Tony kept his eyes closed. It didn’t help since he could still hear and the psychopaths masquerading as doctors were (un)helpfully forthcoming with explaining what they were doing, but it didn’t hurt either.
It was one of the few things that didn’t hurt.
They’d been giving him Valium or some shit to keep him calm, but it had been awhile since the last dose and they had finally figured out how to get past the locks he’d put in place to prevent anyone else from pulling an Obie on the arc reactor. It had been sitting in a cradle suspended over his chest for the last he-had-no-idea-how-many-hours as they poked and prodded. Since removing it fully would end with him dead, this was their compromise. He considered it less compromise and more another reason to keep his eyes closed. It didn’t actually hurt as long as it was still connected, but it was alarming, as bad as seeing his actual heart outside of his own body would be, he imagined, since he hadn’t been the one to pull it out.
So he kept his eyes closed and his mouth shut—as much as he could, which was quite a bit since all that wanted to come out right now was begging and he wasn’t ready to give in that much yet—and hoped that Steve and the rest of the team showed up soon. Like, any second now would be perfect.
An alarm started screeching overhead and his eyes popped wide to see what was happening.
“Security lockdown. Security lockdown. Base compromised. Proceed to evacuation points immediately. Secure all research,“ an automated voice advised, then started over. A roar shook the building and vibrated the table Tony was laid out on.
Speak of the devil…
The assholes poking at the arc reactor paled and exchanged terrified looks, then scattered across the lab, typing into terminals and packing up things here and there, stuffing them into foam-lined cases and locking them shut.
"What about him?” one of the younger techs asked, jerking their head at Tony.
“If you have a death wish, then stay, but I for one do not wish to face down the Hulk,” an older doctor-type hissed.
“Forget the Hulk,” another said, “Captain America—”
“Will be here any minute,” a kevlar-clad security agent snapped as he stormed into the room. “Grab your shit and move unless you want to be here to explain what exactly we were doing to his fiancé.” The last word was sneered as the agent looked down at Tony. Covetous eyes locked onto the arc reactor and Tony squeezed his hands into fists. When a black-gloved hand let a rifle hang suspended from the strap and reached for it, Tony involuntarily pulled against the metal cuffs to try and stop him.
The agent smirked and laid his hand on the arc reactor, briefly dimming the glow, but a familiar ringing ricochet sounded in the hallway. The man yanked his hand back and turned to run for the rear exit of the lab where the scientists had already vanished. Tony lifted his head to watch him go, but the man only made it halfway before an arrow appeared between his shoulder blades and he went down with a curse. Tony couldn’t see him anymore, but increasingly panicked cursing continued, along with the sounds of someone trying to drag themselves across a linoleum floor.
Tony’s attention was snapped away when the wide double doors flew open and Steve appeared, snatching his shield out of the air on a rebound as he stalked inside. Relief so potent it made him dizzy swept over Tony and he had to put his head down and close his eyes to try and breathe through it.
Footsteps stopped next to the table and then Cap said, “Hawkeye, secure the prisoner. Widow, get JARVIS connected to the computers and pull everything you can off of them.” There was a pause and then, “Thor, I need you in the labs for a moment.”
Tony wanted to open his eyes, he really did, but he wasn’t looking forward to spontaneously breaking into tears or something, so he kept them closed and tried to regulate his breathing instead. It wasn’t actually working all that well since it felt like he was wearing Pepper’s smaller Rescue armor instead of his boxer briefs, the only bit of clothing he’d been permitted to keep on, but he kept counting anyway. In-two-three-four, out-two-three-shit.
Cap was right there, no doubt looking Tony over and cataloging every bruise and mark and— Oh, god, the arc reactor casing. It was wide open. They’d slipped a latex dam inside to keep things sterile, but still, Steve had never seen the arc reactor out of place, didn’t know how deep the hole went or how big it was and somehow that always seemed to surprise people. And disgust or terrify them. Tony understood, though. It wasn’t exactly something he liked to think about either.
There was a cry of pain from somewhere on the floor near where he’d last seen the incapacitated agent and a low muttering from Clint, and that distracted Tony enough that the warm hand on his cheek startled him. He jumped, head and heels banging into the table when he came back down, wrists and ankles and hips and shoulders slamming into the sharp edges of the cuffs and bands holding him in place. His eyes flew open and he gasped for air, shivering at the cold bite of it as it finally filled his lungs all the way down to his diaphragm.
