The testing phase of any new Iron Man component tended to be the most exciting. Steve had to admit, there was something really endearing about the way Tony cavorted about his lab, arguing with his weird robot arms and tinkering with things that were even beyond the goofy, bulbous sci-fi daydreams of his own time.
It was sad, in its way; Tony had been building these things since he was small, way too small for it to be appropriate for even the nerdiest kid to be shut up indoors playing with sharp electrical things. He couldn't help feeling like Tony had really just been trying to build himself some friends, so when Tony asked him if he wanted to be a second pair of hands for the latest Iron Man flight system test, Steve had volunteered, and he chose to interpret that as his first mistake.
As it turned out, the latest Iron Man flight system incorporated a lot of what S.H.I.E.L.D. had derived from Asgardian technology, which, apparently only Steve still remembered, was gosh darned magic and did not make a great amount of sense. And, as it further turned out, the closest thing Asgard had to aeronautics largely depended on atmospheric conditions that did not exist on Earth. Also, it was magic.
That was how the latest prototype exploded just a tad, tore a teeny tiny hole in space-time, and an un-armored Tony was blown into a four-foot-tall snowbank with a very unhappy Steve still dive-clinging to his back.
Steve rolled off and onto his feet, his first thought to check Tony for damage before helping him up. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah-- yeah. I'm fine. Ears ringing, otherwise... doing okay; that wasn't really what I was shooting for but--" He winced a bit, let Steve haul him out of the snow, and was immediately distracted from the implications of this accidental discovery.
Then he actually got a look around at what was in front of him.
"...We're really, really not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
The sky went on forever in a cold, crisp blue, and the knee-deep snow was so cold it wasn't even wetting his sneakers. They were standing on a mountain mostly surrounded by other mountains, the sky was thick with clouds, they were facing north, and it was around noon. Without any gadgets on him, that was the limit of Tony's knowledge, until Steve piped up.
"I'm pretty sure we're in Germany, or maybe Austria. I'm also pretty sure I know that lake." He sounded more than a little stricken by this, because he had grown very accustomed to familiar things being completely unrecognizable. But the thing about mountain ranges is that they take much longer than seventy years to change on a grand scale, and Steve had flown over the Northern Limestone Alps, seen them on every kind of map, studied them over and over in the course of hitting Hydra's weapon plants. It was the closest thing to certainty he had anymore, so he clung to it, and tried very hard not to think of Bucky. He started down with a couple of cautious footsteps. "Are you coming, or are you just gonna stand there like a bump on a pickle?"
At any other time, Tony might have questioned Steve's ability to navigate by landmark, but the fact of the matter was that they didn't have a way to call anybody to tell them where they were, the lab might be on fire, and at roughly ten thousand feet above sea level in the middle of November, it was cold enough to warrant serious concern. So he nodded instead.
"All right, soldier boy. Unfortunately, I left all my superhero gadgets on the other side of the really cool explosion today, so it's follow-your-lead on this one. Please don't get us eaten by bears."
"We won't get eaten by bears." Steve responded to this as if Tony might really be afraid of being attacked by a bear on the peak of a snow-capped mountain. "If we can't call for a ride, we're walking; are you any good at climbing?"
Tony actually had to think about it, and decided he didn't actually do a lot of climbing. Most of his upward movement happened with elevators, stairs, and the suit. "Untested."
"Playing it by ear, then." Which meant "cautiously", as far as Steve went. The sensible thing to do would be to head towards the lake, which probably at least had some evidence of civilization there, possibly there were people living there now. Normally he'd be content to wait for S.H.I.E.L.D. to come and locate them, but it might be awhile before anyone even noticed they were gone. When Tony was holed up in the lab he could be down there for days. Of course, if the lab had exploded, Pepper would probably find out before dark, but that help could be long in coming.
Steve shrugged off his motorcycle jacket and offered it to Tony, nonchalant. "Here."
There was a brief moment of hesitation, as if Tony really wanted to crack a joke about what a gentleman Steve was being, but for once in his life he accepted something without any resistance beyond asking, "Aren't you cold?"
