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Latverian Interlude

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"Is it me," Tony said, "or is this von Doom guy kind of kinky?"

Steve rolled his eyes as he gave another sharp tug at the chain that held his wrists shackled to the wall above his head.

"The man threatened to blow up an international peace summit with a death ray from space, and you're speculating about his sex life?"

"I'm just saying." Tony rattled his own manacles. Unlike Steve, he wasn't trying to get loose, just making noise for the hell of it. Then again, Steve thought, making noise for the hell of it seemed to describe most of Tony Stark's life. "Most of the time, when somebody goes out of their way to get me naked and chained up, it's not because I foiled their diabolical master plan."

"I'll take your word for it," Steve said.

Tony gave him an amused look. "Why, has your experience been different? Do your evil masterminds usually like to get you into naked bondage when they catch you?"

"Not usually, no." Steve rose up on his toes to put some slack in the chains, then jerked downward with all his weight. The movement wrenched his shoulders painfully, but he thought he could feel the bolts in the wall getting loose. "Most of them just want to shoot me in the head."

"That's it?" Tony looked mildly disapproving. "Shows a great lack of imagination, if you ask me."

"I didn't ask you," Steve snapped, more sharply that he'd meant to. He wasn't trying to be rude, he just really wasn't in the mood for Tony Stark's particular brand of banter. Unfortunately, letting Tony know that only served to encourage him.

"Relax, Oscar, I'm just making small talk."

"You mean," Steve said, "you're just wasting time."

"Sure." Tony looked entirely unrepentant at this admission. "But what else am I going to do? I'm shackled to a wall."

"So am I." Steve gave another yank at the chains.

"Well, yes." Tony shrugged. "But your strength is as the strength of ten because your heart is pure, which means all your manly efforts actually have a chance of accomplishing something. Me, I'm just stuck here."

"So you're just going to stand there and talk until I get us out."

Tony grinned. "Exactly."

Steve gritted his teeth and kept pulling.

He wanted out, dammit. More to the point, he wanted not to have been stuck here in the first place, not when time was so short. He'd come to Berlin to check out an abandoned SHIELD safehouse where, according to Natasha's intel, security cameras at some nearby shops had caught blurry glimpses of a man who might've been Bucky. He'd arrived too late -- the safehouse had been abandoned again, the money stash under the floorboards gone. According to the neighbors, Steve had missed maybe-Bucky by only a few hours. Steve was checking out security footage from local train and bus stations, trying to decide what he wanted to do next, when Maria Hill showed up in his hotel room to announce that the Avengers Initiative needed him again.

Steve hadn't even known there still was an Avengers Initiative now that SHIELD was gone. As far as he knew, Thor was back in Asgard, Bruce, Clint and Natasha were off doing their own thing, and Tony was giving press conferences about how he was putting aside the Iron Man suit to "focus on his personal life." This led to a certain amount of awkwardness during the flight to Latveria, when Steve tried to make small talk by asking Tony how Pepper was and Tony went into a sulk for the next half hour. Apparently, the personal life focus hadn't had the desired result.

If the Avengers Initiative did still exist, Steve wasn't sure he wanted to be a part of it, not while Bucky was still out there on the run. But if some crazed dictator of a country that hadn't even existed when Steve was born had put a weaponized satellite into orbit and was using it to cause an international incident, Steve couldn't very well just sit there and ignore it.

So he'd suited up and joined Tony, Natasha and Clint on a raid into Latveria, and he had to admit that for a while there, it felt really good. To fight as part of a unit again, accomplishing something positive, knowing that he could trust the people at his back -- it was a little bit like the Battle of New York all over again, and a little bit like fighting with the Howling Commandos had been. Even the Latverian scenery, with its rugged snow-capped mountains and dense forests, reminded Steve of the places he'd fought in during the war. If he stopped to think about it, it was just a little bit disturbing that all the best memories of his life seemed to involve combat, so he didn't stop to think about it.

