When he opens his eyes the first thing he glimpses in a blur of darkened images is the rocky ceiling of a cave. His heart stammers in his chest and he bolts – or tries to bolt upright. He fails, miserably, because there’s a weight on his chest that feels like it might be a bowling ball. He flails around a bit and tries to form words. Only a pathetic moan comes out of his mouth.
Someone grabs his hand, someone with fingerless gloves and that jolts him. Where the hell is he? Why the hell is he here? And why the fuck does his ankle feel like it might explode? While he’s going through the round of questions in his brain, that same someone is speaking to him. He can’t grasp the meaning of the words and he notices the shift of the cave starting to blur. He blinks a few times, but fails and it all fades to black again…..
Awaking the next time, he notices first that it is slightly warmer in the cave, but he resigns himself to acknowledging that the cave is probably not a dream. This doesn’t feel like the first time, he’s not in a cave in Afghaxnistan with a battery hooked to his chest. He absently searches his chest and finds nothing. No battery, no arc reactor. He slaps around for the arc reactor until the memory of the surgery slams into him, and he groans again.
A face appears briefly above him but not long enough for him to focus and recognize. His brain runs like a truck in muck. He can’t get out of the mud and he’s sliding down the hill. He grapples with his hand to catch something, anything to stop the landslide, but he’s not falling, he’s in the cave, the damned cave again. He hears a quiet voice and he thinks it might be telling him to calm, that everything is all right. He’s not so sure about that, because he’s in a fucking cave again.
A god damned cave.
He lets the darkness take him because he doesn’t have the courage to fight back this time, not again. He’ll not do it again. He trekked up this hill, battled through the walls, and beat down his demons once already, more than once. He’s done, finished. What the hell is he doing in a cave again? He cannot answer, so he welcomes the oblivion of darkness.
It isn’t darkness that greets him. He sees images of a flight, but he’s not flying. He doesn’t fly anymore. He’s doesn’t have the suit, the armor is gone. A plane, it must be a plane. He realizes he’s remembering, and tries to pry open his eyes because he’s not certain he wants to remember. But he can’t, he fails because the pull of gravity, the gravity of the truth has him in its clutches and he cannot deny it. He succumbs to its forces.
A plane, so he was on a plane and now he’s in a cave. A god damned cave. Again.
He hears echoes of voices and he’s not sure he can pin down who they belong to, but something flashes in his memory and the plane judders and veers sharply. He’s tossed about the cabin and lights flash and something screams, the jet’s engine screeches in protest. It isn’t good. There’s burning and metal yawning, collapsing against the pressure. The impact of the crash reduces every other memory to ash.
Words mash into his brain like echoes in the cave. He wants to concentrate on them, he wants to answer, but they swirl and mix together with his own breathing and he can't find the center of the words. He just can't find it. He knows he's slipping again, sliding down into the abyss. He tries to concentrate on the memories.
A plane, he knows he was on a plane. While he considers these images, he disappears again until he jolts awake with a start. He looks around and, for the first time, can actually see more than the shadows and grayness of pain. The figure, the shade, bends over him again and lifts his head.
He thinks he hears words. "Just a little bit, drink."
The water refreshes him, brings the world into terrible, ugly focus. He groans and a hand pats his shoulder, and then travels down to clutch his hand.
"Your hands are like ice," the voice says. The strong but slim hands in gloves without fingers disappear. The next thing he knows, the gloves are being yanked onto his hands. "This'll have to help. Sorry no fingers in the gloves. I like them this way because I need- well I suppose you don't really care."
"Wh-wh?" His voice sounds like a croak. More water is offered and he takes it greedily.
"Shh." The shade moves into his limited focal range and he sees the spark of blonde hair with something that looks like blood encrusted in it, a dark blue uniform with tears and more dried blood crusted over rips in the fabric. The figure comes into the light and Tony sees the blue eyes, light, bright, and beautiful.
There's a little laugh. "Well, actually, I'm not really sure."
"The one and only," Steve says as he helps Tony drink some more.
"Why, how?" His mind loops around and he cannot rectify being in a cave in Afghanistan with Steve. Steve hasn't even been found yet. It will be years before Captain America is found in the ice of the Arctic Ocean. "This isn't right."
"Our plane was shot down," Steve says and hustles over to the darker corner of the cave. He plucks out something and brings it over to Tony. "Do you think you could eat? I don't have much, but you need to keep up your strength."
"Eat? Delusions and hallucinations do not offer food to eat," Tony says and closes his eyes.
"Hey, hey, no sleeping," Steve says. He sits down next to Tony and lifts up his head again. "Drink if you don't want to eat yet. You've been injured and you need to stay hydrated."
"That's rich, thank you ghost of a dead man," Tony says and takes the bottle of water from Ghost!Steve, because that is what he's starting to call him in his head. Ghost!Steve.
"I'm not a ghost, nor am I a dead man. Well, not yet." He finishes giving Tony the water and then offers him the granola bar again. "Please eat it."
Tony lifts up a hand and notices the fingerless leather gloves on his hands. They are smooth and easy to move, broken in and weathered. He looks at Ghost!Steve - do ghosts have real clothes? He grabs the granola bar and tears into it, not realizing how hungry he is until he bites off a piece.
"You've been in and out for over a day and a half." Ghost!Steve laughs a little but then the smile drops and he looks serious and worried, lines furrow his brow, at the apex of his nose. "I didn't think, I was- I was really worried Tony. But you're getting better now."
Tony raises an eyebrow and studies the ghost. "So, what's wrong with me?"
"You took a pretty good hit to the head in the crash. You were completely out of it for the first few hours, which is good considering I had to drag you all the way up here from the ridge."
"Where the plane crashed. Not pretty. Doug and Martin must have died instantly."
"Shit," Tony says because he suddenly remembers the pilot and co-pilot. "Why'd we crash in the first place?"
"I think we were hit by a ground to air missile but I can't be sure. We should have been dead, I suppose but Doug was a great pilot and veered the plane enough to avoid the direct hit."
He frowns, Ghost!Steve seems fairly earnest about his story and Tony's head throbs with a pulse that would just about kill any hard rock band. He attempts to shift and sit up but that only fires a bolt of pain through his left leg so prominent and blinding that he cries out.
Ghost!Steve lays a hand on his chest and settles him back to the cold floor of the cave. "Don't move, you have a busted ankle. I've immobilized it as best I could, but you are going nowhere quick."
"Damn it, I didn't think hallucinations hurt so much."
Ghost!Steve laughs low in his throat. "Stark, you're a funny one."
"Funny one?" Tony lays his head back down on what he thinks must be the Captain's leather coat. "My hallucination would have a better come back than that."
"Sorry, I can't accommodate you," Steve says as he rifles through a bag sitting just out of the circle of light. The light is provided by a small lamp which Tony recognizes from the survival kit of the Quinjet.
"You are real, this is all real," Tony says. "Son of a bitch, I am stuck in a fucking cave again. How is this my fucking life?"
Steve crawls back over to where Tony is lying and offers him a few pills. "How is this mine?"
It is obvious he doesn't expect an answer, but Tony opens his mouth with nothing to say or come back with. That was clever of the Captain, too clever. He narrows his eyes. "What kind of pills are those?"
"Pain pills. I'd say aspirin but no one seems to take aspirin anymore, so maybe one of the other ones that are around these days. Ibuprofen, is that it?"
He takes the pills, noticing the fingerless gloves again and pops them in his mouth. He drinks some of the water Steve offers him in a small bottle.
"Tiny sips, we don't have much. I'll try and get some fresh soon," Steve says and now he really is Steve because it is obvious there is no ghost Steve here, just a god damned cave again.
"What the hell is wrong with my leg?" He spits a little of the water up and immediately feels guilty because Steve specifically noted that there wasn't much water.
"Like I said I think your ankle is broken. But it could be your leg, I'm not sure. You just can't move around too much," Steve says and sets the water bottle right next to Tony's hand. "It's right here any time you want it."
"Is there anymore?"
"There will be," Steve says. "Now, that you're up I might be able to go out and scavenge some more from the plane. I didn't want to leave you earlier because you were having a bad time of it."
"Bad time of it?" Tony shifts a little, as much as he can stand so that he can straighten up and see the Captain.
"You were talking a lot in your sleep." Steve starts going through the survival pack again as if he's cataloguing what they have and what they don't. He's mouthing words but not voicing them.
"What is it, Capsicle, what aren't you saying?"
Steve looks up at him and gives him a rueful smile. "Can't call me that anymore." He points to the torn and dirty dark navy uniform he's wearing. "Commander Rogers, now."