Despite himself, Steve smiled. "I spent a long while asleep in a glacier. Cold doesn't bother me quite so much anymore. C'mon. We'll be okay, I used to do this kind of thing all the time."
The mountain was steep and what little there were in the way of safe paths were slippery and narrow, crusted over with ice in some places and obscured by deep drifts of snow in others. Steve's coping mechanisms, mostly rooted in personal ritual to get used to modern life, had finally paid off: when he returned to the Tower, he never took off any clothing or let go of his keys until he knew who was home and who wasn't, and that meant ducking into Tony's lab to check for the resident science nerds. As a result, he was about as well-dressed for cold weather as anyone could ask, wool and gabardine and his motorcycle boots. Tony, having spent the last four days in a climate-controlled bubble, hadn't even bothered with socks.
They didn't talk, beyond quiet directions from Steve where he was taking point. He thought it was weird that Tony wasn't needling him or cracking wise, but he was more focused on getting them down this very high mountain safely than worrying about Tony's slightly warped sense of humor; it limited their communication to "Not here, it's not stable", "Okay", "There's a drop here", "It evens out over there", "Careful", "I got it". In a weird way, it was nice.
A few hours later, long after Tony had lost feeling in his toes and Steve had taken enough tumbles in the snow to leave him soaked to his knees, they came around the other side of the mountain they had landed on, and Steve's stomach dropped into his heels.
It wasn't the same ravine; his brain was screaming at him that it wasn't the same ravine, but looking down into it pulled bile up into his throat. The river must have been frozen because there was no sound of rushing water like there should have been, and there were no railroad tracks or any indication there had ever been any, but he could still see it, the twisted metal of the train car, the rail snapping, his own voice echoing uselessly into the white--
His attention snapped back to Tony; he didn't realize he'd stopped breathing until the puff of steam from his own mouth rolled past his vision. "...Sorry, I.. um. Are you all right?"
"You should take your jacket back." Tony held it out. His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering, eyes lowered to survey the steep, craggy drop below them. The wind was howling down there, and cast a brisk updraft into his face.
"I told you, I don't feel the co--"
"I know, and that's exactly why should take it. Your lips are turning blue and your body isn't trying to keep itself warm."
"It's not going to kill me, Tony, I'll be fine. Keep the jacket, at least until we can get to some kind of shelter."
"I'm not trying to give you a hard time, I'm trying to tell you you're freezing to death."
"Your beard is frosting over."
"Yes, I am also cold, thank you for your astute observation, Captain America. You aren't hearing me: you spent years frozen in a glacier. For anybody else that's death from exposure; you regenerate, which means you were being constantly afflicted with head-to-toe frostbite and recovering from it, and that means you have extreme desensitization to the cold."
"Exactly! I'm glad we understand each other, Mister Stark, keep the jacket." Steve went to take another step down the mountain, feeling out a route; there was a reasonably stable path that made a kind of natural switchback, and he began carefully making his way down.
"Do you completely blow off every genius scientist trying to save your life, or is it just me?"
"Just you, Tony, you're special."
Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and tried again, doing his best to follow after him as he started to divest himself.
"Look, just because you personally do not feel cold because your nerves are desensitized, it doesn't mean the structural integrity of your body is immune to the laws of thermodynamics. You are hypothermic, Steve. Just take the jacket, even if it's just for a few minutes to get your skin back to its rightful pastiness."
"I'm not in any pain. It's not slowing me down. Whatever happens to me, I'll get better eventually; what matters now is getting you somewhere safe." Steve nudged a rock with his boot heel; it jostled a little, so he sidestepped to his right to find another way.
"Getting me somewhere safe? You know something, I appreciate that sentiment, I really do, and I know we're all on the same world-saving hero team and everything, but could you please can the martyr talk and take the damn--"
As the voice behind him cut off mid-sentence; Steve whirled around just in time to see a suddenly very human, very vulnerable Tony Stark disappearing over the cliff, one foot knocked out from under him by the loose stone that Steve had been too preoccupied to warn him about.
If he'd had time to think about it, he would have told himself that Tony was used to falling long distances and could probably think his way out of it, or find a way to catch himself even without the suit, or something... but there was only the ravine, and the white, and the silence, and the little shower of gravel skidding down the cliff face as he jumped.
