. There's blood running down his wrists from where he'd been struggling with the cuffs, there are nasty cuts on Tony's chest, and more importantly there is a hole in his chest, a metal-rimmed hole that Steve knows will haunt his dreams in nights to come.
He doesn't pull his punch on the demented scientist standing over Tony's body. He wipes that indignant look on the madman's face off with a bone-shattering punch (he may have broken his nose) and turns to work on the cuffs.
"You might be just in time, Cap," Tony says, voice cracked. "No, stop, find the reactor. He put it on the table, see it? The glowy thing, supposed to be in my chest?"
Steve follows directions and collects the reactor from the tray of tools (scalpels and razors and wrenches and stainless-steel things that should never be used on a human body) and there's no blood on it, but the back of it...
He doesn't know if this is how it's supposed to look, with some wires hanging out, but he brings it back to Tony without stopping to inspect it.
"I'm going to tell you what to do with that," Tony says. "And you're going to do it in the next forty seconds before I go into cardiac arrest. Ready?"
"What - "
"That needs to be in my chest," Tony nods down at the hole in his chest, "Right now. Ready?"
Steve nods, biting back questions (he's seen the glow from Tony's shirt before, he knows that there's something electronic in his chest, but he'd never connected that it was somehow keeping him alive, and that makes the gaping hole in Tony's chest worse) and following directions as Tony talks him through connecting wires and screwing it in.
The second the reactor is back in its place, Tony sags, eyes closing. He looks exhausted, pale and fragile in a way Steve's not used to seeing from the man.
"I'll get you home," Steve promises. "Safe and sound."
That's the funny thing about Captain America, Tony muses. He promises to get you home safe and sound, and okay, great, nice sentiment. Tony's first instinct is to laugh it off as the usual filler, because there's still an entire base's worth of angry HYDRA soldiers between them and safety.
Sure, they'll get home. Tony doesn't doubt that for a moment (not now, not when his reactor is back where it belongs and he's not strapped down) but he's expecting at least one or two bullet holes before they get out.
But that's the funny thing about Captain America. He makes the promise, means it, and then - despite HYDRA's best efforts and creepy robots - it's not long before Tony finds himself being ushered into the arms of some waiting medics and he's safe again. The only scratches he's got are the ones from before Cap found him. (Broken ribs, cuts and dings, burn where a bullet grazed him. Oh, and gratuitous amounts of blood loss. Nothing Tony hasn't dealt with before.)
That the Captain got his injured ass out alive at all is a miracle, the kind of miracle Captain America pulls off on a regular basis.
So there's the other funny thing: Tony should be grateful. Hell, he is. He'll arrange for all of Steve Rogers' future gym equipment purchases to be paid for in advance, so the goodie-two-shoes can't refuse his show of gratitude.
But in person, oh no, that's an entirely different story.
He chews out the medics, gets himself released against medical advice as soon as he can get a ride arranged, and when Steve shows up at the Tower to drag him back to the hospital, well...
"Nope," Tony says, and he puts the welding mask back down. His ribs have been taped, he's sore in a million places, but the bleeding has stopped and he can think straight, so he's good to go.
"What are you doing?" Steve asks, and Tony doesn't need to turn around to see that his arms are crossed and that he's got a stern 'I-do-not-approve' look on his face. He can hear the 'you're injured, why are you working, are you nuts?' in Steve's voice as it is, and yes, okay, he may be overly familiar with deciphering that tone, whether it comes from Rhodey or Pepper or Captain America.
"Remember how I was kidnapped?" Tony asks, not pausing from his welding. "I got an eyeful of HYDRA's new robots on our way out of that base, and I've got just the thing to keep them from bothering us in the future."
"You can't work on this later?"
Tony grins to himself, still intent on the welding. "Of course not, Capsicle. The design is fresh, strike while the iron's hot...hey!"
Now he pushes the welding mask up with intent to grab for the blowtorch that Steve's stolen, but the moment he reaches out Steve grabs his wrist in an iron grip.
