After all these years Tony knew how these things went. Someone pointed a gun to your head; there would be shouting and demands; there would in fact be threats to your life if you didn't comply with whatever annoying and impossible thing it was that your captors were asking of you this time. He knew the drill, knew that it was either about money or about what he could do. The worst case scenario said it was about something he had done.
He was Tony Stark. And he was well aware that this meant he had enemies, enviers and sometimes the wrong kind of admirers.
Considering all that, the oversized and advanced pulse-gun pointed at him was really not all that shocking. It was the situation that made his blood boil. Iron Man could have blow his way out of this in seconds. Tony Stark was stuck.
“Don't worry, Tony,” a voice whispered from beside him, pulling him back from his thoughts and back to the problem at hand. “I'm not going to let anything happen to you. You'll be safe with me.”
It was Steve standing beside him, and speaking calmly, but when Tony met his eyes he realized he already had that particular determined look on his face. Tony had seen that look more than a few times – not as Tony, but as Iron Man – and knew it meant that Cap was already formulating a plan, ready to execute it whenever he'd get the chance. When he caught Tony staring, he focused on him briefly and his lips formed a reassuring smile. “I would never live it down if something happened to you on my watch,” Steve said in a low whisper. “Not while Iron Man is stuck working on your subspace satellite. Question of honor. He would never let me live this down.”
“Oh,” Tony said, stupidly, only now remembering the flimsy excuse he'd given Cap for his own absence as Iron Man this morning, when Steve had asked him to spend some time together this afternoon, because he had something to ask him. “Thanks, Cap.”
Across the Stark International conference room his briefcase was still standing exactly where he’d initially left it beside his desk, sometime before AIM had stormed in and herded him and his guest to the side. He was just happy that Mrs. Arbogast hadn’t been around to get hurt and that Pepper and Happy had the day off to go on a well earned date. The last thing this situation needed was more hostages. These idiots already had two Avengers at gun point.
“What about him?” asked the goon standing closest to them, face conveniently hidden by his yellow beekeeper suit, and aiming another big red weapon at the both of them. He was talking about Steve, of course, who had placed himself protectively between Tony and the weapon immediately, to shield Tony with his own body.
Tony wanted to pull him back and tell him he should stay out of this, but he really didn’t want to draw any more attention to Steve, who was here in casual jeans and t-shirt and had just been passing by to thank Tony for repairing the Avenger’s rec room while being so busy. He wasn't supposed to be here at all, getting drawn into one of Tony's messes. As usual, AIM had the worst possible timing.
“He’s not…” Tony started.
But Steve was faster: “I’m Mr. Stark’s bodyguard for the day.”
Beekeeper One laughed loudly, a merry full body laugh. “Our lucky day then. We were expecting some more red and gold bodyguard to make trouble for us.”
And instead they get both Iron Man and Captain America in their civilian identities. Great. What a day. At least they don't know they've cracked the jackpot. Tony just hoped that Steve wouldn’t do anything before he had time to get to his armor and get Tony Stark out of the way and the armored Avenger back in play. Steve didn’t even have his shield with him, for god's sake!
“Take him along,” the beekeeper in charge growled and pushed Steve with his gun. Tony balled his hands into fists and tried to remain calm. “We don’t want anyone to alert the superhero before we get away and we don't want to leave too much of a mess for him to find either. Better not leave any traces behind.”
Great. It looked like it would be one of the days when someone held a weapon to his face, made demands and kidnapped him. He wanted to groan at the stupidity of it all.
Steve looked at him calmly, as if he wanted to convey that there was no reason to worry about anything. He was a solid wall of calm and under different circumstances Tony would have found his concern for his safety and state of mind, his typical Captain America behavior, more than a little touching and endearing. But now he just couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that all of this would have been easier if Steve hadn't been here but back at the mansion - safe or at least in a whole different kind of danger with the Avengers. Now he was here where Iron Man could only appear when nobody was watching Tony. And everyone was watching Tony.
He swallowed and pointedly didn’t look towards the briefcase that contained his armor, but his sweaty palms twitched. God damn it, he wanted his hand on the armor and then teach these goons a lesson they would never forget.
When one of the yellow clad henchmen stepped towards him with what looked like sophisticated techy handcuffs, Tony didn't even bat an eyelash. There was nothing he could do about it and he didn’t put up a fight, but when only one wrist ended up in a cuff and Steve, not fighting it either, was suddenly cuffed to him, he could only stare forlornly at the restraints. There would be no getting away and there would be no changing places with Iron Man now.
He knew how these things went. And with Steve in the mix things really were about to get really complicated for him this time. While Steve gave him another reassuring look, Tony tried to smile, feeling it came out more like a tired, perhaps exasperated grin. He just needed to make sure nothing happened to Steve. That would be the only thing that could make this whole situation unbearably worse. It wasn't Steve's fault that he had walked into his office at the wrong day of the week.
* * *
“Don’t worry, Tony,” Steve said, echoing his words from before. “I meant what I said. I'll keep you safe. You can trust me.”
“I’m not worried,” he answered and sighed again, because he just couldn't stop himself. “I’m annoyed. This is just annoying. A terrible annoyance.” He let his head fall back against the wall and stared up at the dark metal ceiling. He couldn’t even blast his way out of this situation, because he had to behave like he was just your usual business man. Chained to Captain America.
“We’re still moving. That is good. They haven’t reached their final destination,” Steve started, ignoring Tony’s words and coming at this problem in the reasonable way he usually would. “How likely is it that Iron Man can track us? When will he be back? He must have a way to locate you. Is there any way you can contact him?”
“I…” He sighed and the handcuffs clinked as he tried to settle more comfortably. Had he just said this situation was annoying? Because it wasn’t. It was exasperatingly irksome. He wanted to hit something. “Don’t expect Iron Man to drop in, Steve. He might be a while. He’s tied up in something, so to speak” He tried very hard not to look at the handcuffs.
Steve’s blue and calm gaze settled on him and he nodded slowly, looking at Tony as if he was mulling something over. “Okay,” he said. “So, no easy rescue. No problem. We’ll figure something out.”