It was dusk when Steve's eyes finally started registering things like light and movement again. Everything hurt, every piece of him throbbing with a dull, pounding ache as though the Hulk had grabbed him by his ankles and beat him against a school bus.
It wasn't for a few seconds that he realized he was moving, being dragged slowly in the windy depths of--
He sat up sharply, rolled to his feet, and the figure dragging him stumbled a yard or so with the sudden slack: a very haggard-looking Tony.
The words flooded Steve's brain, tangling together in a knot before they got anywhere near his mouth. You're alive. Thank God, you're alive. Are you okay? Are you hurt? I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking, I'm sorry, I just couldn't--
And then it all came tumbling back to him at once: Tony dropping out of his field of vision, and the cold, and falling, and Bucky, and... and Tony was alive. Staring at him like he might be stupid or insane, but alive. And although he knew he shouldn't jostle him too much, he couldn't stop himself putting his hands on Tony's shoulders and looking him over thoroughly for damage. "Man alive, you're a mess."
"Yeah, well, sometimes it's like that." One arm was clearly broken, an ugly, purple, unnatural bump where his wrist used to be; it looked like he'd set it himself but didn't have anything to brace it with; over the top of one of his sneakers, his ankle was swollen, probably a sprain. His good arm seemed to be pulling the motorcycle jacket behind him, and with a complex tumble of guilt and gratitude, Steve realized Tony had used his jacket as a sled to drag him through the snow on a busted leg, and from the trail, he must have been doing it for some time. "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing I can't walk off, I'm pretty sure... what happened, exactly?" Steve bent down to pick the jacket up, shake the snow out of it, and put it over Tony's shoulders as he went to walk with him. At least down here, the ground was riverbed-smooth.
"You did the stupid hero thing--" Tony didn't have it in him to complain about the jacket, and as long as they were both standing shoulder to shoulder, he put one half on himself and the other on Steve, and that was just going to have to do because he was in no mood to argue about it. It would be warmer like that anyway. "--and jumped down to catch me, which did not improve things because then we were both plummeting to our deaths, so that was fun, capital F-U.
And then you spun us around, and when we impacted I landed on your incredibly hard head."
"...As long as you're alive, right? I'm sorry. I knew the footing was bad, I should have said something immediately."
"Shit happens, Cap'n."
Steve nodded, and made a point of slipping Tony's good arm around his shoulders to help him walk, surreptitiously setting the lion's share of the jacket across Tony's shoulders. "You're shivering."
"Yes, that's normal. You are not shivering, and you've got blisters the size of golf balls, which is not normal. If you're going to ignore me, can you at least not comment on our condition?"
"All right, all right, I get your point."
"...Hey. Thanks for jumping after me."
"Thanks for pulling me along behind you."
Sometime well past dark, they were using the Arc Reactor as a flashlight, searching for a good place to try to at least get out of the wind. It was loud, too loud to bother with much talking, and although neither ever said anything or slowed down, Tony was in pain and Steve was dizzy and disoriented.
They passed a couple of caves, but thanks to military training and a kidnapping event, they both knew anyplace made of stone would be the worst possible shelter, and neither bothered pointing any of them out. Even if they weren't a bad idea, Steve would have been reluctant to make Tony actually go into one, anyway. The wind and snow whipped around them in torrents, and before long, the light from the Arc Reactor was just an ambient glow that illuminated nothing in the white.
Finally, after God only knew how many hours of trudging through snow and bitterly cold gusts of wind, they literally stumbled into something much more preferable: a copse of spruce trees, grown thick enough that their branches practically interlocked, were competing for sunlight under an outcropping. The ground between them was carpeted in what was probably years' worth of shed needles, aged to a brown, straw-like dryness. Coming in out of the wind made it seem almost warm, and they were both grateful to get off of their blistered, aching feet.
Tony dropped onto his knees as soon as it became feasible to do so, and when he went down, Steve went with him. For the first time in hours, the air was still enough that they could see each other's breath.
"...How's your leg?"
"Sucks. How's your head?"
"...Swimming. Are you sleepy?"
