Tony dropped into the pilot’s rigging with a curse, struggling for the harnessing that would keep him secure to the helm as the ship pitched. Just out of sight, The Iron Avenger’s wings creaked and complained, weighed down and glistening with ice, while they slowly lost altitude.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he said over the comms, as if he wasn’t fighting the controls to keep them aloft, “Please mind your arms and legs, and hold onto your asses. I am not responsible for any lost body parts.”
The airship dropped another ten feet, the cold air reducing the gas volume in the balloons and putting yet more strain on the already over-worked wings. On his dash, the display flickered an alarmed red. Tony wrenched a hand away from the wheel and spread his fingers wide over the wing controls, burning the constructs hard. He could feel them tugging at him, a subtle pull on his chest that let him know that they were nearly at their limits. To his left, the finder hesitated over the map, drifting away from the marked point, and then arrowed back. It had been slipping back and forth for days, as if unsure of its results, something it had never done before. Tony would think it were broken if it wasn’t his own excellent engineering, but he was curious to know why his finder thought one of his workings was in the water off the coast of Greenland.
“Stark, are you drunk?” Clint called up from the lower deck, “Hold it steady!”
“Oh, sure,” Tony muttered, “Keep us from plunging to an icy death, and don’t let the ship move while doing it.” He rose his voice, “This is as close and you’re going to get, drop the sub.”
Barely visible in the communications mirror with the curve of the balloon above her shoulder, Natasha shifted forward against the straps and gave Clint a thumbs-up through the window. Clint threw the lever, sending the small submersible plummeting into the freezing water. Tony felt the constructs worked into the submersible’s metal casing tug at him as they activated, keeping her craft warm, pressurized, and airtight. Tony imagined her under the water, imagined himself under the water and his pulse flickered, his vision going gray around the edges. He banished the thought with a sharp shake of his head and made himself focus on the task of keeping the ship in the air. He might have an issue with water, but he’d beaten that phobia nearly to death and couldn’t afford to pay any attention to it.
Leaning over the mirror, Natasha asked, “You hear me, Stark?”
“Clear as a crystal bell, muffin,” Tony answered, watching her out of the corner of his eye. Above her head, the water was the color of dead flesh, gray and speckled white. He knew the submersible was probably the safest watercraft on the face of the planet with all the geometric constructs inscribed into the bulkheads, but he’d never tested it in water at negative twenty-six degrees Celcius with the craft still tethered to the ship. She obviously didn’t share his concerns, and was comfortable in the pilot’s chair, strapped forward over the padded seat so that her eyes were level with the viewing port.
A gust of wind buffeted the airship, making the port wings shudder. Tony wedged his shoulder against the wheel to hold it steady and dragged his fingers over the wing controls. The constructs carved into the side of the ship hissed and set up fine wisps of smoke into the morning air. The wheel began to slip, but Clint vaulted over the helm and caught it just before Tony lost control. He pressed himself tight to Tony’s side and threw his weight against the wheel.
“I’ve got it,” he said through gritted teeth. “Get the wings.”
Tony jerked away from the wheel and slammed his bare hands onto the red circles of geometry glowing hot on the console, sucking in a sharp breath at the heat of it searing into his palms. His construct tattoos awoke up and down his arms, inching across his shoulders and down his spine. He arched into the heat of it and closed his eyes to fall into the working, picking apart the threads to target the anti-frost constructs inscribed deep into the spines of the wings. He fed them energy and felt them burn, melting the ice gathering on the flexible membrane.
“Nat, maybe you should move a little less leisurely, how ‘bout it?” Clint prompted through gritted teeth as the wind jerked them sideways once more. Tony felt the motion of the ship like it was his own body, heard Clint’s voice distantly buzzing in his ear, a faint sound under the whistle of the wind.
“I’m sightseeing,” Natasha responded vaguely.
Tony pulled enough attention away from the wings to lift a hand off the left display, and ran two fingers over the line that represented the cord tethering her to the ship. The construct set in the pulley assembly sent a ripple of energy down the length to keep the cord supple and free of frost.
