The snow was piled up to his knees, up to his waist in some places, and Tony had to pick his way painfully through the drifts. Tony grabbed every piece of wood he came across, wet or dry, from the ground and pried off of old withered looking saplings, because it was true that he needed to find shelter but that wasn’t going to do him a whole lot of good if he couldn’t keep warm once he’d found it. The wind was roaring around him, the cold and the snow stinging his face and harsh on his lungs.
He’d long ago lost sensation in his fingers, even through the thick thermal gloves his entire expedition team had been outfitted with. The area around the metal repulsor pump had started to ache even before he’d been separated from Rhodey and the others, but that ache had quickly turned to a sharp, burning pain in his chest.
Tony was certain that it couldn’t be a good sign that he no longer felt the area at all, but he couldn’t stop to think about it. They hadn’t meant to be out in the cold this long—hell, they’d originally planned to be back in New York by this time yesterday! But as much as they’d tried to even find the guide they’d been told to meet, let alone the relic that was supposedly hidden up here in the ice, they’d had absolutely no luck.
Tony had offered to try one more time, even though they were all convinced by now that there was no relic here and no story for Marvels worth publishing. That was when the storm rolled in, the blizzard so thick that the snow seemed to be coming from below as well as above.
He’d known he was in trouble the moment the wind started to pick up, and although he’d tried to head back to the zeppelin before the storm hit full-force, there hadn’t been enough time. Now he was lost, and while his survival expertise tended toward the supernatural rather than the natural, it didn’t take a genius to know that if he didn’t find shelter, and soon, he may never find his way back.
In this storm, Tony could be ten feet away from the zeppelin, Rhodey shouting directly in his ear, and he wouldn’t even know it.
A dark shadow off to his right drew his attention, and Tony headed toward it, praying for the zeppelin. Once he was close enough to see past the whirling snow, he realized that the dark shape was actually the jagged mouth of an ice cave, and he let out a gusty sigh of relief as he stumbled inside.
With numb fingers Tony managed to stack the wood that was dry enough to burn, as far away from the entrance as the cave would allow. It took three matches and a handful of pocket lint before he managed to get it lit, and Tony had enough foresight to stack the soaked-through wood that he’d collected around the fire to dry out, before he unpacked the bedroll (and honestly, Tony was going to kiss Jarvis right on the mouth for insisting he bring all this crap along on what was supposed to be a quick trip).
The cave was small, icy and dark, but the fire was warm, and Tony had barely crawled inside before he was unconscious.
When Tony opened his eyes again, they settled on another person, a few feet away, toward the back of the little cave. It took him a moment to realize what it was he was staring at, and when he did, he screamed.
Tony sat bolt upright, and the cold struck him all at once, but he didn’t care because there was a body in this cave, and he knew that face. Hell, all of America had known that face at one point.
That was Captain America.
Captain America, in the flesh. Tony could hardly believe it, and he was already moving toward the him for a better look before the thought had even fully registered that he may have just stumbled across the body of one of America’s most well-known war heroes, almost five years after his disappearance.
Despite working toward a common goal, Tony had never actually met Captain America in person, even at the height of the war when Tony was coordinating more and more with the military. Unlike Captain America he wasn’t a soldier, and his contribution to the war had been almost entirely targeted attacks wherever the intelligence Pepper managed to gather on Zemo pointed him next.
Still, he admired the man, and he’d been as shocked as the rest of the country to learn that he was MIA, presumed killed in the line of duty. It had happened only weeks before the end of the war, and it hadn’t seemed right that he didn’t live to see peace, especially after all he’s sacrificed to guarantee the rest of them would.
And now here Tony was, staring down at confirmation for something that the majority of the country had already accepted. Captain America was dead.
There was a puddle growing on the ground at Tony’s feet, so Tony could only assume that Captain America had been encased in ice. The fire and the abrupt rise in the cave’s temperature must have thawed the ice around the body. Maybe it had already been mostly freed, and Tony had simply been too exhausted to notice.
Whatever the case, Tony wasn’t particularly looking forward to the idea of dragging a corpse along with him in the snow. Still, Captain America was a hero, the hero, and he deserved better than to stay frozen and forgotten in a glacier forever. Besides, Tony thought as he climbed around the fire toward him, it would make for an interesting issue of Marvels. Not their usual tone, for sure, and they would have to make sure that it stayed respectful, but—
Tony grabbed him under the arms, ready to pull him free, and immediately froze. A flutter of movement behind the eyelids, so slight that Tony was almost ready to convince himself he was just seeing things—he was, after all, likely suffering from mild hypothermia, not to mention that he was sharing his shelter with the frozen remains of a dead war hero. That alone was bound to mess with his head.