“I’m sure we will,” Tony said even more annoyed. Of course, they would. There was no way they wouldn’t. Even if nobody but him realized it, there were two Avengers sitting right here and there was no way that AIM would win this one. He was just annoyed at himself that he hadn’t seen this all coming from miles away and now had to leave most of the planning and executing to Steve as to not look suspicious. He wanted to help, pull his own weight, make sure Steve got out of this without a problem.
When a hand touched his he looked up, startled. Steve wasn’t looking at him. He was looking straight ahead towards the cell door instead, but at the same time he took Tony’s hand in his and squeezed his fingers lightly. “I’ll get you out of this, Tony. I promise. Please don't be afraid.”
All thoughts of being annoyed flew right out of his head, and he was glad for the dim light in their prison as he felt his cheeks heat up a little. Somehow he was feeling like the worst kind of traitor.
But he didn’t let go of Cap’s hand and suddenly the whole situation didn’t seem so bad.
“Don't worry,” Steve repeated. “I have a plan. We'll get you home.”
He huffed, inwardly, thinking about how frustrating it was to be treated like the damsel in distress, when he was worried that Steve would need his help very soon and he might not be able to give it. “Just... be careful. I don't want to see you get hurt either. You did not exactly come prepared, Mr. Rogers.”
Steve grinned at him and squeezed his fingers more firmly. And for a while they simply sat there in the darkness, his own fingers held in Steve's warm hand, the heat still very prominent in his cheeks.
Of course, Cap was Cap even when he wasn’t in uniform and not carrying his shield and determination was always a good look on him. It was that determination and skill that Tony could always rely on in battle, when they were having each other’s backs and fighting side by side. And he had that determined look on his face right now, as he watched Tony from the corner of his eyes and Tony was very much trying not to think about that too hard and even harder to not look flustered. They were in so much trouble already, this was not the time and place to make it even worse by admitting you were feeling kind of... flushed. Steve's smile turned slightly lopsided. “Let's get started then,” he said softly and pulled his chained up hand towards himself – pulling Tony's wrists along with it. It took one hard pull for him and with a pathetic little clink the chain between the handcuffs gave way. Steve looked strangely sheepish about it, as if he was a little nervous about showing off his own strength.
He couldn't know that Tony had seen this a hundred times before.
“You're handy to have around,” Tony quipped and smiled at him, as if it was the first time that had ever occurred to him.
“So I'm told,” Steve quipped back.
“If you ever want to earn some money...” Tony added. “With how things are going I could probably use another bodyguard.”
It was the kind of self-depreciating joke he often made at his own expense. It only dawned on him that it wasn't working well this time when Steve's eyes narrowed a little, watching him with a carefully schooled expression. When he joked as Iron Man about Cap taking on his own job it was one thing, but now he wasn't Iron Man. He was the employer Tony Stark and Iron Man was Steve's friend. And if he knew anything about him then it was that he was fiercely loyal. “I'm sure Iron Man is more than up for the job,” Steve said predictably and with conviction. “If he could be here.”
Tony had to grin, because Steve' loyalty to Iron Man – to him - was touching. And sometimes it took Tony's breath away, that they were friends like that, even though Steve didn't know. “I know he would,” he said, because he was still kicking himself mentally for ending up in this mess without the suit. “In fact it's my own damn fault he isn't here.”
Steve needed less than a minute to alert the guards, when he nearly broke the door by throwing himself against it. Then it became very clear to him now how Iron Man without a suit was just Tony Stark and useless in a fight, while Steve, who knew nothing of Tony’s awkward thoughts, overpowered three guards without even having his shield at hand. He did it with sheer strength and coordination, taking advantage of the fact that none of these goons were aware that they were holding Captain America in that cell and not just a simple bodyguard, and all the while making sure that he was between Tony and danger as he maneuvered them around. His work finished he grinned at Tony, holding the door open for him. “Mr. Stark,” he said and motioned for him to step into the hallway.
Tony was feeling morose, but he couldn’t help but grin back anyway. All of this was just so very like Steve. “My chivalrous hero. Thank you,” he said with a quirked eyebrow, honestly amused despite the whole messed up situation. “I’m told you’re a strategist, so I suppose you have a plan that goes beyond getting out of this cell? Yes?”
Steve ushered him forward and along the walls. “We need to figure out what kind of transport we are on, where exactly this cell is on it and where we are going right now. But from inside the cell we weren't going to do anything. So, step one complete: Get out of the cell.”
“It’s not as big as a Helicarrier, but big enough to be a problem,” Tony mumbled.
But Steve was already pushing on: “And now we need to find a way off this thing.” He studied Tony in the dim light, his eyes lingering on Tony’s face for much longer than was strictly polite, and Tony was beginning to feel a little warm under his gaze. He rarely got this close to Steve when there wasn't the armor between them and he had to look away from the intense gaze. He hoped Steve hadn't noticed his blushing before. “If you’d built this thing, where would you have put a hangar, Tony?”
“I built the Helicarrier, the Quinjet and equipped the mansion. You should know that just as well as me just from exposure,” Tony quipped as Steve took him by the arm to pull him along, moving faster. Steps were resounding down the corridor and they hadn’t found sufficient cover yet. It wouldn’t be long until more goons showed up. It was unlikely that their little escape hadn’t been watched from somewhere. Trust AIM to use technology against him of all people.
“Make sure Stark doesn't get hurt. We need him,” a voice shouted. That did not bode well for what they were planning to do to their other prisoner. A shiver of protective fear spiked his adrenaline, and Tony silently swore to himself that he would not let Steve get hurt. Not because of him.
Steve didn’t even wait for their pursuers to round the corner, just turned on his heel, pushing Tony away and to the side to make him less of a target, and jumped back into the fight. Tony watched him with no small amount of worry. Captain America was an awesome fighter in any situation, but he did not have the protection of his sturdy uniform or his shield. But his attackers were still underestimating him and that gave him more of an advantage than even his superior strength and skills could.
Tony slowly edged forward, sure that Steve would be alright as long as no more backup arrived in the next few minutes. But it left Tony with the obvious problem at hand. They had to get away and put some distance between themselves and the armed technophile beekeepers.