The Avengers had taken out the computers in von Doom's command center easily enough, and were on their way to their extraction point when an entire battalion of honest-to-God robots showed up to intercept them. In the skirmish that followed, Steve and Tony got separated from the rest of the team. Then one of the robots dropped a device that spewed out some sort of cloudy green gas, and the next thing Steve knew, he was waking up chained in a dungeon. Naked. And every minute he stayed here, Bucky was getting farther away. At this rate, he could be halfway to China while Steve hung around listening to Tony Stark speculate about Victor von Doom's sexual proclivities.

"Serously, do you think he's filming us? Are we going to end up in his private porn stash or something? Because that's more logical than any other explanation I can think of."

"Maybe this is von Doom's idea of psychological warfare," Steve suggested. "Maybe he thinks if we're naked, we'll be too demoralized to escape."

"Hah," Tony said, "shows how much he knows. I've been naked in much more inappropriate places than this."

"I know," Steve said, "I saw the YouTube videos."

Tony's eyes went wide. "You have?"

"There was a few hours' gap between when I learned about Google and when I learned about safe search. It was very… informative."

"You Googled me?" Tony looked oddly scandalized by this information. "Damn. I'll need to instruct Jarvis to be more aggressive about removing anything that might shock a nanogenarian war hero."

"Don't bother on my account." Steve gave another hard tug on the chains, then braced his feet wide apart and pulled, putting all his strength into it. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then came the harsh scrape of metal on stone, and the bolt came free of the wall and sent him sprawling. Steve barely managed to get his hands down in time to keep his face from smacking into the floor. He swore under his breath and climbed to his feet, rolling his shoulders to get the kinks out.

"Niiice," Tony drawled from the other side of the cell. "Very impressive. I'm actually kind of turned on right now."

"I can tell," Steve said dryly.

Tony shrugged, unembarrassed. "Yeah, I guess until we get some pants, there are no secrets between us. Get me loose, will you?"

Getting Tony's chain detached from the wall went a lot faster, with both of them pulling and Steve being able to position himself for optimum leverage.

"So," Tony said, "you figure anyone's noticed our doing this?"

"I'm counting on it," Steve said. "How else are we going to get out of this cell?"

Right on cue, the door burst open and half a dozen robot guards came piling in. Steve grinned. He'd been waiting hours for a good excuse to punch something.

* * *

"You know what the problem with robot guards is?" Tony asked.

Steve contemplated his bloody knuckles. "It hurts more when you punch them?"

"That too, I guess." Tony surveyed the wreckage around them, and squatted down next to one of the dismembered robots. "But the real problem is, you can't steal their pants when you're done punching them. Because they're not wearing any."

"That is a drawback," Steve agreed.

"On the other hand, they do provide useful equipment." Tony plucked a piece of wire from a detached head, used his teeth to bend it, and poked at the lock in his left wrist cuff.

Steve watched him curiously. "Do you actually know how to pick locks?"

Tony gave him a quick, self-satisfied smile as the cuff sprang open. "You learn all sorts of useful things at MIT."

"Great." Steve held out his wrists. "Get me out of these so we can scram."

Tony unlocked the shackles in a matter of seconds, but showed a distressing lack of any inclination to scram. In fact, he did the exact opposite of scramming, sitting down on the floor and pulling a mangled robot arm into his lap.

"Keep a lookout, will you?" he said. "I want to do some scavenging."


"Yes, now." Tony removed a piece of the arm's outer casing and tossed it aside. "These things have weapons. And lights."

"You know what else they probably have?" Steve said. "Back-up. Who will also have weapons."

"That's why I need you on watch." Tony gave him an exasperated look. "Just… punch anything that comes up, you seem to be doing great at that… Damn, I wish I had a screwdriver or something. How am I supposed work in these conditions?"

"You're not supposed to work in these conditions," Steve pointed out. "You're supposed to get the hell out of these conditions before von Doom notices that his robots aren't getting the job done and starts sending actual people. With actual guns."

