Doom was already halfway through the ritual when they arrived. He stood in the center of a giant ring of metal, its dark surface etched with runes that glowed with a sullen red light.
"We must not let him complete the ritual," Thor announced solemnly, tightening his grip on Mjolnir, as Iron Man piloted the quinjet to an uneasy landing beside a vast, snowy ravine. "If he succeeds, he will gain power enough to rival a god."
"I know," Steve muttered. As if he needed to be reminded of the consequences; if Doom's supernatural power-grab were successful, he would become nearly unstoppable, and the first target on his list, after the Fantastic Four, would be one of the three countries unfortunate enough to border Latveria. Probably Transia. Then Poland. Then Hungary. He planned to build himself a power base in Eastern Europe to rival the one the Soviet Union had once had, and that was the last thing anyone wanted.
"If we blow up the containment field he plans to use to trap that thing, his entire plan falls apart," Iron Man pointed out. He shut the quinjet's engine off, and then fiddled with the panel of buttons that turned the cloaking device on. "Everybody out of the car," he said. "It's time to go save the world."
"Again," Steve added.
Then he, Iron Man – it still felt odd to think of him as Tony – Thor, and Jan piled out of the quinjet into the nearly knee-deep snow, and straight into a small army of Doombots.
Those definitely hadn't been visible before; it looked as if Doom had cloaking technology, too.
Well, Steve thought philosophically, as he slammed the edge of his shield into a Doombot's shoulder, severing its arm with a groan of tortured metal, they hadn't expected that getting close to Doom would be easy.
They didn't need to capture him or permanently defeat him – they just needed to stop him from opening a portal to a hell dimension and summoning and enslaving his own personal source of demonic power.
Jan hit a Doombot in the face with a blast of biochemical energy that did little more than make it angry, then swooped up to hover just out of its reach. The Doombot grabbed for her, missing by inches, and Steve's shield took its head off while it was still distracted.
Iron Man's repulsor rays and Thor's hammer were making short work of most of the other Doombots, but without a third heavyweight on the team it was slower going that it ought to have been – then it would have been, if Hank hadn't-
Steve forced the thought out of his head and threw all of his frustration and helpless fury into his next punch.
There was a flash of bright light and an ear shattering boom from his left as a Doombot exploded. Chunks of snow came bouncing down from further up the slope, dislodged by the vibrations of the explosion, and Steve put up his shield to keep one of them from hitting him in the face. "Careful, Iron Man. The last thing we want is an avalanche."
"It would stop Doom," Jan pointed out, as she dove for the small panel on a Doombot's upper back that would allow her to access its internal wiring. Moments later, she had it open and was ripping connections out by the tiny handful.
Doom seemed oblivious to the battle raging just a few dozen yards away from him, his arms upraised and his head tilted back as he shouted in a language Steve assumed was either Old Latverian, or something else darker and less savory.
He threw his shield ahead of him, letting it clear a path for him through the Doombots, and charged at their master. The Doombots were just a distraction; Doom was the--
The invisible forcefield was approximately six feet away from Doom, and running full-tilt into it was like colliding with solid rock. Steve rebounded back from it, twisting in midair and catching himself on his hands and one knee, saved from falling on his ass in the snow by super-soldier reflexes. "Give up now, Doom" he advised. "You don't want to do this. Deals with demons never work out well for the people who make them."
Not that that was actually news to Doom, or likely to make much of an impression. If Doom cared about the state of his immortal soul, he would never have done most of the things he kept inexplicably getting away with, and everyone's lives would be a lot easier.
"Amusing as your pathetic attempts to stop me are, they will accomplish nothing," Doom informed him. He stood in the center of a dome of clear air, the snow that fell lightly everywhere else vanishing when it came into contact with his forcefield. Had Steve's ears not been half-frozen, they would have heated at how obvious the field's presence was, in retrospect.
Thor swung his hammer into a Doombot's torso, sending rivets and bits of metal flying. "Every time we face you, you bluster thus, and yet, every time, we defeat you."
Doom's metal mask somehow managed to convey a sneer, despite being incapable of movement. With a swirl of his green cloak, he dramatically turned his back to the Avengers and resumed his spell.
"I really hate that man," Jan observed, landing lightly on Steve's shoulder. Behind them, another Doombot exploded, and a wave of heat hit Steve's back.
"I thought I told Tony to be careful," he muttered. Then, louder, "We need to get through his forcefield somehow. Iron Man, can you tell whether it's magical or technological?"
"Electromagnetic," Iron Man's voice sounded slightly breathless, in spite of the mechanical sound the helmet gave it, and there was a grinding screech of metal against metal, presumably the sound of him grappling with another Doombot, before he continued, "it's being generated by that big metal circle he's standing on. It must be hooked up to the same power source that's running the containment unit."
"If we keep the Doombots away from you, can you take care of it?" Steve forced himself back to his feet, ignoring the cold that had seeped into his boots and gloves from melting snow, and squared off against yet another green-cloaked robot. Jan, still perched on his shoulder, tightened her grip on his costume.
At least the dampening field that kept the robots from becoming intelligent enough to work together and gang up on Doom was operating in their favor. The dozen or so robots remaining got in one another's way as they fought, making it easier to dodge the energy blasts they fired.
Jan launched herself into the air to the left as Steve broke right, and the laser blast that would have fried them both shot harmlessly between them to splash against Doom's forcefield, missing Steve by a narrow enough margin that he could feel the heat from it against the side of his head.
By rights the Avengers shouldn't even be out here – not without re-enforcements, anyway. They were under-strength, now that Tigra had quit and Hank had... left. If they had had time to call in the Fantastic Four, or recall Wanda and Vision from reserve status to give them someone who could deal with Doom's magic... 'Ifs' weren't going to change anything. They had to work with what they had.
They weren't doing too badly for such a small team, Steve reflected, as he dove flat into the snow to avoid a pair of criss-crossing laser beams. Destroying Doombots, however, wasn't their main goal.
"How is the forcefield coming?" he shouted, over the sound of Thor pounding the stuffing out of a pair of robots with Mjolnir.
"It's coming," Iron Man said flatly. "Dismantling a Busiek connector circuit loop without blowing it up is not easy, and since he's got a thermonuclear device hooked up to this thing-"
"Blowing it up would be bad," Steve yelled back. "Got it."
Tony's 'Busiek connector circuit loops' were the thing that had enabled them to track Doom down in the first place; according to Tony, they required a number of extremely rare components in order to function, several of which came from Stark Industries and one of which came from a single supplier who also sold to SI. When their price had doubled overnight and the wait to order new stock had tripled due to another customer buying out their entire supply, Tony had gotten curious. Then a person or persons unknown had hacked into SI's computers to access the blueprints for several different containment fields currently in development for the US military's Hulkbuster unit, and Tony had traced the hacker back through several connections and complicated attempts to put him off the trail that Steve hadn't understood even when he'd explained them for the third time, and found the origin of the signal: an IP address in Latveria.
Putting together the rest of Doom's plan had taken a little longer, but not that long; Victor von Doom might have been a borderline genius, but he was honestly kind of predictable. This was not the first time he'd tried to summon something from another dimension in order to gain ultimate power, or even the first time he'd tried it at this particular location; dark magic seemed to gravitate to the Carpathian mountains and to the area around Mount Wundagore in particular.
The mountain itself loomed ominously in the background, its bulk partially concealed by the snow, which was starting to fall more thickly now. The wind had picked up, biting into Steve even through the thick leather of his costume.
Either Doom's tampering with the supernatural was summoning up a storm, or they were all just unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of a weather front.
Thor had pushed his way through the Doombots and taken up a position at Iron Man's back, a living barrier between him and the battle Steve and Jan were still fighting. Beyond the massive metal bulk of the field generator, the ground dropped away once more, sloping sharply before meeting the gaping mouth of another ravine.
Doom raised his arms skyward once more, greenish light flickering along them, the runes covering his metal spell circle flared bright with white fire, and the air around Steve suddenly thickened, filled with a pervasive sense of Wrong that turned his stomach.
"I think I've got it!" Iron Man shouted, and then everything exploded.
Steve had just enough time to throw his shield up before the blast hit him, which spared him the worst of the heat and shrapnel. The force of the explosion knocked him flat anyway, and he lay in the snow for a moment, dazed, ears ringing and a dull ache in his chest from having the breath knocked out of him. He didn't think anything was broken, though.
Steve sat up gingerly, surveying the destruction. Iron Man and Thor were sprawled on the ground, both of them inches away from the edge of the ravine. If the blast had knocked them just a little bit further...
Jan was full-size again, on her hands and knees in the snow.
The Doombots were all crumpled heaps, probably short-circuited by the explosion. Doom, however, stood untouched inside his forcefield. Of course.
At least Iron Man had taken out the containment field. And the flickering lights and creeping sense of dread were gone; whatever Iron Man had done, it had at least had the effect of stopping Doom's spell in its tracks.
"It's over, Doom," Steve called, as he climbed back to his feet, dusting snow off his costume. "Time to-"
There was a loud rumbling, which seemed to come from every where at once. Steve froze, and his eyes met Thor's in a long moment of shared 'Oh, hell.' Thor, he saw, with a sudden, sickening lurch in his stomach, didn't have Mjolnir. He was empty-handed, probably only seconds from transforming into Don Blake.
Thor could survive an avalanche. Steve wasn't sure about his human alter ego. Or about the rest of them.
Doom laughed mockingly, the sound ringing hollow inside his mask. "Ha! You may have stopped me, but it has done you little good. I shall leave you to enjoy your icy tomb!"
Then the metal circle vanished in a flash of light, taking Doom with it, and the mountain above them began to shudder and move.
Steve thrust his arms back into the straps on his shield, slinging it over his back again – he wouldn't be able to keep hold of it when the snow hit, and it might protect his spine. Jan was the most vulnerable, the smallest, without armor, or a shield to protect her. He should--
Thor cast one frantic-looking glance at the ravine, where Mjolnir presumably had gone, and lunged for her, grabbing her in his arms and bracing himself for impact. Decision made for him, Steve ran towards Iron Man. They couldn't afford to be separated; the avalanche might carry them for miles.
The snow was racing towards them, a giant wall of dirty white like a great wave, its roar filling the entire world. Iron Man grabbed on to him, and Steve started to ask why he hadn't just fired his boot jets and flown to safety, and then the wall of snow and ice hit them.
Tony had just enough time to seriously start to panic before the avalanche hit. His armor was the next best thing to dead, thanks to the magical energy that had permeated the explosion when the containment field generator blew, but even had it not been, flying to safety wouldn't have been an option. He couldn't leave the others.
Steve was running toward him, fear plain on his face, the roar of approaching disaster drowning out whatever he was trying to say, and then a wall of white blotted out everything.
If he hadn't been in the armor, Tony would probably have blacked out from the impact. As it was, he retained just enough sense to grab on to Steve and keep a tight hold on him. Maybe he could shield him, let his armor absorb some of the impact...
The snow surrounded them, a frozen, suffocating mass that rattled him inside the armor like a toy in a tin can and crushed him under its weight. Could Steve breath? Was he even still alive?
The world was a jumbled series of hard impacts, noise that made his bones rattle, and overwhelming pressure from all sides, and he didn't know which way was up anymore.
'Don't let go of Steve,' he told himself. 'Can't let go.' If he lost him, he might never find him again.
Something smashed into the side of his helmet, and the last thing he was aware of before everything faded out was Steve being torn from his arms.