Tony pulled off a glove, wincing a little as his fingers creaked in the cold, and pressed two fingers against Captain America’s exposed neck, just to reassure himself that he was crazy. There was no heartbeat, no steady thrum beneath his fingers, and Tony wasn’t sure whether he should be relieved or not.
He was just about to pull away again when he felt it, feather light beneath his fingertips.
“Oh, my God,” Tony said when it came again, much too slow for a healthy heartbeat, but too regular to be anything but a heartbeat. Tony had dragged him closer to the fire before he even realized what he was doing—the man must be pushing two hundred and fifty pounds in full armor, and it was about as much effort as he’d expected it to be—and immediately he started to strip away the soaked and frozen pieces of body armor.
Tony wasn’t surprised to see that the uniform was soaked through completely, the fabric clinging frustratingly to skin. Tony could barely feel his fingers, making the job all the more difficult, especially with Captain America stiff and entirely unhelpful, but eventually Tony managed to bundle him into the bedroll that Tony had been occupying earlier.
He looked, if Tony being was completely honest, like a corpse wrapped in a blanket. Tony couldn’t even see him breathing—not even the plume of frozen breath that he might have seen in the cold—and Tony had experienced first-hand just how icy the captain’s skin had been beneath his fingertips.
Tony had no idea how Captain America could have survived being frozen for all this time, other than maybe something involving the serum that the army had used to turn him into the peak of human perfection.
Whatever the case, his first priority was to get him warm again. The fire was going to be a big help for that, and Tony immediately moved to add more wood, coaxing it back from the near-dead. His stockpile of fuel for the fire wouldn’t last him much longer, and if the storm didn’t break soon, Tony wasn’t sure that they would be getting any more.
Tony hesitated. Captain America was alive, had even shown signs of waking, but that may not be the case for long, especially if Tony didn’t manage to get him warm again. The only problem was that, while blankets and insulation were helpful, they wouldn’t do a lot for someone who had (presumably) spent the last five years encased in ice, with no body heat of his own to really make use of them.
Captain America might freeze to death—again. Hell, Tony might freeze to death, with Captain America all bundled up in his winter weather gear, leaving nothing to spare for him, and then who would be there to help the Captain back to the zeppelin?
Mind made, Tony reached down to pull off his coat, and then his shirt, fumbling open the buttons with clumsy, frozen hands. He shucked his pants next, already aching from the cold bite against his skin, and piled the clothes inside the sleeping bag for extra insulation. Then he climbed into the blankets beside Captain America.
It was a little better, though not by much, as he’d simply traded the frigid winter air for Captain America’s literally frozen skin. Still, Tony wrapped an arm around him, pressing closer to share body heat, and tried not to think about how uncomfortable this situation was. It was funny—in any other circumstance, the idea of sharing a bed with someone as attractive as Captain America was about the furthest possible thing from uncomfortable.
Then again, Tony’s bed partners were always awake, eager, and not frozen half to death in the snow, so it was a little difficult to think of it in any context other than survival. Of course, Cap may not see it that way, and Tony wasn’t looking forward to how immensely awkward the explanation was going to be if Captain America decided to take issue when he woke. If he woke.
Honestly, Tony would take uncomfortable conversations any day if it meant that this had worked—would work—and get Cap back on his feet.
Tony blinked, squinting confusedly into the dim light cast by the dying fire and wondering what had woken him.
He’d fallen asleep. The realization at how terribly reckless and idiotic that had been, to fall asleep when he was potentially hypothermic, shocked him fully awake. God, Jarvis would kill him. But...he was warm, at least, much warmer than he could have expected given the circumstances, and suddenly he realized what must have awakened him.
“Cap?” Tony asked cautiously. It seemed to take an enormous effort just for him to turn his head toward Tony, but Cap looked at him, squinting as though even the dying firelight was too bright to take in all at once. He coughed, sounding as though he’d just swallowed a lungful of water (and maybe he had; maybe the ice in his lungs was finally beginning to thaw), and pushed half-heartedly at the blanket, looking as though he couldn’t figure out what it was or how to escape from it.
“Who—” Cap said weakly. “Where?” He was obviously confused, delirious even, and Tony put out a hand to soothe him.
“Relax,” Tony said. He put a hand on Cap’s shoulder, what he meant to simply be a friendly gesture, but Cap immediately turned into the touch, seeking warmth. “You’re freezing. I’m trying to get you warm again.”
“S’ cold,” he mumbled, eyes drooping again. Tony leaned forward, cupping his face between his hands.