He edged along the wall and around the next corner just to see that the corridor was sealed off by a solid metal door. Tony gave it only a moment’s contemplation, the sounds of the fight behind him forgotten for now, as his eyes settled on the control panel. It took him a glance to know how to best get into the circuitry. It took him a little more time to actually make the metal panel give way so he could get at what was beneath and the door slid open with a quiet whoosh. His fingers ached from the effort. He needed tools if he was supposed to keep this up.
When steps resounded in the corridor behind him he ducked out of sight, but it was only Steve, who had caught up to him.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. “Those guys won't be a problem for a while.”
“Wow,” Tony said and grinned. “I'm sure they didn't know what hit them.”
“There will be more. Next time we get kidnapped, remind me to take my shield.”
Next time, I'll make sure I get kidnapped with my briefcase, he thought. And thus my armor. And while part of him was glad he wasn’t dealing with this alone another part thought: And without Cap. Because it would just be the stupidest thing if something happened to Steve, just because Tony couldn’t armor up and get them out of here in a heartbeat. In a very roundabout way this was all his fault.
“We'll have to move fast now. Are you up to it?”
“I'm not going to hold you back if you want to dismantle this terrorist cell, Cap.” He tried to smile. It wasn’t like Steve really needed him here. He just wanted him to get out of this unscathed, so he wouldn’t have to feel a guilty conscience.
“For today, I'll be okay with just getting both of us out of this.” Steve's smile was so warm that Tony forgot to take the next breath.
“Yeah, sure,” he mumbled, feeling morose. “Iron Man would never let you live that one down.”
“Right,” Steve said and nodded, but his smile was still a little too soft. He must really be worried for Tony.
“Let's go, Tony.” He touched his shoulder and steered him down the hallway, with the surety of a battle-honed Avenger who was trying to keep a civilian safe. “With what I know of these kinds of crafts this will be the way to the hangar, right?”
“I see, you've been taking notes after all.”
Steve chuckled. “Glad to be of service, Mr. Stark. I promise, we're getting out of here now.”
And they both knew that more opposition was on its way already. “We better, yes.”
Steve’s hand remained on his arm as they made their way down the corridor.
* * *
“You don't look like you need it.” Tony tried to smile. “Captain America without his shield is still Captain America.” Which set him apart from Iron Man.
“Still it would be easier to make sure you don't get hurt, if I wouldn't have to watch myself so much.” Steve smiled quite brightly at Tony, and Tony was trying to muster up an equally happy expression. He really wanted to get both of them out here before their kidnappers pulled out the big guns.
“I think I know where our way out is. They have a a few birds down that way and I swear they look like cheap Quinjet rip offs. And if these cameras are right,” he said and pointed, “We are not going to have an easy time getting to them.” He shook his head and watched the monitors. The hangar seemed empty, but there were guards positioned around it. “I'm really sorry you got involved in this, Steve. If you hadn't been in the office at the time...”
“I'm not sorry,” Steve said and he looked at Tony so earnestly that it took his breath away. “I wanted to thank you in person for the new equipment you provided us with and you weren't around this morning. Iron Man said you'd be working all day. And me being here means you're not alone. You should not have to go through this alone.”
Steve looked so very serious that Tony felt the need to slap his arm and laugh to lighten the mood. “Iron Man would have come for me.”
“He would have. And I would have too. I'm sure every single Avenger would have come for you. You're very important to... us.” He sounded fond.
His throat went dry and he swallowed. Really, all he wanted was for Iron Man to be here with Steve, so that Tony could be of actual use. He knew he was good at playing the secret identity game, because he had to and not because he wanted to. That didn't mean he liked lying to Steve, who was one of his closest friends. He tried to be as truthful as he could be, but somehow it was always easier interacting with him when there was all that metal and tech between them.
“Cap... Steve, really, I'm more worried about you. They need me for whatever it is they think they need me for. And you...”
The handsome smile took on a whole different quality, exuding the confidence of the war hero. Tony loved that smile. “Really,” Steve said. “I'm Captain America. I'll get you out of here in one piece and unharmed and we will have a laugh about this when Jarvis makes us cocoa this evening and Iron Man comes back from whatever it is he's been doing for you today. Okay, Tony? You are here with me and I'm getting you out.”
Tony had seen Steve speak to scared civilians so many times, had heard him talk earnestly at all his teammates whenever they had been in need of a pep talk – and Tony knew that Captain America would never ever let anyone down. He could be trusted. How did you let someone like that know that you weren't worth the hassle? That you could solve your problems on your own? That you actually were worried about him?
“Let's just get out of here...” he muttered.
Steve didn't disagree. In fact he reached for his hand and pulled him along again. Tony wanted to sigh and roll his eyes – he really could take care of himself, thank you very much, even if he had friends who would disagree – but the footsteps behind them were so loud that there wasn't even time for that kind of discussion right now. So he put up no fight, telling himself that Steve meant well and all of this was his own fault.
“This is going to get tough,” Steve warned.
“Don't hold back on my account.” He was beginning to fear it wouldn't be enough. They were outnumbered and AIM had weapons of considerable power. If they really put their mind to this, than Captain America without a shield would not have an easy time escaping. They needed to be quick about this.
They ran at top speed. Of course, without him Steve would have been able to go much faster, but at least his chest plate was fully charged and his heart wasn't giving him any kind of trouble right now. The worst thing now would have been to slow Steve down even more.
“That's it?” Steve asked over his shoulder.
“I think so. We need to get to the other side.”
A wide metal door looked like it would be their gateway to the planes that could get them to freedom.
“How much time do we have before someone gets to us?” Steve asked
“I scrambled their surveillance. We should have a bit more time, but they must know where we are planning to go and they know this place. I bet we only have minutes.”
“A carrier like this must have been picked up by someone's radar. SHIELD or the Avengers must know something is wrong. Someone must be coming for you, Tony. Iron Man might already be on his way?”
“I wouldn't count on it, Cap.” Tony wanted to believe that the Avengers were coming for them, but he knew too much about the kind of stealth tech involved in keeping a massive carrier like this off SHIELD radars and most of their teammates had gone to live their own lives for a few days. Nobody would notice that Cap hadn't returned – and quite frankly they were all so used to the life of heroes that Steve not returning for a few hours wouldn't even register as long as he wasn't missing important appointments and hadn't sent a distress call. Their only chance was that someone at Stark Industries had found the empty office in disarray and drawn the right conclusions. But who would they ask for help? It would be hours before SHIELD got involved... They were on their own.