He only got a glimpse of hard blue eyes before a gloved hand swept up and back, taking the cowl with it and leaving behind messy blond spikes. Steve bit his fingertips and pulled the glove off, dropping it to the floor and pressing the hand to Tony’s other cheek. It was almost scorchingly hot, a combination of Steve’s higher natural body temperature and the comparison to the chill of the table underneath him. His breath juddered out of his lungs on a, “Stev-ve.”
“I’m here, Tony. I’ve got you. I’m here now. You’re going to be okay.” He didn’t look away, even as he called, “Widow?”
“JARVIS is inside and pulling everything out,” she said, then crossed the floor on sharp, snapping bootsteps. She was making noise on purpose and Tony couldn’t be anything but grateful when she appeared on Tony’s other side and smiled down at him. It would be terrifying under normal circumstances, but he’d had a bit of an overload on that sensation this week. She swept her gaze over Tony, eyes giving the suspended arc reactor a thorough exam before coming back to his face. “Shall we put this back where it belongs?”
He watched her hands get closer to the arc reactor and tried to tell himself to stay calm, but couldn’t do it. “Stop! Stopstopstop—” Her hands pulled back, coming up in what would be surrender for anyone else. Some part of him felt the need to apologize, but he couldn’t quite make it come out. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, it just… well, okay, it sort of was that exactly. Her eyes were understanding though and he looked away, focusing on the star on Steve’s chest.
“Get started on the cuffs,” Steve said, still looking at Tony. She nodded and pulled a set of lockpicks out of her uniform, bending down and out of his sight to get a better look. That sent his pulse spiking, a fact betrayed by the pulse/ox monitor clamped on his finger. He tried to shake his finger, but they’d taped it in place after he’d done that once before. They’d threatened to cut tendons if he shook it off again, so he’d stayed still.
He tried again now, but only got two good shakes in before delicate fingers stilled his hand and pulled the tape off, releasing the clamp. The machine wailed for a moment before an arrow pierced the unit and it died. Clint appeared down by Tony’s feet, his own lockpicks making an appearance as he went to work on the ankle cuffs.
“Tony,” Steve said, bringing his attention back up. He looked at that familiar face, concern and care in the blue now, and sucked in a breath, pushing past the pain and filling his lungs again. “We need to get the arc reactor back in. Can you talk me through it or do you want to wait?”
“You,” Tony said immediately. “You can— You— Pleas—” He bit down on his lip until it bled. When he was sure it would sound like a polite request and not begging, he cleared his throat and tried again. “I can talk you through it. Please put it back in.” His voice rose and cracked on the end, but Steve just smiled.
“Okay.” He bent and pressed a kiss to Tony’s lips, then a longer one to his forehead before pulling back and straightening. “What do I need to do?”
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it again, eyes darting side to side as he considered the size of Steve’s hands. Shit. They were too big. His own were too big and Steve’s massive paws made his hands look stumpy and small by comparison. He considered the team and winced. If Pepper were here, she’d already be in the room. Which left Natasha as his only choice.
“Tasha—” He stopped and swallowed down the leaden fear tightening his throat. “The— The dam. The latex dam. It has to come out.” Steve could do everything else—assuming nothing had been wiggled loose, but he wasn’t in the middle of cardiac arrest, so probably not—but not until the casing was cleared out.
“Okay. I’m right here, Tony,” Steve said. “Well get it out and then get this done. Close your eyes,” he directed as he stroked a thumb over Tony’s forehead, brushing back his hair and smoothing the wrinkle pulling the skin between his brows tight.
Tony glanced at Natasha as she straightened up. God he hoped there wasn’t anything loose in there. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing again. Steve’s fingers tangled with his and held on tight. “You’re doing great, Tony. That’s it. Breathe in and out for me, sweetheart.” He heard Steve’s exaggerated breaths and did his best to match them. It didn’t stop his muscles from tensing as he waited for the touch of her hand, but it did help keep him from hyperventilating and passing out.
He bit his lip again and tasted blood. God, what was she waiting for? He was about to snap at her to just do it, dammit, when Steve said, “Okay, open your eyes. It’s over. You did great.”
