As far as kidnappings go, this one is almost civilized. Apart from the fact that they greet him by pulling a bag over his head and knock him unconscious before he can say a single word.
Tony wakes up in a mostly clean warehouse, though, instead of some cell in a ratty basement where he is sure to catch pneumonia and die before Stark Industries would have a chance to pay ransom, even if they were in the habit of doing so. His hands and feet are bound with rope that sits tight but not enough to hinder his blood circulation. It feels like a professional job, fancy knot and all.
Most importantly, he is not hurt beyond the distant throbbing of where they hit his temple earlier.
Blinking fully awake, Tony finds himself facing a man. He is rather short and stocky. A mop of dirty blond hair sticks up over the mask covering his face.
“Good evening,” Tony says amiably.
The man narrows his eyes at Tony but does not lash out as he half-expected. Somehow, he does not think that is a good sign. It feels as if they are waiting for something.
“Do you think we could deal with this unfortunate business quickly? I’ve got –” A slap cuts Tony off, the sound of flesh on flesh ringing loudly in the otherwise empty warehouse.
It was not hard enough to split his lip. Tony is not sure it will even bruise. It was a warning, nothing more. More so, this is all still so terribly polite that he considers heeding it.
Before he can decide on a course of action, the man steps forward and puts his hands on Tony’s jacket – or rather inside it. He goes for the inside pocket and gets out the USB drive Tony has taken to carrying everywhere as if he has known exactly what to go for. On the drive are Tony’s personal projects and some stuff he does not exactly want to fall into the hands of his board members. All of them have constant dollar signs in their eyes but Tony thinks there are limits to what they should make their money with.
Truth be told, his conscience got more or less only reborn when they refused all of his attempts at steering the company in new directions. Green energy, communication, medical technology. Tony is good at what he does. He can revolutionize more than just the weapons market. That would come with risks, though, and the board does not want to take any as long as Tony is making them enough money without them.
Tony glares at the man, who holds the drive up in the air, looking at it with some disdain as if he does not think that little thing is worth all the trouble of snatching Tony Stark off the street. He obviously does not know the kind of gold mine he is holding. The data on it is saved elsewhere too, of course, but getting the drive is much easier than breaking into Tony’s home and getting the information from there. This feels less and less like a random kidnapping.
Tony’s mind immediately runs through the handful of people who know about the existence of the USB drive. Pepper and Obie do. Some of the board members should at least suspect that he is not going to stop making plans even if they rejected them. A few people down in R&D might know, not anything specific, though.
In front of him, the man speaks into an earpiece. “Got it.”
So there are more of them lurking somewhere. At least two where present when they picked him up, but Tony does not think that will be all. Getting to him, even if he is rather lax with his own security, needs more than two brains.
“If all you wanted was the USB drive, you could have asked, you know?” Tony speaks up in as nonchalant a tone as he dares. Sometimes, it is better to show some fear, but Tony has never quite managed to let go of his pride long enough for that. “There was no need to drag me all through town to your stunningly clean lair.”
The man’s mouth twitches, but Tony is sure it is not from amusement.
“Don’t they teach you posh people when to shut up?” the man growls, but makes no further move.
“Conversation furthers the horizon,” Tony quips, watching the man closely without being too obvious about it. “Perhaps you should try it sometime.”
The man takes a step forward until he towers over Tony. The hand holding the drive is balled into a fist. Tony knows how this story goes. They tell him to be quiet and follow their rules, he keeps provoking them until they make a mistake. Sometimes they do not make mistakes, but Tony has made it out of every kidnapping alive up until now.
“Don’t.” A woman steps up. Bright red hair, moving in her combat boots as if she is doing ballet. This one is dangerous.
“Why not?” the man asks. He whips up his hands but instead of them breaking Tony’s skin with a hit, he produces a mass of dirty cloth out of thin air and forces it into Tony’s mouth, effectively gagging him.
The woman glares. Even though it is not directed at Tony, he feels the primal urge to flee or at least duck. The man does not even flinch. Perhaps she looks tougher than she is, although Tony’s gut tells him it is the other way around.
Before they can continue their argument, two more men enter the room. They are both tall, but where one is blonde the other is dark. The dark one’s glare is almost as potent as the woman’s and definitely meant for Tony. His eyes are unforgiving, making Tony feel like this might be personal after all. All of their masks reveal just enough of their faces to make them fearsome, definitely human but less approachable for it.
When the men come closer, something metallic glints between them, but Tony cannot get a good look. It could be a gun but just as well a strangely coloured glove.
