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Behind Bars (Triptych)

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I

Steve Rogers is worried.

He’s known all along that he’s gambling. He’s well aware that it’s illegal to lie on the enlistment forms, but he’s equally aware that if he told the truth, they’d just send his home. Again. He’s already been sent home several times. They just won’t let him serve. It’s not right. He knows there are plenty of people who don’t want to, but have to go nevertheless. And here Steve is, wanting nothing more than to do his part for his country, and they won’t let him. Surely, there must be something he can do. He may be on the sickly side, but he’s not half stupid, and he’s got nimble fingers. If they have no use for his artistic talents, maybe he could work on weapons maintenance, or in the kitchen – anything would beat sitting at home feeling useless.

So, he’s hell-bent on trying, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. He just never expected it to land him in the can.

“Not the smartest thing you’ve done, son, eh?” the officer who dropped Steve here said, not entirely unkindly, before he left. “You’ll have some time to think about it now.”

Despite all the fights Steve has ended up picking, he’s never been in jail before. Hardly surprising, because he’s such a lightweight, he always ends up looking like a victim, even when he’s the first one to raise his fists.

Steve has no idea how harsh the punishment will be for lying on the forms, but most likely it will amount to more time spent behind the bars. There’s no way he’ll have enough money to pay a fine, and there’s no one who could bail him; all his relatives are long gone, and the few friends he has are no better off financially than he is.

Sitting on the hard bunk, he stares at the windowless, pale yellow walls and the white-painted bars, and for once, he’s glad his mother is not around to witness this. She’d be heartbroken to see her son incarcerated, even if it is for a good reason.

Hours pass, with Steve growing more and more restless as nothing happens. All he can hear are occasional footsteps and slamming doors somewhere further away, until finally, the steps head his way. He can just catch the last words of a conversation.

“…remains to be seen. I will not take him in if it seems like he might not survive the process,” a slightly accented voice – a German accent at that, to Steve’s disbelief – notes.

“Of course you wont, Doctor. Otherwise I’d be among your volunteers,” a melodious voice replies. This man sounds oddly familiar, like Steve must have heard him on the radio. “I’ve just got this feeling he could be exactly what you’re looking for.”

Steve is expecting more military types, and indeed, one of the men who enter is his custodian, but the two others, the ones whose voices he heard, take him by surprise.

“Here he is,” the officer states as the three men come to a stop in front of the cell. “Steve Rogers, that’s apparently his real name. As far as we’ve been able to figure out, he’s now tried to enlist five times, each with a different rendering of reality in his paperwork.”

“Aha. So, you are eager to fight in this war, Mr. Rogers?” asks the accented voice, which belongs to a man with bushy eyebrows, grey hair and a receding hairline. With that and the white coat he’s wearing, he looks like the archetype of a scientist.

“I only want to do my part, like everyone should,” Steve says defensively, standing up to meet the newcomers.

“Yes, that much is obvious,” the scientist says, tilting his head slightly. His gaze makes Steve feel more like a laboratory specimen than a prisoner, and suddenly, he’s chilled. What has he gotten himself into? It’s starting to sound even more worrisome than a couple of years in jail.

Then, the third man speaks up and catches Steve’s attention, and the chill turns into something more like an excited shiver running down his spine.

“The question is, how much are you willing to risk to get there?” the man asks, and though there have been no introductions yet, Steve recognizes him beyond the shadow of a doubt. The garb may be different, better suited for the city than some far-away wilderness, but he’s seen that meticulously groomed moustache and beard in print more times he can count, on the pages of his prized collection of Marvels.

Entirely forgetting where he is though his fingers have just curled around the paint-covered metal bars in front of him, barely registering the actual question, Steve blurts out, “Tony Stark!”

“Here to rescue you,” Tony says, with a playful grin, his clear blue eyes settling on Steve’s. He seems nothing but friendly, and that look is more than enough to make Steve blush.