Steve smiled at him and while his heart missed a beat and all unpleasant, tense thoughts were suddenly blown out of his mind, Tony realized that Steve was trying to make him feel better about this situation again. Which was as sweet as Tony would have expected from Steve. It took him only a second to pinpoint why Steve was trying to make him feel better at this particular moment. “Cap,” he said softly.
A whole bunch of masked and armed people had appeared in the corridor from both sides. The two of them were trapped if they couldn't get through the hangar door and with these odds there was no telling if even getting through was going to be enough now. These weren't good odds.
“Get us through this door,” Steve whispered, just as a much more sinister voice said through one of the speakers: “Get me Stark alive. Kill the other one. He's been enough trouble and we don't have use for him.” The order still rang through the metal hallways when the broadcast had ended.
The fine hairs at the back off Tony's neck stood, and a chill went down his spine. He didn't like this one bit. Cap had survived the ice and so many of the weirdest villains the universe had thrown at them. He would not allow him to get killed like this. He would get them out of here. Steve might not know Tony was Iron Man, but Iron Man was always going to have his friend's back.
The first shot was fired and echoed loudly in Tony's ears. Steve was already moving towards the building ranks making their way towards them with the precision Tony was used too, but even if once again he managed to take them by surprise, this would not end well. “The door!” Steve reminded him, and with a pang Tony read his movements for what they were: Distraction and shield. Once again, Steve was trying to shield him, because he thought of Tony as the vulnerable target.
“Stop,” he said tensely and caught his arm with both hands. “Listen to me, Steve. You can't win at these odds. We need to think this through.”
“Tony,” Steve whispered under his breath. “I know you are trying to make sure I don't get hurt, but I'm the Avenger here. Trust me to get you out of here.”
“You heard them. They need me and not you. I can...”
“You are not going to offer yourself up to keep me safe,” Steve said firmly.
“Steve,” he urged. “We can run. We can run and figure out a better way.”
“You heard the Scientist Supreme.”
Tony was clutching his sleeve, because he knew that Steve was ready to run right into the fray. “Cap, really,” he urged. “Trust me. I'm not an idiot either. I can get you something like a shield. I can get you any kind of weapon. Why do you think these kinds of people come after me in the first place?”
They were running out of time, but suddenly Steve was looking at him with calm eyes and considering every word. Finally. Tony was getting through to him. “What's your plan?” He asked the question, while at the same time pushing Tony back, away from danger towards the only clear corridor. “What can we do?”
Tony didn't wait for Steve to listen or change his mind. He grabbed his arm hard and urged him to go faster. They fell into a run together.
“Don't let them get away,” someone shouted and the men behind them started running.
“Where are we..?” Steve asked and a bullet or beam was fired. He could feel it whiz past his ear. Tony didn't stop to look, didn't slow down and neither did Cap. They rounded a corner together and Steve, uncharacteristically nearly stumbled, when Tony immediately changed directions again to pull him into a storage room and shoved the door closed behind them. Tony got to work on the panel beside the wall to make sure it would stay shut for a while. AIM really needed better security systems if they wanted to keep him out. They would have to do it without the use of his skills though, because he was getting them out of here right now.
“That is your plan?” Steve asked and sounded slightly pained, not happy with this course of action, perhaps thinking he intended to hide in here. When Tony looked at him he had an eyebrow raised and seemed like he was ready to take charge again.
“No,” he said and the sounds of running outside got louder. The corridor was short, so Tony hoped they'd go searching down the hall before they came back. It would give them just about enough time to get out of here again. “The vents,” Tony said and pointed.
Steve stared. “You memorized all that while we were in that surveillance room?”
It shouldn't have been possible for Steve's impressed tone to make him feel both proud and slightly sad. “I did.” He pretended to be so busy with moving a chair for himself that it was okay not to meet Steve's eyes. The lying was so much easier, when he could just pretend to be nothing more than the benevolent industrialist. “We need to get you a weapon if you're planning to take them on again, but I'd rather we just get out.”
Tony had the vent open already and tested the width of it. He was slighter than Steve, but both of them should fit through without problem.
“Tony,” the man in question said and sounded cautious.
“Don't worry. We'll fit. We can be over there before they know where we are at all. Come on. This is our way out of here.” The shaft wasn't particularly inviting, but he had an idea where to go now. “Let's hurry, before they get their surveillance back up.”
The last cursory glance he gave to the small room was spared for anything that could be fashioned into a weapon fast. There wasn't much.
“Go on,” he said and motioned for Steve to climb inside the vent, who looked as if he wanted to say something and then thought better of it.
“You go first,” he insisted, tiredly, and watched him gather up some things, before stepping back to the vent shaft. He climbed in without problem, surprised that he could move around as much as he did. Steve carefully squeezed in behind him and closed the vent as best as he could. “What now he asked?”
Tony pointed in the direction of what he still hoped was the hangar. “We'll be there in no time.”
“You know where we are going?”
“I had a good enough look at the makeup of this airborne prison. This is basically my design. I know where I’m going. Trust me.”
Steve half-smiled and his eyes were taxing Tony with some amusement. “Glad to have you on this mission, Mr. Stark,” he joked. Of course, Steve couldn’t know he also would have preferred to be Iron Man for this one. Letting him take the reins finally, Steve only nodded and followed him into the vent. Tony couldn't help feeling that something was strange about that.
They crawled for much longer than Tony had anticipated and when he had a chance to look down and get his bearings they were over an empty corridor.
“On the right track?” While running he hadn't sounded out of breath, but in the dark and narrow space he sounded strained. While Tony was used to fighting most of his fights inside armor, Steve was all about freedom of movement. That he wasn't happy in enclosed spaces like this came as no surprise. Tony made room for him to look at what he was seeing, which admittedly wasn't much. Mostly it was an empty corridor like so many others, but Steve nodded. “Not far then. Good. Let's move it.”
“Alright.” He grinned, happy that Tony Stark had indeed not been completely useless on this escape.
Steve actually smiled at him too.
They reached the final vent and they were back in the hallway where the chase had gone wrong. “Back where we started,” Tony whispered as low as possible. From his narrow vantage point he could see two pairs of legs, standing in front of the hangar doors now.