"You're injured," Steve says, turning off the flame and setting the torch down, still holding Tony's wrist. "You should be resting, not working."
"I caught a nap before I checked myself out."
This is an old, old argument. Burned his fingers? He can still play with daddy's toys, come on, please? Broken arm, no sweat. He can work on his car with one arm just fine. Cut in a dozen places? (fell through a window and he can still remember the too-sweet taste of that wine as it went down and killed his judgment) Why shouldn't he show up and build a robot the next day? He's not bleeding out on the table, is he?
And so on. It's only gotten worse with Iron Man, but he's gotten better excuses to stay where he wants to be along with the increased injuries. He needs to work, to keep the armor current and able to fend off villainous attacks. He needs to put in the hours to repair it, to tinker with it, to do everything in his power to make his armor the best damn armor it can be.
Captain America is a new twist on an old theme. Tony's never had too-strong fingers on his wrist before, or angry blue eyes staring him down and daring him to try and pick up a wrench on his watch.
"You're not okay," Steve says. Tony wants to lean in and yell at him. Of course he's not okay, doesn't take a genius to figure that out, but right now he needs to be down here, in a place that's completely safe, in a place that he can trust, because -
That's not a new twist on an old theme. That's fear gnawing its way up his spine, threatening him with vertigo and loss of control and if he's going to be frog-marched out of here, he's going to have to grab a bottle of wine and take that way out, because he doesn't have enough methods for dealing with the panic that comes up whenever he sees that gaping hole in his chest and there's someone between him and the reactor.
"I'm okay here," Tony says, tugging at his wrist as gently as he can. He doesn't want to jostle those bandages too much. "I'm working, I'm fine."
It's no use: Steve obviously doesn't believe him.
"Do I need to drag you to a bed?" Steve asks, and Tony grits his teeth. Which isn't a good move - his head is throbbing, and he raises his other hand to touch his forehead before he thinks not to.
"I need a drink," Tony says, which gets him yet another stern-and-disapproving look from Steve.
"You shouldn't drink while taking medications," Steve says, and oh christ, exactly how much of a parent is he? Tony steps back; tries to before Steve catches his shoulder and holds him steady. "You're coming with me, mister."
"Actually, I'm not." Tony says. "I'm going to stay right here and finish what I started, and you're going to leave me in peace."
Tony stares him down again, welcoming the anger as it sharpens his mind and pushes back the headache that's been haunting him all day.
But before he can open his mouth to start anything, Steve pulls him closer, and is that worry he sees on Steve's face on top of everything else? Figures.
"I don't want you to injure yourself down here," Steve says, and they are standing entirely too close now.
Tony had a dozen fantasies that involved this kind of proximity before he met Captain America. Then those fantasies morphed into rougher scenes, where Tony could smack some sense into that patriotic skull, or fuck that attitude out of him.
Probably a bad time to be thinking about any of those fantasies, but Tony has never been one for good judgment calls. And pulling the 'freak out Captain America' card may get him more time to work down here, and he's got another idea he wants to run the math on, and all of it means that it's a good idea by the time the thought enters his consciousness.
And Steve is standing entirely too close. Nearly pressed to him, in fact.
Tony kisses him. Closes the gap and watches Steve's eyes go wide.
Tony doesn't do anything by halves. Seconds after he initiates the kiss, he leans into it, opening his mouth to nip at Steve's lips, gets him to gasp, and slides his tongue into Steve's mouth, savoring the shocked panic in Steve's eyes.
Hey, bonus! If it turns out that Steve's violently homophobic, he can't punch him now without aggravating Tony's injuries, and if Tony knows anything about the man, it's that he's overly protective of his teammates, even the obnoxiously brilliant ones.
Tony runs his tongue over Steve's tongue, then leans back, grinning. Yes, he is wonderful, thank you, that was a great idea.
Except that Steve's grip hasn't loosened on him, and hello, he's supposed to freak out and back off.
"If you're going to freak out on me, do it without breaking my wrist, got it?" Tony asks, tugging pointedly at his wrist, and he sees Steve blink rapidly and lick his lips.
