Steve knew it was all on him.
Without thinking it through, he had commandeered a motorcycle and sped after the fleeing drones on the road leading out of the AIM base. His shield sliced through the three drones, stopping them dead. But then his motorcycle hit a chunk of ice, tossing Steve down a snowy embankment. So it was his own fault, and now he was stuck in a Siberian forest in the depths of winter, with evening coming on rapidly.
He sighed. At least the crash left him with only minor bruises and abrasions. He saw that his uniform had torn in several spots, however, so he didn’t have the protection that the high-tech fabrics and leather usually gave him. That was not good.
What was worse -- he couldn’t raise any of the team members on the comms. They had probably been damaged at the end of his drone hunt as he rolled down the embankment. He looked up at the large pine trees, their snow coated branches interwoven and blocking the twilit sky, and shivered.
He knew someone from the team would find him, for certain. But the real question was when. And in what condition they would find him.
He took stock of what he had with him. Two high energy protein bars, a key, a USB drive, a compass, and a few paper clips. He briefly wondered why he had paper clips in one of his belt pouches. What he wouldn’t give for a magnesium bar right now to start a fire. He usually had one with him, but apparently he hadn’t restocked.
First decision: fire or shelter. Either task would eat up precious energy and time. He had already decided against climbing the embankment to salvage something from the motorcycle. By then he’d have lost the light he needed. He could always come back to it in the morning if he hadn’t been picked up.
One good thing was the number of broken branches on the ground knocked down by heavy snow. He started to gather a pile. At least the activity was keeping him warm. And with the serum, he could withstand very cold temperatures easily enough.
As he gathered the branches, Steve reflected unhappily on Tony’s reaction. He was never going to let him live this one down. He could picture Tony dissolving into helpless laughter the next time Steve gave the team a don’t-go-off-on-your-own-you-will-get-into-trouble lecture.
But Steve knew he could take risks because he knew the limits of his body and his mind. He had an unshakable confidence in his ability to get himself out any situation he got into. And he trusted his team to help out when needed. For the most part, he knew his veteran teammates could handle themselves. But he wanted everyone to steer clear of life or death situations, much like the one he was in now.
Right. Tony wasn’t going to let him off easy this time.
Steve’s survival training and muscle memory kicked in as he stacked the branches into some semblance of a shelter. He could work now on a fire.
Except he noticed a slight, unwarranted sluggishness in his legs. Perhaps fatigue was finally catching up to him. He was starving. The protein bars hadn’t made a dent in his hunger. But fire would help, and he could also set a trap or two.
The sharp cold evening air burned his lungs as he breathed it in. He felt uneasy, a sensation of dread curling in his stomach. A memory of a similar fierce cold surfaced and he didn’t like reliving that memory at all.
He bent to work at starting a fire. But the wood proved to be damp, and he didn’t have a reliable method for striking a spark. Now it was dark, and growing steadily colder. He curled up under his pine bough shelter and hoped that his team would find him sooner than later. Tony, in particular, would be frantic with worry.
But in the back of his mind, his dread of the cold lingered.
There was a time he hadn’t given any thought to snow or the cold. He’d fought on the eastern front in the frigid Russian winters clad in his uniform and a leather jacket, surrounded by men fueled by their deep hatred for Hydra. They’d pass around home brewed vodka that stung his throat and slap him on the back, saying it would give him hair on his chest. Then they would head out into the snow and hunt down Hydra and Nazis.
He never thought about the cold then. Not like now -- when the glacial cold reminded him of another disaster and the ice. And the fear sank deeper into his mind.
Steve couldn’t afford to show fear. A leader had to inspire confidence in his team, and fear undermined the faith the team needed to have in him when he asked them to do the impossible. Sure, it made him come off as distant. But he had to be strong for those who needed his strength.
Tony knew how he felt about the cold. On a date early in their relationship, they had gone up to the landing deck of the tower and sat watching the stars and the sparkling cityscape. As Tony leaned against Steve’s shoulder, they talked long into the night about their fears and hopes. And Steve had confessed his long-held secret fear about cold and ice. He felt the warm pressure of Tony’s hand in his as Tony swore to him it would never happen again.
During survival training, students were reminded constantly about hypothermia. Steve never worried about that; instead, he worried about hibernation, stasis, coma and suspended animation. Should his internal temperature drop, he wasn’t going to get hypothermia. But he didn’t want to fall asleep and not wake up for another seventy years, losing everyone he loved all over again.
He couldn’t face that living nightmare again. Not when he had Tony.
He wondered what Tony was doing now. He longed to be at home in his bed, under the covers, his arm around Tony’s waist, listening to the rhythm of Tony’s breathing.
Steve’s body shivered in the icy cold. Not a good sign, his body was trying anything to warm up. He could stand up and start pacing or running. Anything to get warm and stay warm.
But he didn’t want to move, and his eyes kept closing and he couldn’t open them.
He startled himself awake. He knew his team was coming. Tony wouldn’t let them rest until they had retrieved Steve.
Again, he began to drift away, wondering if he would get to hold Tony again.
Darkness soon took him.
Steve gradually woke to the persistent beeps and chirps of medical equipment. He kept his eyes closed, irrationally afraid of what he would see. Or rather, what he might not.
His logical mind knew that he had been rescued. But the ice felt so deep in his bones, that he couldn’t think straight.
Until he heard Tony gasp and grab his hand. “Steve, baby, it’s okay, wake up, please,” he pleaded.
Hesitantly, Steve opened his eyes. Eyes red-rimmed from fatigue, his dark hair wild, Tony leaned over and hugged him, holding Steve as tightly as he could, as if he could will the ice from Steve’s blood and bones.
“Tony,” Steve breathed out, with all the gratitude he could muster. “You got me.”
“You have no idea, damn it.” Tony hit Steve’s arm. “We find you seven hours later, and you’ve been hibernating, or in a coma, or whatever that freaky thing is for the last two days.”
“I shouldn’t have gone --”
“No, you shouldn’t have.” Tony squeezed Steve again. “Don’t do that again, ever,” he begged. “I’ve been worried sick.”
Later, Steve would later hear all about how Tony drove the team crazy as he frantically searched for Steve, how upset he was when they found the crashed motorcycle, and how he moved heaven and earth to get Steve the best possible medical attention.
But right now, he only wanted to bask in the love and warmth radiating from Tony, who refused to let go of his hand.