Without a word, the short guy hands over the USB drive to the tall blond, who studies it briefly then pockets it with a sigh. Just a moment ago, it seemed like they were only after the drive. Now, though, the air is filled with a new tension, harder somehow.
They communicate silently and it feels like an argument. For once, Tony thinks better of disturbing the silence. He would probably even do so if he were not currently gagged. The blond, who has to be the leader, considering that they are all waiting for his verdict, nods tersely. His shoulders are painfully straight, almost as if he does not want to be here.
“All right,” he says. His voice sounds like it could be melodic if it were not infused with disdain. When he turns his head and looks at Tony, his eyes are cold, making Tony shudder. “Let’s do this.”
Ice spreads through Tony at this and it has nothing to do with the sense of impending violence filling the air. He knows these words, knows them by heart. During his childhood, he used to recite them to himself as if they were a prayer. He has never imagined hearing them in a situation like this.
The words alone would not mean anything, of course. He has heard them a thousand times. They are accompanied by a burning sensation crawling up his arm, however, touching a place he has kept covered up since he was eight years old and woke up to these exact words in a sprawling script across his forearm. The first words his soulmate would ever say to him. It is just his miserable luck that he would hear them during a kidnapping.
Tony’s focus zeroes in on the man who has spoken them, oblivious to the fact that he has just now declared his soulmate fair game to his companions. He is still looking at Tony but no recognition flickers to life in his eyes.
Tony strains against the rope keeping him mostly immobile and then against the cloth in his mouth. He does not know what he would say, even if he had full control over his tongue, but he feels like he has to do something. He yells something unintelligible. It does not have any effect.
Before he can do anything else, a dark shape steps in front of him, obscuring his view of the gang leader, and the first punch hits him square in the stomach, dispersing all rational thought.
The first hit is never the worst. It feels like it, certainly, because no matter how unavoidable a fight appears, that first step from a simple argument into a violent, physical altercation will always have something unreal to it, something impossible to brace for.
This time, Tony did not know he had to brace for something. Despite the kidnapping and the harshness in these people’s words and movements, their encounter has almost felt like a straight up business transaction. Someone wants Tony’s personal files, so they are getting them. This does not feel like part of a deal, but not like they are just roughing him up for the fun of it either.
All other thoughts leave him when the fist hits him again, hard enough to throw him out of the chair. Distantly, he feverishly tries to concentrate on possible reasons for why they are doing this so he does not have to think about his burning forearm and the fact that the gang boss who has just ordered Tony’s beating is his soulmate.
Tony hits the ground with a crack. Years of practice have him guarding his head with his arms, even though that leaves the rest of his body unprotected. He rolls up into as tight a ball as possible and tries not to count the blows. His brain being what it is, he cannot help collecting information anyway.
Despite the flurry of blows and kicks, Tony is sure that only two of them are actually working on him, although they do not hold back and do enough damage on their own.
Some of Tony’s ribs crack with a dry sound. It is not so much the pain than the knowledge of what is happening to him that has whimpers escape his throat. When he instinctively reaches downward, the next blow lands in his face. The taste of copper and iron explodes on his tongue and blood clogs his nose, making him unable to breathe. A kick hits his ribcage and pushes the rest of the air out of his lungs.
After that, everything blurs, pain and the ringing in his ears and the proof that fate hates him. Hours might pass in which Tony is undone. The worst part is that, even caught in agony, Tony cannot stop wanting to know why.
Several long minutes after Tony is certain that he cannot take any more, he hears the leader say, “Enough.”
It is impossible to say whether anyone argues, and Tony does not even notice the exact moment the blows stop coming. All he can focus on beyond the impossible state of his body is his soulmate’s voice. Even like this, it causes an instinctive longing. If this were not one of the worst nights of his life, Tony might laugh.
“Are you feeling better now?” Tony hears he leader ask once his senses begin returning to him. There is a dry kind of humour in his tone that belongs anywhere but here, washing over Tony’s broken body.
“No,” comes the answer. Tony does not know that voice so it has to be the dark-haired man, the one with a grudge.
“We could cut off his arm,” the short man supplies with unholy glee. He barely sounds winded. “To make it fair.”
Terror has Tony flinching back from them. He tries to curl up around his arms, to protect them as best as he can, but stills when the pain is too much to bear. They cannot take his arms from him. He needs them so he can keep working. He has given so much of himself away already to satisfy the sharks constantly surrounding him, he cannot lose his arms too.
Distantly, the voice of the leaders filters through the rushing panic in Tony’s mind. “I said enough.”