"That was," Steve begins, and he falters, but he doesn't let go of Tony, and oh, oh wait, Tony knows where this is going now. The third possibility, and Tony is one hundred percent on board with it.
After fumbling for more words and failing, Steve just kisses him, looking lost as he does, because (and it figures) he obviously doesn't know how to say that yes, please, he'd like another.
It's better this time, as Steve reciprocates the kiss, and Tony drags a moan out of him, shimmying closer to Steve.
"Now you can take me to bed," he says against Steve's lips.
"I was worried about you," Steve says because he doesn't understand how this is supposed to work.
"No, stop there. It goes like this. You escort me to bed, and we have wildly hot sex before I watch you fall asleep post-coital and then I get back down here," Tony says, sternly. "Win-win for everyone, so come on. Get with the program."
In retrospect that wasn't the wisest thing to say.
Steve is cycling between exasperation, shock, worry and he finally settles on irritation, eyes narrowing. "Is that what this is?"
"Um, no, pretty sure it's sex." Tony says. "Which is a great idea, so we should probably leave the rest up in the air and get on it. My bedroom or yours?"
For a long minute Steve says nothing, then he sighs and loops an arm around Tony's waist. "Yours," he says, and Tony doesn't believe for a second that they're actually going to get to the sex when they get to his bedroom.
He'll have to grab a drink, then. Yeah, should have kept his mouth shut.
Tony waits until they're in the elevator before he makes his next move.
"I thought Captain America couldn't lie." He tries to say it as an offhand comment, instead of letting his disdain for the perfect image Captain America carries around with him like a flag show through. He doesn't entirely succeed, but it's better than nothing.
Steve tenses up next to him, and Tony glances at him, rocking on his heels.
"Let me guess: we're going to get to my bedroom, you're going to get me into bed, tuck the covers up, wish me good night and stand guard outside until I've gotten some sleep. Right?" Tony flashes him a shit-eating grin and keeps going. "Thought so. Problem with that is, I am not going to bed without some liquor or sex, and seeing as sex is right out..." Tony leans over, pressing the emergency stop on the elevator.
(He's not acknowledging the relief he feels at having Steve nearby, nor is he acknowledging the nerves that are cropping up at the thought of being trapped in an elevator with someone who's seen him at his most vulnerable.)
"Why are you so determined not to get any rest?" Steve asks, and Tony just rolls his eyes at the question.
"That's an easy one," Tony says. "I'll let you think about it for a while, so you can be properly ashamed at yourself for missing it."
The answer, of course, is a (perfectly understandable) fear of nightmares. Lie in a dark room with nothing but the glow of the reactor to keep him company - there's a reason Tony's avoiding sleep. Memories lie in wait, as do panic and a dozen other black feelings that are waiting for the chance to drag him down, and it's better to fight the sleep tooth and nail.
Or, if he can't avoid it, then numb himself properly so he won't slip under when he does surrender to sleep.
Tony pinches the bridge of his nose gingerly, exhaling. He needs to stop thinking, actually. If he could he'd take them back down to the lab, but he doesn't doubt for a minute that Steve would stop him.
"That doesn't change the fact that you're injured," Steve says, quietly persistent. "Is there anything we can do to ease..." He trails off, careful. Tony makes a face.
"Booze, sex or gadgets, I've got it handled," Tony says. "No guarantees with the sex, though, so why don't you get off now and let me handle my own problems?"
"Tony, there are other things that could help - "
"A bedtime story is not going to make things all better!" Tony snaps.
"Working yourself to death isn't going to help either!" Steve snaps back. "Your body needs to recover!"
"Oh, so that's what this is about." Tony says. This isn't a new revelation, but it feels good to work acid into his tone, to spell out exactly how annoyed by this he is. "I'm not as fragile as you think I am."
Steve reaches out, pulling Tony's hand away from the panel. He pushes the button for Tony's floor again, and catches Tony's other hand as he moves to stop the elevator again.
"You're not fragile," Steve says, turning Tony to face him, leaning in. "But you almost died today, and you're injured now. You need to rest."