“And they know we want to get off this carrier by getting our hands on transportation.” Steve crouched very close to him. He could feel his breath against his neck, the body heat radiating off of him. In the dark of the vent Tony hoped Steve couldn't make out his expression, the heat creeping into his cheeks. Steve was close enough to kiss.
And suddenly a warm hand settled on the small of his back and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Steve caught his shoulder with the other hand to steady him. Their faces were damned close and he never allowed Steve to come this close when he was out of the armor for fear of giving himself away.
“I'm glad I'm here with you,” Steve finally whispered.
Tony's throat felt terribly dry. “In a vent?” he croaked, trying not to be too loud and draw unwanted attention.
The sound that escaped Steve was not exactly a chuckle. Apparently he was trying to hold back. “Kidnapped with you,” he clarified. “I really... I just... wanted you to know, that I'm glad that you're not alone here... and...”
The whispered stuttering was unlike Steve.
“I'm sorry,” Tony whispered back. “Iron Man should have done his job, then we wouldn't be stuck here...”
“Don't blame him, please. He's my best friend. And you were the one who sent him on a mission.”
Yeah, he thought. Comes down to the same thing. I'm the one who messed up when AIM made their grab. Should have seen them coming from miles away. Steve wouldn't be stuck here as the disposable extra.
“I just wanted you to know,” Steve said under his breath. “I was hoping to... spend some time with you.”
“With me?” Only year's of practice with masking his feelings and thoughts made it possible for him to keep his voice quiet and level, while his thoughts were reeling. With me? He knew Cap liked to spend time with Iron Man, but why was he implying he wanted to be stuck with Tony Stark... in a precarious situation?
“With you,” Steve agreed firmly. “And now I'll get you out of here. But...” He hesitated. “You need to open this door and see to it that it closes behind us. Iron Man says you are the genius behind all his tech and you've been pulling your weight today. You can do it, Tony.”
“I know I can.” Under different circumstances the whole exchange would have been hilarious. But now his heart was beating just that little bit faster and he was feeling like all the lies his double life was built on were coming down on his head. Steve was preparing to strike and he had nothing but Tony's best interests at heart, but Tony wanted to have his back like he always did. He wanted Steve to look at him like he was a valued teammate and not the nervous civilian in need of protection.
“Good,” Steve whispered softly, “because I fear I can't do this alone.”
Tony wanted to ask what he meant, but Steve had already shifted, ready to just pounce from the vent to surprise the two watchmen that had been left behind. It gave Tony just the split second to notice the dark blotch that was spreading on the back of his jeans jacket.
The question was on his lips, but Steve, with his Captain America reflexes and the determination that came with having settled on the best course of action, had already moved. The metal screeched and with a loud crash the grid clattered to the floor and the first guard went down after a well aimed right hook. Trying to move quickly, Tony slipped half outside the vent and in the suddenly stark blinding light of the corridor recognized that there was a spreading area of red forming on Steve's right shoulder. There was no question in his mind what had happened. He cursed inwardly, because it was so like Steve to get hit by a bullet and not even say anything. He hadn't even faltered for a moment.
“The door, Tony,” Steve grunted. It didn't actually look like the second guard was giving him much trouble, but as long as Tony couldn't tell how badly he was wounded, he had the urge to help.
“Door.” By now Steve had the man in a deadlock and Tony had reached the door. He had been halfway through it before and now it was easy enough to finish the job.
Steve huffed as he appeared behind him, a hand pressed to his shoulder, finally allowing himself to feel the pain. The door was slipping open and to Tony's unending relief there was the hangar with at last three black Quinjet-like planes visible behind it.
“It's going to be fine,” Steve stated and grinned at Tony. There was obvious strain to it.
“Are you going to be fine?”
“I heal fast. And I hear you are a hell of pilot.” He gestured towards the jets.
Tony stepped through at his side. “We need to look at you. Why didn't you say anything?”
“No time to lose.”
Steve leaned with his back against the wall and watched as Tony started to work another panel to lock the two of them in, trying to make sure they wouldn't be caught before they were ready to go.
“Are you sure we're alone in here? Shouldn't there be more guards?”
Tony looked around. He couldn't be sure. But he had a feeling that they did not have enough henchmen on board this carrier to spare men for all the stations. The doors had started closing. Then the panel he'd been working on went dark under his fingers and the door with an electric whining noise, that sounded anything but good, stopped moving.
“What is it?”
“They've cut us off. Smart, damn it. The hangars run on separate circuits for the Helicarrier too.”
“So the systems can be shut off?”
This was going to be bad. Because the hangar needed to be opened for them to escape too. And Steve… Steve was hurt. “We can't operate the hangar door either. Not without energy. But we need to get out of here now and fast.” Because while they had use for Tony, they had made it abundantly clear that they had no more use for Steve at this point. And after their escape someone would take the brunt of their anger. The moment they’d find them here Steve would make a stand and AIM would shoot to kill. Usually he would have pegged the chances as 50/50, but Captain America was injured and without a shield and uniform and they had not yet found anything for him to use as a makeshift weapon.
The back of Steve's head made a painful thumb against the wall. “We need to find a way. I’m not letting them take you. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry?” he asked near incredulous. Obviously Steve was in pain. Tony wanted to hit something. This was exactly what he had been afraid of. “I didn't want you to get hurt, Cap. This is all my fault.”
“No, Tony, it really isn’t.” Steve raised his head and then shook it. “You’re the one who was kidnapped. It’s not like you asked for it.”
Isn’t it? he asked himself. “Steve? How bad is it? Your shoulder?” He wasn't sure he expected an honest answer. He wouldn't have given one.
“I heal fast, Mr. Stark, really. There is no need to worry.”
But Steve couldn't know that Tony knew the difference between him bleeding a little and bleeding a lot. And he could tell that this wasn't just something that was going to heal itself in the next hour. They needed to stop the bleeding, make sure Steve got medical attention and some time to rest. Soon a swarm of beekeepers would be upon them...
He swallowed. “I... there... there really is something that...”
“We can blast our way out, call for help,” Steve said decisively, “come on, Tony.” He had pushed himself away from the wall and was pulling Tony along by his shoulder, trying to make his way toward the closest aircraft. But Tony knew there was no way to do it. Not easily and not cleanly anyway.
