“Ready, Cap?” Tony asked. He opened his arms and waited for Steve to step up onto the armor’s boot before wrapping an arm around his waist. Cap nodded, holding on tight at the joint where the chest plate connected with the armor’s neck. Tony took to the sky, headed toward the last reported location of the supervillain they’d been tracking.
It felt natural, the way their bodies fit together.
The new team on the other hand… was a work in progress. Working together after so long apart was strange, but also like… like coming back to himself. Their friendship had always felt natural, when the Avengers were young and a little more naive. Tony would have liked to say they’d grown since the Avengers had disbanded, but a part of him felt like they’d been doing a lot more running away from their problems than learning from them in the past few years.
And Tony had missed Steve. In the few weeks after the breakout at the Raft, he hadn’t really found the words to say as much. Tony glanced furtively down at Steve, careful not to turn his helmet and give himself away. They’d been headed towards...something more than just friends. At least, Tony had thought as much, back before the team had disbanded.
A lot had happened since then, Tony reminded himself, and there was no use fantasizing. He forced himself to focus on the task at hand.
The supervillain the Avengers were responding to was not their usual class of villain, but they’d learned the hard way not to underestimate him. They’d fought with the man once before, and it had gone…less than smoothly.
He called himself Aperture. According to Peter, he was named after a video game. According to Tony, he was a big pain in the ass. He’d somehow managed to get his hands on a device that allowed him to open portals, essentially folding space between any two points and allowing him to pass through at will. Tony was a little iffy on how the machine worked—it was unlike anything that Tony had even seen, at least as far as he could tell from the very limited readings he managed to collect from it. Aperture claimed he’d picked it up from someone called “the Inventor”.
Tony had never heard of him, but he had to respect his handiwork.
The first time they’d attempted to confront him, outside a small jewelry store in Jersey City, Tony had gone for a hard and fast approach, hoping to overwhelm him. It hadn’t worked, and he’d quickly retaliated.
Jan, Peter, and Jessica had been behind him when Aperture had discharged his gun. Tony managed to dodge out of the way, but the rest of them hadn’t been quite as fast to react. The portal enveloped them, and all Tony saw was a long stretch of sand, rock, and shrubs before the spatial fold winked out of existence.
Aperture had beaten a hasty retreat after that, and once he teleported away the interference from his machine cleared up enough for Tony to track the signals from their comm badges…
…to smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.
(The flight to Arizona had taken a couple of hours, pushing max speeds on the Quinjet. They found the three of them dehydrated and sunburnt, but thankfully not much worse for wear.)
Overall, the fight was just embarrassing.
Aperture was inexperienced, but not unskilled. He was obviously well practiced in using his machine, and he was hard to pin down, able to hop from portal to portal to keep just out of their reach.
Usually, sending in the Avengers would be overkill in the case of a jewelry thief, but the teleportation technology could be devastating, if Aperture ever looked past the easy targets to really tap into its potential. The hope was to confiscate—and analyze, reverse-engineer, and build countermeasures for—the technology before that happened.
If Tony had been able to scan the area for where Aperture’s next portal might appear, maybe it could have been easier. Something about the energy emissions from the portal device confused his systems. He’d very nearly been flying blind the last time they’d fought, the feedback whiting out his HUD when the first portal had been opened.
He’d tried to correct for the problem, but even as the Avengers approached the newly reported probable location for Aperture, Tony could tell that his modifications hadn’t been as effective as he’d hoped. The readings he was receiving seemed… distorted, just slightly for now, but enough for him to notice, and the stress on his system only increased as he approached the street.
Well, there was nothing he could do about it anymore, except keep his distance.
He landed on the sidewalk in front of the credit union, and Steve stepped off his boot a moment before they touched down. Carol had beaten them there, dropping Luke and Logan in the middle of the street. The three of them hadn’t come along the first time the team confronted Aperture—they hadn’t thought they would need the whole team to handle him—but with Tony’s sensor problems, they could use all of the muscle they could get on this one.
“Aperture!” Spider-Man called. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” He glanced over his shoulder as he landed on his perch on top of a lamp post. “Well, there are probably other ways, but those are the main ones.”
“And believe me, you are not gonna enjoy the hard way,” Luke added.