"When did you become some such a worrywart?" Tony tilted his head back to smirk up at him. "Last time I saw you, we were fighting aliens. With actual alien guns. And you were amazingly chill about those, for a guy who'd just been defrosted into a new century. Now you're getting twitchy about a few Latverian goons?"

"Last time you saw me," Steve said, "I had my shield. And my pants."

"Details, details." Tony dismissed the minor issue of their pantslessness with a careless shrug. "I just need a couple of minutes, that's all."

"We can't afford a couple of minutes," Steve growled. "We have to--"


In the distance, metal feet clanged on the stone floor signaling the arrival of more robot guards. Steve stifled an exasperated sigh as he ripped the chest plate from one of the downed robots and hefted it like a shield. The weight and balance were all wrong, but it was sturdy and good to bash things with.

He'd taken out enough robots by then to have it down to a routine. Step one: use a length of chain to tangle a robot's legs and make it fall. Step two: hit it until it stays down. The only hard part, really, was performing step two fast enough to finish before the next robot attacked. This time around, Steve managed to take down three out of four before the last one started shooting at him. Steve rolled out of the way, smacked into the wall, and came up in a crouch, sheltered behind his makeshift shield. Von Doom's robots fired green energy bolts that, according to Tony, were definitely not lasers or repulsor beams, though he tended to look cross and change the subject when asked what exactly they were. The bolts hit with concussive force and left smoking scorch marks on metal and Kevlar, so Steve really didn't want to know what they did to exposed flesh.

Each blast he deflected jarred every bone in his body and made him skid backwards a couple of feet across the floor. Steve braced himself as best he could, tightened his grip on the chain in his right hand, and prepared for his next attack. The blasts always came three seconds apart, so if he timed it right, he could--

Another blast, over a second earlier than expected, and it took Steve a moment to realize that this one came from behind him. It caught the attacking robot square in the torso and sent it staggering backwards long enough for Steve to jump in and deliver the knockout blow. He gave it a couple of extra smacks just to make sure it stayed down, and turned to see what the heck was going on behind him.

In retrospect, he really shouldn't have been surprised to see Tony kneeling in the middle of the corridor, one hand flung out in front of him, a messy tangle of wires and circuits encasing his arm from elbow to fingertip. There was a slightly manic gleam in his eyes, and he grinned as if he was having the time of his life. Even naked and smudged with engine grease, he looked so much like the perfect picture of a twenty-first century superhero that Steve felt himself grinning back despite his dark mood, felt his fingers itching for a pencil and a sketch pad, felt--

Wow. Awkward.

Okay, so this wasn't the first time he'd ever noticed that Tony Stark was a very attractive man. But most of the time, his noticing wasn't quite so… noticeable. Also, most of the time they weren't stuck in a Latverian dungeon and being attacked by robots. Steve held the chest plate in front of his crotch and tried to look serious and focused and not at all turned on.

"Thanks," he told Tony, "that was good timing."

"Always happy to help." Tony climbed to his feet. Unlike Steve, he was making no effort at all to hide that he was turned on. Then again, he didn't seem particularly distracted by it, either. He attention seemed focused mostly on the bulky battery pack strapped into the crook of his elbow.

"Where's an arc reactor when you need one?" he muttered irritably. "Von Doom's pretty good at robotics, but his power source is crap. Two-point-eight seconds to recharge after each blast? He'd be better off giving every robot a machine gun."

"Good thing for us that he didn't," Steve said. "Let's get out of here before he thinks of it."

Tony gave him a surprisingly snappy salute. "Lead on, Captain."

* * *

Getting out proved to be easier said than done. Victor von Doom's prison (or possibly "dungeon" would be a better word, given the medieval atmosphere) turned out to be built into a vast cave system, with hundreds of crisscrossing tunnels and, as far and Steve and Tony could determine, no way out.