“I'm...” He stood his ground, winding himself from Steve's still strong grip.
The man's expression turned pained, “Tony really...”
They could both hear the steps in the hallways; too many steps. He couldn't let Steve fight another battle for him, while he just pretended... “Cap, you listen to me now,” Tony said. Steve looked pained and upset when Tony made the final step back towards the control panel. “Trust me on this. You just need to act quick enough. It all depends on acting quickly.”
“What do you mean?”
He had cables exposed in seconds. The screwdriver nearly broke with his effort and Steve was at his side again, helping him wrench a side panel out of the way. Although he had no idea what they were doing he was there to help just like he always was. He wouldn't leave anyone behind. Not even Tony. Not even a man who had lied to him for years.
“I'm so sorry,” Tony said. “I can power it long enough to make the doors move. You'll have to operate the...”
“Power it how? Wouldn't you need...?”
Time was running out fast and he didn't want to even think about what his next move would mean for them. Trust. He knew he could trust Steve... But he was afraid that revealing his secret would lose him some trust and respect in turn. Who wanted a man on his team who could have a heart attack at any moment? Who wanted a friend who had continuously been leading you on?
He had all the cables in place and Steve, breathing a bit harder than usual was crouched down at his side, still ready to just pull him away and run. “They're coming, Tony, and I need you to be safe. Iron Man can’t be here, but I am and...”
“Sorry, I need you to be safe too, Winghead.”
When he heard the familiar nickname Steve frowned, opened his mouth to say something, but Tony knew it was now or never. The noises outside were getting louder and the doors were still half open and Steve was hurt and in pain and their precious time was running out. He pulled his shirt open. Steve gaped at the metal plate revealed beneath, tried to catch Tony's eyes. But Tony avoided his gaze, focused on the task at hand instead. The red and gold of the plate parts was unmistakable, Tony knew. Steve would make the connection all on his own. But there was only time for a few short directions. He had to hurry.
“This should be a piece of cake, but if something goes wrong, get me disconnected as soon as you close these and have opened those,” he gestured to the doors and the metal between them and freedom and tried not to think about what would happen if disconnecting him would come too late, if all the energy would be drained, before he could pull away. He would be running the whole subcircuit, but from his calculations that shouldn’t be worse than the armor in full fighting mode. And that was all the warning he gave his friend before plunging one of the cables into the the socket, twisting the wires together, draining his own power. Just like charging the chestplate, draining it was always a painful procedure. He put himself into these situations altogether too often, not to know. And this system hadn't been made for him, he'd just made up a plan as he went along. He was draining power fast. Too fast.
His own voice rang terribly loud in his ears as he screamed. He had enough of his wits left about him to realize that Steve hadn’t moved and so he pushed the button to close the doors connecting them to the corridor first and barred them himself. The panel was swimming in front of his eyes.
God, it hurt. He gasped.
“Tony!” he heard Steve shout. “Iron Man!”
The second name registered for a fraction of a second, but the pain drowned out all thoughts. As his chest constricted, breathing got hard and so painful, and then blissful darkness drowned out anything else.
* * *
“Don't die on me,” someone was mumbling above him, frantically and under their breath. “God, I have no idea what I'm doing. Don't die, please, don't die. Come on, Tony. Wake up.” Fingers on his wrist feeling for his fluttering pulse and then he felt a hand pressed to his brow.
Tony was used to waking up alone, especially after an ordeal like this. And this wasn't Happy, this wasn't… He took a deep painful breath and nearly shot up where he was sitting and nearly hit his head painfully against Steve's chin.
“Easy,” Steve said and caught him, wincing when his shoulder was jarred. “Easy, Tony. It's just me. It’s me. And you’re okay. You’re okay.”
“Let's call it an AIM jet, huh? Remember?”
Everything came crashing back into his mind. His shirt was open. His chestplate was exposed. He looked from a cable lodged in the right port of the chestplate up to the wall where it had been put in a socket of some kind and up at Steve. The pain in his chest was still there, but lessening. The dread had yet to go away.
Steve had... seen. “We're out?” he croaked, trying not to think too hard about what all of this meant.
“Not yet... I need to... I have a course locked in...”
“It’s a scratch. Tony,” Steve said, “you nearly died. You.., could have died.”
“I'm sorry.” The words came automatically. He was so used to saying them in any guise.
The jet shook, an alarm beeped and the light changed to red. That must have been a direct hit. “Stop apologizing. Let me take care of this at least. Then we can talk,” Steve said softly and squeezed his shoulder before slipping back into the pilot seat. It wasn't just a scratch and they both knew it.
Tony had the urge to follow, to make sure Steve wasn't bleeding out. But the chestplate needed the juice. Falling unconscious again wasn’t going to do any good - and it would also not serve to convince Steve that Tony Stark was fit to serve on a team of real heroes.
And Cap could fly the bird just fine without him. He didn’t need Tony.
Tony still ended up in the seat right next to Cap, a minute or so later. He couldn't stand not knowing what was going on. With how things were, there were now enough unknown variables in their relationship and it was only a matter of time till all of that would come to explode in his face.
* * *
“I’m fine. I’ll heal in no time.”
“Someone put a hole in you. Stop being stubborn.”
Steve fingered the abandoned cable and held it up. “That wasn’t much energy we put in… that.” They had not yet had the time to talk and Tony - after directing Steve to this little rock of an island, where they had landed - had hoped to avoid it until after they’d made it home; preferably until after they were back at the mansion and he could hide away in the workshop for a few hours - or days. “I… You nearly died.”
He had been looking away, had tried to focus on Steve and his shoulder wound. “I got you hurt,” he said. “Now sit and let me look at you.”
“The person who shot at me got me hurt. I remember that part quite clearly, thank you.” Because Steve had finally managed to maneuver him into a sitting position and there wasn’t really that much space between them and in the half-dark of the fake Quinjet that was awfully close.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. His fingers carefully traced Steve’s ripped shirt. He didn’t want to cause more pain.
“You should be. You scared me to death. One minute I think I need to get you out of there and then you just rip open your shirt and before I can even process that, you electrocute yourself.”