“Hang on, Cap. Stay with me. Don’t go back to sleep,” Tony urged, and although he mumbled something, leaning into Tony’s palm. “Captain,” he said more forcefully, and this time, his eyes slotted open again, just barely. “Stay awake. Tell me… tell me the last time you remember.”
He was quiet for a very long time, and Tony was almost beginning to wonder if it was a wasted effort, when Cap finally responded.
“There was.. a missile,” he said.
“Good,” Tony prompted, when more wasn’t forthcoming. “What else?”
“Bucky,” he said suddenly, wide eyes and an uncoordinated jerk alerting Tony to his distress. Luckily, there wasn’t a person in America who couldn’t placate him, based on the extent to which the news reported on Captain America’s (apparently greatly over-exaggerated) death. Tony could probably list the Howling Commando’s favorite colors, let alone the events that had resulted in his disappearance.
“He’s alive,” Tony assured him immediately. He didn’t mention any details, because now was not the time or the place to tell him the extent of the injuries his friend had suffered. It had seemed a good lot better than the death certificate Captain America got at the time, but it would be a lot to take in for anyone. Tony had the feeling that a lot of people were going to be very happy when this news broke.
God, if Pepper didn’t have this story written and ready for print by the time they landed in New York, she was fired.
Beside him, Captain America groaned, drawing his attention back, and Tony winced sympathetically. Tony had experienced some (admittedly mild) frostbite in his life, and it hadn’t been comfortable. He could only imagine how the captain was feeling now that he was starting to become a little more lucid, and most likely, if Tony’s attempts at warming him were at all a success, a little less numb. Tony ignored the protest when he shuffled back to put some space between them, and propped himself up on one elbow.
“How are you feeling?” Tony asked. Probably terrible, if the looks of him were anything to go by. His skin was still unnervingly pale, but the color was just starting to creep back into his complexion. “Can you remember your name? Who’s the president?” Technically, he wasn’t still the president, but Tony knew what answer to expect, so—
“Steve,” he croaked, and then, clearing his throat, “Steve Rogers.” Tony’s brain stalled mid-sentence, not immediately comprehending, before he remembered that he hadn’t actually known Cap’s real name, but he probably shouldn’t have expected him to answer with “Captain America”.
“Well, Steve,” Tony said. “You seem surprisingly okay with this.” He motioned between them, pointing out the distinct lack of clothing. He was going for light hearted, but Steve didn’t respond beyond a short shrug.
“Used to it. Close quarters, and—” he trailed off, and Tony had already filled in what he was about to say, probably something like it’s basic survival training or there’s no room for that in the army when he finally managed to finish his thought.
“You’re not half bad, looks-wise,” Steve finished.
Well that was—unexpected.
Steve squinted at him after that admission, and it was like he was looking at him for the first time. Tony could practically see the gears turning in his head.
“You’re—Tony Stark,” he said, sounding, dare Tony say it, a little star struck.
Tony was surprised. “You read Marvels?”
“Used to,” Cap said. “Before… what happened?”
“You were telling me a little about it. Do you remember?” Tony asked.
“Only… pieces,” Steve replied, looking strained. He shifted uncomfortably, though Tony wasn’t sure if it was from the pain or the cold.
“Well, the important part is that you did it. That missile never made it farther than a mile, but…” Tony hesitated, uncertain how much he should reveal, “you went missing. Everyone thought you were dead.”
“And you came looking for me?” Steve asked.
He would have, in a heartbeat, had he had the slightest notion that Captain America might be alive. The army had looked him for weeks after he’d disappeared. And when the war was finally over, they’d looked again: this time for a body to bury.
“Actually, we were here looking for a relic, but that didn’t pan out,” he corrected. Tony shrugged. Steve didn’t look too offended by being second-looks to an artifact, so he continued. “Happens a lot more often than we let on in the magazine. Lucky for you, I got caught in the blizzard.” Tony gestured toward the entrance to the cave. The wind was still howling, the storm showing no sign of breaking, and Tony wondered how much longer they would be stuck here.
Steve puzzled that for a long moment, mind obviously not quite running on full capacity.
“A relic...” he said finally, “I thought Marvels was on hold so you could contribute to the war effort.” He sounded like he was quoting something, almost mocking, and Tony could tell what he’d thought of that decision.
“It was,” Tony said. He could ease him into the idea, but Tony knew that it would be better, in the long run, if he ripped off the proverbial bandage quick. “The War’s over.”
“What?” Steve started to sit up, “It’s not—”
“It is,” Tony insisted, and then pressed him back into the blankets. “Relax. I know... you won’t want to believe me, but it’s true.” He squeeze Steve’s shoulder reassuringly, and looked him in the eye. Captain America deserved that much, at least. “You’ve been missing for five years.”