Jan had never thought of snow as being heavy before, but now it was piled on top of her like a lead weight, weighing her down all over. It was also cold. Piercingly, suffocatingly cold.
Thank God she could at least breath – the snow was loosely packed enough that faint glow of bluish light had even managed to filter though it. Thank God she was alive.
There was someone wrapped around her, arms locked around her waist. Part of the weight on top of her was him, she realized, not the snow; she was face down, pinned by the other person's weight.
"Hank," she started, voice a rough croak, and then she remembered that it couldn't possibly be Hank. Hank wasn't an Avenger anymore. He wasn't safety and security anymore, either.
Thor had grabbed her just before the avalanche had hit, but someone else had her now; Thor would have been much heavier, and she would have been able to feel the hard metal of his armor digging into her back. And it would take more than an avalanche to render the mighty Thor unconscious, which her would-be rescuer clearly was, judging by how limp and motionless he was.
It looked like it was up to her to get them both out of the snow, then.
Her stingers were biochemical energy, not heat, but they melted the snow well enough for her to make do. Once she had melted a little of the snow around her, she was able to wriggle around until she was facing up.
Then her mystery companion groaned, and started to stir. Pressed close against him like this, she could feel his breath on her face, the only discernible source of warmth in their little snow cavern.
"We're buried," she explained. "Do you think you can move sideways a little, so you're not on top of me anymore?" He wasn't Steve – she couldn't see him in the barely-there light, but she wouldn't have been able to miss Steve's leather and scale-mail costume. Who on earth was he, and where had he come from?
"Iron Man?" she asked. Maybe he'd taken off the armor for some reason, and-
"Not exactly," he said, voice hoarse and vaguely familiar. Then he coughed a little, and shifted sideways by laboriously slow inches, until he was only halfway covering her.
After that, melting the snow on top of them took only a few minutes. The melt-water was even colder than the snow, or at least felt that way, far too much of it trickling down onto her face and hair. She was lucky that her newest costume was waterproof and insulated, though an actual winter coat would have been even better; her usual spandex would have offered no protection against the cold at all.
Then there was clear air overhead, and Jan sat up, shoving aside the snow still mostly covering herself and her companion to reveal... Dr. Don Blake?
"How did you get here?" she blurted out, before the obvious answer finally caught up with her. "No, don't tell me. You can't possibly be Thor!"
Don's lips twitched, and he looked almost amused for a second. "I'm not... exactly Thor. It's complicated. I'm Thor when I have Mjolnir in my hands, and when I don't..." he shrugged slightly, then winced. "People always seem surprised."
"I didn't even think you had a secret identity. I thought you were just Thor all the time." It had been the natural assumption, but in retrospect... it still didn't make very much sense, actually. Though it did explain where Thor had gotten the odd bits of medical knowledge he occasionally displayed. She hesitated, but had to ask. "Where's Mjolnir now?"
Don looked sheepish, glancing away for a moment with a self deprecating little smile. "I lost hold of it in the explosion. It's, ah, down the ravine."
"That's... not quite the answer I was hoping for," Jan said, wincing.
"I only had a minute or so before I was going to turn back. It was Mjolnir or you."
"In that case," she said, managing to summon up a smile from somewhere, "thanks."
Then she realized that they were both still sitting in the snow, Don completely without winter clothing of any sort – he was wearing a lab coat , of all things – and herself with wet hair.
"We need to get moving," Don said, before Jan could. "We'll both freeze if we don't find some kind of shelter."
"I saw a ski cabin from the quinjet just before we landed. It has to be around here somewhere." If it hadn't been destroyed by the avalanche.
Don nodded. "I think I remember that. I'd ask if you remembered which direction it was in, but I'm not even sure where we are anymore."
"It was further up the mountain than Doom's little ceremony." Which meant that with some luck, it might have escaped the destruction they had inadvertently caused. It also meant a long walk uphill that Jan was sincerely not looking forward to. "Anyway, sitting here isn't going to do us any good."
Jan stood, trying futilely to brush the snow off the yellow and black fabric of her costume. When she finally gave up, resigning herself to the damp patches she couldn't scrub away, she realized that Don was still not on his feet.
He had made it as far as one knee, and was rubbing at his leg with a small grimace of pain on his face.
She had forgotten about his leg. That was going to complicate things.
"Can you make it back up the mountain?" she asked, moving to take him by the elbow and give him a hand up. He was heavy, bigger than she was by a large enough margin that pulling him to his feet was difficult.
"I don't think I have much of a choice," Don said wryly. "It's that or death by exposure."
For a moment, she wished that one of the others was still there; Cap and Iron Man were both tall and strong enough to support Don's weight easily if they had to. She wished they were there regardless.
"What do you think happened to the others?"
The snow around them was a great sheet of white, featureless except for the dark smudges of pine branch that brooked through it here and there. Snow was still falling, coming down so thickly that she could only see for about a hundred yards before everything started to blur. There was no sign of either of their teammates.
"I'm sure they're fine," Don said. He, too, was glancing around as if searching. "Iron Man probably flew them to safety. Maybe they're even looking for us now."
"You're right," she agreed, because it was plausible, wasn't it? Iron Man flew people away from danger in the nick of time all the time, after all, so flying Cap away from the avalanche would have been easy. "We can't stay here and wait for them, though."
Walking uphill through snow higher than her head was every bit as miserable as Jan had expected it would be. Luckily, the lower layers of it were tightly compacted enough that she only sank to her knees with every step. Moving was difficult, but possible.
They made it about twenty feet before Don fell.
"I'm fine," he said, as he floundered through the snow trying to get to his feet again. "My foot sank in too deeply and all of my weight went onto my left leg. My, um, left knee doesn't bend as well as the other one."
He had to be freezing. His thin, white lab coat was damp, which meant the wind was probably cutting through it like a knife, and he wore only slacks and a shirt beneath it. She was freezing, and her costume was designed with cold weather in mind; she'd selected it for just this purpose when she'd heard that they were going to be confronting Doom in the mountains.
She'd originally designed it to match Hank's Yellowjacket costume.
"Here," she said, grabbing Don by the arm and letting him use her as a crutch to pull himself upright again, "grab onto my arm. We'll go faster that way."
Don grimaced. "This isn't humiliating at all. Are you sure you can support my weight?"
"I'm stronger than I look," she told him, suppressing a flash of annoyance. She was used to people underestimating her, but had long since stopped expecting it from her own teammates.
The two of them slogged through the snow in silence for a while. Jan's toes were starting to hurt from the cold, and her entire body had started shaking, hard, uncontrollable tremors that made her muscles ache. Beside her, Don stumbled more and more frequently, and she could see his face gradually turning pale and bloodless, grey with cold and exhaustion.
The snow began to fall even faster, and the wind picked up until it became a physical force, whistling and moaning and blowing snow into her eyes. The snowstorm was quickly becoming a blizzard.
The physical exertion of forcing their way uphill through the snow ought to have warmed them, but, at least in Jan's case, it did little except tire her out. The cold was too intense to be staved off by keeping herself moving.
They needed to find shelter soon, before they hit the point where she became so tired that she couldn't pull Don to his feet the next time he fell.
She said as much, and Don nodded in agreement. "You're smaller," he said, "which means you're losing body heat faster. If you shrink down, you might be able to climb inside my coat and get some shelter from the wind. Or fly ahead and see how far we have left to go."
"Leaving you to collapse in the snow and freeze?" Jan shook her head. "Sorry, Doc. You're stuck with me."
"Good point," he conceded. "And I'd probably crush you when I fell." He staggered, his left leg folding under him, and grabbed at Jan's shoulder for a moment, steadying himself. "I can't believe I dropped Mjolnir! I don't even have my walking stick now. Thor barely even feels the cold."
"I hate hiking," Jan muttered. "And snow. And when we get off this mountain, I'm never going skiing again, no matter how cute the ski outfits are."
The last time she'd gone skiing had been with Hank, just after they had finally solved the malfunction in his powers that had left him trapped in a twelve-foot-tall body for several endless months. He'd been terrible at it, and had turned red with embarrassment and refused help when she'd offered to give him pointers on turning and stopping, preferring to just snowplow downhill at alarming speeds and fall every time he needed to stop suddenly. The memory of watching him crash into small trees and slide down ski slopes flat on his back would probably have ruined any future ski vacations for her anyway.
It had been one of the last times they had really had fun together, when things had still been good between them. They had reveled in the opportunity to go on a normal vacation, to just be an ordinary couple for a while, until the Collector had come along and ruined it.
It was hard to have anything resembling a normal life when you were in costume, but it was also nearly impossible to take the costume off for good, and not just because it very quickly became boring; supervillains had a way of following you around and interfering at the most inconvenient times.
Flying made it all worth it, though. She might be tiny when she was in her Wasp form, but she never felt stronger than she did when she was flying. No matter what else Hank had done, he had given her wings.
For that, if nothing else, she could never entirely hate him.
It would be easier if she could.
This time, she was the one who stumbled, as her foot sank into an air pocket in the snow. She hit the ground on her hands and knees, sinking into snow that came up to her elbows, and dragged Don down after her.
For a moment, she just stayed there, fighting the urge to cry. She was so tired. Tired of being cold, tired of being wet, tired of trying to flounder through this stupid snow, tired of the wind whipping ice crystals into her face. Tired of trying to hold up someone who weighed at least half again what she did.
She closed her eyes, forcing the tears away, and turned to look at Don; he was lying in the snow beside her, breathing in uneven gasps. There was ice in his hair and eyebrows, and his lips were blue. He looked worse than she felt, and that was saying something.
She really didn't want to die here in the snow, thousands of miles from home, without even getting the chance to track Hank down and tell him that he was a bastard one more time. For all the good that would do. He would look at her with those big, hopeless blue eyes and tell her how sorry he was, and beg her not to hate him, and... damnit, when he wasn't hitting her or verbally belittling her it was difficult to stay as angry with him as she knew she should be.
The divorce hadn't finished going through yet. She was damned if she was going to die while she was still stuck with his name. If she was going to die, it would be as Jan Van Dyne, and it wasn't going to be because of a pathetic, jumped-up dictator in a Phantom of the Opera mask like Victor Von Doom. And it certainly wasn't going to be because of a little snow.
"The cabin shouldn't be too far away now, if you fly for it," Don wheezed. "I think I'll stay here for a while."
"I can't fly in this," Jan said. "The wind is too strong now." Not that she would have left him even if she could. He was a doctor; he had to know that laying down and staying behind meant certain death.
She knelt in the snow and tried to peer through the thick curtain of white around them, looking for any sign of shelter. It was hopeless; she could barely see ten feet. The cabin might be only twenty feet away, and she wouldn't even know unless she walked straight into it.
If they were even going in the right direction. They were still heading up hill, as they had been the entire time, but were they going directly uphill? Even a few degrees off course could leave them half a mile out of their way when they finally reached the same altitude as the cabin.
Wait. Was it her imagination, or was there a dark shadow off to the left?
The cabin? The quinjet? Even a tree or a rock would be better than nothing; it would at least block the wind, and give them a point of reference to try and figure out where they were.
"I think I see something," she said, giving Don's shoulder a gentle shake.
He twitched violently, startled by her touch, then lifted his head from the snow and opened his eyes. "What kind of something? Where?"
"There," she pointed. Her hand shook, refusing to stay steady. "I don't know what it is, but I hope it's something we can use as a windbreak."
Don nodded tiredly; she wasn't sure to what extent he was still listening at this point. Then he planted his hands – bare and blotched red and white with cold – in the snow and forced himself to his feet.