“I will,” Jan said. Her suit covered her arms and shoulders, but not her face. Her cheeks were flushed with sunburn, and the way she rolled her her shoulders as she landed betrayed her discomfort.
“No thanks,” Aperture said, opening a portal in the wall beside him, “I think I’ll take a rain chec—”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Carol said, grabbing him by the collar. She threw him back, toward another wall, and for a moment Tony worried that she’d thrown him too hard, but he twisted his arm back and opened another portal, vanishing inside.
Tony hadn’t even had a chance to swear before his view screen went blank. A moment later, something slammed into his side, knocking him over, and sending him tumbling down on the sidewalk.
The view screen cleared again, and Tony managed to see the tail-end of Aperture’s retreat into another portal before it winked shut.
“Damn, this kid’s more squirrely than Spider-Man,” Luke said.
“Yeah, well I—woah”, Peter ducked, just as a portal opened behind him, sending Luke’s fist—originally intended for the barrel of Aperture’s gun—straight over the top of his head. “Watch it,” Peter shouted.
“Watch him,” Jan countered, her eyes still on Aperture. He was doing an impressive job of evading them, and for now they had him angry, relying on his ego to keep him engaged with the team instead of running where they couldn’t follow.
Still, it wouldn’t be long before he realized that while evasion was important, it wouldn’t win him the fight, and that no matter how useful his portal generator was, he wasn’t going to outgun the Avengers. When he figured that out, he’d be gone, and for all they knew, this time it could be for good.
Tony flew up, until the view screen had cleared a little better, and he could actually follow the battle. It looked like it was aerial support for him, today. Tony turned to analyzing Aperture’s gun, and at this distance, the numbers came a little more easily.
“There’s a lag time on the machine,” Tony said into the comms. “About point nine four seconds between when he pulls the trigger and it fires.” He noticed Carol nod, gaze quickly searching for Aperture’s next exit portal. “It’s not much, but it may be enough.”
“I need an opening,” Carol said, voice low to keep Aperture from overhearing.
Almost immediately, Steve pulled back his shield, throwing it against the nearest wall. “I’ll make you one,” he said, as the shield ricocheted through the newly opened portal beside it, and came soaring out the other side. It slammed into the gun, knocking it back, and Steve caught the shield on the rebound.
Aperture pulled the trigger, almost on reflex, and the ground disappeared beneath Steve’s feet. Tony saw Steve reappear just below where he was hovering with the armor, about ten feet above the street. At the same time, he saw Aperture raise the gun again, aiming for Steve mid-freefall this time with intent, and Carol took her opening, firing an energy blast at the machine in the kids hands.
He fired, a portal opening up just a few feet below Steve. At the same time, the blast struck the machine, and it jumped out of Aperture’s hands and into Jan’s waiting ones, a few feet away.
There was a split second where Tony watched Steve disappear from view, with nothing but open sky as a backdrop, and his stomach lurched as he realized that Aperture was just going to drop him from some portal spawned in midair.
Tony couldn’t see how far up the portal actually was, or where it let out. He couldn’t see where it lead. He couldn’t see Steve.
He had no idea how his armor would react to actually going through the portal. It didn’t matter. The sound of his jetboots firing was explosively loud, and the portal winked closed almost the instant he cleared the edge.
And then everything went to hell.
His systems locked out immediately, firing randomly and streaking bright, choppy artifacts across his view screen. He couldn’t see, not like this, and when he tried to lift the faceplate the computer didn’t respond. He cursed and mashed the manual release, and then spun wildly, looking for Steve.
He spotted him in an instant, almost fifty feet below him. The portal must have spat them out over three hundred feet in the air, with nothing but snow and rock and jagged ice to cushion their fall.
Tony could pinpoint the moment that Steve saw him, too, because he reached for him, arm outstretched, trusting Iron Man to catch him. Tony tried to fire his jetboots again, give himself a little more thrust, but only the left boot sputtered, sending him in a wide arc.
It was just enough to get Steve within reach, and he pulled him in, wrapping an arm around his waist while Steve slid both arm’s around Tony’s neck. Tony flung his other hand out, trying to stabilize them as they began to spin in their descent.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Tony muttered, and the boot whined and spat sparks, but sputtered once more, this time in time with the repulsor in his glove, and it was enough to slow them down—just barely, just enough, before the ground came up to meet them.