The first few tunnels they went through had smoothed floors, electric lights, steel-paneled walls lined with thick doors with tiny barred windows in them. The cells behind the doors were all empty, suggesting that this wasn't the place where Latveria kept its general criminal population. Steve tried to take heart in the obvious absence of other Avengers in any of the cells -- presumably, Clint and Natasha were free and giving von Doom a hard time somewhere -- but it was hard to keep an optimistic outlook when every turn took them into a new tunnel, with no sign of an exit anywhere. The prison corridors gave way to cave tunnels, damp and musty and unlit. Tony tinkered with his scavenged gauntlet until the palm gave off a faint greenish glow, so that they could make their way forward without tripping on the uneven floor or braining themselves on the low-hanging stalactites.

"You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike," Tony muttered as he scratched an arrow into the wall to mark where they'd just made a turn.

"I'm aware of that," Steve said irritably, then stopped to glare as Tony completely failed to keep a straight face. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing." Tony held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Don't mind me, I'm just being my usual charmingly flippant self. Come on, we should go left next."

Twenty minutes and three turns later, Steve punched a dent in the wall below the arrow mark at that same corner.

"This is ridiculous," he growled. "We're going in circles!"

"Don't exaggerate," Tony said lightly. "It's only been one circle so far. And now we've eliminated some of the wrong turns, so we can--"

"No. This isn't getting us anywhere." Steve found a relatively flat patch of ground and sat down on it. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but a cold ass was the least of his problems at the moment, and sitting down at least removed him from the temptation to punch things. He took a few slow, deep breaths, and tried to keep his temper and think practical thoughts.

"Hey." There was a short, awkward silence, and then a warm pressure against his back as Tony sat down and leaned against him. "This isn't like you. Since when does Captain America just give up? Have all my comic books been lying to me?"

"I'm not giving up," Steve said irritably, "I'm regrouping. What we've been doing clearly isn't working. We need to make a plan, not just randomly wander around."

"That wasn't random." Tony sounded faintly defensive. "I totally had a selection algorithm. And now I have more data to refine it, too."

Steve sighed. "This isn't a computer, Tony. You can't engineer your way out of a cave."

"Come on." Tony's elbow gently nudged Steve's ribs. "You remember who you're talking to, right? Engineering my way out of caves is kind of my trademark."

"Not when you're naked."

"Pfft." Tony's shoulder blades bumped against Steve's as he shifted in his seat. "I like to think of it as an added challenge."

"Okay," Steve said, "but speaking as a non-engineer, I think we're missing something here. I mean, there has to be a way in and out, right, otherwise how did we get here? Not to mention all the robots."

"Teleportation?" Tony suggested.

Steve rolled his eyes. "Be serious."

"I am. Teleportation technology is the next big thing, Stark Industries R&D has been working on it for years. And while I hate to speak well of the enemy, von Doom has some pretty advanced tech going on. The satellite, the space ray, the robots… Just because he hasn't come up with a miniaturized arc reactor yet doesn't mean he can't be ahead of us on this one thing."

It still sounded like so much sci-fi to Steve, but he decided to take Tony's word for it. "My point still stands. Even if von Doom has a teleporter, somebody, at some point, must've come in here the normal way to discover the caves and map them out. I mean, von Doom's pretty crazy, but even he wouldn't just teleport people into the middle of a mountain and hope they end up in some empty space instead of solid rock."

"You have a point there." Tony shifted again. Steve wished he'd hold still. All that skin contact was very distracting. Steve was already cold, tired, sore, and anxious to get the hell out of here. Adding inappropriate arousal to the mix really didn't help. He took a few more deep breaths and thought about killer robots. That helped, a little.

"So maybe," Tony continued, "we shouldn't be looking for an exit, but for something that used to be an exit, before it was sealed off and covered up. And if we can find it, maybe we can reopen it."

"Aren't you kind of assuming a lot?" Steve said. "We don't actually know if von Doom has a teleporter."

"True," Tony admitted. "But even if he doesn't, I bet he's still the kind of guy who'd disguise the exit. I mean, we're talking about a guy who builds killer robots and satellite death rays, and then strips his enemies naked and chains them up in a dungeon. It's straight out of the mad scientist handbook, isn't it? Here we've been going around looking for a normal door, when we should be looking for a secret passage. With booby traps. And maybe a genetically-engineered dragon or something."