He held out a hand to give her a hand up, and Jan scrambled upright, not taking it.
The handful of yards to the amorphous dark shape seemed to take longer than the entire hike up the mountain had, and Jan didn't want to think about what they would do if it wasn't some kind of shelter.
When, after what seemed like ages, a small wooden structure loomed out of the snow, she closed her eyes for a second and fought back tears of relief. Thank God.
Don slipped in the snow beside her and went down on one knee, both arms wrapped around himself. "Please tell me I'm not hallucinating," he said.
"Not unless you're seeing something other than a cabin, Goldilocks." Jan grinned at him, feeling an inexplicable urge to laugh.
"That's not my name," he said, stuttering slightly as his teeth chattered.
Jan shrugged, and gave him a hand up one last time. "We've been calling you that for years. You never complained before."
"You've been calling Thor that for years," he corrected. "I'm not him."
"Once we're out of the snow, you'll have to explain how that works." She took a step forward, tugging him behind her. "Come on; it's only a little farther."
"To get warm? I'll make it if I have to crawl."
Everything hurt. Tony groaned, hearing the sound echo slightly inside his helmet, and wondered who had hit him this time. He ought to open his eyes and check, but just the thought of moving made his head throb and nausea build in the back of his throat, so he lay still instead and tried to remember.
They had been fighting Doom. He hated it when Doom made him look stupid. Even losing to the Mandarin was preferable; at least the Mandarin didn't use magic, whatever he occasionally claimed about his alien rings.
Magic. Doom's containment field generator had had some kind of magical power running through it along with the electric current. It had exploded and fried his armor.
Then the mountain had--
His heart lurched with a sudden jolt of adrenaline as the memory of Steve being ripped from his arms came flooding back to him.
His repulsor gauntlets and jet boots might still be offline, but even with the armor's electrical systems fried, he still had the full range of movement, and seventy-six point two pounds of metal to add force and momentum. Digging himself out of the snow that he had somehow ended up stuck upside-down in was easy.
Tony pulled himself out of the snow, ignoring the way his head throbbed in time to his movements, and stood, scanning the surrounding area frantically for any sign of red and blue. "Cap!" he shouted, letting the armor's systems amplify his voice – that much was still working, at least, though from the freezing cold that had started to seep in at his knees, throat, and shoulders, the armor wasn't air-tight anymore, and the temperature controls were starting to lose their battle against the significantly-below-freezing surroundings.
"Cap!" and then, "Steve!" for good measure. Then, wincing, he recalled the disaster the last severely loud noise he had been responsible for had caused. Any unstable snow or rock for miles around had already been dislodged, though, which meant that in theory, he was free to make as much noise as he wanted.
"Steve!" he shouted. "Jan! Thor!"
Nothing. Snow was swirling thickly around him, blocking out anything more than a few dozen yards away, and the armor's long range sensors were shot.
Tony took a step forward, the armor feeling unusually clumsy with half the circuits offline, and promptly sank up to his knees in the snow.
He should have expected it. The armor added a significant amount of weight , and without anything to distribute said weight out over a larger area – like, say, snowshoes – he was going to sink into the snow every time he took a step.
He'd actually thought about snowshoes when he'd finally gotten rid of the roller-skates, but they would have interfered with the functionality of the jet boots.
"Thor!" he called again. "Steve! Jan!" The wind seemed to snatch their names away as soon as he shouted them, muffling the sound.
This time, when he paused to listen for an answer, he heard something.
It was faint, nearly drowned out by the wind, and for a moment, he thought he'd imagined it, that he was hearing voices where there was only wind because he wanted to hear them.
With the armor half-dead like this, his helmet was probably muffling sounds. He released the seals that held it in place, having to force one of them hard enough that he could hear the metal groan, and yanked the helmet off.
The wind was so cold it hurt, snow stinging against his cheeks; he could almost feel the heat leaching out of him. Once he found the others, they were going to have to find some sort of shelter, or they would be dead from exposure before they figured out a way to get off this godforsaken mountain.
The sound came again, and without the helmet in the way, he could tell that it was definitely a human voice, and coming from somewhere off to his left.
Tony turned awkwardly, floundering his way through the snow, and started slogging toward the sound.
The wind died down for a moment, the whistling in his ears dropping at least ten decibels, and he heard Steve's voice clearly.
"Iron Man! Over here!"
The wave of relief he felt was so overwhelming that he felt dizzy for a moment – or maybe that was from being hit on the head. Steve was alive. And if he was, that meant there was a decent chance that Jan and Thor were, too.
A few more steps, and a blur of red and blue slowly appeared out of the snow; Steve was still half buried, struggling to dig himself out. His cowl was gone, and his hair was plastered to his head, ice already forming at the tips.
He looked beautiful, even with his face raw and red with cold and snow in his hair.
"Thank god," Steve said, grinning at him in obvious relief. "Help me out of this damn snow."
Tony reached down and gave Steve a hand up, pulling him to his feet in a shower of snow.
Steve dusted snow off of his costume, and squinted through the blizzard at the slope above and below them. "Have you found the others?"
Tony shook his head. "Just you. They were closer to the edge of the slide path; they might not have been carried as far downhill as we were." They had also been closer to the edge of the ravine, but he didn't need to say that. Steve knew it just as well as he did.
The snow had slid parallel to the edge of the ravine, following the contour of the slope; they probably hadn't gone off the edge.
Probably. And even if they had, Thor was nearly indestructible, and Jan could fly. They might have a better chance if they'd been swept off the side of the mountain than if they'd been caught in the flow. Something like fifty to sixty-five percent of people buried in avalanches died.
The armor had probably saved his life, and that Steve was still alive and not suffocating under hundreds of pounds of snow was a minor miracle.
He'd miscalculated severing the final connection; if he'd been that spectacularly clumsy any sooner in the process, while the thermonuclear device just one step away from being a bomb that Doom had used as his main energy source had still been hooked in to the system, the entire mountain would have gone up. Their chances of survival were less than optimal as it was.
Steve shook the ice out of his hair, then eyed Tony consideringly. "Put your helmet back on before you freeze."
"You don't have a helmet," Tony pointed out; metal lost heat fast, and now that he'd taken it off, the helmet was probably nearly as cold as their surroundings. Putting it back on might not actually make him any warmer.
"And I'll probably regret that soon." Steve glanced around them, surveying the jumble of snow covering the entire mountainside. He wouldn't be able to see anything Tony had missed; the helmet's short-range visual sensors were still working.
Which meant that he could have looked for Steve and the others by scanning in the infrared spectrum.
Wincing inwardly, Tony shoved the helmet back onto his head and resettled it against the collar of the armor, flipping the seals closed again. The metal was icy cold, but at least that would help keep the remaining circuitry working.
Steve showed up vividly in infrared, a glowing silhouette of body heat. The mountainside around them was empty, save for the still-faintly-smoldering remains of a Doombot partially buried in snow a few dozen yards away.
At least he hadn't been unconscious for long, if the wreckage from the explosion was still warm.
"I don't see anybody else," Tony said, forcing down a sense of disappointment; if Jan or Thor had been close enough for his short-range sensors to pick them up, they would have been close enough to hear him calling them. "And the quinjet's nowhere in sight. I think it went over the edge."
Steve's jaw tightened. Then he sighed. "There goes our easy out. I don't suppose you could fly us out of here to get help?"
"The explosion killed half the circuitry in my armor. My bootjets are fried. A handful of the sensors are still operational, but that's about it."
From the way Steve's shoulders slumped – just a fraction, but enough for Tony to see it – he liked that answer about as much as Tony liked giving it. "Can you raise Thor and Jan's communicators? I think I lost mine."
Tony buried his face in one hand, the clink of metal on metal only making him feel more like an idiot – some gestures just didn't work when you were wearing a helmet. "I... didn't even try."
Steve took a step closer, frowning at him. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. Just a little shaken up." The sick, dizzy feeling that he'd woken up to had almost faded now. He'd gotten off lightly; he obviously hadn't been rattled that hard by the impact, or he'd have felt significantly worse. "I've had worse from Titanium Man."
Steve looked unconvinced, but let the subject drop.
When he opened the communication channel, Tony was greeted by a crackle of atmospheric interference. Between the mountains and the storm, he'd be lucky to pick up any signal at all, but he gave it a shot anyway. Ten minutes later, he hadn't raised Jan, Thor, or anyone or anything else, and Steve's lips were starting to turn blue.
"Try one more time," Steve ordered.
"There's no point. Even if their communicators weren't lost or damaged in the avalanche, I wouldn't be able to contact them in this."
Then the helmet's communications system gave an extra-loud buzz of static, and something in Tony's chest eased with relief when he heard a female voice.
"—ron Man, come in... ...can't... ...too much..."
"Jan?" he asked – half-shouted, really – but even as he said it, he realized that it wasn't her voice. It was difficult to tell through the distortion, but he thought the speaker's voice was lower-pitched than Jan's, with an eastern European accent.
Jan and Thor had dropped off the grid, but at least he'd managed to contact the Avengers frequency.
"Did you get them?" Steve demanded, grabbing for Tony's arm with one gloved hand.
Tony shook his head. "No, it's the Scarlet Witch. They must have picked up my signal in New York." He boosted the armor's signal strength up as high as it would go, and began transmitting the team's distress signal to New York, accompanied by their coordinates. Or rather, their coordinates from just prior to the explosion and avalanche, the armor's internal GPS being one of the many things that was now completely fucked.
Partway through the transmission, the signal broke apart and vanished. Tony swore, and wished for a brief moment that his repulsors were still working. It would have felt so satisfying to blast one of the giant heaps of snow around them into oblivion.
Icy drafts were leaking in through all the broken seals in his armor, and Steve was visibly shivering now. He had to be freezing, standing there in nothing but his leather costume.
"We need to get out of the wind. You're going to freeze standing out here."
Steve grimaced. "I'm open to suggestions. Building a snow cave isn't first on my list of preferred survival techniques."
"I'd suggest that we huddle together for warmth, but that won't work with me in the armor." Just saying the words brought up a detailed mental fantasy of what Steve would feel like pressed against him, all hard muscle and heat. Those tight leather pants didn't hide anything important.
Neither would the remains of the business suit he was wearing under the armor, if the two of them were lying wrapped around one another.
Priorities, Tony reminded himself. Keeping Steve from getting hypothermia was more important than fantasizing about him. "I checked the maps of the area while we were flying in. There's a hikers' cabin a kilometer upslope from where Doom held his demon-summoning ceremony."
Steve took a deep breath, and straightened his shoulders. "We can't have been carried that far downslope, or I'd be a lot more banged up than I am. Let's get a move on." He didn't mention that there was a good chance the cabin had been destroyed, and neither did Tony. Even if it had, there was nothing they could do about it, and they'd be warmer walking than standing still.
* * *
The cabin was tiny, a single room with a minuscule bathroom off to one side, and lacked electricity, which meant that it was dark, as well. With the door closed against the wind, it was at least dry and mostly free of drafts, but the tiny amount of light that filtered through the snow-covered windows was barely enough to see by.
Don was huddled on the floor, wrapped in one of the survival blankets they'd found stacked in the closet, while Jan crouched in front of the miniature wood stove and glared at the pieces of wood and torn-up newspaper inside.
"Why won't you light?" she muttered, as the third match flickered out without doing more than turning a piece of newspaper black.