"What the hell?" Tony believes that the world has really decided to fuck with him, first the fake Mandarin business, now Commander America. What the hell is that supposed to mean? "Commander America? Sounds like crap."
Steve shakes his head and pulls out a foil wrapped container. "Commander Rogers, still Captain America."
"If that isn't all kinds of confusing," Tony says. He catches a pinched look to Steve's face but doesn't mention it. "So what've you been up to since the whole New York crap went down?"
Steve shrugs his shoulder and as he does, Tony glimpses a puckered red abrasion on his shoulder, peeking out from the tear in the sleeve. It must have been a serious wound if it's still on the good captain or commander or what the hell.
"I joined up with SHIELD, went on a few missions, moved to DC."
"Serious, you're in DC now?"
Steve only nods. "Sorry about the whole Malibu house thing, I didn't find out about it until after the fact. I was on assignment."
For a brief moment, Tony wants to rage and scream, and say how the fuck could you be on an assignment and not hear about people exploding everywhere, and my house falling into the ocean along with the President being abducted from Air Force One, for god's sake? But instead, he holds it steady and says, "No biggie, I had it."
"Ms. Potts okay then?"
"It was a year ago, she's fine, now."
Steve lifts his chin as if he can read the waves of stay away vibes coming off of Tony. He drops his focus away from Steve, he doesn't want to broach the subject; it still hurts. He gave up Iron Man, he found a way to get the arc reactor out of his chest, and in the end he still lost Pepper. Not because he didn't try, and not because she asked him to leave his distractions behind, but because he decided that he wanted her safe. He broke it off, hours before he called up SHIELD and told them he wanted back in - in any capacity. They accepted, they brought him back into the fold as a consultant on their A.I. systems. He wouldn't do weapons but he could do intelligence, might as well be his middle name. So, his relationship with Pepper had to be sacrificed, because in the end, it was better to sacrifice his relationship and his heart than to sacrifice Pepper. She argued about it, he stopped her and she acknowledged it. So it's over and he's alone in a cave with Commander Rogers.
"So you’re just flying around going on missions for SHIELD?" Tony says.
"Yeah, you know we talked about this one on the flight out here," Steve says and pulls out a small portable butane cooker. Close to Tony is a portable heater that's working full time to keep the space of the cave warm. He still notices how when Steve talks a little farther away from the heater that there's puffs of clouds about his head.
"Humor me, I have a head injury," Tony replies.
Steve grins a bit and opens up the foil package. It must be something to eat because he has it on the little stove. "Sure, worked for SHIELD, not much for Captain America to do short of an alien invasion or you know a massive war or maybe a cover up."
"Cover up, is there a cover up?" Tony asks. He can detect a distinct smell of stew - chicken stew. He's suddenly very hungry and very tired.
"Don't know," Steve says but doesn't look at Tony. "Meeting with the big guys soon, not sure that SHIELD is where I want to be." He ladles some of the food out into a small plastic bowl. He sidles over to Tony and puts the bowl and spork to the side as he helps Tony up. It hurts like sweet Jesus Christ, but it's over soon and Steve has him eating. "Seems it's all about fear these days."
"That's how it’s been for a while, soldier boy," Tony says and continues to eat as Steve watches him. "Aren't you going to have any?"
"We don't have much, I need to make sure you have your fill first, and then I'll eat. I can go for some time-."
"That's not logical and I am not buying it. If your metabolism burns through four times as much and as fast as a normal metabolism that would mean that you would, in fact, need food more often and in larger quantities in order to survive. Take that the next logical step, and it means going without food is highly detrimental to you, more so and faster than it would be for me or any other normal person. Eat, Captain, Commander, whatever, eat."
Steve sulks a little but goes over to the tiny pot. "For someone with a head injury, you are surprisingly cognizant." He serves himself a bowl and comes over to be seated closer to Tony and the heat. "But you're right; I need to take care of myself if I'm going to get us out of here."
Tony raises a brow and wants to say - of course I'm right, look who're talking to - but he doesn't because something is more pressing. "What's the sitrep?"
"We’re stuck, I think in the northern Pakistani mountains near the Balochistan Plateau - but I can't be sure. We're still in the mountains on a cliff face. I can't get any signal here on simple cell phones.”
"What the hell- how did we get hit out here?"
Shrugging, Steve continues to eat - it is obvious to Tony from the way he's practically inhaling the food that he hasn't eaten since this whole fiasco began a day and a half ago. "Not sure, but the whole place is populated with terrorist camps."
Tony nods. He remembers that much about this part of the world. The poor are preyed upon out here and he hates it. But then again, when aren't the weakest eaten by the stronger. It is part of the reason he became Iron Man and still drives him forward today to help those who cannot help themselves. He looks up at Steve then and remembers the photographs his father had of Steve before the Project Rebirth. How frail and weak Steve looked, he wonders if that ever leaves a person even after they've been reborn - does it leave a mark?
His mind zeroes back down to the fact they can't get a signal. "Do you have the radio or comm link from the plane?"
"No," Steve says and presses his lips together. He's finished with his stew. "Didn't have a lot of time. Needed to get you out of the plane and to safety. Had to get you stabilized. I was able to bring the survival kit and it has a beacon locator but it's fried or something."
"Where? Give it to me, Mister it seems to run on some kind of electricity," Tony says and makes grabby hands at Steve.
Shuffling over to the pile from the survival kit, Steve digs it out and hands it over to Tony. "You know you're like a toddler."
"And you're like an old man."
"How would you even know, you haven't spent more than ten minutes with me since New York," Steve says and, somehow, it feels like an accusation stabbed right into Tony's heart.
He doesn't know what to say to that and realizes. He pries open the beacon locator and immediately sees that Steve is right. "Any tools or anything in that treasure chest you got over there?"
Steve roots around in the kit and pulls out what can only be described as something above a swiss army knife. It's a small leather case, smaller much smaller than any makeup bag he's seen women carry around in their purses. "Here."
Frowning, he takes the small toolkit and opens it up. There's nothing useful and everything pitiful in the case. "Circuits burnt out, I need some new fuses maybe, and a few wires."
Steve retrieves his phone. "Can you use this?"
"No, not the right parts, but good idea."
At that moment the heater in the center of their little hovel decides to sputter a bit. Steve shifts over to it and hits it a few times with his fist. It spurts back to life. "It's on battery power but I think it has like forty eight hours of life. We've used a good forty, forty two already."
"Shit, and we're in the mountains?"
"During the winter, yeah. There's a pretty horrible storm hitting the range right now," Steve says and points to the entrance which is a narrow tunnel over to the side of the cave. "Been going on for around ten hours or so."
"We are well and truly stuck," Tony says and puts the beacon locator down. "If I had the right parts and some good tools I might be able to do something with this. Do you have my case?"
Steve shakes his head. "No, couldn't carry it."
"I can still get it. Once the storm blows over I can climb down to the plane and get it." Steve fishes out a paper towel and wipes out his bowl and Tony's. He pays attention to their little sporks as well. He sets the bowls aside and turns off the butane cooker.
"Yeah, I told you the plane crash landed on a ledge."
"You didn't tell me you climbed up. What the hell would possess you to climb up?"
"The sheer drop to the ravine more than a 1000 feet below." Steve says and closes up the cooker. "You need any more water?"
"You said there wasn't much?"
"There isn't, but I can collect some snow and melt it," Steve says and climbs to his feet. He uses the rock wall to steady himself and, for the first time, Tony sees that the Captain (and he is a god damned Captain) hasn't been left unscathed by the experience. He's favoring his left side and breathing carefully.
"What's up with that?"
Steve doesn't turn he just plods onward to the mouth of the cave with one of the empty bowls clutched in his hand. "With what?"
"You hurt your ribs?"
"A bit," Steve says and it sounds airy and hoarse. He reaches out of the opening and scoops up some snow, piles it high and then brings it back to the heater. He places it right next to the portable heat source and then drops like a stone. "Do you mind if I sleep? I can climb down soon, but I could really use some sleep to heal."
"Hmm, sure, why not?"
"It means you have to stay awake, do you think you could do that?"
"I'm not an idiot, I know basic survival rules," Tony says but doesn't admit he wouldn't have guessed he needed to stay awake while Steve slept in the safety of a cave.
Steve mumbles a reply as he hunkers down. He leans against the cave wall and closes his eyes. It's weird and uncomfortable and Tony the single survival blanket.
"You want a blanket."
"Keep it." He doesn't even open his eyes. "Just a few hours, give me a few, okay?"