“Your oxygen is running low,” Tony warned, darting his eyes over the indicators for her craft. “I can only give you a few more minutes at most.”
Tony looked up at the mirror. Natasha swiveled her mirror around to face the viewport, showing a chunk of cloudy ice with a dark shadow at the center. He flicked his thumb over the mirror, and the image spun, stopping again on a narrow view of the engineering bay.
Whistling, he sing-songed, “Brucey, hey, there, how are you? Having a good time?”
“Oh, a grand time,” Bruce responded distractedly, just his head and shoulders visible in the mirror as he knelt in the center of a circle with his hands on the floor. “I can steer the downdrafts away all day, just take your time.”
“Keep up the good work, love you, Greenbean.” Tony blew an absentminded kiss at the mirror and flipped it back to Natasha. “If you can’t have it up in two minutes, we’re going to pull you out of there,” he warned.
“I can make it,” she said unhurriedly. Tony watched the bright blue rays of the submersible’s lasers cutting the section away from the larger block. Clawed mechanical arms reached up and caught the ice as it drifted free, dragging it out of the mirror’s range.
“Bring her up,” Tony ordered, yanking his hands away from the wing controls and catching the wheel. Clint hovered a moment to make sure Tony had control of it and launched back over the helm. He caught the railing and dropped over the side, exactly like he shouldn’t on an icy deck. Clint hit the lower deck and slid, windmilling his arms to regain his balance. He recovered well and skated the remaining yards to the prow of the ship, where he caught the railing and yanked the lever to drag the submersible back up.
Tony shivered faintly in the cold air as the heat of the constructs faded from his hands and left them stinging on the polished handles of the wheel. His tattoos darkened, fading under his skin, and he rolled his shoulders to displace the discomfort. On the console, the wing displays cooled back to black lines cut into the polished wood, and the ship fought him. He strained against the wheel to hold the vessel steady while the pulley system dragged the submersible back onboard.
Waiting only as long as it took to get the submersible tethered back to its mooring so it wasn’t functioning like an anchor, Tony released the tension on the wheel and let the wind bear them toward land. The block of ice thunked to the deck and slammed into the stairwell. Natasha popped the canopy on the submersible and slithered out of the pilot’s rigging like an eel, dropping gracefully to the deck and sliding across it like a dancer, running straight into Clint’s arms. He caught her easily, steadying her on the pitching deck.
“Get it below and start defrost,” Tony called over the rail, adjusting for the wind and burning his constructs to keep them aloft while the ice block slid across the deck. Clint and Natasha caught it with hooks and maneuvered it to the cargo door, where Bruce would meet them to thaw out their find in the lab.
Leaning on the wheel, Tony reached out and flicked the mirror back to Bruce. “Bruce, give me engine power. The deadly duo are on their way below with our icicle. You up for it?”
“Your weather constructs are easy to power, Tony, I’ll be fine,” Bruce answered calmly, “Are you going to be alright on the wheel alone?”
“Think I can’t handle my own ship, Big Green?” Tony asked, but the ship tugged at him, the wind pulling them constantly east. “Send Barton back up when you’re done with him.”
“Sure,” Bruce answered. He climbed off the floor and let the construct at his feet go dark, leaving the engineering bay in a smoldering red glow, and Tony alone at the wheel.
Tony swiped his hand across the mirror to disconnect it. Unseen, the geometry scratched into the back of the mirror went cold, and Tony settled into the pilot’s rigging, letting it take his weight. He was exhausted in the wake of keeping the ship still in such inhospitable weather, the muscles in his arms and back weak from exertion. His tattoos were all cold and silent under his flesh, only the burning pulse of the construct embedded in his chest working to keep him warm in the wind. He risked setting a hand to his chest, feeling the vibration of the arc reactor under his jacket, a hot reminder of three months in a cold cave having his understanding of the world changed. Eighty-seven pieces of his engineering had fallen off of Stark Industries trucks and into the wrong hands, putting his name on the deaths of thousands of innocents. He’d retrieved only twelve, but he meant to track every single one of them down.