"Exhausted, but I didn't spend two hours completely exposed to the elements while unconscious. Oh, and I'm not superhuman." Tony padded over and nudged Steve onto his back, and did not feel very comfortable with the bleary look on his face. The parts of his skin that weren't wind burnt were puffy and ashen, and that was bad. "Yeah, you're wanting to turn blue and the Serum's not letting you."
"You a doctor now, Stark?"
"I'm still banking on that genius thing. You can't lie down yet."
"It won't kill me." But he sat up anyway, having a more finely honed instinct as a soldier than he did for self-preservation.
"No, it won't. But if you lie down, you'll sleep, and if you sleep, you'll end up in another coma. You're already primed for cryostasis, Cap, if you pass out now it might be another seventy years before you wake up." Tony watched Steve's pupils; they were reacting sluggishly to the light of the Arc Reactor, and that scared him. If it was just a concussion, he should have shrugged that off by now. "Okay, Boy Scout. You got a pocketknife on you?"
"You're gonna pick on me." Steve gave him a small, apologetic smile, and rolled up his left cuff to show Tony the sheath strapped to his calf.
"Yes, yes I am. Where did you even get a Mark I trench knife?"
"Christmas present, from Clint. How do you even know what a Mark I trench knife looks like?"
"Part of being a weapons developer. How can you build the future of warfare if you don't know the past?" Tony held his hand out for it. "Give it here, Always Prepared."
Steve handed over the knife, and unsteadily got to his feet. Thinking was starting to become difficult, like his thoughts were trying to find their way through a thick fog. "I thought you built bombs."
"I build lots of things." Tony took it, and equally unsteadily, started surveying the trees closer to the rock wall, figuring those ones would be the best to cut up for firewood while he thought of a way to start an actual fire. In the dark. In the snow. With not a lot of tools.
Behind him, Steve was trying to follow his example, doggedly sticking close even when he wasn't exactly sure why. When Tony had chosen a particularly dead-looking tree wilting against the rock wall and was deciding exactly how he wanted to harvest it for firewood, he shook his head, and carefully nudged Tony aside as though he weren't sure of his strength or his depth perception. "'Scuse me. Let me see? Your arm's hurt, I can do it."
"Steve, would you just--" And then Steve was breaking the branch off with his bare hands. Nice to know he still had enough feeling in his hands for a grip, Tony figured. The cracking wood sounded like gunfire as it echoed against the stone, even with the wind howling outside the trees.
It made Tony's stomach lurch, just a little; his body had a very particular reaction to the sound of gunfire in a cave.
The branches started piling up, and Tony sat down to start cutting one of them into wood shavings. He hadn't quite solved the problem of how to actually start the fire they were going to need, he figured getting some kindling together and having something to do with his hands would get his brain moving away from terrorists and Stark Industries crates and toward something productive. Oh, sure, there was the obvious way, but... that wasn't something he was ready to try yet.
When Steve had all but wrenched the tree out of the ground, he sat down and started stripping the ones Tony hadn't gotten to yet. His fingers were painfully swollen with blisters, and yet he still didn't feel cold. In fact, he felt a little warm, so he didn't complain; Tony was still holding it down for the sake of being able to get through this process and move on, but he was pale and shivering and hurt and very far away from the part of him that made it feel like the world still needed him in it.
Fortunately, although he couldn't quite remember how they got here anymore and the details of where they were had escaped him, Steve still knew enough about how to put an emergency campfire together to clear some space and gather up some appropriate stones. The pine needles were too lucky a find to risk burning them up accidentally.
Slowly, the wood shavings went into the shallow pit. It was an arduous process done with stiff fingers and improper tools, but it was done. Unfortunately, it had eaten up a lot of time, and now they were faced with a new problem, on top of the worsening symptoms Tony had been keeping silent track of since they'd gotten into the trees.
Steve glowered sleepily at the cold pile of shavings and bark. "I don't have anything to start a fire with."
"I do." Tony swallowed.
"All right, good; what do we have to do?"
