They hadn't realized it was a weapon at first.
The rings were thick and made of metal, each one about as tall as Steve's hand and wide enough that when they dropped out of the sky over Iron Man, they were able to fit over him, even with his hands raised to deliver a repulsor blast.
They fell one at a time but in rapid succession, six of them, the first dropping quickly but coming to an abrupt halt around Iron Man's feet, another settling just a few inches above that, until all six had him surrounded from head to toe and Steve could only see flashes of red and gold through the gaps.
He remembered shouting for Iron Man, a warning echoed by Hulk's rumbling growl over the comms, Wasp's startled shout. But it was Ant-Man's frantic yell that struck Steve cold.
“No!” Hank had shouted. “Iron Man, get clear – get out of there!”
And then the rings had flared bright enough that Steve had been forced to use the shield to block it out, flooding the whole field of battle with a flash like a dying star and when the light faded Steve had stared, shadows still floating over his eyes, as the armor plummeted out of the sky.
The armor hit the ground with a thud that Steve could feel through the earth.
“Iron Man is down!” His heart was pounding in his chest, faster than it had been just moments ago. He swung the shield in a downward arc, smashing it against the weapon of the AIM agent closest to him. “I repeat: Iron Man is down!”
“AIM is retreating,” Wasp reported.
“They got what they wanted,” Ant-Man said grimly.
“The circle things are going,” Hawkeye reported. “Keep an eye on the sky, guys, they may be incoming.”
“Iron Man,” Steve said in a voice he barely recognized. “Iron Man, please respond.”
Steve grabbed the AIM goon closest to him by the front of his uniform and swung him to the side, tossing him at two more Agents who were rushing him. He flattened another one with his shield and then he was running, boots slipping in the mud as he dashed to Iron Man's side.
His throat hurt as he slid to a stop and fell to his knees beside Iron Man's still form. The armor had hit the ground hard enough that it was embedded several inches into the dirt and Steve winced in sympathy, imagining what that impact would have felt like to the human encased inside it. The arc reactor in the chest plate was dark and Steve swallowed against a surge of nausea. The suit ran off a different reactor than the one that kept Tony alive, so it being damaged wasn't the end of the world. Even if Tony's reactor was damaged, they had time to get him a spare before he suffered serious side effects. “Iron Man? If you can hear me, I'm going to remove the face plate.”
Stevee reached for the pressure release just below the armor's jawline and the armor was hot to his touch, hot enough to feel through his gloves.
And god, Tony had been inside that for minutes now, trapped inside a metal suit that was hot enough to burn Steve through his armored gloves. He cursed, ignoring the sudden flurry of worried questions that flooded the comms, and opened the faceplate. Smoke and steam billowed out of the armor, thick enough to make him cough and lean back for a moment. But the smoke cleared and the suit was empty.
The interior of the armor was melted, the circuitry turned to slag, pieces of the underarmor scorched and brittle as if it had been exposed to some great heat, stuck to the warped interior of the armor.
For a moment Steve didn't understand what his eyes were telling him and he ripped open the chest place, but there was only more smoke and molten metal and scorched cloth. There was no sign at all of Tony.
There should have been, the back corner of Steve's mind insisted, the part that was always pragmatic, always analyzing his surroundings, whether he wanted it to or not. Even if the heat had been bad enough to melt metal there should have been something behind – a few pieces of charred bone if nothing else.
Steve turned to the side and was violently ill.
“Cap?” Wasp asked.
“He's gone,” Steve ground out through gritted teeth. He spat and shoved himself to his feet, very determinedly not looking at the ruined armor that had once been his best friend's pride and joy. “He's gone. The armor is melted to slag, whatever they hit him with-”
Hulk's furious roar drowned out whatever he would have said next, for which Steve was glad. He didn't want to say it anymore than his teammates wanted to hear it.
Tony was gone.
The man who had welcomed Steve to the modern era with a smile and an open hand. The man who had founded the team that became Steve's family. The man who gave him a home, who fought at his side, who stayed up late into the night watching bad television, who bought him donuts and teased him about the Dodgers. The man whose smile made Steve's stomach flip and his heart race and his hands ache to-
“They're not getting away with this,” Steve said. He felt numb, distant, the words dragged out of him from a great distance. He heard Jan saying his name through the comms, but he couldn't focus outside his own head enough to make out her words. “I won't let them get away with killing Tony.”
His voice broke on the last syllable of Tony's name. His throat felt raw, like he'd been screaming for days. He had to push out every word past the ache in his chest. “Avengers. Take them down.”