"I'm pretty sure we would've noticed a dragon," Steve said, "but I accept your expert opinion on the mad scientist mindset."

"Thank you. I think." Tony rose to his feet with a grunt. "Okay, so if I was a secret passage in a mad scientist's underground lair, where would I be?"

That question, at least, had a plausible answer. "Back in the prison corridors, behind one of the wall panels."

"Great," Tony sighed. "Let's hope von Doom has run out of robots by now."

* * *

Steve didn't know if it was due to a robot shortage, Clint and Natasha's efforts, or some other reason entirely, but no one attacked them when they returned to von Doom's prison. They backtracked along the corridors, closely examining the walls, until Tony said, "Hey, check this out," and pointed to a suspiciously wide seam between two panels.

"Hmm." Steve tapped one of the panels. Was it wishful thinking, or did it really sound a little hollow. "Does that gauntlet of yours still work?"

"Of course it does. Stand back." Tony took a couple of steps back himself, and fired a blast of green energy at the seam. It left a charred dent in the metal, creating just enough of a gap for Steve to wedge his fingers in and pry the two plates apart.

They hadn't been wrong. Once he'd opened up enough of a gap, Steve could see that behind the panels was--

"Another cave tunnel." Tony leaned forward and gently thunked his forehead against the wall. "Shoot me now, I give up."

"No you don't," Steve said. "It wouldn't be hidden if didn't lead somewhere useful. Come on."

The new tunnel was wide and smooth, with a floor that sloped gently downward. About five hundred yards in, Steve began to hear the faint sound of running water somewhere ahead of them. A few minutes later, they found themselves at a T-intersection with another, wider tunnel with a shallow stream flowing along the floor.

"That's an encouraging sign," Steve muttered.

Tony eyed the stream with a wary expression. "I'm not encouraged."

"Water has to come out somewhere." Steve waded in, trying not to flinch. The water was less than ankle-deep, but it was also ice-cold. His toes went numb within seconds. "We can follow it downstream."

Their pace became much slower after that, partly because of the cold, partly because the floor beneath the water was covered with patches of slippery mold. Steve was managing all right, but Tony seemed to be having a surprisingly difficult time. His breathing grew louder and faster as they moved on, and he kept stumbling and grasping at the wall with nearly every step, until Steve stopped and took hold of his arm.

"Hey, are you all right? You sound--"

"I'm fine," Tony gritted out through clenched teeth, and took another wobbly step a moment before his feet slid out from under him. The sudden shift in balance sent both of them falling over. The ice-cold shock along his side made all of Steve's muscles seize up for a moment, but he recovered quickly and scrambled back to his feet. Tony didn't. He stayed down, making choked, distressed noises and flailing his arms as if two inches of water were an ocean he might drown in.

"Tony!" Steve bent down to try and grab him, and got a surprisingly hard smack in the face for his efforts. He tried again, and this time managed to trap Tony's arms behind his back and haul him to his feet. He hoped that being mostly out of the water would make Tony settle down, but it didn't seem to make a difference. Tony kept struggling, kicking backwards at Steve's shins as he tried to wriggle free. In the end, Steve hauled him back to the other corridor and onto dry ground just to keep them both from falling over again.

"Tony." Steve slowly let them both sink to the floor, until he was sitting with his back pressed against the wall and Tony propped up against him. "Hey. It's okay, we're not in the water anymore. You're safe. Just breathe. You're safe. Come on. It's okay."

He kept talking for a while, not really paying attention to his own words, focused mostly on keeping his voice low and even. After a few minutes, Tony stopped struggling, sagged against him, and began to shiver. Steve wasn't sure if the shivering was from cold, or residual panic, or some combination of both, but he figured the best he could do in any case was to hold on and wait. He'd been through this a few times back in the war, when Bucky woke up screaming from dreams of what Zola had done to him. Tony's SHIELD file had been sketchy on the details of his captivity in the caves in Afghanistan, but his reaction now told Steve more than he wanted to know.