"Okay." The sound of Steve's voice is weak and light and Tony's concerned that he's missing something. But in truth he doesn't really know Steve, except for their little stint together with the demigod of fuck your life. It is true; he hasn't really seen Steve or talked to him in over a year.
When he looks at Steve again the man's breathing has evened out and he's gently sleeping. Tony tries to move closer so that he can share the one blanket with him since he's some distance from the pathetic little heater. Tony can't, the pain in his leg is brilliant and runs fire up through his calf to his thigh. He can't believe how horrible it is, he gulps back his gasp so as not to wake Steve. Bending over his leg, he grasps his thigh and hisses through his teeth, squeezing his eyes closed.
As he rides the pain, he feels a hand on his back and a soft voice beckoning him. “Shh, just relax. Quiet.”
He shivers as the pain slowly recedes and he peers up to see Steve hunched over him. “Damn, didn’t want to wake you up.”
“What were you trying to do?”
“Give you the blanket,” Tony says as he eases back.
Steve adjusts the leather jacket behind Tony, and then shakes his head. “There’s only one blanket and you need it more than I do.”
When Tony reaches over to tug the blanket to Steve, he brushes against Steve’s hand and feels the chill on his skin. “You’re freezing cold, don’t be an ass. We can share.” Steve considers him for a full minute before he slides closer to Tony. Flipping the blanket over Steve’s lap, Tony tucks it about them. “Sleep.”
“Are you sure?” Steve says but he’s already yawning and his eyelids are heavy.
“Yep, I’ll watch things.”
Steve closes his eyes and must instantly fall into slumber’s grasp because he lists to the side and ends up with his head on Tony’s shoulder as he quietly snores. Tony pats his head, noting the softness of his hair, the dried blood from a healed over gash. He sinks against Steve, but he shouldn’t get too comfortable, he needs to stay awake.
He lies listening to the hum of the heater, the electric buzz of the lamp, and stares at the white glare coming from the opening of the cave. As he gazes out into the wash of snow, he sees flashes of memories. One pops up that he thinks he might have made up, but is so clear and vibrant; he has to reconcile it with his knowledge that he really doesn’t know Steve.
Before the mission, Tony recalls standing in the briefing room at SHIELD and arguing with Fury about a bodyguard.
“I don’t need a damned body guard. I’m Iron Man.”
“What about your ass makes you think you don’t? You blew up all of your armor, Iron Man or should I call you Formerly Known as?” Fury nearly spit his words out at Tony like he had been chewing nails.
“How many times do I have to say it, the suit and I are one. I don’t need the suit-.”
“Fuck my ass you don’t.”
“In your dreams, buddy boy. Doesn’t matter, I don’t want one of your lackeys-.”
“How about me? Would you consider allowing me to be your body guard?” Steve had walked into the briefing room in that new uniform, dark blue, silver stripes, silver star emblazoned on his chest – all bulked up and confident.
“Bruce will come with me,” Tony had replied, because he damn well didn’t need to see Steve Rogers in that god damned uniform. All it did was hasten old teenaged fantasies to the forefront of his brain.
“Doctor Banner is not going to this meeting, he hasn’t been invited,” Fury glowered at him as only he could with one eye. It always seemed more powerful than it should have been.
Eventually Tony relented because he knew Bruce would never agree to go to the meeting and that going to an active threat zone was probably a very bad idea for Bruce.
SHIELD had already tried to bring the information to Tony but, unfortunately, the tech guys couldn’t do it without it suffering major integrity issues. In other words the instruments and equipment the information was stored on was crap old and none of the quiz kids SHIELD had working for it could figure out how to extract the data nor could they move the hardware without dismantling something important or breaking something. They probably couldn’t even figure out what was important.
So, Tony ended up with Steve as his body guard, though he’d never asked about the new uniform, or the reasons for it. He hadn’t seen Steve in over a year and he might have been holding a grudge about the whole Malibu/Mandarin thing and the disappearance of all of his fellow Avengers, SHIELD, the whole god damned military. He never asked Steve any questions.
It occurs to him then that he has no idea if Steve has anyone to ask him any questions. Who does Steve have in this new century? He hopes that Natasha or Fury or whomever at SHIELD has, at the very least, taken into the consideration everyone the guy knows is dead. Who the hell does he hang out with?
Tony has Pepper (as a friend, now), Rhodey, Bruce, and Happy. There were people Tony could depend on. A howl of wind gusts down the tunnel from the mouth of the cave to the cavern they are huddled in. It distracts him from his line of thought, and he picks up the locator again. He studies it in the shadowed light and knows there’s nothing to be done with it. He doesn’t have the right tools, or the right parts to fix the thing.
If he’d thought the threat of dying in a cave in the middle of nowhere had past, he was wrong. Tony shifts under Steve’s weight and it causes him to slide down into Tony’s lap. He looks down at Steve, surprised the Captain doesn’t wake up.
“Must be tired, huh?” Tony lays his hand on Steve’s shoulder and drops his head back; staring into the distance as he slowly plays with the loosened fabric from the tear in Steve’s uniform. His eyes droop, he’s exhausted and his head pounds until it’s hard to focus anymore. He tries to remain alert, awake, but he can’t. He’s lost that battle already and he slowly sinks into the waiting arms of sleep.
When he next rises into consciousness, the first thing Tony notices is that his nose is cold. He feels the dry crispness of the cold and inhales a breath that freezes his nostrils and stings. The air burns at his eyes as he opens them to the dimly lit cave walls. A heavy rock weighs on his chest and, for a second, panic drives deep into his heart until he realizes he's slumped against the wall with Steve's head nestled against him. He has to admit, he's all the warmer for it, but still his face is freezing. Moving, he lifts Steve to the side, who only momentarily mumbles something about not being sick, Tony looks over at the small heater. It's dead. The heating coil is cold and black and he can smell how it burnt out. It might be something he can fix so he eases over to the heater but he can't move his immobilized foot well. Tugging off the blanket he sees a dark navy boot on his leg which is not his with a belt secured around it. It is the first time he notices that Steve is only wearing one boot and no belt. The stupid fuck, he's going to lose his toes in this extreme cold.
Trying to move is an impossible task, but now that he sees Steve is exposed to the harsh conditions even more than he originally thought, he has a purposed. He reaches toward the heater which is placed near his ankles. He doesn’t catch it with a swing of his arm and only succeeds in twisting his injured leg so he lets out a yelp.
“What? What?” Steve is up and blinking at him.
“Nothing, go back to sleep,” Tony says and swipes again with a hiss through his teeth.
“What are you trying to do?” Steve rubs at his eyes.
“The heater turned off, I wanted to see if I could fix it,” Tony says.
“Probably just ran out of battery, how long have I been asleep?” Steve grabs the portable heater, places it next to Tony, and checks his watch. “Only three hours. Should have lasted longer than that.”
As Tony examines the heater he can see it has been used to its capacity and the burnt out smell he detected earlier probably emanated from dust on the coil. “We need a power source.”
“Exactly,” Steve says and shivers.
“Hey, you’re not thinking of going into stasis here and leaving me alone to deal with this whole fiasco.”
He glimpses Steve’s fingertips and they’re a decided color of blue. “Really, are you going into stasis, because I think that’s a fair question.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve says, “No, what kind of question is that anyway.”
“I just said it was fair, because you know based on experience, you kind of like to go into stasis when it’s cold.”
“I’ve been in a lot of cold situations, Tony, not just crashing a plane into the ocean. I never went into stasis before or since.” Steve scoffs at him and drags the butane cooker over to them. “We can turn this on in spurts to warm up. But it’s not going to do a lot of good. I’m going to have to climb down to the plane.”
“With your blue fingers and only one boot, that’s a great idea.”
“Do you have another one?”
Tony steams but says nothing, because the good Captain is right. He sighs. “Okay but take the gloves and the boot.”
“You need the boot to stabilize the ankle, believe me.”
“Believe me when I say to you, I need to be alive to care about whether or not my ankle is stabilized.”
As Steve considers Tony’s statement, the wind howls again and they both look toward the cave opening. “Damn it, I slept too long.”
“What you only slept a few hours,” Tony says but he knows it is useless. It’s dark outside and they’ll have to stay warm until tomorrow with no supplies. “Come on, we’ll use body heat and the butane heater, that’ll be enough.” Steve frowns and Tony knows, realizes he’s not being a prude but weighing their chances. “Believe me, I know all kinds of ways to keep warm.”
“None of them legal, probably.”
Tony chuckles and smiles. “Whose gonna tell on you, Captain?”
“I was talking to Captain America,” Tony says with a wink and Steve flushes in the pitiful light from the lamp. “Come on, slide over here and we’ll share the blanket and the jacket.”