"Did you add the kindling underneath the split logs? And stack them loosely, so the air can flow around them?" Don's teeth were still chattering, adding a stammer to some of the words. That was good, she reminded herself. As long as he was still shivering, he wasn't cold enough to be in serious danger yet.
"Yes," she said, making an effort not to snap. "I did it just like you said. I may have never been a Girl Scout, but it can't be that hard. I think the paper is damp." That, or her hands were shaking too much to light it properly. Don's were even less steady, though; he'd barely been able to pick up the box of matches.
Iron Man's repulsor gauntlets would have been really useful right about now.
She forced the thought of Iron Man and Cap out of her mind – they were all right, they had to be all right – and took a deep breath, willing her hands to stop shaking. Then she lit another match.
This time, the paper caught, and they both watched it for a long, breathless moment, waiting for the flame to die out.
Several minutes later, most of the smaller pieces of wood had caught, and Jan finally relaxed, near tears with relief at how good the faint warmth starting to seep out from the stove already felt.
She let herself just sit in front of it for a long moment, until her fingers and ears started to burn, then got up to examine the cabin again.
Don immediately scooted into the spot she'd just vacated, holding both hands out to the little fire.
The light from the stove flickered unevenly, making the shadows shift and jump, but it was better than nothing, and when she checked inside the cabinet that had held the survival blankets, she found a tin of instant coffee they'd missed the first time around, three mugs, and a dented copper saucepan.
If they could convince the cabin's pump to work, and the pipes it was connected to weren't frozen, they could have hot coffee.
The ice in her hair was already melting, wet and cold against her scalp, and she'd stripped off her wet gloves. Jan eyed the cabin's floor, and considered whether or not she wanted to take off her boots.
"We need to take our wet clothes off," Don said. He waved a hand at his lab coat, shoes, and socks, which lay in a damp heap on the floor. "We'll warm up faster without them."
"You go first," Jan told him. "I'm going to try to make coffee."
She had to work the pump handle for what felt like forever before a thin trickle of water finally emerged, and by the time she'd filled the saucepan and turned back around, Don was wrapped in a blanket again, and his shirt and pants had been added to the pile of damp clothes. Hopefully, he still had underwear on.
Don returned the favor and turned his back while she peeled off her costume and laid it out on the floor where it could dry. Naked, her skin felt clammy and cold, and wrapping herself up in a pair of blankets was a relief for more than one reason.
Her costume had a bra built into it. Taking it off left her in nothing but a pair of – thankfully mostly dry – underpants.
"Well, this is awkward," she commented, as the two of them sat there and waited for the water to boil.
"Yes," Don agreed. "You have no idea how much I wish Thor were here instead. He doesn't really get embarrassed."
"I have always wondered what Thor would look like in his underwear." The words were out before she thought about them, and Jan regretted them immediately. There was a time and a place for flirting, and this really wasn't it.
Don smiled, though, and some of the awkward tension in the room eased.
"You talk about him like the two of you are separate people," she said.
Don shrugged, then grabbed for the blanket around his shoulders as it started to slip. "In a lot of ways, we are. It's... complicated. I remember everything he does, but I'm not him . And he's not me."
It didn't really make sense, but Thor was a god, and gods, Jan had found, didn't always have to work by logical rules. "I guess I have to thank both of you for saving me during the avalanche, then."
Don looked away, and clutched the blanket a little tighter. "If I'd kept hold of Mjolnir, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"If Iron Man hadn't blown us all up, we wouldn't be in this mess," Jan said. Mentioning him brought back the fear she'd been trying not to focus on. The first thing they'd done after making it to the cabin had been to try and call the others, only to discover that Don-slash-Thor had lost his communicator somewhere in the transition from god to mortal, and that Jan's communicator was dead.
Don was frowning a little, his face thoughtful. In the firelight, his hair looked the same color as Hank's. Jan winced internally, and looked away, down at her hands. There was a smear of rust on her right palm, from the pump handle, and crumbs of bark from the firewood under her nails.
"It might not be his fault," Don said. "Doom probably booby trapped his equipment."
He probably had – Doom liked nasty little death traps, especially ones that allowed him to feel smarter than his opponents – and even if he hadn't, blaming Tony felt wrong when they still didn't know if he and Cap were okay.
"He still should have been prepared for it," she said, and tugged the blanket more tightly around her shoulders. "I bet he managed to fly Cap to safety, and the two of them are somewhere warm and dry right now. Somewhere with real food, electricity, and dry clothing."
"I hope so," Don said.
"So do I," Jan said, quietly. Then again, more loudly, "So do I. That way, once this storm stops, they can come back and get us."
* * *
"We are not lost," Steve said. If he hadn't been shivering so hard, he would have gritted his teeth in irritation. "We were just farther down the slope than we thought. You're too dependent on your armor's GPS."
Iron Man didn't even bother to look over at him; he just kept wading forward through the snow, staring straight ahead, his legs sinking in up to the knees at every step. "You just don't want to admit you got us lost."
"I did not get us lost. The cabin is uphill. We're going uphill." 'Uphill' was a very broad category, but considering that they hadn't know where on the mountain they were when they started out, and didn't really know where they were now, it was the best they could do. The snow had erased any landmarks that might have been there before.
The edge of the cliff was still there, out of sight off to the right; the cabin had been well away from it, so sticking near it would have risked missing their destination, as well as potentially going over the edge if their weight triggered another slide of unstable snow.
They would get there soon, Steve told himself. His feet, hands and face were so cold they hurt, and his costume was no longer providing any real protection from the weather; one unpadded layer of leather wasn't enough to stop the heat from gradually leaching out of him.
Steve concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and refused to think about the possibility that the cabin simply wasn't there anymore, that they'd already walked past the spot where it had once been.
Eventually, he was going to lose feeling in his feet altogether. That was when he'd know he was in trouble. That, and when he got so cold that he stopped shivering. He'd seen men lose toes to frostbite in France, seen them freeze to death; it was supposed to be a painless, peaceful way to die, but what fragmentary memories Steve had of falling into the North Atlantic and being frozen weren't pleasant or painless.
At least Iron Man had the armor to keep him warm. Tony was frighteningly fragile inside it, with his damaged heart. It had been easier, in a lot of ways, before he'd known they were the same person.
Easier to fight beside Iron Man and admire his distractingly attractive employer from a safe distance.
"Uphill," Iron Man repeated. "Right. All we have to do is find a single tiny building in the middle of a snowstorm, and wait for the storm to end so Wanda and Vision can come and get us. We do more difficult things on a regular basis."
"This storm could last for days," Steve pointed out. Optimism was vital in a situation like this, but they also had to be realistic.
"We can survive a couple of days without food, if we have too. After all," Iron Man gestured around them with one metal gauntlet, "we have plenty of water."
They could – Steve knew that from experience – but it wouldn't be a pleasant few days. Maybe the cabin would have food.
He wasn't sure how long they'd been walking; it had gotten darker, but that was just as likely to be the cloud cover and the snowstorm as it was approaching twilight. It felt as if they'd been trudging through the snow forever, trapped in a weird, dim world without shadows or sunlight to track the passage of time.
They walked in silence for a while, through uneven mounds of snow that all looked the same. When what little Steve could see of the landscape around them finally changed into something different – a long, smooth indentation in the snow, like a sunken road – he walked right into the middle of it before he realized what it meant.
There were no roads directly downhill from the site Doom had chosen for his ritual. There were, however, several streams running down the mountainside into the valley below.
Steve froze, holding up a hand to signal Iron Man to do the same, and listened carefully for groaning noises or the sharp sound of ice cracking. All he could hear was the wind, and the sound of his own breathing.
The opposite bank was steep, with a lip of overhanging snow. That meant they were past the slide path of the avalanche, at least. The cabin couldn't be far away now.
Steve scrambled up the bank, half-climbing, grabbing at the snow with numb fingers. They'd be out of this mess soon, someplace dry, out of the wind and at least marginally warmer.
He'd just reached the top of the bank and started to pull himself up onto the edge when Iron Man, beside him, reached for the edge as well, and the overhang of snow gave way.
Steve slid down the bank, caught in a smaller version of the avalanche, and hit the ice hard. It gave under him with a crunching sound, and the shock when he hit the water beneath was worse than the impact.
The cold paralyzed his lungs, stabbing through him. The water closed over his head, and Steve lunged upward, hammering futilely at ice for an endless moment before his fingers hit the edge of the hole he'd fallen through. The water was deep, surprisingly so, and it took an agonizingly long time to pull himself out again, the broken ice giving way under him twice.
He lay flat on the ice for a moment, as close to the bank and the shallows of the stream as he could get. If anything, leaving the water made him feel even colder; it hurt to breath, his entire body aching as the cold knifed at him through the wet leather of his costume.
Steve swore inwardly. It was nearly impossible to peel leather pants off when they got wet. And that was only if he didn't freeze to death before they reached the cabin and he had the chance to take them off.
He heard the ice crack again, off to his left, and the sound of Tony gasping for air and swearing. He had his helmet off; the muffled distortion it gave to his voice gone. Steve peeled his eyes open to see Tony's head disappear beneath the surface of the water, then emerge again, wet hair clinging to his face. He slapped one bare hand onto the fragile edge of the ice, then an arm covered in nothing but a wet shirtsleeve, and struggled to pull himself out.
Steve leaned over, staying on his stomach to keep his weight evenly distributed, and grabbed Tony by the wrist. Together, they managed to haul Tony out onto the ice.
For a moment, they both simply lay there, Tony still gasping for air. Steve could feel himself starting to shudder violently – from the cold, not because he'd nearly been trapped under the ice.
Tony was shaking, too – he'd curled into a ball, wet clothing clinging to him. Snowflakes were already landing on both of them, the water soaking their clothes and hair melting them into invisibility in moments.
The armor must have been dragging Tony down; he'd never have shed it otherwise, especially not under these circumstances. For God's sake, he wasn't even wearing shoes . Just wet, white socks that made his feet look terribly vulnerable.
They had to get back up, had to keep walking. If they stayed here, they were going to freeze to death.
"My armor," Tony mumbled, through chattering teeth. "We have to get it out of there."
Steve clumsily patted him on the shoulder, his fingers too numb with cold to feel anything through his gloves, even pressure. "We'll come back later," he said.
Tony glanced at the hole in the ice for a long moment, then nodded. "Right. Sorry, Shellhead. I guess you're stuck underwater for a while." It was a sign of how bad things were that he didn't argue – as far as Steve could tell, Tony loved and valued that armor as much as Steve did his shield.
His shield. It was still strapped to his back, twelve pounds of icy metal. He should have taken it off while he was underwater, but it hadn't even occurred to him. He'd carried it so long that he didn't even notice the weight anymore.
If he'd died under the ice, trapped there and weighed down by his shield, he would have deserved it for his own stupidity.
Tony was looking at him now, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. "You're soaking wet, and so am I. If we don't find that cabin in a matter of minutes, we're both dead."
"We'll find it," Steve said firmly. He slid toward the edge of the ice, tugging on Tony's arm to get him to follow, and then forced himself to his feet. This time, the bank was going to hold. They would climb it, and the cabin would be right beyond it, waiting for them, just far enough away for the snow to block it from sight. He'd get Tony dry and warm – get both of them dry and warm – and then they could both get some rest.
Then he could go back out and look for Thor and Jan.
He wasn't sure how long it took for them to haul themselves out of the stream bed and up to the top of the bank; not as long as it felt like, surely, but longer than it should have.
It didn't matter. Only getting to the cabin mattered. He just had to focus on that.
