Steve's line of work is rarely exciting. There's the occasional bar fight or other brawl, a border dispute here, a petty theft there. Most of his time he spends either patrolling the station’s corridors uneventfully, or sitting at his desk in his office, which is what he's currently doing. He's scrolling absently through the latest reports from the neighboring outposts. Nothing special there, either.
He isn't expecting anything out of the usual when the sound of approaching footsteps cuts through his boredom. A moment later, a man steps in through the open doorway: Justin Hammer, in his fashionably cut suit and the trademark plastic-rimmed glasses. He's followed by two of his security guards, who are escorting—
Steve's stomach drops.
The pair of HammerSpace guards—a woman only slightly shorter than Steve, with shoulders wider than his, and a slim android who is most likely way stronger than any baseline human—are holding Tony Stark between them. It pretty much seems like they're the only thing keeping him upright: he's pale as a ghost under the usual coating of grime, dust and grease, and there's a nasty bruise covering the right side of his face, running from the corner of his goatee to his forehead. He's dressed in his well-worn ruby-red surface suit, minus the helmet. Despite everything, he manages to look defiant, though it's subdued compared to what Steve would expect.
“Look what my border patrol found, captain!” Hammer declares, practically bursting with glee. “This vandal, this vermin, this villain was sneaking into my territory, digging on my land! I demand you put him behind bars immediately.”
“Screw you, Justin,” Tony spits half-heartedly.
If Steve hadn't already been worried, the fact that that's the best Tony can come up with is a clear sign he's not doing so great.
“No thanks, Tony. I don't do animals,” Hammer replies, visibly pleased with his quip.
Steve doesn't think that deserves a comment. “You’ve got proof of this?”
“You bet, I do. Wouldn’t dream of making false accusations. You’ll find all of it right here.” Hammer holds up a data pearl between his thumb and forefinger.
“All right,” Steve says, grabs the pearl, and stows it in his uniform jacket’s pocket. He’ll need to go through the evidence carefully later. He doesn’t like this at all, but he has no good reason to doubt Hammer. He steps closer to Tony. “Hands, please.”
Tony holds out his hands obediently, and damn him, actually gives Steve a wink, which is entirely out of place on his wan and bruised face.
“Tony Stark, you’re under arrest on suspicion of violating the mining law. You will be treated according to Ares Confederation jurisdiction. I’ll explain your rights to you later,” Steve recites, and handcuffs Tony, careful to keep his expression under control. Hammer doesn’t have a clue that the two of them are anything more than acquaintances. Steve very much wants things to stay that way.
“He's injured, Mr. Hammer. Have you had that looked at?” Steve asks, his voice as neutral as he can make it.
“Barely a bump,” Hammer replies, making a dismissive wave with one hand. “Serves him right for trying to steal from me.”
Steve's not just going to let it slide. Not because the casual—and often mind-blowingly hot—sex he's been having with Tony for almost a year now is what keeps him sane out here; he needs to act because it's the right thing to do. Steve will be damned if he locks up a man who looks dead on his feet before making sure he’s not actually about to drop dead.
“Elsie,” Steve calls out to the resident AI. “Please ask Doc Banner to pay me a visit. Tell him it’s a potentially serious head injury.”
“Yes, sir,” the pleasant feminine voice of Eden Landing Station Intelligence acknowledges.
Tony gives Steve a look that he can’t quite interpret, and Steve realizes Tony’s not used to being taken care of. He’s the sort of guy who usually patches himself up—he has to be, considering how much time he spends alone out there, operating heavy machinery. Steve knows Tony still carries a scar from the ten stitches he did on his own thigh after lacerating it on a sharp drill bit.
Hammer's starting to look livid with self-righteous anger. “This is ridiculous, officer. The man is a criminal! He doesn't need to be mollycoddled! You know just as well as I do that his father –”
“Let's leave his relatives out of this. I'm the representative of planetary law here, and I'll do what I deem necessary,” Steve cuts him off.