Steve doesn’t resist, in fact, he helps. Unfolding the jacket from behind Tony, he takes it and spreads it out over their feet while they huddle under the blanket for warmth.
“I’ll turn on the cooker in a little while; heat up the next package of stew.”
“Shouldn’t we ration it?” Tony asks.
“I would say yes, if I thought we wouldn’t die first of the cold.”
“Well, I’ll die, you’ll just go to sleep,” Tony says and pulls Steve closer putting his arm around the larger man’s torso. He expects Steve to complain but instead he returns the embrace.
“I don’t think it works that way,” Steve says and makes sure to yawn long and exaggerated.
“Very funny,” Tony says as he feels the cold nip at his cheeks. He shudders in response.
“This can’t be good for your head or leg,” Steve whispers and pulls Tony close to his chest, burying Tony’s face in his shoulder. “Better?”
Tony can’t deny the feeling of the broad shoulders, the warm breath against the nap of his neck and bare face feels good, feels right. “Yeah, yeah it’s good.”
They lay like that for several minutes until Tony says, “You ever wonder why it happened?”
“What, the crash?”
“Yes, no, not this crash, the one you did, were in, whatever. Do you wonder why you went into stasis?”
Steve inhales deeply and holds it as if he’s judging how to answer the question. “I try not to think about it.”
“Why? Why would you do that?”
“Because it means there’s a lot more to the serum we don’t know anything about, can’t predict,” Steve says. He tucks his hands along Tony’s flank and their cold touch startles up and down Tony’s spine.
“Wouldn’t you want to know?”
“Yes and no, I suppose.”
Steve isn’t looking down at him, but into the darkening night. “Why wouldn’t you want to know? It seems like it would be a good idea, you know, to make sure you knew all your limitations and all of your strengths.”
“That sounds convincing.”
“You didn’t see Schmidt take off his face,” Steve says and a quake runs through his body that Tony can’t classify as strictly due to the frigid temperatures. “When I saw it, when Bucky-.” He stops and swallows. “It wasn’t pretty.”
He supposes seeing someone with a red skull and out of a nightmare might qualify as not pretty. “That’s not you.”
Steve gives a little snigger. “How do you know, Tony, you don’t even know me.”
“Everyone knows you, everyone Steve.”
Before he answers, there’s a space of time – a pause, a beat, that’s heavy in purpose and quiet in a soft almost sinister kind of way. “That’s the trouble, isn’t it?”
Tony’s not sure how to interpret what Steve says, so he lets it hang in the air, dangling like a partially severed limb. It hurts and is ugly.
“I should make the stew.”
“Yeah,” Tony says and that’s all he can manage because he doesn’t want Steve to move. He realizes Steve is right, he doesn’t know the man very well. He might not be able to name all of his favorite new haunts in DC, or the latest book he read, or even if he sees movies these days. But he can state a lot of stuff about the man, the core of him, that maybe everybody does know, but the information isn’t as engrained in everyone else like it is in Tony. The definition of Captain America is written on Tony’s bones, part of who he is, how he’s made up has always been dependent on Steve.
Almost reluctantly, Steve inches away from Tony and sits up. He moves out of the cover of the blanket and blows on his hands as he works to start up the butane cooker. Retrieving another packet of the stew, he pours some of the melted water into the package. Tony hears the sound of ice clink against the pot.
“Froze over again,” Steve says and stirs it into the stew. As the food warms, Steve places his hands over the burner to warm up. He slides the burner over and when Tony cannot reach the portable burner, he picks it up and holds it as Tony thaws out his hands. “We’re gonna make it, Tony.”
Tony keeps his eyes cast down because he can’t look at Steve, see that earnest expression and not pity him. Tony’s a fighter but he’s also too damned smart for his own good. He knows when there’s little hope. “We need to get something for me to fix the beacon locator. I could tear apart the heater.”
“No, first light, I’ll make it down to the plane and get whatever supplies you need-.”
“Get my case, I have a small arc reactor in there. It’s a working model, doesn’t provide much energy but I could jerry-rig it to the heater.”
“Okay, see we have a plan.” Steve puts down the burner, turns it off, and hands Tony a bowl of the stew again. It’s barely more than a half cup, but that’s enough to warm him and he sniffles as he thaws out.
He notices that Steve doesn’t even bother with the spork, all he does is drink the stew right from the bowl. It takes him less than a minute to finish up. Like a ritual, he goes through the routine of wiping both of their bowls again once Tony is done and then packs them away again.
“When we have the heater back up and running I’ll melt more snow,” Steve says.
“Now, we get warm and wait it out,” Tony says and tries to stay positive about this fucking situation. He was just consulting for god’s sake. At least he doesn’t have to make an excuse to Pepper; this was not his fucking fault. “Come on then.” He waves for Steve to get back under the blanket.
Steve does so without protest. They lay against the hard rock, next to one another. “It would probably be a good idea for you to close the gap.”
Looking down, Steve only frowns at the small separation between their bodies. He shuffles forward and twines his arms around Tony. Tony slips his uninjured leg over Steve’s leg which leads to a slight sound of complaint.
“You’re not wearing shoes on both feet. You can’t regrow toes, can you?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Steve says and settles down into Tony’s embrace.
Again, silence falls but Tony breaks it. “Do you think we should turn off the light?”
“Not really. It will last long enough for day to break, and then I’ll get to the plane and bring up more supplies.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then it won’t matter,” Steve says and he’s so matter-of-fact about it, it stuns Tony like tiny barbs prickling his skin.
He can’t fathom anything more to say and he thinks that Rhodey would get a kick out of it, that the old man ended up being able to shut Tony down.
“Do you ever miss it?”
“Flying, the suit?” Steve says into Tony’s shoulder. The press of Steve against him is warm and comforting in the cave as night blackens the world.
“Every damned day.”
“But you did the right thing, for Pepper.”
“I didn’t only do it for Pepper, I did it for myself,” Tony says and, for the first time, he realizes he’s telling the truth. “Pepper once told me the suits were a distraction. She wasn’t wrong. She might not have been completely right either, but they were a distraction. They were a cocoon, somewhere I could hide from the world, from myself.” He knows he’s monologuing and he wonders how much Steve actually cares about what he has to reveal about the suits.
As Tony continues to talk, he realizes he’s lying on Steve’s chest and he can hear the steady beat of his heart. “They became my whole definition. Christ, I antagonized a terrorist because I could, because I was the big guy.”
“I heard the terrorist really wasn’t.” Steve’s breath warms the inner flesh of Tony’s throat near his ear.
“Well, no, he was an actor, but Killian still had a serious sanity issue. Blew up my house. I mean, who does that?” Tony shakes his head, but stops because he likes the lulling rhythm of Steve’s heart. “I became Iron Man and nothing else. Sure, I am Iron Man, but what else?”
“Yeah, yeah, I get that,” Steve murmurs into Tony’s hair. He pauses before he says anything else. Clearing his throat, he says, “Maybe you should get some sleep.”
“How about you?”
“Just had some.”
“Not much,” Tony says.
“Enough for now, get some sleep,” Steve says and adjusts the blanket.
He’s not sure he should relax and go to sleep as the night quiets the storm and cold whispers into the cave. He stays silent though, listening to Steve’s heart, hearing an occasional gust of wind, riding the waves of pain as the pills slowly wear off and his leg throbs in the borrowed boot.
He doesn’t know how long it has been when Steve shivers against him, when Steve moves to bring his hands to his mouth to blow on them, when he realizes there’s a very good possibility he’ll be left here to die alone as Steve’s body shuts down. The fear strikes him hard in his chest like a fist to his sternum. Opening his eyes, in the shallow light given by the tiny lamp, Tony glimpses the grim line of Steve’s mouth, his set and determined expression.
“We’re gonna die here,” Tony murmurs and hadn’t really wanted to say it out loud.
“No, we’re not,” Steve says but Tony feels the quake of his body next to him.
“Well, you’re going to go into stasis and I’m going to die.”
“I never tagged you as a quitter, Stark.”
“I thought you were a strategist, and expert tactician.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve hikes up and then looks down on Tony.
“Nothing, just – just don’t do that stasis thing,” Tony says.
“I told you, I’m not planning on it. I don’t think it’s something I can actually just do. It’s not a super power, it’s more like a curse.” Tony sees the moment Steve’s said too much; he nearly physically tries to bite back his words.
It grows quiet with only the sound of the wind and the light respiration of the man beside him. Tony decides not to worry about it, to believe what Captain America so obviously believes – that they will get out of this hovel, that they will be rescued, that his leg won’t go gangrene, that he survived another cave a life time ago, and so he can survive this one with his childhood superhero next to him.