Tony didn't want to get to this subject at all. Damn it.
"The thing? With the reactor? Not the first time I've had to lie around while someone played with it," Tony says, keeping his tone light with effort. "I've been through this before, Cap, I'll be fine. You don't need to play babysitter for me."
"Before?" He sounds shocked, horrified; good.
"Oh look, we're here!" Tony says, stepping out of the elevator, slipping out of Steve's grasp. He pushes the button to send the elevator down, and to his surprise, Steve actually stays put. The elevator doors close between them. It's a miracle, really.
Tony doesn't stick around to find out if Steve changes his mind.
He avoids everyone (Steve) in the following days, and as his body heals he invents two new upgrades for the armor, one new weapon against HYDRA bots, and gives his arc reactor a check-up. (An overly careful one, with a spare reactor on hand should anything goes wrong, and even so his hands are not steady as he works.)
A week later he rejoins the team, ready just in time to save the world from overgrown sea life (what is it with villains and super-sizing seafood?) and then barely a day later he gets kidnapped by HYDRA.
Again. What the hell.
Fortunately for him, Steve gets dragged along for the ride.
Steve closes his eyes to the sight, if only to reorient himself while the drugs flush themselves out of his system, (whatever kind they were, they were strong, strong enough to pull him under and keep him out of the game for too long) and listens to Tony's paper-thin bravado, using it as an anchor to keep his thoughts from slipping off into sleep again.
"Is your nose broken? Because this is ridiculous. A mad scientist who can kidnap me twice should not go around with a broken nose. I am going to file a complaint, and they are going to kick you out of the Masters of Evil."
Steve thinks: He's not part of the Masters of Evil, Tony. His nose is broken, I broke it. I'm sorry I didn't punch him harder, I could have saved us a lot of trouble.
Everything is still tinged in reds and pinks when he blinks his eyes open again, but the color scheme does nothing to disguise the scene in front of him: Tony, strapped once again to an operating table, hole in his chest where there should be a blue-white glow, and to his side the silently-gloating scientist who is apparently the mastermind behind this entire scheme of HYDRA's to steal Tony's arc reactor.
He feels a twinge of frustration, one that he's certain Tony has felt: haven't they been here before? Haven't they escaped this situation before?
He reminds himself that there isn't time to wallow in regrets (there never is) and instead gets to business. He may not be able to see clearly yet, but he can think and he can feel all of his limbs: time to examine his options and then act.
Steve shakes his brain down as he subtly tests his restraints, blinking again in a futile effort to clear the pink haze from his vision. He turns up two facts for his efforts: the scientist (he remembers now) is Dr. Volodimir, a new addition to HYDRA's ranks, the man who's been responsible for Tony's kidnappings. Also, the restraints are not going to be able to hold him.
Which is a lucky break, but surprising: most villains these days have learned how strong their chains need to be to restrain him.
Dr. Volodimir turns to the table, picking up - is that a drill? - and when he turns back he looks apologetic.
"I am sorry, I do not speak English," he says.
Steve isn't surprised at the sudden flush of anger in Tony's (too pale, how much time does he have left?) face, or at how smug Dr. Volodimir looks now.
Steve suspects he understands English perfectly, but now is not the time to concentrate on languages, not when Dr. Volodimir is turning on the drill (it is a drill, and Steve doesn't want to know why he'd use a drill here) and advancing on Tony.
Other colors are seeping back into his vision as he rips himself free from the restraints and slams into the scientist from behind, blues and yellows and greens restoring themselves as he disables and then knocks out Dr. Volodimir, leaving him in a heap on the floor.
"Don't speak," Steve says, collecting the reactor from the table. It looks better glowing white and blue instead of pink and red, in his opinion. "I remember how to do this."
Tony forces a laugh as Steve restores the reactor and doesn't listen to him. "Perfect timing, Cap. Mind getting the restraints?"
"Not at all," Steve says, taken aback by Tony's mood. It's forced, yes, but there's none of the broken exhaustion haunting him this time. "Are you alright?"