“What? He kicked back against Tony, trying to untangle himself. He struggled with the sleeping bag for a moment, then finally managed to get it unzipped. He stumbled to his feet, and Tony bit back a curse as the warm air immediately leached out of the blankets and into the room. Cap pushed himself to his feet and staggered toward the cave entrance.
Tony shuddered at the cold and followed him. Pants. Why had he taken his pants off? It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he was severely regretting it. That’s what he got for trying to be nice, and, you know, for not leaving Captain America to freeze or thaw in his own time.
“Cap,” Tony called after him. “Steve,” he tried, and that got Steve to respond. He stopped, staring out into the storm as though the snow could tell him how much time had passed.
“I don’t know where you think you’re going,” Tony said. “You can’t go out there; not in the middle of a storm.” He’d end up frozen all over again, and this time he may never be found.
Steve didn’t say anything, just continued to stare out at the white-out beyond the cave walls. He was shivering, and Tony could see how pale his skin still was, even in the dim light by the cave entrance. “I don’t know how to prove it to you,” Tony added. “So you’ll just...have to take my word for it, I guess.”
“I believe you,” Steve said.
“Come back to the fire,” Tony said. “Before you freeze.”
Steve didn’t move. “Did.. did we…”
“We won,” Tony said, anticipating the question. He hesitated, considered saying not more, before adding. “At a cost.”
Steve paused for a long moment, but he didn’t question further, only nodded shakily, stepping back inside. He followed Tony back to where he’d set up their little shelter, far away from the drafty cave opening. Steve stared at the sleeping bag for a moment before settling down on top of it. Tony tossed a few more branches onto the fire, shuffling his feet awkwardly in an attempt to warm himself up.
“I’m sorry about your clothes,” Tony said. “They were wet.”
This had been less awkward when Captain America had been unconscious, Tony decided. Much less awkward. When he was still frozen, Tony could convince himself that divesting a national icon of his pants was for the Greater Good.
Now he just felt like a lecher.
“So!” Tony said a little too brightly, picking his own pants up roughly from where he’d abandoned them on the bedspread and shuffling into them, “You read Marvels?”
It was a lame attempt to start a conversation, but Steve looked very much like he could use a distraction, and it was the first thing to come to Tony’s mind. Tony grabbed his undershirt and pulled it over his head, to cover the metal of the repulsor pump, and then picked his dress shirt up to offer it to Steve.
Steve looked like he was considering refusing the offer, and then a full-body shudder racked his frame. He grudgingly accepted the offered shirt, and it fit a little too tightly, the sleeves a little strained, but at least he was no longer bare-chested. Tony patted the bed roll next to where he was sitting, encouraging Steve, who had picked the furthest possible seat from him, to scoot closer to the fire.
“I’ve been reading for years,” Steve said. “Sometimes the Magazines came with the ration packs. Re-prints, at least in the months after you put everything on hold for the war, but… I loved those stories,” Steve said simply.
“Well I guess today’s your lucky day, then,” Tony said, pulling the covers up over their shoulders. Steve was looking a little better now, a little less like he had one foot in the grave, but he still had a sad look about him, haunting his expression. “Because it looks to me like you’re going to be the headline for this one.”
Steve smiled a little, despite everything.
“Of course,” Tony said. “National icon, back from the dead. That’s a way better find than some dumb old relic. We’re going to sell so many issues, I might just have to make you a permanent figure.”
Tony had meant it as a joke. He hadn’t expected Steve to shrug noncommittally.
“I’ll think about it,” he replied, and now Tony was thinking about it. Steve looked troubled, understandably, and Tony let him work it out in his own mind without prodding. “I never really put any thought into what I’d do once it was over,” Steve admitted. “Never really thought I’d be around to see the end of it.”
“Well, technically speaking... you weren’t,” Tony pointed out. He realized the moment the words left his mouth that that had probably been the wrong thing to say, and Steve fell quiet again.
“You’re probably going to have to tone down the nudity in this one,” Steve said after a moment, and he sounded a little sullen. Tony burst out laughing.
“It might be best to keep that between us,” Tony said sagely. He’d had a few raunchy issues of Marvels, sure, and they’d sold fairly well. It was even a sort of...public secret, that Tony entertained and equal share of gentlemen and lady callers. Still, something told him that the general public just wasn’t ready for Tony’s scantily-clad adventures with Captain America.
“Between us,” Steve repeated, like he was testing the words on his tongue. The innuendo in his tone was as clear as day, and Tony nearly choked in surprise. “I think...I’d like that.”