His faceplate snapped shut in the last moment, finally responding to the computer on its last dregs of power. They hit the ice hard, and his head smacked against the inside of the helmet, sending spots across his vision for a brief moment even with the shock absorbers put in place. The view screen made one last, feeble attempt at scanning the area, fizzled, and finally died out completely, plunging Tony’s vision into darkness.
He lay there for a moment, dazed, and stared up at his blank visor before finally grunting and pushing himself up onto his elbows.
“Are you hurt?” Steve asked… more gasped, really, sounding as though the wind had been knocked out of him.
Tony shook his head, testing it, and decided he wasn’t too dizzy. “Nothing hurt but my ego,” he said.
He should have been able to handle someone like Aperture easily, and yet here he was, oh-for-two and with nothing to show for it. He could only hope that the rest of the Avengers had managed to subdue Aperture after he and Steve had disappeared.
Tony pushed himself up to his knees, gritting his teeth as he willed the joints to cooperate. The suit had been a bit banged up on impact, and he could feel the sharp bite of cold near his shoulder where one of the seals had broken.
It could have been a lot worse. Tony pushed himself painstakingly to his feet and surveyed the surrounding area, craning his head to compensate for his limited vision without the HUD. He saw nothing but rocks and snow as far as he could see. That...wasn’t ideal. He had no idea where they were, not without GPS, but no matter whether they’d been transported north or south, they likely had a long wait before the Avengers could come for them. He turned back to Steve to say as much, and then paused.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked, crouching down next to him. “Steve?”
He was still sitting on the frozen ground, curled over with his ankle pulled in toward his chest. It was hard to tell for sure without taking the boot off—something he was reluctant to do, in weather like this—but his ankle definitely looked swollen.
Tony reached down to prod at the joint as gently as he possibly could, testing the damage, but Steve still hissed through his teeth as though Tony had struck him.
“It’s fine,” Steve said immediately, as though saying it could make it true.
“It’s broken,” Tony said.
“I hit the ice wrong,” Steve admitted. Wrong would be an understatement. Tony leaned back to peer in each direction, searching. The terrain looked rough, but there were mountains ahead, and the likelihood of finding shelter from the wind looked much more promising in that direction than it did anywhere else.
Shit.That just left one more dilemma. It looked to be a little over a mile to where the terrain really started to get rough, and it was hard to say how much further they would have to go before they found anywhere suitable for shelter from the worst of the wind and snow. There was no way that Steve could walk all that way under his own power.
That was on Tony. If he’d been able to adapt his systems to resist the interference from the machine, he could have just flown down and caught Steve well before they hit the ground. He had a suit of armor to protect himself from that little fuck-up, but Steve didn’t, and now Steve was hurt because of it.
Tony reached up to undo the clasps on the side of his helmet. He pried it open, gasping at the sharp bite of the wind before tossing it down into the snow. The air smelled distinctly briny, and Tony wondered if they would reach water, walking in the opposite direction of the mountains. Steve made and affronted noise when he pulled up the clasp on his wrist, and Tony ignored him, proceeding to stripping off his gauntlets.
“Stop,” Steve said. “Don’t take—you’ll be warmer with the armor on.”
“It’s too heavy,” Tony said. The armor wasn’t his absolute heaviest model, but not by much. Walking in it without any power to the control systems would be an effort. He could probably manage if he really pushed himself, depending on how far he needed to walk, and all without taking any of the armor off. The suit was well insulated, and would keep out the cold for some time even without any power. But the extra weight of the armor would be the limit of what he could bear.
He could carry the armor or Steve, not both.
It was an easy choice.
He stripped off one gauntlet, and then the shoulder plating it was attached to, tossing it down into the snow beside his helmet. It was shockingly cold without the armor to cover him, and the business suit he wore underneath the armor when the Avengers responded to Aperture’s latest heist did little to fight off the cold.
At least like this he was wearing shoes. The under-armor would have been much too close to running around in socked feet for his liking.
Tony tossed the last of the armor onto the ground, and then bent to manually lock the suit. He would have felt better about leaving it behind if there had been any power lending to the suit’s security systems. The computers were fried, sure, but taking chances with his armor always made Tony uneasy. This would just have to do, and hopefully the snow would be falling fast enough to bury it, to give it a little added protection by keeping it out of sight until the Avengers came to collect them. It should say safe long enough for Tony to come back for it. If all went well, the Avengers would come to pick them up in a matter of hours, led by the GPS in Steve’s Identicard.