“That… Ehm, I wasn’t…”
Steve caught his fingers with one hand and shifted a little. His profile was tinged red with the light some of the controls around them were shedding. He motioned at his shirt. “Help me get rid of this. Then you can do that.” He nodded at the bandage.
Helping Steve to get rid of the blood stained shirt was a welcome distraction. Tending to his wound at least gave him something to do. That was until he sat down with the bandage and suddenly realized he was staring at Steve’s naked chest now. In the cozy dim light of their surroundings that felt like the worst idea he’d had all day. He tried to focus on dressing the wound, not on the lingering nausea and the nervous thoughts running through his head.
“Do you need to…?” Steve trailed off and Tony sat back to look at his hand. He was still holding up the cable. But he was thinking better of the question and instead said: “I… There’s something I wanted to tell you, but I wasn’t sure how you’d react and I was so nervous that Iron Man would be mad at me if I asked and now you’re both the same person.”
“I understand if you’re mad at me. I lied.”
Steve blinked. “We had an agreement to respect each other’s identities. Why would I be angry?”
“Because I kept this from you.” He pointed at the chestplate and belatedly realized that he had never bothered to close the shirt. Steve’s blood was still staining his fingers and there were red specks on the white fabric of his sleeves. Steve got hurt because of me.
Steve’s fingers were suddenly busy, tracing the line of exposed metal. “How do you keep something like this secret? What happens if you take it off?”
Tony realized he was looking for the latches.
“Not good,” he said and tried to push his hand away.
“How?” His voice was so low that Tony had to lean forward to be sure to catch his question.
“Just like it running out of power, actually.”
The hand he’d try to push away from himself suddenly snatched his wrist and held him like that. Steve’s grip wasn’t hard, just insistent. With his free hand he poked a finger against the metal of the chestplate. The sound of someone softly knocking against the protective shell made him nervous. He was so unused to it. “I think,” Steve said softly, “we need to talk about this.”
“It… protects my heart,” he said as curtly as possible. “It keeps me alive.” He knew this was where the conversation would turn on him. “It also powers the armor.”
The audible breath Steve took in was like the thunder before lightning struck. He was pulled forward and expected arguments and disdain. Instead he landed uncomfortably against Steve’s chest and was held there with an iron grip. “You may be the bravest and stupidest man I know, shellhead. How could you be sure that I would know how to keep you alive without telling me anything?”
“There was no time. You were hurt.”
“I’m also a supersoldier. I don’t die because of one bullet hitting me in non-vital parts.”
Steve had yet to release him. “There were more people with more sophisticated weapons on the way and… I didn’t want you to get even more hurt because of me. You were trying to protect Tony Stark, because Iron Man wasn’t around and… ”
“And you are both,” Steve whispered against his hair. “I understand that now. I’m so glad I got kidnapped with you.”
“You’re kidding.” He finally pushed himself away.
But Steve chuckled low in his throat and when Tony looked close enough to see him better, he looked flushed and embarrassed. “I came to your office to…”
“Thank me. I know.”
Steve shook his head. “No. Yes. Sort of. I came to your office to thank you and ask you to spend a bit more time with me. You used to take me out to the galleries in the beginning and recently I only saw you around the mansion for a few minutes before you rushed off to fix the armor or keep an appointment… and now that I think about it, that was when Iron Man usually appeared. Huh.” He blinked as if he was just now making all the right connections. “Okay. So we did spend all our available time together then? It was all you?”
Tony shrugged, feeling helpless. He had no idea what to think. He was still waiting for the moment when Steve realized Iron Man was a man with a weak heart who shouldn’t be anywhere near the team or that Tony had been lying to him all this time.
“Interesting,” Steve said quietly as if he was talking to himself. Then he looked up and at Tony, who held his breath. “That’s… good. Because I was trying to ask out Tony Stark and I had no idea how to tell my best friend that I wanted to get to know his boss... better… because you always seemed so… close.”
He chuckled, awkwardly, feeling really bad about it, until the whole sentence hit home. “Ask out?” That took a moment to sink in. And then another until Tony realized that he should probably be reacting in some way. He could only stare. His heart was trying to jump out of his chest.
“I’m sorry, I...” The slight awkward stutter was what broke the spell. Steve wasn’t usually one to stutter. “I don’t even know if you like men that way, but Jan said… Well, she told me…”
“Okay,” Tony said, before things could get any more awkward. Janet knew altogether too many stories about all of New York’s gossip worthy population and god only knew which story she had picked to tell Steve. As with kidnapping, Tony Stark had a lot of experience with these thing. This was either going to be the best idea he had ever had, or it would all explode right in his face and he’d be left to lick his wounds and hope his already damaged heart did not break all over again. “Tell you what? You can ask my boss out. But I’ll be there. Every step of the way.”
They avoided looking at each other, until Steve chuckled under his breath and then they laughed together.
It could have been awkward, but it was a relief.
“I’m still sorry, you got hurt. But perhaps now I’m a little glad you got kidnapped with me, too.” It wasn’t how his relationships usually started, closer to how some of his relationships had ended, really. But then things with Captain America and Iron Man had always been a little different.
“My pleasure, Mr. Stark. I’ll get into trouble with you any day.” He laughed, but his cheeks were slightly red.
Tony stared, his throat once more dry. “I’m good at getting into trouble,” he admitted.
“I figured. Why else would you need a full-time armored bodyguard?” They grinned at each other. With a pang Tony realized that they had never shared a moment like this. Not when both of them knew about Tony and Iron Man. His heart gave a fluttering beat and this time it had nothing to do with the strain he’d put on it today. And then suddenly Steve was leaning forward, pressing dry, warm lips against his. It had been years since a simple, chaste kiss had made him this giddy and nervous. His hand fumbled, finally landed on Steve's good shoulder and sighed. Steve seemed to take that as encouragement, because suddenly the kiss was less chaste and, god, he was so fine with that, kissing back like he had wanted to for so long, putting all his emotions, all the fear and annoyance, all the frustration that had been building up today into it.
When he finally pulled away, he was panting and Steve's lips were no longer dry. His brain had nothing to say about it.
“Come on, let’s get out of here and then we’ll talk,” Steve whispered. He held out a hand and Tony took it without hesitation. He self-consciously watched Steve as he took note of every single movement. He would have to get used to that. He had never expected to be here.