It was six miserably cold hours before Tony felt comfortable leaving the wheel. Lounging in the rigging with a whittling knife and a block of balsa wood, Clint looked up when Tony pulled his glove off with his teeth.
“Gonna do a strip tease for me, Stark?” Clint asked with a wink and a leer.
Tony blew him a kiss over his shoulder. “Sure thing, sweetheart. You first.”
Clint snorted, shook his head, and returned to his whittling. Ignoring the flirting, Tony set his hand to the auto-navigation construct. A series of interlocking lines below his ribs warmed as Tony set the craft on course for New York and finally took his hand away from the wheel. He watched for several seconds to make sure the working had taken hold, and then slid his glove back on.
“Watch the sky, don’t-”
“Touch anything shiny, call you if anything catches fire.” Clint gave him a jaunty salute with the tip of the blade along with a bright grin, and set the knife back to the woodblock, chipping out a precise wedge. “Make Nat bring me some hot cocoa, would you?”
Tony snorted. “In what universe do you think I try to make Natasha do anything?” He turned to leave, but Clint gave him such a pitiful look that he offered, “I’ll ask her if I see her, and only if she isn’t carrying anything sharp.”
“She’s always carrying something sharp,” Clint protested.
“Exactly.” Tony smirked at him and dodged a flying wood chip. He clattered down the stairs and shoved the door open, groaning in relief as warm air wrapped around him. Resealing the door behind him, he took a second to relax into the warmth. The months of torture had left him with joints that stiffened in the cold, and the space around his arc reactor still ached when it was damp. He rubbed at the reactor absently, taking deep breaths of the dry air before pushing away from the door.
The inside of the ship was a close tangle of corridors, a perfect melding of metal and wood, every inch of it carefully inscribed with geometric constructs and imbued with Tony’s personal signature. He had more blood and energy in The Iron Avenger than he did in his own body. He hesitated at the intersection between the major corridors – left would take him to his own cabin, right would take him down to Bruce’s lab. His cabin promised dry clothing and his bunk, but the mysterious chunk of ice called to him. He consoled himself with the certain knowledge that Bruce would have coffee on hand and turned right.
“Barton promised to do all your laundry for a month if you bring him hot cocoa,” Tony said casually as he passed Natasha in the hall, and he could almost feel her wicked-cat grin on the back of his neck. Clint would get him back, but it would be worth it see him hanging all of Natasha’s underwear from the lines.
Bruce came charging up the stairs just as Tony reached the top, and they collided in a mess of canvas and curses. Tony just barely managed to catch Bruce and brace a foot on the bulkhead to keep them from tumbling down the narrow stairs. Bruce ended up bent backwards over his knee in a near-perfect dip, clutching Tony’s shoulders to balance himself.
“Why yes, dear,” Tony declared dramatically, “I will marry you.” He swooped down and planted a messy kiss on Bruce’s lips. “Not even going to struggle?” he pouted when he pulled away, disappointed.
“Would there be a point?” Bruce hiked an eyebrow, one corner of his lips curling up into a smile that always read like an escape from the usual neutral lines. Tony righted him and resettled his oversized button-up shirt. He was dressed in his normal fashion – shirt two sizes too large, and rumpled as if he’d slept in it (he might have), sleeves rolled up past the elbow, pants too large and cinched to his waist with a belt that was too long, shoes scuffed with the laces tucked in to keep them from trailing. Tony wondered, not for the first time, if Bruce honestly didn’t think about how he dressed, or if he did it intentionally to appear less threatening.
“In a hurry?” Tony prompted finally, reaching up to fix Bruce’s crooked buttons. Bruce let him, but then batted his hands away and waved at him to follow, excitement lighting up his features.
“You really need to see this. I was just coming up to get you,” he exclaimed, looking over his shoulder to make sure Tony was following.
“Is it a unicorn?” Tony asked, “You know, I always secretly wanted a unicorn. My dad would have skinned me alive if he knew.” Tony grinned. “Probably rolling over in his grave right now,” he added with a smug smile.
Bruce gave him a look of fond exasperation. “If it was a unicorn, it wouldn’t be coming anywhere near you.”