Tony peeled off his T-shirt, and at this point it didn't feel very different with or without it. The Arc Reactor glowed brightly from its socket in his chest. "I was... I was honestly hoping to avoid this, but I don't think there are any other options that don't involve going back out there and looking for things we're probably not going to find. I'm gonna need a hand here, okay?"
"What are y-- Tony, stop. Tell me what you're doing--"
Tony took the edge of the trench knife and very carefully began to pry the Arc Reactor out-- yeah, he'd been afraid of that. His core temperature was lowered and the socket had to be very precise to hold the reactor without risking it falling out if he bent down or jostling mid-flight, and now he was looking at an unfortunate matter of negative thermal expansion. "Did they ever explain to you how this thing works?"
"Just that it powers your suit. And keeps you from dying."
"Good, then you got the important stuff down." Tony swallowed a bit, realized his fingers were shaking too much, and clamped down on himself hard to keep his hands steady. God, his wrist hurt; every movement twisted his insides with the pain.
Steve scooted closer, and without thinking too much, took a hold of Tony's forearms as gently as possible and held them still. "Steady, now; I got this part, just concentrate."
Tony nodded, and carefully, with a quick, metal-and-glass plink, the Arc Reactor popped out of the socket. There would be no getting it back in there until he warmed up, and it somehow seemed a lot less impressive and a lot more dangerous now that it was dangling from the hole in his chest by a couple of copper wires.
"...Good Lord." Steve had never seen it before. He'd always imagined the little glowing circle showing through Tony's clothes as a disc, just a circle of metal and glass and lights. It went much deeper than he'd thought, practically a cavern in the other man's chest. "Did that hurt?"
"No. But this... look. Look at me." Tony put his good hand on Steve's shoulder and met his eyes. They were glassy and sluggish; his lips were blue, his face was wind burnt, and he was not fit to be doing anything delicate with those frostbitten hands. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of options to begin with, and most of them had gone out the window hours ago. "We're freezing to death."
"Yes, we are." Steve was ready to admit that at this point; he couldn't really feel his extremities anymore. And worse, Tony was exhausted, his arm and leg a mess of bruises and swelling, his body shaking against his grip, and he had a very unique, very sick dread on his face.
"But I have a plan."
"Good, let's hear it."
"And you're not going to like this plan, because it involves making you touch weird future science stuff and I know you're not big on that, but we're at kind of a low point here. You with me?"
"I'm with you; go ahead."
"I'm going to unplug this. Once I do, the electromagnet in my chest is going to shut down, and I'm going to go into cardiac arrest, but I need you to ignore that. These two wires, these ones right here--" Tony gestured to the thin tethers keeping the thing anchored to his chest. "--are attached to a little plug, and the end of that plug has a couple of metal bits on it, you follow?"
"Wires attached to plug, plug has metal bits, I got it." Steve swallowed, and did not like Tony's expression at all.
"Take your knife--" Tony pressed it into Steve's hand, carefully and with great care not to shiver so much that he risked cutting him; he wasn't sure it could cut him, but things were risky enough already. "--and hold it on the kindling, and just tap the metal bits against the very end of the blade. It'll spark, and it'll want to jump out of your hands, but you have to hold onto it, because it's going to heat the shit out of the knife and-- hopefully-- start the fire. Once the fire's lit, make sure it is going to stay lit, and then I need you to plug it back into me."
"Tony.. I can't feel my fingers, how am I supposed to tell where it plugs in?"
Tony pointed to the spot inside the deep well in his chest; it was too dark to see into it, the wires just disappeared into it like snakes into a den. He swallowed, and offered Steve a very frightened smile.
Steve frowned. "You're right, I don't like this plan."
"Well, I don't have any other ideas that don't involve words like "forage" and "if we're lucky"."
"Tony, this involves giving you a heart attack, you could die. I can't--"
"Yes, you can. If you don't do it, I'm definitely going to die, and you're Capsicle Mark II, only this time it's even better because nobody even knows what continent you're on. This is our best chance."
Steve took a few long, carefully deep breaths; the rolling little cloud of steam dispersed against Tony's face. "...All right. But if that's how it is, let's do this right." And he bent down, and scooped the smaller man up, and moved him carefully over to the fire pit; Tony didn't protest, he just cradled the Arc Reactor in his hands. "I don't want to have to go real far to put the reactor back, and I'm figuring you won't want to be too far from the fire once it's lit because you'll probably be unconscious. How long can you survive without it?"