"Obviously not," Tony says, but he understands what Steve was really asking. "It's hard to take this as badly as I did the first time around. It's too ridiculous. My ribs aren't even sore this time!"
"You aren't making very much sense."
"Near-death experience, I'm not supposed to make sense this soon after that," Tony sits up as soon as the restraints are off, and has to grab at Steve's arm to hold himself up. He's still weak, despite his generally lighter attitude.
"Time to go," Steve says after Tony's had a chance to breathe.
Tony nods, and gets to his feet, wobbling briefly before he regains his balance. "Can you..." he trails off.
"What is it?"
"If I had a weapon on me, I'd use it." Tony says, tone flattening out. "Let's go."
"Don't stare at me, come on," Tony snaps, and Steve obeys, bending to grab his shield from where Dr. Volodimir had stashed it.
Acting helps. If he stops to think about what Tony wanted to - wants to do, he'll stop for a long time.
"There are lines," he tells Tony as they leave the room. "Don't cross them."
He pretends not to hear Tony mutter 'but I'd sleep better at night' under his breath.
Tony might be paranoid. Might be developing paranoia. Might be.
His nerves are shot after that. Even when he's all healed up again, and even when he's had a chance to examine the reactor again.
Once? Once is great. Once is fantastic. Once is enough to give him recurring nightmares for the rest of his life. (Ignore context, forget who it was, boil it down to the mechanics: he couldn't move and he was dying and there was nothing he could do to stop it.)
Twice is predictable. Some villain would find out and try to take it eventually, and he lived long enough for it to happen. (The dreams get worse, and the light in his chest begins to scare him. Because it means that the nightmare could happen again.)
Three times is enough to wake up his hind-brain and activate all of his nerves all the time because anyone - anyone - could turn on him and paralyze him and take it out and watch him die in slow motion.
Steve doesn't understand how ready he was to kill Dr. Volodimir for that, and with luck he never will.
Tony pins him to a wall a day later, late at night in an empty hallway. He kisses him and reaches into his pants and demands that they have sex right now and Steve agrees because...because...
He'd like to say he agrees because he can see the desperation in Tony's eyes and understands that it's to show Tony exactly how far he can trust Steve. (He can pin Tony easily, and if they're naked and alone Tony is as vulnerable as if he were tied down in a HYDRA base.)
He'd like to say he agrees because he wants to make Tony feel good, if not loved. (He is a romantic at heart and makes no apologies for that. He does his best to convince himself not to expect anything in return, though, because Tony has demonstrated too thoroughly that sex and love aren't the same thing.)
Those would all be good valid reasons to accept. But he's too honest for his own good, and he can't claim any of those as the truth.
Steve kisses Tony back and takes him to bed because every time he closes his eyes he sees Bucky falling out of reach, and because every time he tries to turn away from that memory he sees a gaping hole in Tony's chest and hears 'I'll show you how. Just be there.'
"The sex was amazing, can we do that every time I get kidnapped? Because 'yay we got out alive' sex is amazing and you kiss very well, I'm going to repeat that because you kiss very, very well, and it helps that you're hot as hell." Tony's babbling, eyes glued to where Steve's hand is laid protectively on his stomach, and Steve thinks oh. Too close to the reactor.
He removes his hand; watches Tony's mouth shut with a snap.
He puts his hand on Tony's arm instead, and he can see the tension run out of Tony's body.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs, pressing a kiss to Tony's neck. It's not the only thing he's sorry for, but if Tony's realized that Steve's basking in the glow of the reactor as often as he's pressing kisses to Tony's neck to feel his pulse, he hasn't said anything.
"We're not talking about it," Tony says, tipping his head back. "Just kiss me again, and we'll be just fine."
Steve thinks: you trust me.
He says nothing and kisses Tony instead. They'll be fine. They'll have to be. It will take time before they're anything approaching healthy, but fine - they can both do fine.
(Tony's pulse drums on under his lips, steady and reassuring.)
They'll be fine, he thinks again, and this time he believes it.