The pathetic truth is, if Tony could, he would thank the gang leader for his mercy. He would push himself onto his knees and bow his head before him. He would –
“Let’s get rid of him.”
Steps are moving closer, but Tony stays where he is, pressed against the floor. When he blinks, his entire vision is stained red. If he is lying in a puddle if his own blood, it would explain the wetness on his cheek.
Hands reach for his arms and legs. He feels the sharp coldness of metal against his skin and then the ropes keeping him bound are cut. Tony’s relief at the sudden loss of pressure is short-lived, because then they are pulling at his limbs, stretching him to pick him up like a sack of flour.
No, Tony wants to scream. It comes out as nothing more than a muffled whimper as a new wave of agony rips through him. His head is dragged over the ground for several feet until the hoist him higher with an abrupt movement.
Tony is sure he loses his consciousness for several seconds because the next thing he feels is cold air against his skin, biting against bruises that are not yet fully formed. He is lying on the ground again, which is rougher now, like broken asphalt. Groaning, he tries to swallow but finds the rug still in his mouth.
It takes him an eternity to lift his hand to pull the gag out of his mouth, and then he still tastes more blood and ends up coughing when he tries to spit it out. After that, he greedily pushes fresh air into his lungs, no matter that this intensifies the pain in his ribs – or rather his pain everywhere. Tony feels like one giant wound, a plaything of fate, now abandoned by it.
His soulmate, he remembers then, and that pain is almost more acute than the physical one. Sentimentality has never had a place in their family but Tony has never stopped hoping he might find that one person who is best for him in all the world. Howard and Maria had not been soulmates but Jarvis and Ana had. Tony has always known whose life he would rather have.
Now, though, life has taken another cruel turn. Tony is not sure he can take it.
With a slow but impatient movement, he rips the brace from his left forearm, staring at the words he knows better than anything else in the world. Words that, tonight, have turned from grey to black, meaning that there is no mistake. He has met his soulmate and his soulmate has turned him into a wreck.
Let’s do this.
Tony has not needed this proof. The burning was enough. The feeling of a hook sinking into his intestines, pulling him apart, was enough. Perhaps Howard was right and Tony is really going to ruin everything he touches, and everything that touches him will ruin him more.
Defiance rises in his stomach, almost indistinguishable from fury. Staring at the words on his forearm, Tony yells, “Are you fucking kidding me?” It ends up as more of a whisper, but it tears at his throat as if he had screamed.
To his surprise, he hears footsteps closing in from behind him. Immediate fear takes hold of him even while he tries to crawl away. He does not come far, the pain makes it hard to properly coordinate his limbs.
The gang leader crouches down in front of him. Out of all of them, he is the one Tony wants to see the least. In fact, he would rather take another beating than face his shame head on.
“What did you just say?”
For the first time, he sounds angry. Inside the warehouse, he had been tense and resigned, but now it looks like he feels the first sliver of the disappointed rage that is nesting in Tony’s bones too, the sense of betrayal. Because this cannot be true, that the best thing in the world should be reduced to this.
A thousand different things sit on Tony’s tongue, ranging from curses over accusations to pleas. Instead, he blinks the blood out of his eyes and focuses on the man in front of him as best as he can.
“Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me,” he repeats his words, spits them out as if they do not mean anything, as if they are not tearing him apart anew.
“That’s not possible,” the gang leader says.
Tony opens his mouth to laugh, but there is somehow still more blood trickling down the back of his throat, so he ends up having another coughing fit.
Possible is such a pedestrian word. It has never played much of a role in Tony’s life. Everything is impossible until it is done for the first time. That said, he wishes that this were a lie too.
Impatiently, the blonde pulls Tony’s arm towards him, staring intensely at the black words curling condemningly over bruised skin. It is hard to say in the dim light and with just one eye working as it should, but Tony thinks the man has gone white as a sheet.
Not saying anything, he holds his own arm next to Tony’s and rips up his sleeve, revealing words that Tony knew would be there.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Still silent, the gang leader raises his head slowly, then stares at Tony for several long minutes. They are at an impasse. There is no good or right way forward from this. They have navigated themselves into a dead end before they even met. Well, mafia guy has done all the leading. Tony has been dragged in screaming and was kicked into place.
With a sigh that sounds like he is no stranger to impossibly fucked up situations, the gang leader pulls his mask from his head, revealing a handsome if tired face. Right after noticing the strong jaw line, Tony shuts his eyes and turns his head away. There is nothing for him to see here. Tony does not want to know the face of this man. He remembers the heaviness of his cold eyes well enough.