“Watch out or I'll accuse you of failing to do your duty,” Hammer proclaims, waggling a finger at Steve.
“I think we're done here, Mr. Hammer,” Steve says firmly. “If you've got any complaints, feel free to send them to me in writing. I’ll be in touch.”
“My lawyers will be in touch!” Hammer counters. He turns on his heel and stomps out of the room. His guards let go of Tony to file out after him.
“Elsie, close and lock the door,” Steve commands. “Let the Doc in when he gets here. If it's anyone else, ask me first.”
“Will do, sir,” the AI affirms.
They stand in their places for a moment longer, waiting for the door to slide shut, staring at one another. Tony's wavering on his feet, Steve taut as a wire with concern and anger. He’s not just mad at Hammer, though the man is thoroughly repulsive, but also at Tony for putting himself in this position. Steve knows perfectly well that Tony wouldn’t have ended up on Hammer’s soil accidentally.
The door closes with a soft clank, and Steve covers the distance to Tony with a few long steps. He puts his arms supportively around Tony, and Tony leans into the embrace, though he flinches slightly when Steve's hand lands on his back.
“Fancy meeting you like this, sheriff,” Tony says, voice tight with barely contained pain. From this close, Steve can hear Tony is breathing lightly and haltingly, like that's hurting him, too.
“It's not just the head injury, is it?” Steve notes, belatedly figuring out what that strange look Tony gave him earlier was really about.
“Nope, ‘fraid not,” Tony admits. Steve can’t see his face, but he can practically hear the grimace.
“Come on, sit down before you fall down,” Steve says.
Steve keeps a firm hold of Tony’s arms, so that he slumps to the ground in a more or less controlled manner.
Tony settles to sit with his back against a wall. “Didn't really mean for this to happen,” he says sheepishly.
“I’m sure you didn’t. Let's get you out of this suit,” Steve says, and starts by taking off the handcuffs. It's not as if Tony could put up a fight if he wanted to, not with the state he's in.
Steve has plenty of experience manhandling Tony and getting him out of his clothes in a hurry, but before this, it's always been for fun. Now, the situation is as serious as they come, with Tony clearly struggling to keep from groaning aloud whenever a movement jars his injuries. Going by how he’s guarding his ribs, Steve’s starting to suspect a few of them are broken.
Tony's civilian surface suit is quite different from the AresForce EVA suits Steve got used to during the war, and undressing it would be easier with Tony standing up. Then again, he's pretty sure Tony wouldn't be able to stay on his feet for long unsupported. With Tony's directions, Steve is able to find all the catches and zippers, so he can work Tony's limbs out of the cumbersome suit. Finally, it's off in its entirety, leaving Tony in the skintight black thermal layer he wears under it. As gently as he can, Steve peels up the hem of Tony’s undershirt to take a look, and swears under his breath.
The bruise on Tony’s face is nothing compared to the angry contusions covering his torso, the worst of them running from lower right waist to left ribs. Steve wordlessly pushes at Tony’s shoulder to make him bend forwards so he can see Tony’s back. It’s nearly as bad as his front, red and purple all over.
Steve pulls Tony’s shirt down, absolutely seething. “What the hell did he do to you?”
“Oh, Justin didn’t do anything, he doesn’t like getting his manicured hands dirty,” Tony replies through gritted teeth. “He just watched. It was that android of his, with a piece of mine monorail track, about yea big,” he holds his hands a foot apart.
Steve bristles, his hands clenching into fists. He really, really wants to punch something. “He’s not going to get away with this,” he says darkly.
“But he is,” Tony says, leaning the back of his head against the wall. “It’s my word against his. No proof this is his doing. You know how it works. He’ll say it wasn't him; that I'm making it up. No way to refute that.”
Steve is about to start arguing back—he knows Tony is all too right, but they’ve got to come up with some way of getting back at Hammer, because whatever he's guilty of, Tony sure as hell doesn’t deserve this—but the sound of the door sliding open stops him.