Eventually, Tony's breathing evened out and the shivering stopped. Steve fell silent but kept holding on, until Tony shifted against him and muttered, "You can let go now." Then he uncurled his arms from around Tony's waist and let them fall to his side. Tony pulled away from him and slumped against the wall, rubbing one hand shakily over his face.

"Okay," he muttered, "note to self: caves are okay, water is okay, caves and water together not okay. I suppose I should've seen that coming." He brushed a few strands of wet hair away from his eyes and slumped forward with his arms folded on top of his bent knees. He looked exhausted, and Steve found himself feeling an unexpected pang of guilt. He'd spent the past several hours wishing that Tony would stop fooling around; now he was sharply reminded that when Tony did stop, it usually meant something was seriously wrong.

"Sorry," he said quietly. Tony let out a short, unamused laugh.

"Isn't that supposed to be my line?"

"Why?" Steve asked. "What are you supposed to be sorry for?"

Tony frowned at him. "Uhm… for slobbering all over you like a giant wuss when we might be attacked by killer robots at any moment? For putting my cold feet on you? For general awkwardness? How long of a list do you want?"

"Okay." Steve held up his hand and counted off on his fingers. "First of all, you didn't slobber. Second, we haven't seen any killer robots in minutes. Third, I really don't care about your feet. And fourth, I once put on spangly tights and danced in a chorus line in front of a bunch of guys who'd just seen combat. My bar for awkwardness is set really high."

"Hmm." Tony's frown smoothed out a little. "Now there's a mental image I'm going to savor for a while. So… if I kissed you right now, would that be over the awkwardness bar?"

Steve gulped. "What?"

"It would. Gotcha." Tony scooted backwards until he was just out of arm's reach. "Don't mind me, I'm just a little off-balance right now, what with, you know, the irrational panic attack. And mild hypothermia. And lack of pants, I never think very clearly with my pants off, ask anybody, some of the worst decisions of my life have been made with my pants off."

"It's not--" Steve began, but Tony was clearly on a roll.

"Actually, you don't even need to ask, do you? You said you've seen the YouTube videos, so you know how it is. Just forget I said anything, no harm no foul, right?"

"Tony." Steve raised his voice a little. Tony blinked at him.


"Stop backpedalling."

"I wasn't--"

"I'm not offended, okay?" Steve started to reach out with one hand, then caught himself in what he hoped was an unobtrusive manner. Normally, a moment like this would call for a comradely slap on the shoulder to demonstrate how unoffended he was, but he wasn't sure how that would come across, given that they were naked and Tony had just offered to kiss him. Maybe this was one of those times when Natasha would tell him to use his words.

"I'm not offended," he repeated. "But you really are kind of shell-shocked right now. And also, if I understand the term correctly, on the rebound. So this is probably not a good time and place to think about kissing. At the very least, we should first get to someplace where we're less likely to be interrupted by killer robots."

"You have a point there." Tony braced one hand against the wall and rose to his feet, wobbling a little. "Okay, then. Let's go."

Steve frowned. "Are you sure?" It was hard to tell with just the green glow of Tony's gauntlet to see by, but he thought Tony still looked drawn and hollow-eyed and not at all ready to go back into that icy water. "If you need another minute."

"I need to get the fuck out of here," Tony said through clenched teeth. "Let's go."

* * * * *

Tony seemed calm enough when they first waded back into the water, but they'd only gone a few steps before his breathing grew strained again. An offer of help was unlikely to go over well, even if Steve could think of anything that would actually help, so he settled for slowing his pace and keeping close to Tony's side, ready to make a quick catch if Tony started to fall again. So they kept inching forward in strained silence for several minutes, until Tony abruptly spoke up.

"Talk to me, Rogers."

The request instantly made Steve's mind go blank.

"…About what?"

"Anything, I don't care. Tell me about Barnes. You were in Berlin to look for him, right?"