Tony tipped his head side-to-side. “Point,” he conceded. “So if it’s not a unicorn, what is it?”
“I think the better question is who,” Bruce said cryptically. He pushed his glasses up his nose and gestured to the door behind him as if Tony didn’t know the way to Bruce’s lab. Tony followed him into a bright space of clean lines, the latest scientific equipment sitting next to superstitious symbols scribbled on parchment, religious icons, and colored candles. Like usual, Tony barely resisted rolling his eyes as he stepped through the door. He loved Bruce like a brother, and there was no better augmented chemist than Bruce Banner, but as well as being a doctor, Bruce called himself an alchemistriest, mixing real chemistry with superstition. It made Tony sad at the waste of Bruce’s beautiful mind, and exasperated in equal measures.
The center of the lab was taken up by a tall metal table with the ice whittled down from the unwieldy chunk Natasha had pulled out of the sea, to a roughly even block measuring approximately seven-by-four-by-two. It looked unnervingly like a coffin. Bruce picked up a container of warm water and poured it over the block’s surface, sloughing away the frost.
“Huh.” Tony tipped his head and walked around the block. Encased in the ice was a round beauty of a shield painted in red, white, and blue rings with a silver star emblazoned on the center. Just under the shield, a man of about six feet lay as though asleep, dressed in knee-high riding boots, a long midnight blue coat open over a cream vest, and an unmistakable silver star set into the middle of his white combat harness. Tony followed the line of brass buttons up his chest and stared disbelieving at an unexpectedly familiar face. He took the pitcher of hot water from Bruce and splashed it over the block again, running a hand sharply across it.
He felt the tattoos over his ribs and back twist and rise, recognizing a sympathetic signature beneath the ice. The unexpected sensation sent a chill down his spine, and he caught his breath. The man had long lashes dark over pale cheeks, a chiseled jaw, and blond hair drawn into a tail with a black ribbon, strands floating free around his face and neck. Tony knew from years falling asleep to the life-sized portrait that his eyes would be cornflower blue, his smile fierce and bright.
“Well that’s unexpected,” Tony admitted, bending down to get a closer look at the shield, eyes flickering away from the man’s face, heart beating double time. He felt a faint affinity to the shield, even through the ice, the tattoos on the backs of his hands hesitantly flickering to the surface of his skin when he touched the block. It was augmented, and the signature was close enough to his own that his finder had caught onto it. There was probably nothing else in the world that could have convinced him of the man’s identity, no matter how close the likeness was to the hero who had watched over him as a child. He itched to put his hands on the shield, to explore his many-times-great grandfather’s work and discover all the places that it matched his own signature. A vindictive sort of pleasure rose in him – his signature had never been compatible with his dad’s, and to know that he was so close to Great Grandfather Anthony’s signature was like victory on his tongue.
An incredulous smile spread across Tony’s face. He huffed out a laugh and shook his head in shocked wonder. “A unicorn would have been more believable.”
Bruce held up one finger, nearly bouncing on his toes, unable to restrain his excitement. His mood was contagious and Tony couldn’t stop grinning, even when Bruce said, “That’s not even the most remarkable part.”
Snorting, Tony clarified, “We’ve fished Revolutionary War hero and national icon Captain America out of the ice, and that’s not even the most remarkable part?”
“Wait,” Bruce said, fumbling for a stethoscope. He shoved it into Tony’s hands, and then rolled his eyes and pushed it at his face when Tony only stared at him. “Just listen.”
“To the ice?”
Bruce grabbed the bell of the stethoscope and worked it over the block while Tony fitted the earpieces.
“I don’t hear anything except you scrapping that over the ice. My ears thank you, by the way.”
“Wait.” Bruce held up his finger again, hand inches away from Tony’s nose. His fingers smelled like wax and patchouli, stained ochre by ink at the tips. Caught by Bruce’s mood and filled with curiosity, Tony waited and listened.
“There’s nothing to-”
Tony froze. He frowned and tipped his head, adjusting the headset.
Again, but not possible.
Another slow pulse.
“…Is that a heartbeat?”