“Sorry, I came as soon as I could, I was in the middle of a long-distance consultation,” Bruce begins as he steps in, huffing like he’s run all the way. Then, his eyes land on Tony. “Oh.”
Out of the couple of hundred people regularly spending time at Eden Landing, there are only a handful who have any clue of Steve and Tony’s arrangement, and Bruce happens to be one of them.
Bruce Banner, or just “the Doc” to most of the station's populace, is in a position similar to Steve's: where Steve is the only law keeper within several hours of surface travel, Bruce is the sole medic, taking care of all the health issues at hand. The nearest proper hospital is almost eight hours away, unless there happens to be a visitor present with an orbital-capable ship and willing to give a ride. This means Bruce is used to everything, from cosmetic concerns to critical emergencies, and sometimes has to attempt quite complex procedures on his own, with no access to advanced robotics or custom tissue printing.
Like most people at the station, Bruce seems to carry around a dark secret or five, but Steve doesn't mind that. Bruce is dedicated to his work and has never done anything to make Steve doubt his character. As far as Steve's concerned, Bruce is definitely one of the good guys.
“Hiya, Doc,” Tony greets him, raising one hand in a tired-looking wave.
“What happened? Just the quick recap, please,” Bruce says in a no-nonsense voice, and pulls a hand-held diagnostic scanner out of his doctor's bag.
“Short story short, got into trouble with Hammer, and other blunt instruments,” Tony puns.
“There's some really nasty-looking bruising on most of his upper body,” Steve adds. “He's also under arrest. If you say he’s okay, I need to lock him up.”
As soon as he’s said it, Steve realizes how much that sounds like he’s asking for Bruce to come up with an excuse not to lock Tony up, which is something Steve would never do. Above all else, he is a man of the law. He will put Tony in the holding cell if Tony's life isn't in immediate danger, whether he likes it or not.
Bruce has crouched in front of Tony, and is running the scanner along Tony's body with his right hand, looking intently at the tablet computer he’s holding in his left. He stops with the scanner held over Tony’s left lower ribs for a longer time, frowns, and stands up.
“My office, right now. That’s where this man needs to be, not in jail,” Bruce says. His voice is urgent enough to make Steve's worry double.
“That bad, Doc?” Tony asks, not sounding all that surprised.
“Bad enough,” Bruce tells him somberly. “The concussion and broken ribs I could write off with painkillers and observation, but not the splenic bleed. Don't have the resolution here,” he waves his scanner, “to say how severe it is. Could be life-threatening. Do we need to carry you?”
“I can walk,” Tony says, and starts getting up. Steve puts an arm around his waist and helps him to his feet.
Bruce places himself on Tony's other side, so that he and Steve are taking most of Tony's weight. It looks to Steve as if Tony's gone even paler still, but it could be just Steve's mind playing tricks on him—it's a thoroughly dismaying thought that Tony's bleeding internally. Bruce's office is on the other side of the station, a ten-minute walk if you want to avoid the busiest routes, which they definitely do. It feels like it takes absolutely ages.
Once they finally reach Bruce’s office, they steer the visibly flagging Tony to the examination table. Then Bruce orders Steve out of the exam room and closes the door, leaving him alone in the waiting room.
Steve feels like he needs to pace, too anxious to stay seated, but there's barely enough space for taking three steps here. He stays on his feet nevertheless, switching weight from one foot to the other, arms behind his back.
He's known all along something like this might happen, considering his occupation and Tony's penchant for trouble. He's reacting worse than he thought he would. He’s more than used to seeing the results of ugly skirmishes, but seeing Tony hurt like that—it really struck something deep. Thinking that Tony’s life might be in danger almost feels physically painful.
They've never talked about feelings; it's not the sort of thing they do. What they have has always been mostly about sex. Just casual fun, a distraction from routines. Neither of them has expressed any desire to make it more than that, and it wouldn't be the best of ideas for them to be seen together in public.