Tony swallowed, and curled in a little on himself to stop the shivering. He had to stay still for this next part. "... Last time I had it ripped out, it was maybe... a minute, maybe two?"
"Somebody ripped this out of you?" Steve didn't let go; it left Tony curled up slightly against his chest; it might have been embarrassing if the genius half-propped in his lap didn't look so sick and so hurt and so scared.
For a second, Tony almost snapped at him, but then he remembered the cover-up. The personal bits about how Iron Man went public never made it into his personal dossier in the S.H.I.E.L.D. database. He knew; he'd gone looking for it. "...My dad had-- my dad had this friend, Obie-- Obadiah Stane. He was more of a father to me than my old man was." Tony began to shake just a little harder, and Steve wasn't sure if it was the cold, or something else. "...We don't have time to go into it now, but Obadiah Stane. If this... if this part goes bad for me, that's the name you want to ask Fury about."
"I will, whether it goes bad or not." Steve nodded, and gently laid Tony down on the pine needles. "...Look, Tony. I.. if we're going ahead and saying... what we need to say, just in case, I--"
"It's okay. I get it. Me too." It was a thin, sad little smile, but it was enough; he reached up and patted the other man's arm with shaking fingers. "Talk about it later?"
"All right." Steve steeled himself as best he could through the blood pounding in his ears; a part of him insisted they could examine that exchange tomorrow. The better part of him said he had to make sure they'd have a tomorrow first. "...Are you ready?"
Tony swallowed, took one deep breath, and nodded.
"Good. Just close your eyes, try to relax; it'll be okay. Say when."
Somehow, even dying of exposure and about to willingly submit himself to a cardiac episode, to Tony, hearing Steve drum up the energy to use his reassuring voice was weirdly soothing. If Captain America said he was going to be okay, he believed it. So he shut his eyes, and when he felt Steve's fingers pinch the wires that kept him alive, he held himself very still. "Go."
The wires popped out and the comforting weight of the Arc Reactor disappeared, and suddenly Tony was hollow and his chest clenched and he couldn't breathe, couldn't move. What little color was left in his face drained away, and the clock was ticking.
Steve turned the Reactor around to get a better look at the plug, and sure enough, a little row of tiny metal plates on the plastic facing stared back up at him. It was alien and weird, but that didn't matter; Tony was nearly convulsing behind him, and the next step was going to be the easy one.
He looped the cords around his blistered fingers, and for the first time all night he found himself with a stroke of luck when they were just long enough to put the reactor itself back into his palm. He couldn't fit his fingers into the knuckle-duster on the trench knife, so he just wrapped his hand around the entire grip and crushed it until he was sure whatever shock came out of the thing wasn't going to knock it away from him.
Steve bent down, and just as Tony instructed, he tapped the metal contacts against the tip of the knife. An electric pop almost jolted the reactor out of his hand, but it sprayed a handful of bright, white sparks and the blade flared, but the wood shavings didn't catch. Another tap, another pop, and another, and after the fourth one it still wasn't working. Each failure had Steve gritting his teeth and praying for the next one to work, trying to block out the thick gasps sounding behind him, and the hazy blur at the corners of his vision.
Just a tap wasn't going to do it, it wasn't enough. So Steve held his breath, and held the metal plates tight against the knife. The electricity rocketed through his nerves, and he could feel his muscles clench around the Reactor and the knife, but this time it was a flurry of pops, snapping and cracking and blowing sparks everywhere until the metal flared white-hot and the wood shavings exploded into a puff of fire and thin smoke. The thinnest twigs erupted into strings of bright, burning orange, and Steve decided that was close enough. The trench knife dropped into the fire pit, and slowly cooled.
The effects of electrocution would pass, he knew that, but now Steve was twitching and shaking and he still had to get the Reactor back in. He could barely move and his hand was, naturally, severely burnt, but he didn't have to go far; he dropped involuntarily onto his side, grabbed hold of Tony's shoulder and pulled him close when he couldn't get his legs to take him any further.