“Did you know?”
Incredulity spreads through Tony at the question. Still, he clenches his jaw and keeps his mouth shut. Nothing good will come of engaging in a conversation with the other man. Their story is already over. All he wants to do now is to go home, take a hot bath to soothe his bruises, and forget any of this ever happened.
A hand settles around Tony’s chin. It is gentle but he instinctively flinches away from it. The gang leader does not let him escape though. Firmly, he pulls Tony’s head back around, then leaves his hand there for a moment longer to make sure Tony stays facing him.
“What?” Tony snaps. He hates himself for noticing how handsome the man is, how easily he can imagine him smiling. “How could I have known? You obviously know who I am, so it should not surprise you that I don’t make a habit of dealing with the mob.”
Lips curling up slightly in what can only be amusement, the man replies, “We’re not the mob.”
That is so not the point, and still Tony lets himself fall into the argument willingly. He is lying on the cold ground, bleeding, with broken ribs, but talking about technicalities is better than dealing with the fact that this man is supposed to be the one person he gets his happily ever after with.
“No?” Tony drawls, feeling the split in his upper lip throb. “Yet someone paid you money to beat me up and you happily agreed. Quite thoroughly too.”
Fury, Tony knows, helps with the pain. It gives him something to cling to.
The man has the audacity to look embarrassed. At the same time, his face clouds over with the same hardness he carried when he first joined his men.
“We were told you’re dealing with weapons under the table.”
Tony stares. Tonight is a night of utter strangeness. Curiously enough, he finds this bit of information more unbelievable than finding his soulmate.
Dealing under the table? That does not even make sense. Stark Industries has countless standing contracts. They are making enough money. There is absolutely no reason why Tony would sell his weapons illegally. He would not even know to whom. It is not as if he wants there to be even more fighting in the world. On the contrary. With less war, he would perhaps get his board of directors to approve some of his personal projects.
“Oh wow, good point,” Tony drawls, unable to help himself. Fury might help with the pain but not exactly with keeping his tongue in check. “Even if that were true, you really would have done some good work today. Clearly I’m cured from my evil ways now.”
There must have been more to it. They went for the USB drive with the coldness of trained professionals. The rest of it felt personal and not like part of the job. They did not even give him a reason, did not attempt to teach him a lesson. It was just raw rage unleashed on him.
“We’ve had some reservations where it comes to weapons,” the gang leader says without explaining anything.
Looking at his soulmate, Tony finds himself believing that someone must have told these people that he is dealing with weapons and that they took it at face value. They obviously have a problem with it, but they are clearly no pacifists. Threatening to cut someone’s arm off, too, goes far beyond reasonable indignation.
Still, he finds he does not actually want to know. The faster he gets out of here, the better. He has no desire to cure them of their misconception. Few people react kindly to that and he has had enough of their hospitality.
“Who paid you?” Tony asks, concentrating on the important things.
A big part of him wants to stay ignorant, to hide his head in the sand and continue on with his life. He needs to know, though. Accusing Tony of dealing under the table makes only sense if there is some evidence to back up the claim, and if there is evidence, Stark weapons might just really be out where they do not belong. Since Tony is not selling his weapons on the black market, someone else must be doing it. Tony can turn a blind eye to a lot of things but not to causing more death and destruction for profit.
“I can’t tell you that,” the gang leader says, although he has the decency to sound apologetic about it.
“Of course, you have to be the honourable kind of mob boss.” Tony sighs, feeling annoyed. All the while, he thinks he should be glad about that fact. Otherwise, the two men inside might have just beaten him to death or permanently maimed him. Tony knows which of these options he is more afraid of.
“We’re not the mob,” the blonde repeats, “and I’m no one’s boss.”
“Is that why your mob friends waited for your signal to split their knuckles on me?”
The blonde winces slightly, but Tony takes no satisfaction from it. The only reason he is still talking to the other man at all is because he is afraid of trying to move again. Now that he is lying very still, his body has turned into one throbbing wound, sharp spikes of warning shooting through him whenever he takes too deep a breath. Any kind of movement will throw him right back into agony.
“That’s not how we normally do things.”
How reassuring. Soulmates are supposed to protect each other, and even if they had not known, there should have been more reluctance about taking another man apart.
“I feel so fucking special right now,” Tony snaps and pointedly stares into the darkness above him.
The gang leader sighs and shifts his position so he sits down next to Tony. It would serve him well if his legs would hurt from crouching too long.