Steve is a model citizen in every way, a hero of the independence war who asked to be stationed out here because he got fed up with all the posturing and groveling at the capital. Tony, on the other hand, is notorious on both Mars and good old Earth. His father, Howard, owns Stark Conglomerate, one of the multinationals currently ruling the motherworld. Tony was to be his heir, but they had a falling-out, the details of which Steve doesn't know, that culminated five years ago in Tony giving the whole planet the finger and migrating to Mars, disinherited, carrying barely more than the clothes on his back.
Tony is wanted for various crimes on Earth, though Steve suspects most of the charges are fabricated. Earth jurisdiction doesn't hold on Mars, and the local officials generally prefer doing the opposite of whatever the motherworld asks for. So far, the Confederate Police has no reason to be particularly interested in Tony, even if his mining operations and tech scavenging tend to be on the shadier side. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people around who'd be more than happy to grab him and drag him back to Howard, in the hopes of a handsome reward. Hence he was hiding here at the outskirts of civilization, where privacy is highly valued, mass surveillance rare, and no one cares who you used to be in your past.
For the life of him, Steve can't figure out why Tony would jeopardize his situation by letting Hammer catch him. For all the noise he makes about himself, Hammer isn't a major player in planetary politics, but he could definitely make things very difficult for Tony. Damn it, Steve has told Tony to watch out, time and time again!
Steve's anger is rising just as fast as his worry, and by the time Bruce steps out with news, Steve is ready to grab Tony by the collar and give him a good shake, injuries or no.
“He's going to be fine,” Bruce announces, with an encouraging smile. “The damage to his spleen wasn't as bad as I feared, and I was able to fix it non-surgically. I'd like to keep him here until tomorrow, though, just as a precaution. After that, he's all yours.”
“Can I talk to him?” Steve asks. “I don't even have his account of what happened yet.”
“Yes to talking, no to interrogating. The medication he’s on means what he says won’t be admissible. Give it a few hours to wear off, then I’ll switch him to something less potent and you can get on with the official business.”
“Okay. Thanks, Doc.”
Steve isn’t entirely sure whether Bruce is following his best judgment as a medic, or playing nice and trying to make things easier for him and Tony, but Steve isn’t about to complain.
“He’s in the bunk at the back. Just through here and the door on the left,” Bruce points at an open doorway in the back wall of the examination room. “I’ll be here at my desk if you need anything.”
Steve crosses the examination room, which seems to be in perfect order—no blood or used supplies in sight, meaning Bruce must’ve already cleaned up—and steps through the doorway, hitting the switch to close the door after him. This room is tiny, the single bed filling most of it, barely leaving enough space for a stool and a bedside table. Aside from the screen in the wall that’s currently displaying Tony's vital signs, it doesn’t look very hospital-like.
Tony’s resting against the raised head of the bed, and he’s looking a lot better: he’s not nearly as pale, and the grime is gone, too. The ugly bruise is still on his face, of course, and he has an IV in one hand. His thermal undershirt has been swapped for an oversized white tee.
“If you need any personal effects from your ship—” Steve begins, because somehow that’s the first thing that crosses his mind.
“You saying I can’t pull this off?” Tony says cheerfully, grabbing a handful of his shirt. “I’m good. It’s cleaner than anything I’ve worn in weeks.”
Steve sits down on the stool and tries to force some semblance of order into his mind. His thoughts and feelings are such a jumble that he’s not sure whether he wants to hug Tony or to slap his face.
Tony doesn’t seem to be having similar issues. “You going to question me now, officer?” he asks. That dirty look he’s giving Steve is doing nothing to help with Steve’s state of mind.
“Tony, this isn’t—” Steve tries, then shakes his head and stands up again. “What the hell where you thinking?”
“Well, I wasn’t—” Tony starts.
“Yeah, I can see that!” Steve exclaims. “I know you’ve got a bone to pick with Hammer, but—”
“Look, I didn’t do anything, Steve!” Tony says more forcefully.
“Yeah, obviously not. You didn’t dig on Hammer’s land, didn’t get caught and arrested—”
Tony sits up straight in the bed, his back off the mattress. “Actually, I didn’t!” he shouts, then winces and presses a hand to his left side.