Tony's skin was cold and he wasn't moving, his eyes wide and staring into nothing; Steve tried to talk to him, keep him here on this Earth, but his mouth wouldn't work, and he tried to get the plug into the socket at the bottom of that horrible abyss in Tony's chest, but his sore and blistered and trembling fingers couldn't even fit--
His other had snapped back to the knife, and he drew the blade across the tops of his knuckles; a fountain of blood and clear, watery fluid erupted from the bubbled skin like fat from a split sausage, and it was messy and it was disgusting but at least his hand was smaller, and all he had to do was just reach in there and fish around for the socket and just put the plug back in and it would be fine, but his fingertips were so numb
The plug slid into place, and there was the faint electric whine of the electromagnet waking up inside Tony's chest. Somehow, even though it was just on the barest edges of his hearing, that sound filled Steve's ears as if he were underwater. He listened for a heartbeat, for the hiss of air into Tony's lungs, but he couldn't hear anything but that thin, toneless, lonely little noise.
Just over Tony's shoulder, he could see the branches slowly igniting. The flames weren't high, but they were steadily consuming the wood stack. Until he felt the heat on the wet-then-frozen legs of his slacks, he didn't realize he'd even been cold at all. The adrenaline began to fade, and his stomach twisted with sudden nausea.
He let himself drop against the pine needles. Everything hurt; his muscles were sore, his skin stung, his knuckles throbbed and bled, his head ached, his eyes burned, his hand smoldered. Tony body lay chilled and wet-dishrag limp, his lips colorless and slack, his fingers splayed loosely on the ground at his sides.
Steve propped himself up just enough to reach the motorcycle jacket and put it back over them like a blanket, and he pulled the other man close against his chest. The sad reality of it didn't match the rare daydream he allowed himself; he only had a vague idea of what men in love do, really, but he understood gentle touches and closeness, and it seemed strangely natural, the way life tended to treat him, that he was able to hold Tony Stark only after he was still and cold.
The brush of frost-tipped hair against his face scratched like claws, but he was beyond caring about it anymore. The darkness was tugging at him, familiar and safe in its nothingness; the fire was warm and the wind howled in the distance. He'd done everything he could, he'd stuck to the plan. The rest was up to God, and so Steve watched the embers float up into the air, wishing he could remember the next line after "hallowed be Thy name".
To his credit, he lingered awhile as he fought the void and the warmth that threatened to overtake him, but in Steve's last moments of consciousness, he breathed one last weary, watery sigh of relief. He couldn't hear it over the wind and the fire and the hum of the magnet, but he could feel it against his chest: Tony had started breathing, and that meant it was okay to sleep.
The next twelve hours were a blur of screaming winds and shivering and quiet prayer between bouts of delirious catnapping and checking each other for a pulse. If he gave it a bit of thought, Tony could remember being very comforted by the sound of thunder booming in the cavern, and the glorious warmth of something soft and red being bundled around him.
Later, he'd regret passing out; Thor had never flown with him before, much less when he was curled up around the Arc Reactor hanging out of his chest like it was a grenade. He remembered Thor's voice gently reassuring him, urging him to stay awake, and the first breath of unfiltered air and ozone filling his lungs did him more good than anything medical science could provide.
After that, another blank, then it was warm blankets and Bruce's voice murmuring about medical things, body temperature and cell death and tissue breakdown. Steve, telling him it would be okay, and then a searing pain in all four limbs, and then darkness.
Now, he's sitting in a surprisingly comfortable hospital bed. The artificial light is dimmed, which suggests it must be late; the heart monitor next to him bleeps steadily. The bed on his opposite side is empty, but Steve is sitting on it quietly, patiently.
Tony sits up, which gets Steve's attention. "... I don't feel dead."
"You're not. Your plan worked. Dr. Banner says it probably saved our lives." Steve stands up, and being the super-soldier that he is, of course he's perfectly fine. Maybe a little pale. "How are you feeling?"