The AIM Agents had been pulling back while Steve was distracted, dozens of them retreating toward the woods, some of them carrying their injured brethren. Steve grabbed the shield in one hand and threw it without stopping to aim, letting instinct guide his hand as he let it fly. Three AIM goons went down in a tangle of limbs, their yellow costumes splattered with mud and grass.
The shield whirled back and he caught it one-handed as he flung himself into the fight.
He heard Wasp's stings, the thunderous impact of Hulk's feet as he charged a troop of AIM Agents, the sharp sound of Hawkeye's arrows cutting through the air. None of it drowned out the nearly cavernous silence where he should have heard repulsors firing and Tony's voice breaking comm protocol to taunt his opponents.
He ducked a blast from one of the Agents and came in low, taking him out with two kick hits, a punch to the gut, a kick to the knee. Two more took his place and Steve didn't bother to slow down before he brought the shield down on the closest one's face. Three more took his place and when Steve dropped them, a dozen more followed, and then a wave of them, blending into one another. His movements were guided by instinct and training, senses straining to the limit. Every flash of yellow, every grunt, every footstep against the soggy earth was registered and evaluated but none of it beat out the way his pulse thundered in his ears.
If he listened, it sounded a little like Tony's name.
Steve felt light-headed, disconnected from the battle going on around him, with no real sense of how much time was passing. His arms ached and his lungs burned and he was covered in mud. He was dimly aware that AIM had all but stopped their retreat as dozens of reinforcements spilled out of the woods around them, rushing the battlefield in a haphazard assault.
“They're gunning for Cap!” Hawkeye shouted, close enough that Steve could hear him without the comms. “They're swarming him - someone give him a hand!”
“That's what they did to Tony,” Ant-Man said. “Steve, move, get out of there!”
It was exactly what he'd said to Iron Man right before he fell and a blinding rush of grief hit Steve so hard he almost stumbled.
And that was when the first ring dropped out of the sky and settled at his feet.
He straightened and stared straight at the AIM goon closest to him. The Agent fell back, arms coming up defensively, even as the next of the rings settled around Steve's knees.
“I don't care if you kill me,” he said. He could hear his team yelling for him, could feel the vibrations as Hulk came barreling toward them. “If I have to claw my way out of hell itself, I'll make every last one of you pay for hurting him.”
The same agent who had flinched away from him sneered as the last of the rings settled into place around him. “You're not really in a position to be making threats, old man.”
“No,” said one of the AIM Agents behind him in a painfully familiar voice, “but I am.” He jammed a taser against the other Agent's back and sent him spasming to the ground, then pulled a screwdriver out of the pocket of his poorly fitting uniform. He jammed the screwdriver into the seams of one of the rings and pried part of the paneling off even as the rings began to glow.
“Wait,” Steve said. His throat was dry and his mouth tasted like paper. “Wait, wait. Tony? Tony?”
“Damnit,” the AIM Agent – Tony – snarled and jammed the taser directly against the ring's circuitry. Sparks flew everywhere as the rings powered down and crashed to the ground at Steve's feet.
Tony ripped off his mask and smirked, his eyes practically dancing he was so pleased with himself. “Miss me, Cap?”
The sound that forced its way out of Steve's throat wasn't anything like words. It was rough and desperate, scared and angry. Half growl, half pained whine and he wasn't too proud to reach for Tony as he kicked himself lose of the wreckage of the rings.
“Hey!” Tony protested but didn't resist as Steve grabbed him by the arm and practically dragged him closer. “Wait, hey, good guy here! Not AIM!”
“Tony,” Steve breathed and then he pulled Tony against his chest, wrapped his arms around him as tight as he dared without hurting him, and bent his head to take Tony's mouth in a kiss.
It was messy and awkward, and Steve felt more desperate than passionate. But he couldn't stop himself from pouring every ounce of relief and joy and need he felt into that kiss, pouring years of love and affection and one desperate hour's fear into that single, life-affirming touch.
Tony wrapped his arms around Steve's neck and kissed him back. His hands stroked down Steve's arms, soothing him like he would a startled animal. He whispered reassurances against Steve's mouth, a constant stream of words between each desperate kiss. “It's all right, I'm here. We're all right. It's me.”
It took a long minute before Steve could bear to pull away, but he made himself. He rested his forehead against Tony's and breathed in sweat and metal and engine oil. “I thought they'd killed you.” He didn't loosen his grip, kept Tony gathered tightly against his chest so he could feel every breath Tony took. “I thought I'd lost you.”
Tony rubbed his hands over Steve's shoulders. “No, no. It was some kind of teleporter. I think it only works on a specific amount of mass, that's why it only took me and not the armor. I ended up naked and pissed off in an underground bunker just a few hundred yards from here.”