* * *
“No gossiping about the boss,” Iron Man quipped.
“Tony is great.” Steve beamed at her and held up the coffee pot, offering to pour her a cup.
She declined, winking at him. “I’m quite bubbly enough.”
“Janet, you are the light in all our lives.”
She had to giggle at Iron Man’s earnestly uttered compliment. The man knew how to be as gallant as his famous employer. “Charmer. You really excel at being a knight in shining armor.” And his armor looked particularly shiny in the bright light of their communal Avengers mansion kitchen.
“We all try our best.” He stood from the sturdy, specially reinforced chair to give a mocking bow.
“Don’t you have to leave?” Cap asked. He was sipping his coffee, and watched Iron Man with a strangely neutral expression. “You said Tony wanted you to… do something.”
Iron Man nodded sagely. “There is a thing at the California plant to take care of and I will be able to do it much faster than the poor guys who would be stuck with it otherwise.” He did the strange kind of half-shrug the armor allowed him.
“Doesn’t Tony have to go to that charity gala tonight? We were both invited. Who is going to look after him if you’re off doing something else?” Janet loved Tony. He was the most charming man imaginable and it was always a joy to meet someone who could talk about more than money at any of these events. But there had been lots of trouble following the man around recently. “You’d think after the whole AIM scare, he would keep you close-by.”
Iron Man did the shrug again. “I’m staying close to him, Jan.”
“Not when you’re being sent to California, you aren’t.” She took some orange juice from the fridge and then flew up to pick a glass from the cupboard.
“Don’t worry about that, Jan,” Cap said and squeezed her shoulder when her feet were back on the ground. “Tony isn’t going to be alone. And he sure as hell isn’t going to be unprotected.”
“We asked Cap to stand in for me.”
Steve positively beamed at her, obviously proud that he’d been asked. Or perhaps it was something more. She had caught him and Tony together more often since they’d come back from that AIM incident. Twice she had walked in on them sharing a late night snack in this very kitchen. Nobody could begrudge Steve the happy smile Tony seemed to bring to his face. Jan just hoped Tony knew how serious Steve could be about things and how much he had already lost. But with Iron Man there to keep an eye on developments, she knew that at least some of her worry was unfounded. Iron Man knew both men better than anyone and he would look out for Cap, just like Jan would. Even better, he was also looking out for Tony, because that was his job.
“Well then, don’t get kidnapped,” she joked and happily took note of Steve’s amused grin.
“I’ll try to keep Tony out of trouble.” The comment was half geared at Iron Man, she was sure.
Iron Man warned: “He’ll do his best to get you in trouble.”
“I sure hope so. Where would be the fun in an uneventful evening? I’m not exactly fond of these stiff high society events.”
She felt such a wave of fondness overwhelm her and she flew up, shrinking a bit as she did so and hugged Steve. He was just so sweet. “I’ll be there too. You’ll be fine.”
“I’ll better get ready now.” The slight redness to his cheeks did not escape her notice.
“Please do!” She shooed him out. “I’m sure Tony will pick you up on time.”
Together with Iron Man she watched him go, then all her attention was back on the red and gold armored Avenger. “They are so sweet.”
“Don’t play dumb. We both know you’re much too smart for that. Aren’t you afraid Cap’s going to take your job if you’re never around to actually protect Tony?”
“No,” he said lightly, his metallic sounding voice astoundingly sure. “I keep a close eye on Cap. And I do have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“Oh, I can believe that.” She beamed.
* * *
“Not yet, but she’ll figure us out in no time, if we keep playing it like that.”
“I don’t mind.”
Tony shrugged. His feelings about revealing his secret identity were complicated. He wasn’t sure he was quite ready to reveal his heart condition to the rest of the team. What did someone like Thor know about human weaknesses like that? But then Doctor Blake was his friend…
“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Stark,” Steve said softly, with some smugness. “And under less stressful circumstances.”
He grinned. “We haven’t left the house yet, Cap. Someone can still burst in at any moment.”
“Not here. Not where they know all the Avengers will protect you. They wouldn’t dare.”
“We should try to have our first date here then…” he suggested.
“No.” Steve shook his head. “I don’t mind protecting you. You’ll be safe with me, I promise.” He stepped closer and reached for Tony’s cheek, stroking a finger along the cheekbone.
A flush crept into his cheeks. “I believe you, actually.”
They kissed, just a short peck on the lips, but somehow more meaningful than most of the kisses Tony could remember receiving.
“Let’s go and not get kidnapped this time, shellhead.”
“I’ll try my best if you do.”
He allowed Steve to lead him out, not sure if Steve was playing the part of attentive date or duty bound bodyguard. It didn’t matter as long as they got to spend more time together. The changes to their relationship were still so new and exciting. Exciting enough to let superhero life be superhero life for one evening.
“And who is this?” asked the first cute rich daughter he came across that evening, looking at Steve appreciatively.
“I’m Mr. Stark’s bodyguard for the evening,” Steve provided in a low voice.
“Don’t be fooled,” Tony stage whispered at Steve. “You are so much more.”
It was worth it to see the questioning glances, share that one secretive grin, feel Steve’s hand on his hip suddenly as he led him away.
“So are you. And I'd rather be stuck with you in a cell than stay here all night.”
Tony laughed, drawing more eyes immediately. “We can get stuck together any time you want.” The wink he threw Steve's way was just the beginning. He was going to enjoy this. Perhaps he was a tiny bit thankful to AIM for existing. Just a tiny bit. “In fact I think you're stuck with me now.”
“Doesn’t sounds so bad.”
They saw Jan in the crowd, waving at them. She was holding a flute of champagne and her yellow dress was likely the nicest thing he’d yet seen on this party. One of Steve’s hands suddenly settled at the small of his back and he felt himself pushed forward and steered towards their friend. It was familiar. It was okay. He looked up and slightly back to catch a glimpse of Steve’s expression, focused and calm. He was feeling warmer than this whole situation would have called for. Protective Steve was a sight to behold.
They needed to go on a real date next.
One where there were fewer people and fewer roles to play.
Perhaps he would let Steve pick a place and find out into how much trouble Captain America could get him in his downtime. He had a feeling that both Tony Stark and Iron Man would get their fair share of adventure.
He couldn’t wait.