“I don’t need rescuing,” Steve says defiantly, raising his chin, pulling his hands back and crossing his arms over his chest. “I know I’ve broken the law, I can suffer the consequences.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Tony says, and casts a glance at the white-coated scientist next to him. “But there might be something else you could do, a way for you to serve our country, if you’re truly willing to put your life on the line.”

“I am!” Steve says eagerly without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll do whatever it takes!”

“He definitely has the spirit,” the scientist says, nodding to Tony. “I’m Doctor Erskine,” he introduces himself, and reaches to put a hand between the bars, to shake Steve’s. “I will have to perform a complete medical examination, of course, to see whether you qualify physically. Operation Rebirth will not be gentle. It may well be you would be easier off sitting your sentence.”

Steve still has no idea what they are talking about, but he takes hold of Erskine’s hand, and gives it a vigorous shake, doing his best to show he’s not quite as frail as he seems. “Pleased to meet you, Doctor. I’ve never been one to take the easy way out. Wouldn’t be here if I were.”

“Come on, let him out of there,” Tony says to the officer, motioning at the lock of Steve’s cell. “Steve Rogers here is about to become the star of a story that will put my Marvels to shame.”


II

Tony Stark is tired.

It's not the “it's been a long day and I really need to rest” sort of tired, either. It's the “if I don't recharge within the next couple of hours, I'm done for” flavor. The kind that won't go away no matter how much rest he gets.

This really isn't how he expected it to end.

He knew he was running low, it's the only reason he went for the high-risk, instant payoff plan instead of a more careful approach. He was going to leave tonight: he had arranged a rendezvous with his contact so he could get a ride back to friendly soil. It would've been fine, he would've had time to spare. He's missed that rendezvous, now. His contact, whose identity he doesn’t even know, is probably long gone, and the enemy still holds the documents he was supposed to recover. For once, the risk didn't pay off, like it usually does for him. Maybe he's survived too many near misses and gotten complacent.

He's always thought he'd meet his end somewhere exotic. Collapsing cave, booby-trapped temple, freezing wilderness, bone-dry desert. In the jaws of a mythical beast, at the bite of a venomous snake, the hands of a Nazi torturer, maybe even a treacherous lover – or possibly a treacherous lover who turns out to be a Nazi, wouldn’t even be the first time. Anywhere but a nondescript jail cell in an obscure French village, guarded by a handful of German militia who in all likelihood have no idea who he is. He tried to fight them off, of course, but he was badly outnumbered, and in the end, he had little choice but to surrender. It was that or get shot.

Obviously, he's not dead yet. He should try to figure out a way to escape. If only he wasn't feeing so listless.

He gets up from the bunk, and very nearly falls to his knees. He feels light-headed, his heartbeat sluggish in his chest, the near-useless repulsor pump no longer enough to support it. He leans against the closest wall and makes his way to the bars blocking his way.

Get a grip. Don't give in. All he needs is to get out of this cell, he can wing it from there.

“Allô? Monsieur?” Tony calls out in French, hanging on to his cover identity, trying to pass for someone from a nearby town. His German guards’ French is atrocious, but as Tony’s cover goes, he’s not supposed to know more than a few words of German himself.

“Was ist das?” comes the answer in a disgruntled tone.

“Je ne me sens pas bien,” Tony tries. I’m not feeling well. That’s the truth, too. “J’ai besoin d’un docteur.” Which is not true, strictly speaking. He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a power source and a pair of cables, but that’s beside the point.

“Demain. Jetzt es ist – C’est nuit. Schlafen Sie. Dormez,” the guard replies, telling him to go to sleep in a mish-mash of languages. The slouch doesn’t care enough to get up from his desk and walk to the next room to face Tony.

Tony sighs and rests his forehead against the cold metal. So much for that, then. He could probably drop dead right now, for all his jailor cares. He’s not going to do so, not quite yet, but he knows he won’t last till the morning.