After a space of time, Steve gathers him in his arms and says in low tones, “Mind if I warm up my hands?”
Tony has no idea what he’s asking but since he’s wearing Steve’s gloves, he feels obligated to say yes. He nods. Steve slides his hands under Tony’s arms and buries his face in his shoulder. Tony feels the stream of air across his bare neck and quells a shiver in response. He’s not sure if it is due to the cold or the proximity.
“I don’t want to go into stasis again,” Steve says into Tony’s hair.
“I don’t know if it will happen, Tony. I don’t know how it happened last time. I must have been wounded, I’d crashed the plane.” He keeps talking as if he needs to hear a voice, as if the fear crawling along Tony’s flesh infects Steve. “I don’t remember how it happened. I don’t want it to happen again. It’s not what I want. I’d rather die.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“But if I had the choice, I would rather die,” Steve says and his lips brush against the nape of Tony’s neck.
He melts a little, the coldness thawing away. “What happened to the optimism? The good ol’ guy formerly known as Captain America?”
“No one needs Captain America anymore, Tony. Have you seen this world we live in? I’m not even sure I want to live in it. Everything’s changed and different and nothing is as black and white-.”
“The world was never black and white. Believe me when I say that to you. What you’re seeing right now, the gray has always been there. It’s just been hidden by the powers that be. With the age of the internet it’s harder for them to hide what’s really going on. The age of information has really screwed the big guys who want you to believe in the black and white world of yesterday,” Tony says.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better, Tony, makes me feel like I’ve been a joke all this time.”
“You? Captain America has never been a joke. Captain America symbolizes everything the people of this country want it to be, even if, in the dirt and grime of this world, it can’t.”
“That’s very profound, Tony.”
“I can do profound.”
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” Steve says and Tony can feel a smile against his neck. After a moment’s pause, Steve says, “Get some sleep, I’ll be here in the morning and you need it.”
“Sure, okay.” But he doesn’t sleep. The pain in his leg makes sure of that, but at the same time he doesn’t want to sleep. He may not completely understand Steve’s fear but he can’t leave him alone in the night without remaining alert and being vigilant.
As the hours pass and the pain grows, Tony breaks his silence and asks for more painkillers. Steve extricates himself from their cocoon and retrieves the small bottle of painkillers. He offers the last of the water to Tony with three of the pills.
Once he takes the medicine, Tony snuggles down under the blanket and says, “Remind me to tell SHIELD their survival kit sucks.”
“I’ll do that,” Steve says and pulls Tony close again.
One thing that impresses upon Tony is that Steve seems perfectly fine with their embrace. He doesn’t shy away from it, he cradles Tony to his chest, nuzzles his own face into Tony’s shoulder.
“Did you? Doesn’t this freak you out?” Tony says.
“Freezing in a cave, I thought we already covered that?”
“No,” Tony says. “The thing, the hugging thing.”
“Sharing body heat is not a 21st century invention. We had it back in the good ol’ days, Tony.” Steve chuckles.
“Oh,” Tony says and leaves it at that, he’s not sure how to ask any more questions. This may be due to the significant head wound pounding in his brain that is keeping pace with the shots of pain from his leg.
“But this, this is nice,” Steve says and his voice pitches lower and Tony wonders about it. Steve throws Thor’s hammer into his hopes by adding, “Better than last time when I froze – was alone then.”
“Oh,” Tony says again and lets the weariness, the strain, and the fear take him, because his hopes are waning, diminishing as he drops his head against Steve’s chest and he closes his eyes.
The next time he comes to awareness Steve is moving away from him, settles him in the blanket and turning on the butane portable heater. He mumbles and blinks his eyes because he is missing Steve next to him and not just for the body warmth. Flinging his arm out wide, he grabs for Steve.
“Come back to bed.”
“Too early to get up, honey, come back to bed.”
“That’s sweet, Tony, really sweet of you. But I think we should stick to the plan,” Steve says and struggles free. It isn’t much of a fight because the pain of his leg and the fact his skull is probably cracked and all his brains are pouring out of it puts him at a distinct disadvantage.
Steve putters around the stove again, warming up something. When he returns to their nest he offers Tony some water and the pills again. “Take these, you have a fever.”
“Oh, I was wondering why I didn’t mind the cold,” Tony says which is a freaking lie because he’s shivering with the fever and the cold.
“I’m going down to the plane, now. I have to do it if we have any hope of getting you out of here,” Steve says. “Your ankle must be infected or something for you to have a fever. Your head wound looks clean.”
He fingers the large bump on the side of his head and wonders if he’ll die of pressure to the brain. Steve pushes his hand away. Tony sidles up to a sitting position – or he tries and screams out a cry from the agony. Steve slips an arm under his shoulder and hoists him up. “You need to take the boot; you can’t climb down without the boot.” Each word is breathless and panting through the aching in his leg.
Steve bites his lower lip and nods. He knows Tony’s right and so he’s not going to fight it. “Let’s see it then.”
Tony flips the leather coat and the blanket back. He watches as Steve, with obviously compromised hands, tries to unbuckle the boot and pull off the belt. It takes a few tries and he opens it. The boot isn’t moving. He yanks at it and sends Tony into the darkest ring of hell. The world funnels to blackness with licks of red flames, it’s burning up his leg, and he’s arching away – trying to get away from his own fucking leg.
He heaves and he feels his body being turned as he vomits into a plastic bag. Gasping, eyes watering, he looks up to see Steve holding a bag to his mouth. He takes in a steadying breath and says, “Don’t do that again.”
Steve hands him what little water they have left. “I won’t. Your leg must really be bad, Tony.”
“Yeah, I think. I have to get down to the plane now. We need the parts for the beacon.”
He collapses against the rock of the cave and looks up into the black of the cave beyond their little circle of light. “You can’t, you don’t have anything to wear on your feet.”
“I’ll be good. If you can get the heater going, once I get back I can warm up.”
“Get the boots off the Doug.”
“He’s dead, it won’t matter,” Tony says and he doesn’t mean to sound abrasive but shit, Steve is going to fucking lose his feet.
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve says and looks over his shoulder to the world outside, the world growing brighter.
“Here,” Tony says as Steve ties off the plastic bag and tosses it to the side. “Take the gloves and the coat.”
“Tony, I don-.”
“For god’s sake, Steve, take the gloves and the coat,” Tony repeats and feels the heat of not feeling well, the smashed leg, the cracked skull all collide into a kaleidoscope of hell.
Tony yanks the gloves off and gives them to Steve, then he bends over but he can’t reach the jacket and his head does a loop around the room. He moans and lies back.
“Should I stay? The plane might have a beacon in it, they’ll find us eventually.”
“The plane does have a beacon in it, but we need them to find us like yesterday.”
“And we need the heat,” Steve says and pulls on the jacket. He fumbles with the gloves and Tony can only hope the climb down to the plane will be an easy one. He doubts it because of their luck sucks right now.
Steve leans over into the survival kit. He finds a comm link for Tony. “Here, I have one already.” He taps his ear. “We can stay in contact.”
Tony stuffs it in his ear and nods.
“Testing?” Steve pats on his ear.
“Yep, I can hear you just like you're standing right next to me,” Tony says. Steve rolls his eyes. “Get my case, that’ll have everything we need.”
Steve straightens his shoulders, huffs once, and then says, “You need anything before I go?”
“No, just well I might need to take a piss when you get back.”
“Oh joy, something to look forward to,” Steve says and claps his hands. He goes to the mouth of the cave, only once putting a hand to his injured side. Tony hopes it is just reflex and not indicative of a serious injury which Steve hasn’t been truthful about.
At the opening of the cave, he turns and nods once to Tony before he disappears into the white light. Over the comm, he says, “Testing, Tony, are you there?”
“Yep, just waiting for you to return so I can flash my wares.”
“Very nice,” Steve says and then Tony hears a puff of air, a grunt.
“Are you actually climbing?”
“Something like that,” Steve says but Tony can tell it is through gritted teeth.
Tony hears the whistle of the wind and bites at his own lips to keep from quizzing Steve. He shouldn’t interrupt the descent, he has no idea how serious or difficult the climb down is. He wonders how the hell Steve carried him up the side of the mountain, and this gives him pause – it can’t be that bad then – because how the hell would Steve have managed it otherwise?
As he listens, he can count Steve’s breaths; he can hear the groan and scrape against the rock face. “Steve?”
“Are you almost there?”
“Little bit,” Steve replies but doesn’t elaborate.