It had to have been something like twenty below outside, and the wind cut into him like a knife, burning his cheeks and drawing a shudder from him that wracked his whole frame. He hunched in on himself, and pulled his jacket a little tighter. Was it just him, or was the wind picking up?
“Okay. On your feet, Avenger,” Tony said. “Well, foot,” he corrected, sliding an arm across Steve’s back and slinging Steve’s arm over his shoulder to help him up.
It wasn’t funny, but Steve smiled at Tony’s feeble attempt at a joke anyway as Tony helped him stand. It felt extremely warm where their bodies touched, in comparison to the outside air, and Tony shivered involuntarily from the chill.
“We need to find shelter before we freeze,” Steve said.
Tony nodded, letting Steve adjust to walking while letting Tony take most of his weight. It was going to be a long, cold walk. “Look on the bright side,” Tony said. “There’s no need to ice your ankle.”
The walk, a little under two miles, had taken hours.
At first, they’d tried to pace themselves. Steve was in pain, Tony was sure, and walking over the rough, icy terrain was taking a lot out of him. The snow was tightly packed, but even the short distance their legs sunk into it was enough to slow them down. Every so often, when Steve got unsettlingly quiet, and Tony could see the strain he was determinedly trying to hide from his expression, Tony forced him to stop and sit for a moment. A few times Steve had lost his footing, or Tony had, and they’d ended up sprawled on the ice together, fat snowflakes desperately clinging to their clothes and hair. Steve had needed to rest then, too, clenching his teeth so hard Tony was sure they should have cracked, before finally the pain subsided long enough for him to climb shakily to his feet again.
His hands were so cold they hurt. The warmth had slowly leached from their limbs, until at some point Tony’s feet had gone completely numb, his legs uncoordinated as he stumbled forward through the snow, dragging Steve along with him and forcing him to keep pace.
Eventually, Steve stopped asking for a minute to rest, and Tony had stopped offering. It was too cold, and the wind was too harsh now, wailing as it whipped snow past them into the air. At some point they’d both realized that if they stopped now, they wouldn’t be able to get up again.
They kept walking.
The chill he’d felt was a bone-deep ache now, wracking their bodies with violent shudders and forcing Tony to clench his fists and will himself to be steady, to keep moving, one foot in front of the other. Tony told himself that when the shudders stopped, then it was time to worry. It was a small comfort.
It was through the hazy blue-grey of twilight that Tony spotted it beyond the swirl of snow and biting winds, hardly much more than a crack in the ice creeping up along the side of a jagged rock face.
“Come on,” Tony urged, pulling Steve forward toward it. He was breathing hard, exhausted from the walk, and each gasp of air burned his lungs from the cold. “We’re almost there.”
Steve hummed in response, but said nothing. He was getting listless, whether from the pain or the cold or both, and Tony wondered briefly just what it would take for Steve to slip into another frozen sleep.
There wasn’t much space inside the crevice, but Tony told himself it was better this way. The space would heat faster if it was small, and the angle of the ice cave where it met the rock face was just-so to block the wind. Mostly.
Tony stumbled about four feet inside before his knees finally gave out of him, sending the both of them sprawling to the floor. Steve grunted, pained, and Tony winced, forcing himself up from the floor.
“Sorry,” Tony murmured. “Sorry, sorry.”
He slid his arm around Steve and helped him a little further inside, away from the cave entrance, and then slid down the wall to sit next to him. The air was still here, the rock face acting as an effective windbreak, and in comparison to the harsh cold outside, Tony felt almost warm. Tony closed his eyes and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Tony was exhausted, every part of him ached, and even the chill of the ground beneath him couldn’t keep him awake.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Steve said, the words sounding somewhat slurred from the cold.
“I’m not,” Tony mumbled. “I’m just...resting my eyes.”
“Tony,” Steve said again, and this time he shook him, sounding slightly alarmed.
“Okay, okay,” Tony said, but it took him another couple of seconds to build up the willpower to open his eyes. He sat up, tucking his hands under his arms, because the temptation to lean back against the wall and rest was too much. His fingers had long since gone numb, and the skin was an angry red all the way up his wrists. None of the digits had turned black and fallen off, though, even though they felt like they wanted to, so he counted that was a win.