Tony would like to ask what he is even still doing here. They got the USB drive and a bit of personal revenge thrown in. They are done. The burning in their forearms will fade with time, so they can just go back to their own lives – which will hopefully never touch again. This once was enough.
“My name is Steve.”
The words fall into the silence between them like stones in a well. It feels like they are echoing several times inside Tony’s mind before they fully register. The gang leader – his soulmate – has a name now. Somehow, that makes it too real.
“Don’t tell me that,” Tony says shortly, wishing he could burn the knowledge from his brain. “I’ve already seen your face. You don’t have to give your guys more reasons to kill me.”
At the same time, he thinks the name fits. Despite his occupation, there is a kindness to his face, an all-American wholesomeness that matches the name. Tony still thinks he would have rather not found out. The more his soulmate turns into an actual person rather than a masked mob leader, the harder it will be to leave this behind.
Steve looks partly amused, partly guilty. “We’re not going to kill you.”
“Tell that to my body. Did you know that I have a heart condition?” Tony is rambling, he notices that too late. The exhaustion is creeping up on him.
“What?” Steve asks quickly as if he is actually concerned. “What happened? Are you all right?”
Another laugh is stuck in Tony’s throat. This situation gets more surreal by the minute.
“Stop this,” he croaks, batting away the hand that comes up unexpectedly, pressing against Tony’s sternum as if they have somehow passed into the level of intimacy where that is all right.
“What is wrong with your heart?” Steve asks, unimpressed by Tony’s attempts to push him away.
Momentarily, Tony is glad that whoever hired them did not know about his weak heart and the pacemaker sitting right under his skin. That might mean that it is not someone out of his inner circle – or they just thought the information irrelevant.
Distantly, he notices that Steve has now both of his hands on him, propping Tony up into a sitting position. Every fibre of his body protests at the sudden movement.
“What are you doing?” he demands, breathless from the pain.
“Getting you back inside,” Steve answers as if that is a reasonable thing to say. Inside is where Tony’s latest nightmare happened. Inside is where Steve’s friends are waiting, ready to cut off his arm after all.
“Like hell you will,” Tony mutters and puts all his energy into getting out of Steve’s hold.
It does not help much. He wants to struggle more, but the world is swimming in and out of sight before him as blackness creeps into his vision.
One of his blind hits actually meets flesh but Steve barely seems to notice. He does not react, in any case, other than readjusting his grip on Tony. Before he knows what is happening, Tony is lifted into the air, feet dangling, head pressed against Steve’s shoulder. The utter embarrassment of being carried bridal style by the very man who gave the order that has Tony currently unable to walk on his own is turning his cheeks hot.
“You’re hurt,” Steve explains as they are walking back towards the warehouse.
This time, Tony does not have it in him to even try to laugh. “I wonder how that happened,” he says, acid coating the words. “Let me go,” he then demands. His authority is dampened by both his physical state and the position he is in, but he tries his best. “Either you kill me now or you leave me alone. Choose one option.”
Abruptly, Steve comes to a halt. He does not let go of Tony, which has them standing awkwardly in the dim alleyway behind the warehouse, looking at each other with all the incomprehension of strangers unsure how to deal with each other. He seems actually contrite about Tony suggesting they would kill him. Finding his soulmate has certainly addled Tony’s wits too but not so much to entirely forget the past hours. If Steve is going to pretend nothing happened, they are going to have a problem with each other.
“But we’re –” Steve says but does not come any farther.
“Nothing,” Tony snaps with as much viciousness as he can muster. “We are obviously nothing.” Almost as if to punish himself, he adds, “I always thought that soulmate business was dubious. Guess I was right.”
He can deal with his disappointment later. With the crushing realization that Howard was right about so many things, that Tony will never be like Jarvis. There is no happy ending waiting for him here.
Still holding onto Tony, Steve looks down at him, face painfully earnest. “I didn’t know.”
Fury roars its ugly head in the pit of Tony’s stomach again. He wants to spit in Steve’s face, wants to scratch out his eyes. What does it matter if Steve has known? He is a gang leader, a thug. He took money to kidnap Tony, steal his private thoughts and projects, and then let his friends beat him up.
Tony sneers. “You say that as if it’s going to make anything better.”
It implies that, if Tony had not turned out Steve’s soulmate, it would have been all right what happened here tonight. Whether or not Tony is actually the one dealing with weapons. Steve is running a gang, they are kidnapping people up for money and possibly do worse. None of that is okay.