Tony hates this; he wants to be able to stand up, to check on Steve’s progress. He hears another hitch of breath and then a sound like an intake and then a thump.
“Wait,” Steve says and he can hear several more thuds. “In the plane.”
“Did you have to jump?”
“A little, the plane moved.”
“Don’t worry about it; I’m not sure how much time I have here. The plane doesn’t look like it’s stable.”
He hears Steve blowing repeatedly – must be on his frozen fingertips. He listens to a shaking noise and figures that Steve might be trying to increase the circulation to his fingers by flapping his hands. The next sounds are ones he can only imagine as Steve lifting broken metal, and then he hears the yawn of metal being bend and stressed against itself.
“Your case is trapped, trying to get it out. Do you want me to retrieve the beacon locator from the plane?”
“Can you get to it?”
There’s silence, then a few grumbles as Steve tries to get to it. “Stretching to try and get it.” A grating rasp of cloth against metal, and then a groan of something large – possibly the jet protesting against Steve sounds. “The cockpit is mangled. I can’t get to it.” A clang and a bash of a fist against metal echoes through the link. “Can’t get to it at all.” Steve heaves in a heavy breath of air.
Shit, that means he can’t get a new boot. “How’re your feet?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Steve says. A loud bam shocks Tony and he’s sitting with his hands balled into fists, holding his breath as he hears Steve swear. The scratch of metal against metal reverberates through the line and then Tony hears Steve let out a startled yelp.
“Damn it,” Steve says.
From outside the cave and resonated through the open link, Tony hears a great roar, what can only be the entire twisted plane shifting. It sounds like a freight train attempting to groan to a stop without much luck.
“I can’t-, shit-.” A snap like lightening striking cracks through the link and Steve cries out.
“Shit, Steve,” Tony yells as he scrambles to try and get up, but he can’t his leg punches him down as if someone just put a fist to his lungs. He blinks away the bright white of stars before his eyes. “Steve? Steve, tell me, tell me you’re okay.”
“Need a moment, here,” Steve says and a blast explodes the line. “Okay, okay, I think I got-.”
Abruptly, a boom detonates and he hears a surprised intake of breath and then a distinct exclamation of pain. Tony’s nails wedge into the palms of his hands. He gulps for air and can barely breath, can barely think as he listens, and strains to hear anything from Steve.
“Steve, god, Steve, say something.”
Nothing, no response.
“Jesus Christ, Steve,” Tony says and he finds himself shivering but not from the cold, not from the fever, but the fear of loss. The little lamp next to him sputters and Tony just wishes the damned thing would give up and short out. He doesn’t want to sit here, watching the circle of light from the outside world as he freezes to death. He doesn’t want to be alone. He doesn’t want to think about Steve dead in the bottom of a ravine.
“Steve, please, don’t do this.”
He curls up and reaches over to the lamp, with its yellow glow of light. He balls up as much as he can – since his leg doesn’t move. He places his forehead on the round globe of the lamp, feels what little heat it gives off. His face is chilled, his nose frozen, his fingers hurt. He’s going to die here, and he won’t even have Steve as company.
Cupping his arm over his head, he hides from the world around him.
“Here, give that to me.”
“What?” Tony jerks up and Steve kneels next to him. He has a streak of blood on his face, and his jacket is torn. There’s a smell of burnt fuel and flesh on him and where the sleeve is torn away, Tony can see a blistered burn on Steve’s shoulder and arm.
Steve pries the lamp away from Tony, sets it down, and finally stumbles to the side to sit down. “Here.” He offers the case to Tony and lies back.
Amazed, Tony waves at Steve. He can taste his relief, and he inhales slowly as if it is his only air, and then lets it out. “First, under the covers and get me the heater.”
Steve visibly quakes as he drags the heater to Tony and then huddles under the blanket.
“You’re frozen.” Tony says but doesn’t mention the wounds on Steve, the blood and cuts, the charred skin and blisters. He opens up the case and pulls out the small arc reactor. It isn’t as big as the one he used to wear in his chest, but it’ll do.
He twists off the bottom of the heater and plucks out the batteries. He has some wiring in the case and starts to connect it.
“Hurry,” Steve says and there’s panic lacing his voice.
Steve entire body shakes next to Tony. In the narrow light of the lamp he sees the blue of Steve’s lips, the strange almost ghostly cast to his skin.
“I can’t- I can’t focus, Tony, please.”
He looks down at Steve and realizes the man is no longer shivering, but actually looks twisted in an odd angle. “What the hell is happening?”
“Trying to fight it,” Steve says through clenched teeth. “Get the heat on.”
Tony cups a hand against Steve’s cheek and the bitter ice, the harsh coldness of it stuns him. “Are you, shit. Are you going into stasis?” Tony wrenches his hand away and turns his attention to the damned heater.
As he concentrates on jerry-rigging the wiring from the mini-arc reactor to the heater, Steve writhes around and curses in a long stream which surprises and even shocks Tony. The filth coming out of Captain America’s mouth is a little disturbing.
He finally gets the wires in place and flips the switch. The heater whines and begins to shudder to life, but it fails and stops. Tony has to play with the element and ensure the connections are tight. It sends a small jolt of electricity into his hand and he swears and kisses his nearly numb fingers. It works though and the heater hums to life, and his joy is reminiscent of the first time he said hello to his sorely missed AI.
“Come on, Steve, here you go,” Tony says as he steadies the heater on the floor of the cave. Steve bends toward it, being careful not to block the heat to Tony.
“Can we heat up some water? Maybe something’s in the pack to make coffee or tea.”
“Tea, I think I saw teabags in there.” Steve waits a few minutes and Tony doesn’t prod him. It looks to Tony as if Steve imbibes the heat, as if it is his nourishment more than food or water or air. When he turns Tony can see his cheek pinking up and he sighs long and steady. They averted that it seems.
Finally, Steve grapples to his knees and forces himself over to the survival kit, hauling it closer to them. After he completes this task and falls face first onto the cold ground.
“Hey, hey,” Tony says and he needs Steve to get up. He needs Steve to pull himself together, because he’s not together. The fever burning up his brain and the fire in his leg consume him. He’s not sure how long he’ll be able to keep it together.
“Minute, give me a minute.”
“Okay,” Tony says and places his hand on Steve’s head. “The heat good?”
“Yeah, thawing out here.” His words are muffled by the rock.
“I thought, I thought you’d died.”
“Almost, but I’m like a bad penny, I keep coming back.”
Tony smoothes his hair away from his face and says, “Steve, you are nowhere near a bad penny.”
“You only say that now.”
The heat radiating off the portable warms the air and Tony slumps back against the rock, lightly petting Steve the entire time. He realizes he’s mumbling again and again ‘it’s okay.’
“Plane blew up.” Steve clamors up and rubs at his bruised face. “Couldn’t get anything but the case and this.” He points to the boots on his feet, one is his original and the other is mismatched and probably doesn’t fit him correctly, but still it is a boot.
“I thought you said you couldn’t get to the cockpit.”
“There were some supplies, got the boot there.”
“See,” Tony says. “Things are looking up.”
Steve considers Tony but doesn’t deny him this small mercy of hope. “I’ll dig out those teabags and get some water.”
“No need, got a bottle in my case.” Tony pulls it out and reaches over to give the water bottle to Steve. It strains his leg but it doesn’t hurt as much. He wonders if he should worry about that little fact. He decides not to mention it to Steve.
Steve heats up the water and gives them each a bowl of tea – there are no cups.
“SHIELD really needs to reassess their idea of a survival kit.”
“Agreed.” Steve eases down and closes his eyes. “I’m gonna need to sleep a little. I heal better if I’m able to eat and sleep.”
“We have anything to eat.”
“No, not really just a few granola bars left.”
“Then sleep it is,” Tony says and waits as Steve hunkers down under the blanket but on the far side of the heat. “Are you sure you wouldn’t want-.”
“I can sleep here with your body heat from the fever I’ll be fine.”
“Glad I could oblige.”
“Yeah, thanks, it’s real good of you.”
Tony only rolls his eyes as Steve quiets and closes his eyes. “If you need anything wake me. Don’t let me sleep longer than two hours.”
“Sure, I’m gonna work on the beacon.”
“Great, good,” Steve says.
The next few hours are agonizing. Between the pain in his head, the fever, and the numbness creeping up his leg, Tony can barely keep his eyes open. He tries to focus on the beacon locator and thinks he gets it working only to have it fry out again. He works but his eyes turn bleary in focus and his quaking from the fever overtakes him until he needs to rest, he shakes Steve to wake him.
“Steve, Steve?” Tony says and he knows he’s not going to make it. Maybe he should tell Steve to go, leave him here. “Steve?”