Steve shook his head and shuddered, tightening his grip. “When I saw the armor all melted and smoking-"
Tony pulled back so abruptly that Steve was dragged a half step toward him before he could loosen his grip. “Melted?” Tony said in tones so outraged that even Steve felt a little afraid of reprisal. “Melted? What did those sons of bitches do to my armor?”
He spun on his heel and glowered at the nearest AIM Agent – who happened to be facedown on the ground with one of Hawkeye's lasso arrows holding him neatly in place. “What did you assholes do?”
Steve ignored the AIM goon's slightly panicked squawking and he forced himself to take his eyes off Tony long enough to survey the battlefield. It was a muddy, torn-up disaster and more than a few trees had been knocked down in Hulk's fury, but the Avengers had come out squarely on top, with most of the AIM Agents dealt with and a few stragglers running away into the woods.
Part of Steve was roaring to go after them, to track them down and drag them back, but the rest of him wouldn't leave Tony's side.
“Avengers,” he called out. “Report in.”
“We're all good here, Cap.” Wasp dropped out of the sky to hover delicately at Steve's side. Her boots were pristine and Steve couldn't swallow a grin. “Want us to track down the runners?”
Steve glanced over his shoulder. “Tony said they had an underground bunker nearby.”
“I may have destroyed it on my way out,” Tony said. He peeled off the gloves of his stolen costume and dropped them in the mud. “You know. Just a little.”
Jan beamed at him and Steve couldn't help the smile that crossed his lips. Of course he had.
“Hank's calling the local LEOs,” Jan reported. “He told them to bring a bunch of EMTs for all the guys Hulk smashed. And all the guys Cap smashed.” She smiled and flipped her hair. “And all the guys I smashed.”
“I missed all the smashing,” Tony said ruefully.
“It was in your honor,” Jan said. She punched him – fairly hard from the sound of it – in his arm. “Don't do things like that!”
“Ow!” Tony rubbed his arm and took a step back when she raised her fist again. “Jan, I was abducted! It was hardly my idea.”
She pouted, then flung herself at him. “We thought you were dead,” she sniffed, squeezing him tight before pushing away. “You scared us,” she said. “So take your lumps.” She punched him again, though this time he barely flinched. “I'm going to go out to the road and meet the cops. Cap, if he tries to die again, punch him for me.”
“No one else is dying today,” Steve said in a tight voice.
“No one died,” Tony said gently. “I'm right here, Cap. Steve. I'm all right.”
Jan gave Tony a quick look before she took to the sky. “I'll bring back a medic for him, Cap.”
“I'm fine,” Tony said again.
Steve shook his head. “You didn't see the armor. Let a medic look you over, please. We don't know what that thing did to you.”
Tony stepped in closer and rested one hand on Steve's arm. “Look at me. I'm okay.”
“Humor me,” Steve said quietly. He curled his hands into fists at his sides to stop himself from reaching for Tony, from holding onto him so he couldn't disappear as soon as Steve looked away. “Just let the EMTs give you a once over, for my peace of mind if nothing else.” He swallowed and made himself look Tony in the eyes, but there was so much sympathy and understanding in those azure eyes that he almost lost his breath. “I was scared, Tony. Please.”
Tony slid his hand down Steve's arm to take his hand in a loose clasp and raised it so he could press a soft kiss against the back of Steve's hand. “All right.”
Steve swallowed hard. “If you only kissed me back to calm me down, or because you felt overwhelmed or – or scared of me-”
“If I had been in your shoes, I don't know what I would have done,” Tony said in a low voice. “I hope to god I never have to lose you, Steve. I think it'd kill me. I'd never be the same again.”
Steve leaned in, wrapped his arms around Tony and just held on as he took several deep, shaky breaths. He could hear the sirens of the police approaching and the distant sound of SHIELD choppers, but none of that was important enough to make him let go. He didn't care if everyone at SHIELD heard about Captain America crying on Iron Man's shoulder, or the tabloids or the six o'clock news. He only cared about Tony's strong arms, holding him. Tony's voice, humming in his ear. Tony's body, warm and whole against him.
"I love you," he said finally.
Tony hummed and kissed his jaw. “I love you too, you know.” He smiled against Steve's skin. “This isn't exactly how I planned on telling you for the first time.”
"Thank you for not being dead," Steve said, even though he knows it's ridiculous.
But Tony didn't treat it as ridiculous. "I'll always come back to you, for as long as I can," he says. "Now come on. Get me out of here. I'm wearing an AIM goon's underwear and I'm really unhappy about it."