He turns around, putting his back against the bars instead, and contemplates his jail cell. He has very little to work with here. Talking his way out was a far more promising prospect. The bunk has a simple, wooden frame, with a mattress, a pillow and a blanket. Aside from it, there’s a stool, a wooden table with a pitcher of water and a cup, and a chipped chamber pot. There’s a window in the far wall, which he could easily reach if he stood on the stool, but the metal bars blocking it are almost as thick as the ones behind his back. A shard of porcelain or a jagged piece of wood won’t make a dent on them.

He stumbles back to the bunk and slumps down. He’ll think of something. It’s just that he can’t really focus when he’s so tired. He’s going to close his eyes for a wink, first. Figure out a way out after.

He’s starting to nod off when a noise from the window catches his attention.

“Shellhead?” a sharp whisper comes from behind the bars.

Tony’s head snaps up. That’s his call sign, and the accent is definitely neither French nor German. “Yes. Iron and electricity,” Tony gives the correct countersign.

“Okay. Hold on, I’m going to get you out of there,” comes the answer, no longer a whisper, but the voice still low enough that the guard shouldn’t hear it. It sounds unexpectedly familiar.

“Steve?” Tony breathes, incredulous.

Red-gloved fingers curl around the bars blocking the window, and twist. With surprisingly little noise, the bars are worked free – not twisted aside, but plain pulled out of the stone they were seated in. It’s intimidating to think of how much strength it takes to do that. Soon, the three middle bars are off, leaving an opening large enough for Tony.

All he needs to do is to climb out of here. Tony tries to stand up. This time, he actually does end up on his knees, the room fading out around him, an all too familiar ache beneath his ribs.

“Tony? Can you get to the window?” Steve asks, his worried voice getting a little too loud now.

“Working on it,” Tony grunts a reply, and gets up more slowly. Just grabbing the stool, moving it to the window and standing on it is a truly Herculean task, with his limbs leaden and his head muzzy. He reaches for the windowsill.

Strong hands grab hold of his wrists and pull him up like he weighs nothing at all. The stone scrapes his forearms as he’s dragged along it, both his sides touch the remaining bars, and the waistline of his pants tries to snag on the sill, but he can just fit through.

He’s out of the jail cell, in the warm summer night, collapsing into Captain America’s arms. Not the most dignified thing to do, but who cares. He’s barely an hour away from buying the farm, he’s going to do whatever he wants to.

“Glad to see you, too,” Steve says cautiously, his arms steady and supportive around Tony. “My bike’s just around the corner, and your friend Rhodes is waiting for you at the camp with the gear you need. It shouldn’t take us more than half an hour to get there. Can you make it that far?”

“Sure. I’ll be fine,” Tony reassures Steve. He’s pretty sure this new funny feeling in his chest has nothing to do with the repulsor pump, and everything to do with how nice it is to be the rescuee instead of the rescuer, for once, particularly with Steve doing the rescuing.


III

Steve is mortified.

Tony seems amused, mostly, and only a little worried.

“So, that went well,” Tony notes with the slightest smirk, crosses his hands behind his neck, and rests the back of his head against the wall. He’s sitting on the bunk, looking perfectly relaxed, legs stretched out in front of him.

Steve paces the jail cell nervously, and shakes his head at Tony. “I don’t think this is very funny.”

“Cool down, soldier boy. It is a little funny,” Tony says, expression unchanged. “It’ll be fine. We’ll sort this out, one way or the other.”

“I sure hope we will,” Steve says, peering at the empty corridor at the other side of the bars, half thinking they should just escape and run away.