The snow was more tightly packed now that they were outside the avalanche's slide path, but their feet still sank in ankle-deep with every step. It clung in clumps to his boots, making them heavy enough that just lifting his feet took all his energy.
Tony's socks were caked with snow after a few steps. How long did it take to develop frostbite? Steve couldn't remember. He could remember the white, waxy skin and swollen black blisters it caused, though, and the hard, wooden feel of dead flesh under his hands.
"You should have left the jetboots on. Your feet need more protection."
"The jetboots weight six point four pounds apiece. Only the chestplate and backplate are heavier." Tony stumbled, falling to one knee in the snow. "The repulsor technology they use isn't even patented, because once I do that, SHIELD and the government can go after it. Anyone who finds them could use it however they pleased."
Steve took a step closer to him, reaching for Tony's arm to pull him back to his feet; before he could, Tony planted one bare hand in the snow and shoved himself upright again. "You're right," he said. "We shouldn't have left them."
"We'll go back for them," Steve promised again.
"If Doom finds my armor, he'll use it to build a robot army armed with repulsor rays. They can burn holes right through a human body, did you know that?"
"He doesn't need a robot army. He already has Doombots and zombies and conscripted Latverians." Tony had a point, though. Just because Doom already had one robot army didn't mean he wouldn't jump at the chance to build another, or upgrade the one he already had. Doombots were significantly less effective than Iron Man's armor.
How long had they been walking? It didn't matter. They just had to get to the cabin. Once he got Tony to the cabin, everything would be all right.
This time, Steve was the one who stumbled. His shield was crushingly heavy now, at least three times its normal weight, and getting back to his feet again was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, even with Tony's hands on his shoulders, pulling at him.
"Get up," Tony said, yanking at him. "M'not carrying you." The words were slightly indistinct, the way he sounded when he'd been drinking. Except Tony would hardly be that stupid – alcohol just made you freeze faster.
Tony was freezing quickly enough already, between his wet clothing and almost-bare feet.
Once on his feet, Steve allowed himself to lean on Tony for a brief moment, then made himself straighten when he felt the uneven shudders wracking Tony's body. The last time he'd succumbed to the cold and lost consciousness, he'd woken up to find that almost everyone he'd ever known was dead. This time, if he let himself pass out, he'd lose Tony.
Steve might be able to survive hypothermia – he'd lived through being frozen before, even if no one had ever been able to figure out exactly how – but Tony wouldn't.
"You won't have to," he promised, and started walking again. He stepped ahead of Tony this time, taking the lead to break a path through the snow for both of them; Tony didn't have the benefit of enhanced stamina. Or shoes.
He let himself drift after a while, the constant sound of the wind and endless swirls of snow strangely soothing. The cold seeped into him, wrapping itself around his bones with the intimacy of an old friend, until, like his shield, he could barely even feel it anymore.
The muffled sound of Tony collapsing into the snow behind him jolted him out of the reverie he'd fallen into.
Steve lurched to a stop and turned around, dropping to his knees in the snow. Tony was a motionless huddle of arms and legs, face half-buried in snow. It was nearly dark now, and the weird half-light reflecting off the snow all around them made his skin and white shirt luminescent and ghostly, like someone already dead.
He didn't move when Steve shook his shoulder.
"On your feet, soldier." Wait, that wasn't right. "Avenger," he corrected himself.
He pulled Tony into a sitting position, only to have him sag against him, head lolling forward. There was ice in his hair, his mustache, his eyebrows, and his lips were bloodlessly pale and faintly blue. He wasn't going to last much longer.
It didn't matter, Steve told himself. The cabin had to be close, and once he got Tony inside and warmed up, he'd be fine. If he couldn't walk anymore, Steve would drag him.
He draped Tony's arm over his shoulders, fitting it into the gap between the shield and the back of his neck, and wrapped his own arm around Tony's waist, then staggered to his feet, hauling Tony up with him. They were almost the same height, which would make walking slightly easier, but Tony was more solidly muscled than he looked all buttoned up in those business suits. Muscle and bone were heavy, and Tony seemed to be composed of those and nothing else, his entire body a dead weight, and Steve was far from at his best.
One step forward. Then two. Then another step. He could feel Tony's breath against his neck, which meant that he was still alive. Steve just had to keep moving.
After a few steps, Tony woke up a little, his feet dragging just a bit less as he tried to take some of his own weight. "I can walk," he mumbled. "The armor has autopilot. Won't let me fall down."
"You're not wearing the armor," Steve pointed out. The logic didn't seem to penetrate; Tony struggled weakly, trying to pull free, then sagged back against Steve again.
"Hmm," Steve agreed, and kept stumbling forward, still bearing most of Tony's weight.
There was a dark shape ahead through the snow – the cabin, or another stand of trees?
Please be the cabin. Steve's knees hit the snow before he even realized he'd tripped, jolting Tony against him. The two of them went down in a tangle of limbs, into snow that felt almost achingly soft. Just laying there for a while would be so easy.
"Steve?" Tony blinked dazedly at him. "I don' think I can get up." He mumbled the words, slurring them. His teeth weren't chattering as much anymore.
That was a bad sign, Steve thought distantly. He forced himself back to his knees, hauling Tony up with him. Then he simply stayed like that for a moment, trying to find the energy to get back on his feet.
"S'my fault we're out here," Tony sighed in his ear. "Just leave me. I'm tired."
"Like hell," Steve muttered.
Tony actually smiled a little, his eyes drifting closed again. "Knew you'd say that." He patted Steve clumsily on the arm, his fingers white and bloodless. "Slowing you down. Please."
"You are not," Steve lied. Damn it, where was the cabin? They were still behind enemy lines, but if they could get to it, they'd be safe. And warm. They could both sleep there.
"So stubborn." Tony’s eyes opened again, and he blinked several times as if trying to make them focus on Steve. "Please," he repeated. "I don’t want you to die out here with me. Not you." He shook his head back and forth, and pushed weakly at Steve’s hands. "Love you too much for that," he mumbled. The words were faint, indistinct. "Please, just go."
The implications of that statement were enough to wake Steve up completely. For a moment, the bottom of his stomach dropped out, and then his brain caught up with his body and he realized that Tony was talking about friendship, that he couldn't mean that kind of love. He didn't have to; Steve wasn't leaving anyone else he loved to die.
He'd been attracted to Tony since he'd first met him. He'd loved Iron Man since... he wasn't sure. Much more recently then that.
He'd get both of them to the cabin if he had to crawl.
He didn't crawl, in the end. Somehow, he got both of them on their feet again, Tony a barely conscious dead weight at his side, and started slogging forward once more.
One step. Two. Then another.
He ran face first into the tree before he saw it.
Steve sagged against the bark, slamming a fist into it in frustration.
Then the tree moved, and he and Tony fell forward into a dim, enclosed space, onto something a lot harder than snow.
Steve hit that face first, too, to busy hanging on to Tony with both hands, and no way to catch himself. It was hard, smooth, wooden.
He blinked his eyes back open and stared at the wooden floorboards just in front of his nose. The cabin. They'd fallen into the cabin.
Steve let himself go limp, clinging to Tony in relief. He'd gotten them to shelter. They were safe.
The door flew open, rebounding off the opposite wall with a slam, and cold air rushed into the room. Jan jumped to her feet, dragging the blanket with her, just as Cap and Tony literally fell through the door.
Filled with relief – they weren't dead, they were here, the avalanche hadn't killed them – she lunged past them to shut the door. Being happy they were alive didn't mean she was willing to let what little warmth she and Don had managed to find escape. The wind fought her, and it took throwing all her bodyweight against the door to force it closed.
Jan sagged against it for a moment, exhaustion seeping in now that the nagging worry over Cap and Tony's whereabouts was gone. When she drew herself up and turned around again, the worry came rushing back.
Tony and Cap were lying motionless on the floor, covered in snow. There was no sign of the Iron Man armor; both of them were bareheaded, Tony clad only in trousers and shirtsleeves, and Cap's cowl nowhere in evidence. Don was already kneeling next to them, one hand on Cap's shoulder.
"You made it," he was saying. "We were hoping the two of you had flown away to get help, but frankly I'm just glad you're alive. What happened to you?"
Cap lifted his head a little, blinking tiredly at Don. "There was an explosion," he said hoarsely, voice thick with exhaustion. "I got Tony out of the water, but we couldn't find anyone else." He shook his head, as if trying to force himself back to alertness; his hair was stiff with ice. "I need to go back out. We still have men out--." He shoved himself up to his hands and knees, then broke off abruptly and knelt there, swaying, head down.
Don took him by the shoulder again, steadying him. "Steve," he said, gently, "do you know what year it is?"
Cap's head snapped up, and he stared at Don blankly, a look of vague horror on his face. "The future?" His voice wavered slightly on the word. Then he blinked, a little more awareness seeping into his eyes, and frowned. "But... you're not any older. I don't-" Then he smiled, sagging back against Tony in relief. "Don. We found you. Is Jan here?"
Jan stepped away from the door, into his line of sight. "Yes," she said. "I'm here. And that was mean, Don."
"He sounded disoriented," Don said. "I wanted to make sure he wasn't having some kind of flashback."
"I haven't had those in years," Cap muttered, sounding slightly sullen. He wrapped an arm around Tony again, curling his body protectively around him.
Tony still hadn't moved. He was dead white with cold, his lips blue and his hair as thick with ice as Cap's was. If they'd really fallen into water somehow – God, they were lucky to still be alive.
Tony was alive, right?
As if he'd read her mind, Don leaned across Cap and pressed two fingers to Tony's throat searching for a pulse. After a long, tense moment, he nodded, and Jan let out a slow breath of relief.
"We need to get their clothes off," Don said, meeting her eyes over Cap's head. "Get them a little closer to the fire."
The last time Jan had stripped Tony Stark's clothing off, it had been under far more pleasant and entertaining circumstances. For one thing, he'd been an active participant, rather than lying frighteningly limp while she tried to wrestle clothing off his overly-long limbs. For another, undressing Tony in order to have outstanding but surprisingly vanilla sex with him hadn't involved talking an only partially coherent Cap into letting go of him first.
"You're safe now," Don was saying, in a calm, authoritative tone that they probably taught you in med school. "You got both of you here safely, and now you need to let us help Tony, okay? We need to get those wet clothes off both of you."
Cap reluctantly uncurled from around Tony and sat up, watching intently as Jan unbuttoned Tony's shirt and struggled to get it off him as gently as possible.
"Careful of his fingers." Don eased Tony's socks off, first the left and then the right, slowly exposing his feet. There was a long, jagged cut across his left heel, and one of the toenails on his right foot was torn. Both injuries were bloodless, his socks barely even stained – was that good, or bad? "Don't try to rub them dry; there could be ice crystals in the tissue. That goes for you, too, Steve. No rubbing your hands or feet to try and warm them up."
Cap made an indistinct noise, neither agreement nor disagreement. He was pulling one of his gloves off with his teeth, eyes still fixed on Tony. "He needs his fingers," he said, spitting out the glove. "You can't let them turn black and fall off." It had the sound of an order.
Don pressed a finger against the sole of Tony's foot, then did the same thing to each of his toes. "There's still some resilience. I don't think he's going to lose his feet, though he might want to when they start thawing out." He frowned at Cap, who was now tugging ineffectually at one boot. "Stop that. Give me your foot and let me help you."
By the time Jan had Tony down to his underwear, Don and Cap were still peeling damp, frozen leather off Cap's body. Beneath his costume, his skin was almost as pale as Tony's, and he swayed visibly when Don hauled him to his feet to strip his pants off, bracing himself against the wall.