Tony cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew on them, trying to warm them up, but resisted the urge to rub them together.
“How long do you think we’re stuck here?” Steve asked.
“I don’t know,” Tony said. The sky had cleared during the last hour or so of their walk, until the only snow in the air were loosely drifted flakes being whipped up by the wind. The darker it had become the more clearly he could see the stars. The constellations were unfamiliar, and he’d realized with some disappointment that they belonged to the Southern Hemisphere. Wherever they were was much closer to Antarctica than the Arctic Circle. It was a long flight to make, even in the Quinjet. “Maybe an hour. Maybe overnight.”
“Come here,” Steve said.
“What?” Tony asked, not fully following what Steve wanted from him. There was only so much room in the cave to begin with.
“It’s cold,” Steve said plainly, like Tony might not have noticed. “We’ll freeze if we don’t do something about it. So come here.”
Tony sighed but scooted a little closer, and Steve tugged on his sleeve, urging him to slide over until he was sitting flush against Steve’s side. Tony drew one knee to his chest, and Steve took the opportunity to use Tony’s other leg as a convenient footrest to elevate his ankle with.
Steve cupped Tony’s hands between his own. His hands looked to be in better shape than Tony’s were, or at least, the skin wasn’t nearly as red and irritated. He brought their hands up to his lips, and his breath felt incredibly hot on Tony’s skin as he tried to warm their hands as Tony had done.
Tony was suddenly grateful that his ears were already bright red from the cold, because if they hadn’t been he was sure they would be now.
“Better?” Steve asked. He didn’t let go of Tony’s hands, his touch feather-light on his skin.
“Yeah,” Tony said. He looked at Steve, trying to read him, but Steve only smiled back warmly, glancing back down to where their hands were clasped together.
“Thank you for catching me,” Steve said after a long moment.
“It’s no problem, Cap,” Tony said, glancing away. He shifted a little uncomfortably at the sincerity in his voice. Tony resisted the urge to point out that he definitely could have done better, and Steve had the broken ankle to show for it. Steve, always seeming to be able to read his thoughts, dipped his head to meet Tony’s gaze and draw his attention back up.
“I mean it,” Steve said seriously. “I know it hasn’t...seemed like it, lately. But I just want you to know that...that you’re one of my oldest friends, my best friends, and...”
He trailed off for a moment, and then sighed. “We never should have disbanded the Avengers,” Steve said after a moment.
Tony nodded, not at all caught off guard by the topic change. He’d been thinking as much for a long time. They’d let their grief and their loss take and take, and they hadn’t been ready, then, to fight to keep what they still had. They should have stuck together then, when things had gotten hard. Supported each other instead of cutting and running. Maybe then…well. Things could have been different. “It’s been hard, since then, but. This feels right. And I know—”
He leaned forward, just enough that Tony could feel his breath feather across his lips in warm puffs. “—I can always count on you to catch me when I fall.”
Tony was still processing this, when Steve leaned in to kiss him. Their noses bumped, and Tony’s mind stalled, but his hands had no such qualms, instantly rising to settle uncertainly, first against Steve chest, and then eventually sliding up his neck and into his hair.
Steve’s skin was warm against his fingers, even after so long out in the cold, and Tony could feel a comfortable flush rising up his neck and warming the tips of his ears. Steve’s eyes were heavy-lidded and half closed, his cheeks flushed with the cold, and it hit Tony all at once, looking at him, just how long he’d wanted this. He slid his fingers beneath the collar of Steve’s uniform, and Steve let out a little gasp at the cold, but Tony only hauled him closer.
Steve tilted his head a little, deepening the kiss, and all Tony could focus on was the softness of his lips, the rasp of stubble against his cheek, the confidence in his stance. The clear message that this was what Steve wanted as well, and that he was not going to back down or run away again.
Tony broke away first, pressed his nose into Steve’s neck and ignored the fondly exasperated hiss that Steve let out at the icy cold of it against his skin.
“Long overdue,” Steve said with finality, and Tony found himself grinning, overcome by the image of Steve smiling at him, hair mussed and lips red and cheeks flushed, leaning in for another kiss, this time a little more forceful.
“I’ll be there,” Tony promised. “To catch you. I’ll be there.”