“That time already?” Steve says and blinks awake.
“Yeah, I need to.” He doesn’t finish his sentence, and he doesn’t sink into oblivion but the abyss waiting for him simply swallows him whole and completely. He falls into its cold embrace and welcomes it. He wants to apologize, he wants to say things that mean something, but there’s nothing more to say as the fever and his shattered leg conquer him.
Come on, Tony, I need you to wake up, now.
There is no waking, there is no sleeping. There is only this, the torture of the pain, the pain that splits him in two like claws rendering him. It spears into him, dragging their sharpened tips from his leg, up through his torso, and into his addled brain. He has nothing left but these moments and he cries out.
Tony, you’re burning up. We don’t even need the damned heater now. I’m going to get the boot off of you. I can’t leave it on. I have to see what’s going on. This is gonna hurt.
What Steve doesn’t say to Tony is that it is going to flay him. There are no other words to describe it. It peals away every ounce of strength and fortitude Tony possesses until he’s laid bare. This is worse than terrorists beating him, digging into his chest; this is worse than his own nightmares about portals and crazed gods. It gouges out his soul and shreds it. He becomes the pain and he screams and screeches. He’s sure he finds whatever is within reach and batters at Steve. He knocks him hard in the side of the face with the lamp. He doesn’t care, because he just wants it to end.
He vomits all over himself and the blanket.
He’s not sure what else happens. If he pisses himself, too, because he’s dying and he’s torn asunder and there’s nothing much left but the hollowed out bones of his fragmented skeleton. He imagines them as ash and dust.
Tony, you’ll be okay. I’m climbing up to the plateau to see if I can get to any help. You’ll be okay.
He protests but the words don’t come out of his mouth. He’s dizzy with delirium and he paws at the ragged ground. He cries out but there’s only the dome of darkness around him and the slight whirl of the arc reactor. No one answers him, no one pats his face with melting snow, no one soothes him.
He murmurs, “Steve.”
But there’s no one there to answer.
The dark swirls around him like a figment, like a lover. He welcomes it, invites his lover to him and he whispers words of love, to take his soul and devour it. He wants the darkness to just claim him so he can forget.
“He’s here,” a voice says and he pricks his eyes open and sees a flame of red. “We got you, Stark.”
“No, Steve isn’t here.” The figure moves around him. “We’ll need to rig him up to air lift him out.”
“Where?” He wants to stay awake but the pain is his mistress, a mistress of darkness imprisoning him to pay his dues. “Steve?”
“Tony, Steve isn’t here.”
“Find you?” Tony says as someone else starts buckling him a holster around him.
“I’m giving him some meds, ma’am. We need to stabilize the leg before we move him.” A gray figure hunches over him and threads likes into him as if he is the scarecrow and they are stuffing him and stitching him back up. He laughs, Steve would get that one.
He barely makes her out, but the red shadow is Natasha. “No, we didn’t see Steve, did he survive the plane crash?”
Something happens because the pain becomes distant almost ethereal in its character. He can’t capture it and he doesn’t try to call it back. He thinks the gray figure might be god giving him relief from the pain.
“Yes, yes,” Tony says and then the gurney is lifted and his brain swims in the motion. He closes his eyes. “Find Steve.” He doesn’t think anyone hears him.
He has no idea how they get him out of the cave. Later, they tell him how they cable lifted him out of their little haven. He doesn’t remember any of it. He’s in SHIELD medical for twenty-one days, some of the time he’s unconscious in a stupor of drugs and agony.
The search party finds the remnants of the plane in the ravine below the mountain range. There’s little left of the crew. The conclusion is that Steve and the flight crew died in the crash and the conflagration after the plane tumbled down the mountain side burned the dead beyond recognition, into only ashes.
They tell him he imagined Steve.
Steve died in the plane crash with the rest of the crew.
Tony was the lone survivor.
Pepper comes to the medical bay on the day of his release. She’s been there tirelessly, watching him, guiding him, supporting him. He cannot say enough about her and to her. But she denies him his words when he broaches the subject of Steve.
“He went to go find help. He knew we couldn’t make it. I couldn’t get the beacon locator to work.”
“Where was his shield, Tony?”
She always looks so pristine, in her white blouse with her slim faded jeans on. She’s perfect and he is anything but. “The shield, wouldn’t Captain America have his shield there?”
“He brought it with him, I would suppose. Steve keeps that thing around like a security blanket.” But it occurs to him he never glimpsed the shield, not once while he was in the horrible cave on the side of the mountain. Maybe it was in the dark corner of the cavern. He doesn’t know, he has no idea where the shield was. “It should be in the plane wreckage if he died there, then.”
“They can’t actually get to the wreckage, Tony. You know that, it’s too dangerous. The Quinjet is just bits and pieces. The scan of it just showing what they think is human ash.”
She pats his hand and says, “They’re bringing the wheelchair around.”
“I can use the crutches.”
“You can do what you want, but your leg was fractured in two places and you had an infection that nearly killed you, I’d listen for once in your life, Tony.”
“That sounds like an order, is that an order?” Tony says. Pepper has a unique way of bossing him around. She always makes him feel like he’s making a poor choice.
She only tilts her head and smiles.
“Okay, wheelchair it is.”
He goes home to the Tower and it feels like he’s in some suspended state of animation. He keeps going over the memories of Steve. He argues with Bruce.
“If Steve wasn’t there, how the hell did I get into the cave?”
“The plane must have crashed right there, next to the cave.”
“No, it didn’t. Did you look at the photographs of the site? The burn marks on the mountain side clearly show the plane crashed approximately five meters below and at least ten meters to the left of the cave. How the hell did I get into the cave with this busted leg?”
Bruce only frowns at him and gives him that crooked look.
Natasha comes to visit him – well into his fifth week convalescing at home. She crosses her arms and stares at him. The glower might just kill him where he sits in his workshop. He rigged up a little scooter to get him from place to place.
“I believe you.”
“About what? Alien abduction or the conspiracy going on at SHIELD.”
She raises an eyebrow and nods. But then she adds, “Steve. I think he was there.”
He’s not ready to believe her; maybe Miss Profiler is testing him. “Why?”
“His belt was there.”
“And his boot. Both his belt and his boot were there. Everyone says you just took an extra boot and belt from the jet, but we don’t keep extra belts on the plane.”
“So, he was there.”
“Now he’s gone.” She looks away and a distant almost pained look crosses her face. “He’s dead out there in the mountains.”
“No, he’s in stasis somewhere in the mountains and no one is going to make me believe otherwise.” He sets aside the mechanical leg brace he’s working on. “I saw it, I saw him almost go into stasis. His body is tuned for it.”
“You saw it.” She gages him, tries to figure out if he’s telling the truth or not.
“Yeah, we were almost popsicles and his body started to shut down. The only reason he didn’t go into stasis was that he fought it and I got the heat working again.”
She steps closer to him, but she hasn’t unfolded her arms yet. She doesn’t trust him, yet. “You remember where he might be?”
“Yeah, said he was going to the plateau.”
“Then that’s where I’ll start.”
“That’s where we’ll both start.” She raises an eyebrow at him. “I have a suit of armor that I can use.”
“You don’t have any more suits.”
“You wanna bet?”
She turns on her heel and heads for the door. “Get ready. I’ll be on the roof with the Quinjet in thirty minutes.”
They find him an estimated ten hours walk from the cave. When they search through the mountain range, starting with the plateau, Tony asks Natasha how they located the cave.
“One of the members of Coulson’s team maybe Simmons? I don’t know which one it was. She recalled that you were bringing a small arc reactor to power the laptops in order to retrieve the data from the nonfunctioning computers. She didn’t know why you needed it. But it served as a good enough data source to track the energy signature.”
“Hmm, she seems too smart for SHIELD.” Natasha gives him a wicked look after that remark and he stays silent until they start their trek through the rough terrain.
“I never saw his shield, but we might be able to track it if he had it.” The armor is supporting his still healing leg. They are preparing to land the Quinjet.
“Vibranium – refined – not much of it around here. We could scan for it. The Quinjet should be able to give us something.”
It takes them two days to find a signal and even then it is weak and questionable. But it is enough. They find him that afternoon, curled underneath a grove of pine trees. There’s no ice this time, and the blue of his skin is eerie and almost glows in the dying light of day. With the suit on, it doesn’t take much for Tony to pick up the still figure and load him back into the jet. He retracts the faceplate as Natasha closes up the cargo bay of the jet.
Kneeling down, Tony says, “JARVIS scan for life signs.”