Steve purses his lips and crosses his arms tightly, trying to reel in his anger. He doesn’t really want to hurt Tony, and Tony does seem surprisingly adamant about his innocence. “Okay, let’s start again. No, I’m not interrogating you yet, you’re on drugs. Which clearly aren’t doing their job, but Bruce can fix that later. I need to understand this. I really want to believe you didn’t actually break the law.”
Tony sinks back into the bed with a sigh, his shoulders sagging. His hand stays on his flank. “I didn’t,” he says once more. “It’s a setup. I never actually crossed the line. I wasn’t trespassing, I was prospecting unclaimed land.”
“What’s on the pearl he gave me, then?” Steve frowns. “He said he has evidence.”
Tony shrugs. “I haven’t seen it, but it’s not that hard to fake.”
“He beat a confession out of you?” Steve asks, appalled.
“Well, he tried to, but I never said anything. I think he gave up at some point and the rest of it was just for shits and giggles.”
Steve’s getting so furious at Hammer he’s actually trembling. Goddamn it, how can Tony be so casual about this? He doesn’t seem half as angry as Steve feels, though his anger does tend to be more cold and calculating than Steve’s. Steve sits down again and takes a few deep breaths.
“Why didn’t you say something when he brought you in?” he asks.
“I don’t see what that would’ve accomplished,” Tony replies, still in that dismissive tone. “I said it earlier, if it’s my word against his, you know which is going to weigh more to a jury. As far as anyone’s concerned, he’s an upstanding member of the community, while I’m barely even a part of it. Not to mention all the shit that went down on Earth, which doesn't exactly make me seem more trustworthy.”
“You’re not seriously thinking we’ll just let him get away with it!”
“Wait, did you just say ‘we’? There’s an ‘us’? I may have missed the memo on that.” Tony's hand slides to his lap, his face lit up, eyebrows raised. “And what happened to you following the letter of the law, regardless of my well-being?”
“I’ll follow the spirit of the law,” Steve says sharply. “And yes, I'm starting to think there might be an ‘us’.”
Tony grins. “I like the sound of that.”
“So, you’re not planning on letting him get away with it, are you?” Steve prompts.
“Of course not, who do you take me for?” Tony returns with a mock-offended voice. “The bruises I can’t do much about—no proof, my word, his word. The trespassing charges are a different story, though. See, I’ve got proof about that, too, showing I was within my rights. And it’s bound to be better than his, because it’s the unedited truth. I just need to get to my bots to retrieve it.”
“Stark. Are you asking me to assist you in a jailbreak?” Steve asks, and there's nothing fake about his shocked tone.
“I’m saying there’s a way we can fix this, if you’re willing to trust me,” Tony says, his dark eyes locking with Steve’s, looking entirely serious now.
Steve stands up, exhales a long breath and takes a few steps with his back towards Tony, hanging his head, staring at his uniform boots.
He does trust Tony, though he knows he shouldn’t. There’s no rational reason why he should. He doesn’t know Tony, not really. He might know a few very intimate details about Tony, sure, but this is one of the longest conversations they’ve had that’s not related to sex. For all he knows, Tony might be trying to talk his way out of the mess he’s gotten into, and disappear as soon as he has his ship back. But no matter how hard he tries, Steve can’t bring himself to believe that Tony would do something like that.
On the one hand, he’s appalled at himself for even considering breaking his principles for this man. On the other, he can’t think of any other person he’d rather do it for.
He turns around and raises his head to glance at Tony, who’s tensed up in anticipation, arms folded, giving Steve a questioning look.
No matter how hard he thinks about it, Steve knows the outcome will always be the same. He returns Tony's look with a small smile.
“Okay. I trust you. We’ll do it.”
Tony makes to get up from the bed, gingerly shifting to move his legs over the edge. Steve steps in to push him back, with hands that are firm but far gentler than what he'd normally use with Tony.
“As soon as you’re a little healthier,” Steve adds.