Slowly, Steve begins walking again. “Someone’s got it out for you,” he says calmly, ignoring Tony’s barb. “We can help.”
Unable to help himself, Tony snorts a laugh, even while he clenches his jaw to keep in the hysteria he feels rising inside himself.
“No, thanks,” he drawls, the disdain tasting bitter on his own tongue. “You’ve done quite enough. Also, wasn’t I just now still the bad guy? Just because your little tattoo is burning doesn’t mean I’m not selling weapons under the table.”
Looking down, he sees that Steve has covered up his arm again before he picked Tony up, probably unwilling to let his friends see the black words.
“You said you don’t,” Steve answers, sounding so earnest that Tony is not sure whether he should feel disgusted by it or in awe. “And you’re in no condition to lie.”
Just like that, Tony’s awe disperses as quickly as it has come. “Oh, darling,” he clicks his tongue, “if you believe that, don’t ever go into politics. People like us can lie even with our mouths sewn shut. It’s all we ever do.”
Steve frowns but does not stop walking. “You’re not a politician.”
It is a small mercy that Howard never had any patience for politics, or Tony would have been forced to deal with that too. Still, he smirks.
“I’m a businessman. That’s almost as bad.”
Despite the situation, despite who they are, Tony would have preferred to continue their argument to going back into the warehouse. Before he can add another barb or try to struggle out of Steve’s hold again, they are at the door – and Steve does not hesitate to go in.
As soon as the relative brightness inside is washing over them, Tony goes limp in Steve’s hold. No matter what is about to happen, he is not going to draw immediate attention to himself but will try to glean some more information from their surroundings.
What he sees are the three people from earlier, two men, one woman. They are still wearing their masks, although the stocky blonde has pushed it up far enough to eat something that looks suspiciously like soggy pizza. It smells like it too – which has Tony’s stomach roiling. Not only did someone think of picking up food before they went to beat someone up, their bloody work has also not diminished their appetite.
When Steve steps closer towards them, still carrying Tony with unexpected gentleness, they all look up. Their behaviour is not exactly deferential, but they do respect Steve, that much is obvious.
“What happened, Stevie?” the dark-haired man asks, taking a step closer. “Did the bastard die?”
There is unmistakeable glee in his voice. If his instincts had not let him go very still, Tony might have poked Steve and asked whether he would admit yet that taking him back inside was a bad idea. He is not sure what he has done to these people, but they are overly interested in his permanent demise.
“No,” Steve says. Tony feels the rumbling of his voice through the cheek his has still pressed against Steve’s shoulder. “He’s alive.”
That has the blond man perking up with interest. “Then what are you doing? Are we taking kill orders now?” He sounds a little bit too eager for Tony’s taste.
The woman, too, looks up, scrutinizing them more critically than either of the men. Tony is sure she knows that he is awake and listening to every word they say.
“We’re not going to kill anyone,” Steve says, making this sound like a normal conversation. “He didn’t do it.”
A stunned silence follows, in which Tony can feel their stares on him. Steve, however, does not let that push him off course. He lowers Tony down onto what feels like a metal table, perhaps a workbench. It is not comfortable but certainly a step up from the cracked concrete outside. He decides not to think too much about the way Steve runs his hands down Tony’s sides as if to make sure he is not going to fall off the table. Only when he is satisfied that Tony is secure, does he straighten his spine and faces his friends.
“And you know that how?” the blond asks, aggression crackling in his tone. “Did he look at you with his big innocent eyes and tell you? You know these assholes sing such pretty songs when they think you want to hear them.”
Tony dares to hope that it is a good sign that he waited for Steve to look at them before he voiced his argument. They step up closer, forming a half-circle in front of Steve. It does not look like they are going to go against Steve’s orders but Tony does not like to take any chances.
Swallowing down a groan, he pushes himself slowly into a sitting position. His movement has Steve whip around, eyeing him with concern. He neither stops nor tries to help him. Tony is unreasonably glad for that.
“One of his eyes is innocent,” Steve argues calmly, pointing at Tony’s face, which is now easily visible. “The other is already swollen shut, but I’m sure we’d find the same thing there.”
As if the mention of his eye triggers some reaction, Tony feels the pulsing pain covering most of his face. He also becomes acutely aware of the optical information he is missing while looking with just one eye.
“That’s still one eye too many he can still see with.”
While the blond man does most of the talking, Tony still feels the glare of the dark-haired one the most. Just as worrisome is the knife the woman is twirling almost absentmindedly. He does not doubt she could hit him with it before he ever noticed she is moving.