"Uhm... Yes." Steve hesitated. This wasn't exactly his first choice of topics, and if Tony had asked earlier, he would've probably refused to discuss it. But this tense, quiet version of Tony seemed a lot less likely to mock or pry. And if talking about Bucky kept Tony distracted enough to deal with the water, he was willing to roll with it. "Natasha had a lead, so I went to check it out. I think he'd been there. But he was gone by the time I arrived."

"And how many times has that happened now?"

"Five," Steve sighed.

"Wow." Tony somehow managed to sound sympathetic and faintly amused at the same time. "No wonder you've been such a grumpy-bear all day."

"In case you haven't noticed," Steve said, "I've been gassed, stripped naked, and chained in a dungeon by a two-bit dictator with delusions of world domination. And my feet are cold. I think I have ample reason to be--"

"A grumpy-bear?"


"Sure." Tony shrugged. "But you were in a mood way before any of that happened. Not that I blame you or anything. Chasing a ghost assassin all around the globe can't be much fun. Did it ever occur to you to, I don't know, maybe ask me for help or something?"

It had, in fact, occurred to Steve early on, and he had quickly rejected the notion, but there seemed to be no diplomatic way to say it.

"I thought…" that it would be a bad idea to ask your help to look for a guy who possibly murdered your parents "…that you had enough on your plate."

"I do. My plate is positively heaped with… stuff. Important stuff. National security stuff." Tony's voice was shifting into that rapid-fire, oh-so-casual rhythm he liked to use whenever he pretended not to care about something. "But I'm generally pretty good at making space for, y'know, teammates. National icons. Guys I've seen naked. Friends."

"I know," Steve said. "It's not that I expected you to refuse, I just didn't want to make things complicated for you. And I appreciate that you-- wait, did you hear that?"

In the darkness ahead, something was splashing through the water. The sound had a rhythm to it that suggested footsteps, but without the metal-on-stone clanking that von Doom's robots produced when they walked. Did von Doom finally get around to sending out human troops?

Steve crouching into a low fighting stance, feet planted wide apart to help him keep his balance on the slippery rocks. Next to him, Tony sank to one knee in the water and dimmed the light in his gauntlet, leaving them in pitch-black darkness.

"If they have infrared goggles," he whispered, "we're screwed."

"Let's jump off that bridge when we get to it," Steve whispered back.

There must've been a bend in the tunnel ahead, because one moment there was nothing but darkness, and the next moment there was a blinding light right in Steve's face. He couldn't see anything past the glare, but he could hear the faint buzz as Tony powered up his gauntlet.

"Whoa, there's something you don't see every day."

Steve blinked rapidly to clear his watering eyes. "Clint?"

"See?" And that was definitely Natasha's voice, sounding entirely unfazed. "I told you they'd get out by themselves."

Steve's eyes adjusted fast. What felt like the sun burning out his eyeballs a few blinks ago was now a perfectly ordinary flashlight, held by a disheveled but otherwise unharmed Clint. Next to him, Natasha was hoisting a semi-automatic pistol in each hand, with two more holstered at her belt. None of the four guns looked like the one she'd started the day with.

"Oh, hi, guys." Tony gripped Steve's arm to haul himself to his feet. "Cap and I are starting the Avengers naked spelunking club, do you want to join?"

"Maybe later." Natasha looked as if she was trying hard not to laugh. "We one hour to extraction, and we still need to recover the Captain's shield and your armor."

"We think we know where von Doom has them stashed," Clint said. "But there's a whole lot of Latverian soldiers between here and there. "We raided a weapons locker to get you guys some guns. Sorry we didn't think to raid a closet."

"That's okay." Steve stepped forward to take the two guns Natasha held out to him. "I assume the Latverian soldiers are wearing pants?"

"It does seem to be a standard part of the uniform," Clint agreed.

"Well, then I'm sure we can persuade a couple of them to share." Steve handed one of the guns to Tony. "Let's go."

"Hey, Cap," Tony said softly, "remember how a few minutes ago, you said this wasn't a good time and place for kissing?"


"So in theory, in a better time and place…"

"Let's get some pants first," Steve said quickly, and picked up his pace.