If someone had told her, prior to today, that she'd get the chance to see Cap without those tight leather pants and wouldn't enjoy it in the slightest, she... would probably have believed them, actually. Over the years, she'd found that being a superhero offered a distressingly wide variety of unpleasant experiences involving nudity.
"We need to dump the coffee out and start heating some water," Don said, as he eased Steve to the floor a few yards away from the stove. "We can soak cloths in it and use them to warm their hands, feet, and faces."
Cap shook his head. "Mine are fine. Tony needs-"
"You are not fine," Don said firmly. "Just because you miraculously survived being frozen once doesn't mean you're immune to frostbite and hypothermia. Your balance and coordination are compromised, you're shaking, and you've been walking through the snow for God knows how long in wet boots." He turned back to Jan. "We need to get both of them warm now. Help me get Tony closer to the stove, and then I'll start heating the water."
The two of them half-dragged, half-carried Tony across the cabin to lay him down next to Cap, with one blanket between them and the floor, and another spread over them. It seemed pitifully inadequate, given Tony's still, cold pallor and Steve's convulsive shudders and chattering teeth.
When she said so, Don nodded. "They don't have enough body heat left to warm themselves back up." He kept pumping water into their saucepan as he spoke, the pump handle moving easily. Maybe she had loosened it up for him. "Cap might be all right with just blankets, something hot to drink and first aid for frostbite, but I wouldn't rely on it, especially not out here with no way to get help if he gets worse. And Tony..." he trailed off, glancing at Cap, and lowered his voice. "Severe hypothermia can cause cardiac arrhythmia. If we don't get his core temperature back up, he could be in a lot of trouble."
Cap had curled around Tony again, oblivious to the discussion – his eyes were half lidded, and Jan suspected he was only partially awake. He'd seemed mostly coherent earlier, but he also didn't seem to have noticed Jan's state of undress, something that would normally have gotten a blush and an averted gaze.
'A lot of trouble' was probably an understatement.
"We're going to have to get under the blankets with them," she said. She and Don were the only heat sources in the cabin other than the stove, which made laying together for warmth the only viable option. "I'll take Tony." If she was going to be cuddling mostly-naked with one of her male teammates, it might as well be someone she'd already slept with. "You take Cap."
"We'll put them between us." Don let go of the pump handle and picked up the full pan of water. The cabin was small enough that it only took a handful of uneven steps for him to return to the stove, and the pan went back onto the stovetop, hissing as the water that had splashed down the sides hit the hot metal and evaporated away.
Jan glanced from the stove, where the water was going to take at least ten minutes to boil, to where her teammates lay huddled in a nest of blankets. "And we thought sitting around naked together was awkward," she muttered. "Hank is going to flip out when he hears about this."
Then she winced, realizing what she'd said. She didn't care how Hank might have felt about it, Jan reminded herself. She was through with Hank, and his excuses and insecurities and nasty habit of lashing out at people, mainly her.
Don, thankfully, said nothing. He lowered himself to one knee, then to the floor, to slide under the blanket next to Cap; he was putting almost no weight on his bad leg, Jan saw, and she felt a brief flash of guilt for letting him help her haul Tony and Cap around. He'd been through an avalanche, walked almost a mile through the snow, and now he was going to be sleeping on a hard wooden floor.
They couldn't do anything about it, though, and she doubted he would appreciate her sympathy, any more than she would have appreciated his.
Tony's skin was ice cold against hers when she crawled under the blanket, and she had to fight the urge to flinch back from him, making herself press her feet against his freezing ones – carefully, remembering Don's warning about ice crystals – and wrap her arms around his torso.
There was still ice in his hair, bits of it melting and brushing cold water against her forehead when she pressed her face into the back of his neck.
Cap shifted his own grip on Tony slightly, mumbling something, and one of his hands brushed against her bare arm, a fresh jolt of cold that did make her flinch.
Jan closed her eyes, and started counting off the minutes it would take for the water to heat.
* * *
His hands and feet were starting to burn. The rest of him felt as if his muscles and bones had never completely thawed after he'd been chipped out of the ice, even Don's heat against his back not enough to do more than keep him from actively freezing, but the wet cloths Jan had just wrapped around his hands and feet were boiling hot.
And now Don was pressing new, even hotter ones against his ears .
They were probably just warm rather than actually hot, Steve knew, and the fact that he was regaining feeling in his extremities was a good thing.
A good thing that hurt like hell.
Had it been this bad the last time?
Maybe it was a small blessing that Tony was still unconscious. At least he'd be spared some of the pain as his frozen hands and feet came back to life.
Tony's face tensed, and he started to struggle weakly, one of his feet kicking Steve right in the shin. There was so little force behind the blow that it didn't even hurt, barely jarring his leg.
"No." Tony slammed his head back, the back of his skull smacking into Jan's cheekbone. "Let go."
Steve loosened his grip on Tony as much as he could without actually moving his arms – moving took effort – and forced words past chattering teeth. "S'just us. It's okay." He was shivering harder now than he'd been when they'd come in out of the cold, the muscles in his back tense and aching from what felt like hours' worth of shaking.
Tony's eyes opened, wide but unfocussed. "Burning won't work, I..." He shoved at Steve's chest with his free arm, the motion slow and uncoordinated. "...build it for you. I won't..."
"Tony," Jan said, through gritted teeth, "hold still." Just as Don said,
"If he keeps thrashing around, he's going to hurt himself," directly into Steve's ear.
"Tony," Steve tried again. "Iron Man. We're safe. We made it."
Tony went limp, and for a moment, Steve thought he'd passed out again. Alarm began forcing its way through the exhaustion hazing his thoughts, and then Tony said his name.
"Steve. We- we found the cabin."
He sounded as tired as Steve felt, the words low and hoarse. Steve let himself relax again, his eyes shutting almost by themselves. Tony was awake, and talking. He wasn't going to die. His heart wasn't going to give out from the shock of his body warming up again.
Steve hadn't lost anybody this time.
Don's hand reached over Steve's shoulder, feeling at the base of Tony's throat, probably for a pulse. Tony tried to twitch his head away, frowning again. There was a vague kind of confusion on his face that just looked... wrong on Tony.
"Where's my... we left the armor. We have to go get it. Doom is out there and-" He thrashed weakly for a moment, trying to get up, then collapsed back against Steve's chest. "Have to go and get it," he repeated, a disturbing edge of hysteria in his voice.
"We will." Don's baritone voice was soothing, but firm. "Right now, you're going to lie there and get warm again." It was the way paramedics spoke to accident victims, the way Steve himself tried to sound whenever the Avengers or he and Sam rescued people from disasters or burning buildings.
It occurred to him that he was just lying there and letting Don take charge. A civilian, for all that he was associated with the Avengers and somehow the same person as Thor. He shouldn't just lie there while a civilian did his job.
"We'll go back for it later," he promised. "And stop trying to break Jan's nose."
Tony stopped struggling. "Later," he echoed. "I'll... hold you to that." Then, "Jan?" He rolled his head back, looking over his shoulder at Jan. "You're naked," he said, sounding vaguely pleased and significantly calmer. "And so is Steve. I like this cabin."
Fabric rustled as Jan shifted. "You know," she sighed, "if someone had told me yesterday that I'd spend tonight naked in bed with three men, this is not how I would have imagined it. I would have pictured something a lot less embarrassing."
Somehow, the fact that he was effectively naked in the same 'bed' as one of his female teammates had not occurred to Steve until that moment. Trying to not jar Tony, he pulled his legs in closer to his body. Don's warm skin and Tony's chilled, clammy skin pressed against his own wasn't remotely erotic – Steve's body was too exhausted and frozen to respond even if he'd wanted it to – but the sudden memory of Jan's naked breasts, small and high, with nipples drawn tight against the cold air that had blown in through the open door, was... awkward.
How had he missed the fact that she was topless when he and Tony had first collapsed into the cabin?
Tony had been so still on the floor, as white and cold as that boy in France, and he'd been so tired. Was still so tired...
Steve blinked, forcing himself fully awake, and the world lurched back into focus.
"I've already seen you naked." Tony's voice was slow, and a little slurred, making him sound faintly drunk. "Don is a doctor, and Steve's enough of a boyscout that he probably didn't even look."
"That's very helpful, Tony." Jan patted Tony's arm, her fingers brushing against Steve's skin.
Tony was shivering harder now, his body wracked with shudders violent enough to make Steve shake along with him – or maybe that was his own body, still trying to warm itself back up. "Everyone's seen me naked." Steve could hear Tony's teeth chattering, but the words themselves were still unconcerned. "Mostly naked."
"And we're all very glad you're wearing actual underwear this time." Don's voice in his ear again. His breath burned against Steve's skin, painfully hot. Steve breathed in through his nose and tried to ignore the way his ears, hands, and feet were throbbing in time to his heartbeat.
That was good, he reminded himself. It meant blood was flowing back into them.
Jan yawned. "Even in underwear, it was a pretty nice view," she said, too much tiredness in her tone for it to actually be flirtatious. "Cap might be a boy scout, but I was never a girl scout. And considering how cold Cap was when Don helped strip his clothes off him," this slightly louder, so that Steve couldn't miss it even with Tony lying between them, "I have to say, I am extremely impressed."
Steve's ears and face were burning enough already from the cold that blushing was superfluous. Having Jan announce that in mildly amused tones, with Don and Tony right there listening – even if Tony wasn't entirely coherent at the moment – wasn't at all the same as having Sharon say it while backing him against a wall, unconscious HYDRA agents littering the floor around them and fifteen minutes to kill before they had to meet back up with Fury and Sam.
"Very nice view," Tony agreed vaguely.
Okay, now that was just unfair. Lying mostly naked under a blanket wrapped around a mostly-naked Tony was a form of subtle torture that rivaled the throbbing in his slowly-thawing feet. Lying wrapped around a naked Tony who was coming on to him was more than any man ought to be expected to endure.
His body still considered getting warm a much higher priority than sex, though. Even with the heavy weight of the blankets over them trapping Don and Jan's body heat, the cold hadn't left his bones. It was going to take more than a few hours of warmth to drive it away.
Steve held onto to Tony more tightly – for warmth, holding him for warmth was completely acceptable – and tried not to think about ice and explosions and Bucky dying. His was so tired that he felt almost as if he were floating, his eyes sliding shut again of their own accord.
"You didn't see anything," he told Tony, focusing on the act of speaking to keep himself awake.
Tony sighed, shifting closer until his head was resting against Steve's shoulder, the tip of his nose a small spot of ice against Steve's neck. "No," he said indistinctly, sounding as if he found this deeply unfair. He was quiet for a long moment after that, and Steve started to suspect that he'd fallen asleep, until he spoke again, the dreamy note in his voice replaced by strain, "God, my hands. My feet. m'I going to lose anything?"
"We'll have to wait and see, but I don't think so." Don sounded confident, not like a man handing out empty reassurances, and Steve felt something within himself relax.
Tony's hands were too important to suffer permanent damage. Everything he did, from typing arcane commands into a computer keyboard to adjusting minuscule bits of circuitry, depended on the dexterity in those long, clever fingers. In his own way, he was a kind of artist.
Tony swore softly, the sound halfway to a moan, then mumbled, "I'll build... cyborg hands..." the words trailing off into deep, even breathing.
Tony's head was heavy against his shoulder, his mustache prickly. He was still shivering, but less violently now, and Steve felt something inappropriately like protectiveness as his shifted closer, trying to burrow into Steve.