Tony blinked at the ceiling, then frowned, lifting his head to look at his chest. Natasha balled up the latex sheet and tape and threw it in the trash. “What?” He looked at Steve. “What?”
Steve smiled and stroked his thumb over Tony’s knuckles. “Now you know why I don’t play Jenga with her.”
Tony barked a laugh—which hurt because his ankles were free, but not his hips or his shoulders or either of his hands yet—and then choked a little while trying to smother an unstable giggle.
“Okay, Tony,” Steve said, brushing back his hair. “What do I do now?”
“Does it, uh, shit, the connections—”
“All secure,” Natasha said, already working on the cuff on his wrist again. Her tone was distracted, but he’d seen the locks on the cuffs and wasn’t surprised. A little flattered maybe, since they’d obviously preferred to go a little overboard to make sure he couldn’t get out.
“Okay,” he said, not sure if he should be comforted or unsettled by her obvious familiarity with the unit in his chest. “Uh, well, then just… line it up, put it in, and twist it home. The locks should auto-engage once it’s seated properly. There will be a click. You’ll feel it. I’ll definitely feel it.”
“All right, that sounds easy enough,” Steve said, straightening and letting go of Tony’s head to pick up the arc reactor. “Clint?” he said and the cradle was whisked away and dropped with a clatter on the floor.
“It is. Putting it in is easy, don’t want to make it hard in case, well, it’s hard to think when your heart is being shredded—” Steve stilled and Tony cut himself off. “Anyway, uh, yeah, installation is pretty simple. Removal isn’t, but, well, that’s not something I want just anyone to do, you know?”
“Me either,” Steve said, giving Tony a lopsided smile that looked just a little sick. Well, that was… expected. Normal even.
Tony coughed and Steve shot him a look of concern. “I’ll be fine. Really. Just… as soon as, you know… so if you could…”
Steve nodded, expression firming, shoulders squaring. “Right.” He examined the bottom of the reactor and then lined it up over Tony’s chest. “Just put it in and… twist.” There was an audible click that Tony felt echo through his ribs, not painful, just a jolt, and, wow, yeah, okay, endorphins were awesome, good call on that one, brain.
Steve kept his fingertips on the edges of the case as he looked at Tony. “Good?”
“Fantastic. Peachy-keen. Just swell, as you old folks say.”
Steve laughed and settled his hand over the top of the arc reactor. The light was blocked, but the heat of his hand leached into the surrounding skin, the warmth spreading out from that point, grounding Tony. Slowly the tension eased out of his muscles again.
Clint nudged Steve to the side, closer to Tony’s head, and started on the lock of the band across his hips just as Natasha said, “Got it,” and the cuff on his wrist popped open. He immediately lifted it free and put his hand over Steve’s, wrapping their hands together and holding on tight. Natasha moved up to the shoulder restraint.
Steve stayed with him the whole time, fingers laced together on both hands, his eyes skipping over Tony’s body and narrowing, then coming back to Tony’s eyes and softening. “I love you,” he murmured and bent down for another gentle kiss.
“Love you, too,” Tony said, after a moment to steady himself. His eyes closed on welling tears and Steve kissed the lids, then his forehead.
“My friends!” Thor said as he swept into the room, drawing all attention for a moment. The relieved expression on his face darkened as he took in Tony, still mostly strapped down to the table and naked except for his underwear waiting for the rescue to be completed.
He crossed the room and looked the table over a second time, slipping his fingers under the band over Tony’s hips. Thor’s fingers were warm too and Tony shivered only from comparison.
“I’ve almost got it,” Clint murmured, but then Thor grasped the bar and lifted, the joint giving way with a squeal. He flipped it over and twisted it around on the lock so it dangled below the table’s edge. “Or that. That works too. You wanna get his wrist?” the archer asked as he stepped back with a wave of his hand.
Steve looked briefly embarrassed, then shook his head and brushed it aside. He slipped his fingers under the shoulder band and tugged, but shook his head again. “This will be easier,” he said, and picked up his shield. He circled around to the side Natasha was on with the lock. “Ready?” he asked her and she nodded and put up her hands to block Tony’s face. Steve sliced the shield downward in one harsh stroke, shearing the whole lock off with only a few sparks.
Thor had smashed the lock off the wrist cuff with Mjölnir since the cuff itself was too small to fit both his fingers and Tony’s wrist, but in seconds Tony was free and pushing to sit up. Steve got his arm behind Tony’s shoulders and lifted, guiding him up and around so his legs dangled over the side.