After several minutes JARVIS finally answers. “Sir, I can detect a heartbeat. Extrapolating that Captain Rogers’ heart is beating approximately once every eleven minutes.”
“Ideas about getting him to come around?”
Natasha searches the jet and pulls out the damned stupid survival kit. She unfolds the silver blanket and lays it over the inert form.
“You know, he told me he’s Commander Rogers now,” Tony says as JARVIS clicks off Steve’s physical status.
“Yes, he is.”
“He’s Captain America, everyone knows that.”
“How long did the reports say it took for him to thaw and regain consciousness the first time?”
“Agent Romanoff, according to the official SHIELD reports it took approximately 74 hours before Captain Rogers woke up at SHIELD in New York.”
“Let’s get him home, then,” Tony says.
“Back to DC?” Natasha stands up and goes to pilot the jet.
“No, the Tower,” Tony says and she doesn’t argue which he is mildly grateful for. When they arrive back in New York, Bruce is waiting for them on the landing pad along with Hawkeye. There’s something furious about the look of Barton, and Tony shrugs it off. He’s not ready to deal with anyone’s shit right now.
They move Steve to the main medical bay Tony had installed in the Tower after the Loki business and his participation in the Avengers. He had thought he’d give them all rooms and floors and it would be like a college dorm. Instead, he freaked out and moved out to Malibu only to antagonize a terrorist, have his girlfriend kidnapped and turned into a hot mess, and then blow up all his suits.
He ends up with a number of empty floors and a medical staff that plays games on their StarkPad all day long waiting for something to happen.
“Hop to it,” he calls as they enter the bay with Steve on a gurney.
“Is he dead?” A nurse looks down at the balled up form of Captain America.
“No,” Tony says with a hiss. “Fix him. Now.”
Bruce grabs a hold of Tony still in his suit of armor and hauls him away from the examining table. It surprises Tony that Bruce (as Bruce) has the strength to even budge the suit.
“Where did you find him?”
“In the middle of nowhere. I was right; I have no idea why people continually doubt me.”
“It might have something to do with your track record,” Pepper says as she walks up to them. Her eyes are kind and he doesn’t take her words as an offense.
Tony yanks away from Bruce but a hand on his breast plate stops him. It is Pepper, ever stalwart and steady for him. “Let them do their job.”
She looks up at him and smiles. “I thought you blew all the suits.”
She quirks an eyebrow at him.
“What? This is new, I just built it.”
Patting his shoulder, she gets up on tiptoes, kisses his cheek, and says, “I’m glad you did.” She clicks off and he wonders how she is always around to ground him at the right moment.
Since there is no known or accepted protocol on how to thaw out a super soldier, the clinical geniuses Tony hired decide to follow the same protocol that was used by SHIELD before sans the fake New York recovery room.
Steve wakes up three days later on his bed in the Tower. He glances around until his eyes meet Tony’s.
“I’m touched Captain that you think the first person you would meet in heaven would be me,” Tony says as he stands up from the upholstered chair and sits on the edge of the oversized King bed.
Steve straightens up and rolls his shoulders as he sits next to Tony. “Who said I thought this was heaven.”
“Interesting that you would even give a thought to hell.”
“Interesting that the first thing you think about doing to someone who is recovering from injury is to be obnoxious and annoying.” Steve spreads out his toes on the carpet. “That feels good.”
“The carpet,” Steve says. “I’m assuming I didn’t sleep for another seventy years and you are not a LMD or something equally disturbing.”
“Don’t understand your fetish about the carpet, but, no, you did not sleep another seventy years, only about a month or so. One has to wonder if this is your way of staying young forever, though.”
“Hmm,” Steve says but then lists to the side and drops to the pillow again.
“Hey, hey, are you okay?” Tony stands up. He has the mechanical leg support wrapped around his leg so he doesn’t have to use the damned crutches.
“Just a little cold still,” Steve says and fumbles for the blankets. Tony assists and tugs them up around his shoulders.
“I thought the last time you woke up, you ran through the streets of New York.”
“Hmm, was terrified Hydra or Nazis got me and were playing tricks on me.”
“Oh, adrenaline is your friend,” Tony says.
“Until it’s not,” Steve says and rubs at his face. “I ever tell you how I crashed afterwards? No one knows about that, they all talk about the fake recovery room, and the fact Coulson put boots on me.”
“Yeah, that’s just all kinds of weird. Let’s just be happy he didn’t dress you up in your new uniform.” Tony lays his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Speaking of which, Commander, the new suit is pretty good looking.”
“Thanks,” Steve says. “Don’t know if I like the Commander part.”
Steve shrugs. “Kind of got used to everyone calling me Captain, and you throwing out the Capsicle variant.”
“Formerly known as,” Tony mumbles and then says, “I kind of know what you mean. I’m used to being Iron Man and I keep saying I am but am I really?”
“We’re both having an identity crisis,” Steve says and a tiny quake runs through him.
“You still cold?”
He nods in response. “You know, back in the day, when it was cold we used to do a lot more than snuggling under the covers.”
Even Tony cannot help but blush. “Wh-what?” Because what the hell did he just hear Captain America say?
“By the way, thanks for saving me,” Steve says his mood suddenly quiet and subdued. “I’m assuming you had something to do with it since I woke up here instead of some strange Pakistani camp in the middle of nowhere.”
Tony strokes his shoulder once before he folds his hands in his own lap. “Just returning the favor.”
“Don’t think I really saved you, how did you get back?”
“Now that’s a long story,” Tony says. “And you did save me.”
Steve closes his eyes and quiet descends but the next words he speaks shatter the silence as if it is glass. “I’m afraid, Tony.”
“Afraid of what?”
“The serum,” Steve says and opens his eyes. “I’m grateful every day for it, but I’m frightened of it. I don’t know what it can do, what it will do, how it will affect me long term. No one knows.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Tony says and reaches out to find Steve’s hand. He clasps the long fingers, the strong palm. His hands are cold, frigid.
“It’s like some kind of blessing and curse running through my veins. Bruce doesn’t even understand it.” Steve clutches the blanket under his chin and his whole body quakes once.
“I think we have to go with it’s a good thing, Steve,” Tony says. “Without Captain America, where would we be?”
“I could ask the same thing about Iron Man,” Steve says.
“We’re a pair, aren’t we?” He chuckles. “Hi, I’m the super hero formerly known as Iron Man.” Steve laughs but Tony doesn’t know if he gets the modern reference, though he doesn’t think it is necessary. His focus is to the middle distance and not on Steve’s face. “Part of what this whole fiasco taught me is that I am Iron Man, suit and all, can’t deny it, can’t throw it away, can’t blow it up.”
“Yeah,” Steve says and looks at their entangled hands. Tony thinks he might pull away, but he doesn’t. Instead, Steve says, “The serum was a gift, and I accepted it with my vow to be a good man. I just wonder sometimes if it’s a good thing to do what I’m doing now.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure about them, not yet. It’s been over a year, and I still don’t know.”
“It’ll take time to find your feet, and you haven’t exactly had the time to just, you know, chill.”
“I think I’ve been chilled enough, thank you very much.”
Tony allows himself to laugh. “You are a breath of fresh air, you know that?” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Tony realizes he means them. Talking with Steve is different than talking to anyone he knows or has known. Steve is of his father’s generation, but because Steve didn’t grow up and circulate in the same class as his father he thinks differently than Tony’s father. Steve isn’t sullied by the ugliness of the world, but at the same time he’s worldly because he fought in the largest war the world has ever seen.
Right then, right there, Tony decides. “Take your time, stay here. Figure out what you want to do.”
Steve lies flat on his back, the shivering has stopped and he looks at Tony, meets his gaze. He hasn’t let go of Tony’s hand, yet. “Where’s here?”
“You know that big ugly building in New York?”
“Damn it,” Steve says and colors a delicious shade of blush red.
“Yeah, that one. SHIELD might have had the idea for the Avengers, but we’re not theirs to own or keep. We’re together on this. You don’t have to go back to them. Stay here and we’ll figure out who we want to be.”
“That sounds nice,” Steve looks down at their hands, laced together. “It sounds good.” He lets their fingers part. “For now.”
Tony smiles, stands up, and steps toward the door. “Take your time, Commander.” He reaches for the door handle before Steve stops him.
Tony peers over his shoulder at Steve and replies, “Yes, yes I think it is.” He exits the room and as he walks down the hallway, he briefly looks at his hand, the hand he’d held onto Steve with.
He thinks this might be the opening, the beginning, and he’s willing to take it. He may not know where it is headed, or what it means. What he does know is that he’s discovered the difference between formerly known as and knowing.