Steve’s position changes subtly. Where he was the very picture of nonchalance only moments before, he now shifts his position and his mere presence demands respect for his authority. Where he had just now been simply standing in front of Tony, he is now shielding him, declaring him off-limits with just the way he stands.
“Call Bruce,” Steve orders, causing a ripple to go through the room.
The twirling knife comes to a smooth halt in the woman’s hands, ready to be thrown. Next to her, the blond man is taking a step forward, arms half-raised to gesticulate wildly.
“We’re not going to patch the bastard up,” he yells, but could have been screaming against a wall for how little Steve reacts to it.
The most interesting is the dark-haired man, though. He somehow becomes even more still than before, his expression crumbling into something alive with betrayed fury. “Steve?” he asks, crossing his arms before him.
Only now does Tony see that the metallic glint he has seen earlier belongs to a prosthetic replacing most of the man’s left arm. That comment about cutting off Tony’s arm appears to be less random with every passing minute.
“He needs medical attention,” Steve says as if his friends have not been the one to put Tony into this position.
For several long moments, it feels like the tension is going to resolve not in their favour but in another bout of rampant violence. They are staring at each other, either communicating silently or simply waiting to see who caves first. Tony has never been good at being patient, though. Neither does he like to leave his fate up to anyone else.
“I can totally see that you’re no one’s boss around here,” Tony drawls. It takes him a few moments to realize that the words have come out of his own mouth. When all the attention shifts towards him, he can already taste blood again.
“Shut up, Stark,” the blond man hisses, taking another step forward until he is almost level with Steve, “or I’m going to kick out your teeth.”
For a fleeting moment, Tony thinks he would regret causing Steve’s men to turn against him. He does not owe Steve anything, but he is not going to deny the connection between them either. It might be frustrating to feel somewhat beholden to a man who has happily thrown him to the wolves just earlier this night, but fate is funny like that.
“That’s enough,” Steve speaks up. He does not exactly raise his voice, but it is still cutting through the tension easily, as if the pent-up wish for violence parts before his words.
The blond man glares for a second longer, then visibly steps down. The woman does not lower her knife, though, and the dark-haired man has not changed his stance at all.
“But he’s the one –” he trails off, his expression stricken, not the kind of helpless that comes from not knowing what to do but something angrier. He half-raises his prosthetic, holds it between them for a moment, then lets it fall back to his side.
Even without seeing Steve’s face, Tony notices that his entire being grows softer. “I know,” he says. These two words hold so much emotion that it has Tony’s throat constricting again. “But he says he didn’t do it and I believe him.” Before the storm of protest that is brewing in front of them can hit, Steve raises his arm. “He’s my soulmate.”
All eyes fall immediately on Steve’s arm before wandering over to where Tony is still sitting hunched over on the table. He feels like he should straighten, meet their judgement head on, but he is glad that he manages to remain somewhat upright at all.
“He’s –” the dark-haired man narrows his eyes. Before he can make his argument, the other man takes over.
“That’s awfully convenient, don’t you think?” There is still anger in his tone but it is more contained now, almost uncertain.
Steve keeps his eyes firmly on the man in the back. A whole lot more passes between them than the words that are being spoken.
“You want to have a look at my tattoo?” he asks, almost gently. “You know the words were still grey this morning.”
It reveals a lot about how close they are if Steve is so comfortable asking about his words in the open like this, has obviously shown them to at least the dark-haired man. The only people knowing about Tony’s are Jarvis and Rhodey.
Nobody says anything while the two men look at each other, waiting for the verdict. The hierarchy between them confuses Tony. He feels like an intruder, like he should cover his ears and close his eyes to give them some privacy, even though they are discussing his fate.
Then, the dark-haired man nods. His prosthetic hand, which had been clenched into a fist, uncurls slowly. With it, some of the tension lifts.
Unfortunately, the blond man decides that, now that this argument is over, he can start pushing his own again. “Just because you found your soulmate doesn’t mean we’re playing nice with criminals now.”
Despite himself, Tony has to snort, half in amusement, half in mounting frustration at them getting nowhere. He is hurting all over. All he wants is to go to bed, to get back to his old life. Navigating the board members and the press following him everywhere is still better than waiting to be judged by these people.
“Yes, because I’m clearly the criminal here.”
The blond turns on him, face a distorted grimace. “For the last time –”
“Clint.” Steve’s voice whips through the room and has them all standing straighter. Even Tony pushes his shoulders back, even though it makes breathing so much harder. Steve’s tone does not leave any more room for further arguments. “Call Bruce,” he then orders. “Nat, you find out exactly who hired us. And keep the USB drive safe. We won’t do anything more about this until we know what really happened.”