When he'd tried to convince Steve to leave him behind in the snow, Tony had said that he loved him. The idea was both comforting and painful, like the pulsing heat in Steve's fingers and toes. Tony had given up, if only for a few moments, and that wasn't right. It wasn't like the man Steve knew, who'd fought his way out of imprisonment, refused to acknowledge his failing heart, and argued with Steve over how to handle supervillain after supervillain. Tony was a little too fond of expediency, and it was disconcerting to see him apply that to himself.
And he'd told Steve he loved him. Tonywasn't given to sappy displays of emotion – at least, not when he wasn't hiding behind Iron Man's helmet. He must have been barely coherent, or truly believed that they were about to die.
Hearing it shouldn't have been a surprise – in a lot of ways his teammates and friends were his family, and if pressed, Steve would have admitted that he loved them all. Thor's solid dignity and enthusiasm in a fight, Wanda's determination, Jan's good humor and surprising flashes of practicality, Vision's careful logic, Clint's brash confidence and his grin that sometimes reminded Steve of Bucky. Sam's willingness to point out whenever Steve was being an idiot, and the way he shared Steve's sense of humor, and had his own strong sense of right and wrong.
Tony... Tony was different. At some point, he'd become more than just a friend and teammate. Hearing him acknowledge even a part of that feeling in return was...
Was too complicated to think about right now. Like Tony's frozen nose against his neck and his legs tangled with Steve's, it should have been awkward or uncomfortable. Right now, though, he was warm and safe, and his team was safe, and he didn't want to move.
He could hear Jan and Don talking quietly, the slightly embarrassed jokes replaced by something more serious, but the words had begun fading in and out. Something about whether Tony's armor could be found and if it would still have a functioning communicator in it. Steve thought about telling them that it did, but the intent didn't quite make it into words.
"-bottom of a river, for all we know," Jan said, and that was the last thing he heard.
* * *
Tony woke up with Steve's arms wrapped around him, his face pressed into Steve's neck and Steve's legs tangled with his. He could feel Jan lying against his back, one of her small, cold feet tucked against his calf muscle. His hands and feet throbbed, and he had only vague memories of everything that had happened after falling into the river. Somehow, Steve must have gotten them to the cabin.
He remembered crawling out of the water, remembered stumbling through the snow, a handful of fuzzy snapshots of bone-numbing cold and exhaustion, and then a vague impression of heat, and his hands and feet burning. There had been an explosion, and an avalanche, and-
He wasn't wearing anything but his underwear, and neither was Steve. And while he couldn't remember much else from the previous night, he distinctly remembered the feel of naked female breasts pressed against his back.
Tony opened his eyes to a blurred impression of wind-burned skin and blond stubble. He'd been drooling onto Steve's neck, the side of his face mashed into Steve's collarbone.
There went one more chance to impress Steve. Tony usually considered it a point of pride to make sure that everyone he shared a bed with went away well satisfied. Passing out on Captain America and drooling all over him was not what he'd had in planned in the event that he ever got lucky enough to have Steve in his bed.
He might as well salvage what was left of the situation, preferably by disentangling himself from Steve before certain portions of his anatomy woke up the rest of the way. Steve's leg thrust between his and his hand on Tony's back were stimulation enough that he was already half-hard, and from the toes poking him in the back of the leg and the tousled blond head he could see over Steve's shoulder, they had company.
Pulling away and rolling onto his back hurt, every muscle in his body protesting at a night spent on the floor on top of the battering he'd received the previous day. Tony groaned, and pulled a hand out from under the blankets to rub at his eyes.
That had been a mistake, he decided, hissing through his teeth as pain jolted through his hands.
His fingers were bandaged, wrapped loosely in what looked like standard first aid kit gauze. Underneath it, they felt swollen and sore, as if they were twice their normal size.
The thought of what might be under those bandages wilted his half-formed erection almost instantly. Visions of blackened fingertips and dead skin sloughing away from flesh flashed vividly in his mind's eye, and he lifted his left wrist to his mouth, tugging at the edge of the bandage with his teeth.
Steve's hand closed around his wrist almost too quickly for Tony to track the movement.
"I thought you were asleep." His throat felt raw, the words coming out in a croak.
"I was." Steve pushed himself up onto his elbow, letting go of Tony's wrist to rub at his face. "Then you moved." His fingers were bandaged, too, and Tony's stomach lurched at the angry-looking red skin visible at the edges of the white gauze. How mangled were his hands, under those bandages? Steve was an artist; he'd hate losing any sensation or range of motion to frostbite.
There was a groan from his left, and then Jan's head emerged from beneath the blankets, her hair tangled from sleep. "I hate sleeping on the ground," she muttered, rubbing at her eyes with both hands and causing the blanket to slip interestingly low across her chest. "And I smell. Why couldn't this place have a shower?"
"Does it have food?" Steve sounded almost cheerful, freakishly so for a man who'd spent half the night on the floor of a shack after almost freezing to death.
"No." Jan shook her head, then leaned over to peer at Tony. "You look much better than you did last night. How are your feet?"
"Don't ask." Tony thought about crawling out from under the blankets to check on them, then rejected the idea. Considering how much just moving his fingers had hurt, getting up and walking was going to be... unpleasant. His feet had taken more of a battering than his hands. Putting his weight on them was probably not a good idea.
Getting up and walking was going to be unavoidable eventually, though. Did this cabin have a bathroom, or were they going to be reduced to going outside to find a convenient snowdrift?
"How long have we been here?" he asked.
"A few hours?" Steve said, sounding less than certain.
"Overnight, I think." Jan nodded at the cabin's small window, where a thin grey light was filtering in through a screen of snow. She turned her back to them and slid out from under the blanket, revealing black underwear and a lot of bare skin. The light wasn't bright enough to see the scar under her shoulder blade, courtesy of Count Nefaria's bullet, but that and the tiny red birthmark on her the back of her left hip were about the only things that weren't visible.
She reached for her costume, which lay spread out on the floor in front of the stove, and Steve dug his elbow into Tony's side.
Tony turned away, dropping his eyes back down to his hands to give her some privacy, and then wished he hadn't. "Your hands-" he began, gesturing carefully at Steve.
"They're all right." Steve's lips curved slightly. "In better shape than yours, anyway."
Beyond Steve, the lump of blankets that Tony assumed was Don Blake – it was too small to be Thor – twitched slightly. "Will you three be quiet? I'm trying to sleep."
"Sorry," Steve apologized.
There was a brief pause, and then Don rolled over, grimacing, and blinked blearily at them. "How do you feel?"
"Fine." The reply was automatic. And compared to the way he remembered feeling earlier, it was even true. He might be stiff and in pain and possibly frostbitten, but that was better than dying in the snow.
"Much better," Steve said.
Don squinted at him, then at Tony, the look in his eyes considering. "I should check your hands and feet for proper blood-flow."
"Tony first. Then we need to start thinking about how we're going to get out of here."
"I don't suppose either of you has a working communicator?" Jan asked, without turning around.
"Sorry," Steve said. "I lost mine in the avalanche, and Tony's is at the bottom of a river."
"I got through to the Scarlet Witch before I lost it, but the transmission was cut off by interference from the storm." And any chance to contact her again was sitting under several feet of water now.
A little of the slump left Jan's shoulders. "At least the rest of the team knows something's wrong, then. They'll be looking for us." She was zipping up the back of her costume, pulling the zipper all the way from the small of her back to the base of her neck with a fluid ease that Tony could only envy. He had bruised something in his left shoulder during the avalanche, or maybe pulled it – at this rate, he was going to be a wreck before he hit thirty. Even more of a wreck, that was.
It would still be better than not living to see thirty.
"It's a very big mountain," Don pointed out. He sounded somewhere between dry and apologetic, as if he wanted to let himself be hopeful but couldn't quite manage it. Apparently Thor had gotten the lion's share of the optimism in that relationship.
"We could go get my armor out of the river," Tony suggested, only half seriously. "The electronics are designed to survive immersion in water."
Steve shook his head, the movement sharp and decisive. "I don't think more wandering around in the snow is a good idea."
"It's about the fastest way to ensure that one of you permanently damages your hands or feet. Refreezing them is the last thing you want to do." Don was sitting up now, rubbing at his knee with one hand; he looked nearly as tired as Tony felt.
Tony's hands and feet returning to being numb with cold would actually have felt very good at the moment, but this was Don's field, and if he believed that there was a risk Tony could destroy his hands by going back out into the snow, then rescuing his armor would have to be an emergency measure only. No matter how uneasy the thought of it sitting unprotected on the bottom of a stream bed made him.
A drink would have been really nice about now, just one or two to take the edge off the throbbing in his fingers and make ignoring the thought of his armor falling into someone else's hands easier.
Mixing hypothermia and frostbite with alcohol was seven kinds of stupidity, Tony reminded himself. Even if he wasn't trying to go cold turkey, he wouldn't have been able to drink anything right now.
Don levered himself up, visibly wincing as he got to his feet. Spending the night on the floor after the battering they'd all taken yesterday was probably the last thing his leg had needed. Tony carefully didn't watch him as he limped over to collect his clothes, remembering how the constant concerned looks he'd gotten while recovering from heart surgery had grated.
He should probably get dressed as well. At the very least, he should get out from under the blanket and away from Steve, before he gave into the temptation to just lie back down and wrap himself around Steve's mostly naked and deliciously warm body again.
Tony settled for pulling one foot out from under the blanket and examining it. It was swathed in bandages from toes to ankle, the gauze pulled tight across his skin; either Don had decided to wrap him up as if he were stabilizing a sprained ankle, or his foot was swollen under there. Probably the latter.
Clear fluid had seeped through the bandaging in a few places, and there was a spot of blood over his heel. He didn't remember stepping on anything sharp, but last night had turned into a blur of cold and exhaustion long before they'd reached the cabin.
The skin on the back of his neck began to prickle with the feeling of being watched, and Tony looked up to find Steve frowning at him.
"We should wait here for help to arrive," Steve said, tone indicating that it wasn't a suggestion. "Like Don said, it's a big mountain, but this cabin is one of the first places Wanda and Vision will look." He started to rub a hand through his hair, winced, and carefully lowered the hand to his lap again. "You should lie down again," he told Tony, voice softening from confident command to something less certain. "We'll probably be here a while, and you need the rest."
The temptation to argue was immediate, but Tony settled for simply shrugging and pulling the blanket up over his legs again. Steve had to be just as tired as he was – he looked it, his lips cracked and his eyes smudged with bruised-looking shadows. "Is my shirt dry?"
Jan leaned down and picked it up, running the fabric through her hands for a moment before tossing it to him. "It feels dry."
It also felt warm, though the thin fabric would lose its heat fast now that it was away from the fire. Tony shrugged into it, then spent a long moment staring down at the row of buttons, acutely aware of how stiff his fingers were. An open shirt was better than no shirt, he decided, and let it go.
Then he drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and got to his feet to go make use of the cabin's facilities.
Walking sent stabbing pains through his feet with every step, and by the time he was lowering himself back down into the nest of blankets again, there was sweat prickling along his spine.
He and Steve had walked for over a mile yesterday, possibly several miles, with Steve half-carrying his dead weight by the end of it. In retrospect, he wasn't sure how they had done it.
"You should get some more rest, too," Tony said.