“Thor?” he said as he watched Tony’s face. Tony shook his head. The drugs had worn off long ago. He was a bit shaky from exhaustion and he hadn’t eaten very well—or at all—since his capture and it was still frickin’ freezing in here, Mr. Bigglesworth, but other than that he was fine.
A swirl of red had Thor’s cape dropping around his shoulders and he gratefully took the corners in his hand and held them close to his neck, hunching down into the fabric. It was some kind of wool blend. Tony didn’t know what beyond the animal was not one on Earth and the plant wasn’t either and the technology that combined the two sure as hell wasn’t. All he knew was it didn’t wrinkle, it didn’t stain, and it was very warm. That was his favorite feature at the moment.
Steve had his arms around Tony, hands rubbing up and down his arms to chafe some heat into his skin and probably also just general “I’m glad you’re okay” cuddles and Tony wasn’t going to complain about that either.
“Hulk is taking care of the last of our foes,” Thor reported. “And the Son of Coul and his agents have arrived to begin their work.”
“Good,” Steve nodded. “Clint, you wanna go chase down Hulk and bring Bruce back to the jet?” Clint nodded and headed out at a trot, turning right toward the sound of Hulk’s continued bellowing.
Steve slid his arm down to circle Tony’s waist and helped him down to the floor. Tony hissed at the chilly linoleum on his bare soles.
“I can—” Steve started but Tony put a finger up.
“Don’t even suggest it. I am perfectly capable of walking out under my own power, thank you very much.” Steve backed off, but Tony scowled and grabbed his hand, dragging him close again. “Where are you going? I can walk, but I’m freezing. Get over here, you patriotic furnace you.”
Steve laughed and closed the distance again, wrapping his arms around Tony. He ducked down and stole another kiss and Tony would have been all for continuing that, but he really wanted to get home and eat and get some clothes on. And drink, like, at least seven cups of coffee in there somewhere.
Steve understood that, though, so he just shifted his grip so Tony was plastered against his side but moving under his own power and they headed out, Thor leading the way and Natasha bringing up the rear. She was murmuring, updating Phil from the sounds of it, including reporting the agent Clint had left on the floor in there.
Medics approached as they exited the building, but Tony didn’t even get to shoo them away before Steve was doing it for him, declaring they were done here and Coulson had control of the scene. Phil gave Tony one assessing look and said they would debrief with Hill back at the Tower when everyone had been released from medical or nine am tomorrow morning, whichever came first.
Clint and Bruce were already on the jet when they arrived, Bruce curled up in his own blanket burrito, though he poked his head out when Thor’s boots echoed on the ramp.
“You okay?” he asked Tony.
Tony shrugged. “Okay enough. Go back to sleep, Bruce. You can poke me after your nap.”
Bruce glanced to Steve and got a confirmation nod, which was a little insulting since Tony had stopped hiding, like, 63% of his injuries. The rest were superficial and not worth bothering medical over. Tony more than knew his way around sprained muscles and bruises and small lacerations, okay? And who didn’t know how to treat cracked ribs, they didn’t even wrap those nowadays, they just gave you drugs and told you to be careful and Tony hated drugs and was always careful, so why waste everyone’s time?
“You are going to medical when we get back,” Steve murmured in his ear punctuating it with a kiss on his temple, once they sat down.
“Humor me.” Puppy dog eyes were absolutely cheating. Captain America was a cheater.
“We’ll see,” Tony said, but he knew he’d lost and Steve did too. He did pull Tony into his lap, though, and resumed cuddling him, though, so that was a fair trade.
Tony rested his head on Steve’s shoulder, letting it fall forward until he was nuzzling Steve’s neck, and breathed in deeply. The odors of astringent chemicals and antibacterials and medical and biology lab were pushed out and overlaid by the scents of Steve’s bodywash and shampoo and just general Steve.
Between that and finally starting to feel warm again, Tony started to drift off and why not? The arc reactor was back in place, JARVIS was handling the data sweep and retrieval, and Phil was going to take that base down to the foundation and chase down all the rats that had escaped. He could let others handle things while he caught some much needed rest.
He tightened his grip on the other side of Steve’s neck, burrowed into the curve of this side of it, and let himself slip under.
He was safe with Steve.