Distantly, Tony is aware that he should be worried about Steve throwing all their names out there where he can hear them. If this goes south, it reduces his chances of survival greatly. He is already not very happy to hear that his stay with Steve’s gang has apparently been extended for an unknown amount of time.
Clint stares balefully for a moment longer. “Fine,” he says with petulance, “but don’t expect me to hold his hands.”
Right in front of his eyes, Steve undergoes another transformation. From authoritative and unflinching, he grows smug and smirking. “Thank you,” he says with the kind of pleasantness that grates, “but I’ll do that myself.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tony mutters, sharing a glance with Clint that could almost be conspiratorial if they were not both acutely aware of how very much they are not allies.
Turning around, Steve grins at Tony. “You already said that. But you’re welcome to continue. It makes my tattoo tingle.”
Briefly, Tony is tempted to ask Steve to repeat his words too, just to find out whether he is telling the truth. He holds himself back, though, thinking that they have more important things to deal with – and he does not suddenly think of Steve as a friend.
“Now,” Tony decides out loud, “would be a good time to wake up.”
He does not exactly think he is dreaming. He has the occasional weird dream, but he is too much in pain for this to not be real. Also, he is not in the habit of flirting with people who could order him dead with a single nod, asleep or not.
“You won’t say that tomorrow,” Steve says, returning to Tony’s side as if he wants to make true on what he said to Clint and hold Tony’s hands. “Everything will hurt more.”
Tony knows. This is not the first time he has gotten a beating. That does not mean he wants to be reminded of it.
“You’re not as encouraging as you hope,” he replies, realizing too late that he should not be joking. Soulmate or not, Tony is still in danger.
“We’ll get there,” Steve says cheerfully.
Before Tony can find something appropriate to answer, the woman – Nat – appears at their side. She has removed her mask and revealed a face that is all the more stunning for the control she has over it. No matter how practiced Tony is at reading people, he cannot say at all what she is thinking.
“Here,” she lets two pieces of rope fall onto the table next to Tony.
“What’s that?” Steve asks, eyeing her with some amusement. “He’s not exactly in any condition to run.”
Tony thinks of protesting but he is still needing a lot of energy simply to keep sitting. Also, it might not be the worst thing if Steve underestimates him a bit, even though Natasha does not seem to be as easily fooled.
“You know who he is and what he can do,” she explains simply, no discernible judgement in her tone. She is just recounting facts. “Even if he’s not the one selling under the table, he can still do unholy things with his hands. I’d rather not find out first-hand.”
She really is smart. Despite the newspaper stories about Tony’s accomplishments as a child, and his race through school and then MIT, people often think he is just a nice face and playboy who inherited his father’s company, making his only achievement that he has not yet managed to crash Stark Industries. People like to forget that he is the head of the R&D department, that his name is not for nothing on their products.
Tony cannot say whether she has done her research or is just that good at assessing people. In any case, Steve appears to believe her without doubt. He picks up the rope, throwing an apologetic glance at Tony.
“I’m not going to pull it too tight.”
Tony shrugs as if it does not matter to him and holds out his hands. It is demeaning, to be bound like a dog, offering up his own head for the slaughter. He does not have the energy to fight, though. And while he wants to leave, he also needs to find out what they know about who sold him out. He cannot go back to his old life ignoring what has happened here tonight.
The rope is tugged almost gently around his wrists, although Steve does not hesitate to make a proper knot. Once Natasha is satisfied with Steve’s work, she turns around and vanishes without another comment. When they are alone, Steve reaches out again, caressing Tony’s left forearm and the words sitting there innocently.
“I’ll get you an aspirin,” Steve promises. He still sounds like he expects everything to be all right.
Tony stares at him. Then his mouth opens without him knowing what he is going to say. “I wish I’d never met you.”
Inexplicably, it feels wrong to say that. Steve’s eyes turn sad for a moment, but he does not seem to believe it any more than Tony does. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of their meeting, this still feels like a beginning rather than a dead end.
“I know,” Steve replies quietly. “But I’m glad we did.” His lips curl up, making him look much more carefree than before.
“Don’t say it,” Tony warns but knows he will be ignored.
With a smirk, Steve says, “Let’s do this.”
With equal parts dismay and excitement, Tony realizes that Steve has been right. Saying the words again does make the tattoo tingle. Perhaps they will have to do some further study in whether or not that effect will fade over time.