Steve was pulling his pants back on, his jaw tightening every time he had to shift all of his weight to one foot. The blue leather was sticking to his skin in a way that suggested that it was still damp, and wrestling it on seemed to take most of Steve's concentration. It left Tony free to watch him, so even though he personally would have let the costume dry more thoroughly before putting it back on, he refrained from pointing that out. Even if he'd mentioned it, Steve wasn't likely to choose sitting around naked over clothing when clothing was an option.
"You know," Jan observed, when Steve had finished fastening his belt and come to sit by her in front of the wood stove, "there's a reason none of my costumes have ever involved leather."
"You put Hank in that Goliath outfit with the leather bondage straps across his chest." The words felt awkward in Tony's mouth, and he immediately wished he hadn't said them. He must still be more out of it than he thought if he was bringing up Hank.
They didn't talk about Hank anymore, not to Jan. Even during his brief, two-week fling with her, Tony had tried to mention him as little as possible.
They should have noticed that something was wrong. It shouldn't have taken Jan's black eye and a disastrous fight that nearly got half the team killed to get them to finally realize that something had been deeply wrong with Hank.
The Avengers had promised not to interfere in one another's personal lives. It was an attempt at protecting one another's privacy that Tony had capitalized on more than once, when he'd been trying to manage his heart problems and conceal his identity as Tony Stark, but sometimes it meant that they missed things they shouldn't have.
At least they'd also failed to notice his drinking. The fact that he had apparently managed to keep it from affecting his performance as Iron Man had been one of the few things that had let him keep some sliver of self-respect after Bethany had finished knocking sense back into him. A few more months without her intervention, and he could have ended up as much of a danger to his teammates as Hank had, and without even the excuse of scrambled brain chemistry.
"I was young and foolish," Jan said, the humor leaving her voice.
There was an awkward pause, and then Steve said, just a little too brightly, "I think it's stopped snowing."
Subtlety was not always one of Steve's strong points.
Tony drew in a breath to point out that the smoke from the cabin's wood stove wouldn't be visible from the quinjet unless the ceiling raised itself at least a thousand feet and found himself yawning instead. His entire body still ached, his hands and feet throbbing a hot counterpoint to the dull pain of bruises and stiff muscles. He'd felt less battered after hours' worth of fighting the Mandarin or Titanium Man.
And he had had the protection of the armor when the snow had hit him. The others hadn't had that luxury.
Falling into that stream had been an unforgivably stupid mistake. If he hadn't been forced to discard his armor, he could be working on rewiring the circuitry and repairing the jet boots right now. Tony could have flown the rest of the team out himself, one at a time, with no need to wait for Vision and Wanda to show up and rescue them. And Steve wouldn't be facing possible damage to his fingers. Neither would Tony, for that matter.
"The ceiling's too low for them to spot us from the air unless they're scanning for heat sources." Tony yawned again, and forced himself to sit up a little straighter. "If I had any part of my armor, I could set up some kind of beacon, but as it is..." He let the words trail off. Pointing out what his clumsy dive into the water had cost them wasn't necessary; the others all knew it as well as he did.
Don looked up from the coffee mug he had been staring into and frowned at Tony. "We are not going back out and getting your armor."
"I didn't suggest it." Being half-frozen hadn't removed his common sense – pin-pointing the exact spot where he'd lost the armor would be next to impossible without proper equipment. There was no way of knowing how long he and Steve had wandered around after they had crawled out of the water, or how many circles they'd walked in.
Not too many – Steve would have kept them going in a far straighter line than most people would have been able to manage – but it was cold outside and warm in here, and none of them were in immediate danger.
His armor could wait. He wasn't going to risk his teammates' well-being over it. Doom wasn't likely to be out there looking for it right now, not when the storm had only just ended.
The others were still talking, he realized abruptly, as Steve's voice said his name.
"Sorry," he apologized. "What were you saying?"
"Lie back down before you fall over." Steve smiled at him, a familiar grin that warmed something inside Tony even though he could see the strain still lurking around Steve's eyes. He sounded affectionate, even slightly amused. It was a tone Steve had used with Iron Man often, but only rarely with Tony Stark.
Most of the previous night post-stream disaster was a blur, but Tony distinctly remembered asking Steve to leave him. Only the knowledge that he was slowing Steve down had gotten him back to his feet the first few times he had fallen, and even that source of energy had eventually run out. If it hadn't been for Steve's overwhelming stubbornness...
It reminded him of Bethany, in a way, or maybe Bethany had reminded him of Steve. Both of them had saved him. Neither of them would have had room for him in their life.
It was unfair for Steve to smile at him that way without the armor between them.
The floor felt slightly softer this time around; Tony closed his eyes, and didn't bother to protest when Jan made a snide comment to the effect that he clearly must be tired if he was willing to follow advice.
He'd started to drift off, almost everything but Steve's presence just beside him slowly fading out of his awareness, when he heard the distinct whine of a quinjet's double engines.
* * *
It was warm in the quinjet, and despite the fact that it was substantially brighter than the cabin, Steve was half-asleep within minutes of taking off. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sink into the padded quinjet seat; instead he forced himself awake, glancing around the cabin to check on his teammates.
Tony was slumped in his seat, eyes closed, a thermos of hot cocoa cradled loosely between his hands. He'd been only half-awake when they'd stumbled into the quinjet, barely moving under his own power and groggily insisting that they get his armor back before they left the mountain. Steve had tried to take some of his weight, but then Vision had appeared on Tony's other side and told Steve that he had Tony, and Steve should concentrate on helping himself right now. "You're injured," he'd said. "Let me help him," and Steve had, reluctantly, obeyed.
Jan looked equally exhausted, huddling in a blanket and staring silently into space with the dazed look of someone who'd pushed herself past her limits.
Don was leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees, and arguing the logistics of fetching Thor's hammer out of the ravine with the back of Vision's head. Fetching the Iron Man armor had been easy, a simple matter of pinpointing it with the quinjet's instruments and sending Vision down to rescue it from the water. Retrieving Mjolnir sounded like it was going to be something of a problem.
"You're going to have to get me down to it somehow. No one else can lift it."
"The bottom of the ravine is too uneven for the quinjet to land safely." Vision sounded unruffled and slightly detached, as he almost always did. "I'll have to fly you down myself."
"Yeah, I thought so." Don grimaced. "I hate having other people fly me around – no offense, Vision." He sighed, looking tired and worn-down. "Sorry about this. If I hadn't dropped it down the ravine in the first place, Thor would have been able to get himself and Jan safely out of the blizzard, and probably been able to rescue Cap and Tony, too."
Assigning blame after the fact wasn't going to do anyone any good, especially when it was needless blame. "I saw Thor grab for Jan just before the avalanche hit," Steve said. "Neither of you had a chance to get the hammer back."
Don shrugged, looking only partly mollified. "I could have kept a better grip on it in the first place."
"And I could have not blown us up." Tony spoke without opening his eyes, the words slow and distant.
"And Doom could have decided not to be an egocentric psychopath in an ugly mask," Jan added tartly.
"No, egocentric psychopath is his core personality." Wanda twisted in the copilot's seat to look back over her shoulder at them. "We're just inside the Transian border. In this part of the mountains, it's not surprising you had bad luck all around. This part of the Carpathians is supposed to be cursed; it's probably why Doom chose to perform his ritual here."
They should have brought Wanda with them, Steve thought absently. She knew more about magic and rituals than anyone else currently on the Avengers, and she knew the area. "At least we stopped him," he observed. "Things could have gone a lot worse." On the other hand, if Wanda had come with them, there would have been no one who knew the area to help rescue them. Vision might not have been able to find them on his own.
"Indeed they could have," Vision agreed. "We were afraid the worst had happened when we lost your distress signal in the storm. I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner."
"We're just glad you got here. We would have been in real trouble if you hadn't shown up." Steve let his head fall back against the back of his seat, and stared up at the quinjet's metal ceiling. There was a line of rivets directly overhead, and a bundle of coated wiring that branched off into a half-dozen smaller tributaries, each leading to a different piece of instrumentation. Tony must have been re-wiring or overhauling the plane's systems before they'd left; the guts of the quinjet weren't usually visible like this.
There was quiet for a while, broken only by the soothing drone of the engines. Tony gradually slumped further down in his seat, his breathing slowing into the even rhythm of sleep.
Across the aisle from Steve, Don was dozing as well. Jan had shrunken down and flown forward, probably moving just for the sake of keeping herself awake, and was now perched on the back of Wanda's chair, speaking to her and Vision in low tones. Steve couldn't make out what they were saying beyond the occasional word, but he wasn't really listening. It was nice to let someone else take charge for a change.
His head buzzed with exhaustion, but every time he started to fall asleep, the slow throb in his fingers and toes pulled him back. It was a wonder that Tony was able to sleep so deeply; his hands and feet were in worse shape than Steve's, including one gash on his heel that Don had predicted would need stitches.
Had he imagined it, or had Tony been half flirting with him last night? All those comments about liking Steve naked, and the unfairness of not getting a good look at him – Tony hadn't been coherent enough to make jokes, not at that stage of punch-drunk exhaustion.
He'd heard rumors that Tony Stark's love life occasionally included men, but Steve had always dismissed that as made-up celebrity gossip. It wasn't like there was a dearth of that when it came to Tony, and rumors of bisexuality seemed to be almost standard for the supposedly debauched rich and famous these days. Some things, it seemed, didn't change with time.
The fact that Tony – that Iron Man – might return his interest wasn't a possibility he'd ever seriously contemplated.
In some ways, it had been much less complicated when Steve hadn't known who was behind Iron Man's helmet, when he'd still been safely unattainable. Tony Stark was frighteningly breakable, capable of being hurt in ways a faceless suit of armor wasn't. He drank too much, or at least, he had, and slept with his own teammates while lying to them about who he was, and was entirely too cavalier about both his safety and other people's feelings.
He was also stubbornly brave, more brilliant with machines than anyone else Steve had ever known, and...
The plane banked sharply to the left, jerking Steve out of the light doze he had drifted in to. Vision must be taking them down to hover in the ravine.
Another twenty minutes or so, and they'd be on their way out of here and back home, where Tony could get his feet seen to and Steve could sleep for a week.
They'd earned it. The aftermath of the mission might have been an unqualified disaster, but they had at least stopped Doom. And kept one another from dying.
He hadn't lost anyone this time, despite coming far too close to it.
Tony ought to have known there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that Steve would leave him behind – anymore than Tony himself would have left a friend to die. More than a friend; even without the armor, Tony was still Iron Man, still the same man whose voice was the first thing Steve had heard when he'd come out of the ice. His knight in shining armor, whose frustrating dedication to Tony Stark had always been a continual source of jealousy.
Maybe he hadn't dismissed those rumors as completely as he'd tried to tell himself he had.
If they were true, if Tony really was a fellow queer, then all those fantasies about Tony sweaty and shirtless and smeared with machine oil, and all that hopeless crushing on Iron Man might not be quite so hopeless. Not that Sharon potentially returning his interest had made approaching her any easier, but considering that he'd actually made a floundering attempt at starting a relationship with her, well, he was getting better at it. He'd never gotten up the courage to try anything with Betsy, back during the war, and she'd been a good friend.
Tony cared about him as a friend, too, and unlike Betsy, seemed to actually be attracted to him, and that was a good basis for a relationship, wasn't it? And he was getting ahead of himself now. First, maybe he ought to start by with flirting back.
Later. After they got back to New York, and his hands and feet stopped throbbing and itching so much. And after that pale, bruised look left Tony's face.
For now, he was going to close his eyes and let Wanda and Vision take them home.