The thing is, the over-zealous young lieutenant who had them locked away has no idea who they are. Tony shaved his recognizable facial hair for his latest undercover assignment, which makes him look odd even to Steve – still handsome, but a lot younger, almost too swanky and suave. He definitely gives the impression of someone who could be blamed for immoral behavior. As for Steve, Captain America’s identity has always been a closely kept secret, and now that he’s wearing a private’s uniform, it would be difficult for anyone to guess who he really is. It’s fortunate, because now they’re just two anonymous men locked up after being caught in a compromising position. It really wouldn’t do to have Captain America sent home with a blue ticket for sodomy. While Tony isn’t officially working for the military, he is closely involved nevertheless, and having Iron Man, the hero of Marvels, publically disgraced like that would be just as bad.

Of course, eventually someone will turn up and they will need to identify themselves properly. Probably as soon as the lieutenant in question gets over his shock of seeing the two of them with their pants down, holding each other’s goods, and actually figures out what the correct procedure for such a situation is.

“What’s our plan from here on, though?” Steve thinks aloud. “If we lie about who we are –“

“It won’t come to that, I promise. Leave it to me. And for God’s sake, take a seat,” Tony pats the bunk by his side. “All that pacing is starting to make me edgy, too.”

“No thank you,” Steve says, and walks to the bars to grab hold of them. It would be so easy to just pull them apart. He’s done that plenty of times before, although it’s always been in an enemy stronghold, not a friendly one. Or a friendly one that has suddenly turned hostile, though they can only blame themselves for that. They’re both well aware of the risks. They should’ve been more careful. He can’t have his career end like this!

“Suit yourself,” Tony says with a shrug, though Steve thinks he can sense a bit of doubt behind that unfazed look. “Just don’t do anything pointless and stupid, we’d only end up deeper in trouble.”

“Like getting caught in the act wasn’t?” Steve says, casting an incredulous glance at Tony over his shoulder.

“Stupid, probably, but hardly pointless, that’s an offending thing to suggest,” Tony declares, making an affronted face. “It’s been at least three months!”

“Fourteen weeks,” Steve says sheepishly.

“You’ve been counting?” Tony says, his expression returning to his earlier smirk.

“Don’t say you haven’t, because I won’t believe you if you do,” Steve returns.

“Okay, ninety-five days,” Tony replies.

“Shush, someone’s approaching,” Steve notes, picking up the sound of footsteps from a few corridors away. Just one set of them, unhurried. It definitely doesn’t sound like the pushy lieutenant from earlier on. As they get closer, Steve can recognize the gait without even seeing the man: it’s General Fury, always as purposeful, walking like he owns the base, even though it’s not his command.

“So, what on Earth are we going to do about this?” the eye-patched general asks, hands at his hips. “I have a thoroughly upset Lieutenant West there telling me a story about the two of you that’s almost enough to make me blush.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Tony says, standing up. “That’s gobbledygook. I know for a fact that you don’t blush.”

“Do you, now, mister?” Fury says, raising his one visible eyebrow. “I wouldn’t take this quite so lightly if I were you. You got lucky. I happened to be on the premises today, and there was only the one eyewitness who didn’t know either of you. I’m not always going to be around to clean up your messes.”

The general pulls a key out of his pocket, and goes on to unlock the cell.

“Are we really getting off just like that?” Steve asks. It feels much too easy. He has suspected that Fury knows about their affair, since there is very little that goes on in the world without the general knowing about it. Still, Steve wasn’t expecting that he’d be perfectly fine with it, and willing to let it slip without as much as a severe telling-off.

“This once, yes,” Fury replies, his face still humorless. “You will go and fetch your belongings, private, so that you can be discreetly restationed elsewhere. As for you,” he casts a pointed glance at Tony, still not using any names. “I don’t want to see that face in a military installation ever again.”

Tony rubs at his hairless upper lip and chin, making a mock appalled face, though his eyes still retain that mischievous glint. “I catch your meaning, sir,” he declares. “I can promise you won’t.”

“Well, go on, then,” Fury says, holds the door open, and gestures for Steve and Tony to exit. “And for the love of all that’s good and holy, next time, lock the door behind you!”