"...Not bad. Not as bad as I should, in fact." Frowning, Tony pulls the blanket aside to get a look at his feet, figuring that's where the lasting damage will be, if it's anywhere. The cast on his arm and the bandage on his ankle aren't anything shocking, but his feet are completely undamaged, to his surprise. More surprising is the S.H.I.E.L.D. practice sweatpants and T-shirt he's got on.
"Yeah.. ah. It was pretty bad, before."
"Pretty bad before? What happened to make the after part, exactly?" Tony swings his legs over the side, flexes his feet; they move, he feels them.
"They gave me a blood transfusion for frostbite?"
"I'm not really sure how it works, something about tissue scaffolding and adult stem cells and the Serum. You.. ah. Your feet were...they... well..." Hell with it. "Dr. Banner cut your toes off and then grew you some new ones with future science."
Tony laughs, until that statement catches up with him. "Serum. You were the donor?" And that makes sense; Steve still looks pale and drawn, long after he should have regenerated any injury he might have incurred. They must have had to take quite a bit.
"Don't mention it."
"So.. Serum, huh? Does that mean I'm going to-"
"You wish, Stark."
Tony smiles, and scoots over to make room as Steve comes to sit down next to him. "It's for the best, I wouldn't be able to fit in the suit and I really like all my T-shirts. Do I still have the same shoe size?"
"He said you'd ask that."
"Did he have an answer?"
"I think it was, "Yes, but he shouldn't wear wingtips for a couple of weeks"."
"If they ever find a way to preserve people's brains in little glass tanks after they're dead, I want him and me to have bunk-jars." Tony smiles, and wiggles his apparently-new toes. They do look a little pink, compared to his old ones. "How are you doing, Capsicle?"
"Well enough." Steve's tone suggests there's more to it than that, but he's not one to go on about that kind of thing. "So. It's later. Do you feel like talking?"
"... Maybe. You start."
"All right." He's the leader; that makes a certain amount of sense. "I... Firstly, I think I owe you an apology."
"For blowing me off about the hypothermia thing? Because that was a dick move."
"No, no. Well, that too, but I mean..." Steve swallows, and turns a little so that he can face Tony properly. "For underestimating you. When we were out there I was so busy being sure of myself, you got hurt, and when it got real bad... Tony, you knew I wasn't going to be able to hook the Reactor back up."
Tony swallows a little. "I figured you'd think of something. And you did, right? Or I wouldn't be here."
"We caught a real lucky break with that one. But that's not what I'm getting at." Steve swallows. "You really laid on the barbed wire for me. More than that, really, you handed me the wire cutters and lay down and just had to hope I wouldn't leave you there. I've never had to be the guy that crawled over his friend before, Tony."
The other man allows himself a small, sympathetic smile, thinking of Yinsen and a cave in the middle of the desert. "How's it feel?"
"You don't have to apologize for that. Yes, I knew what the risks were. But sometimes... well, I don't really need to explain risk-assessment and judgment calls to you, do I?"
"No, you don't." Steve sighs.
"Good. Still. That's... I'm being serious here, that's ... that's a very cool thing to say, Steve. Thanks."
"And secondly, about... things we need to say, just in case. I... ah. Well. I'm not so good at this part, and I've never felt.. about a man, before, so I'm not sure how...or even if... and it's you and that's, you know... but you said you understood, so..." Steve's ears flush a bright, cherry red, and he looks down at his hands.
"No, I get you. And it's not like I haven't thought about it. I don't want to get all sentimental-monologue-in-a-hospital on you or anything but it's.. it's like this: I get what I want. Nobody hands it to me, but there are only a handful things in life I've ever wanted that I just wasn't capable of acquiring, and very recently? I got five of them all it once, and if any alien, monster, pagan deity, or in this case, natural weather phenomenon, wants to take them from me, they're going to have to pry them out of my cold, dead fingers. Literally in this case, which really illustrates my point nicely." Tony stands up and paces a little as he talks, gesturing aimlessly.
"See, one of those things? One of those things, is this... relic, this old-school soldier. Way old school, all morals and decency and standing up for what's right, and no matter how different I am from the guy I used to be before I was Iron Man, being around him reminds me how far I am from making up for being that son of a bitch in the first place. But." Tony looked back at Steve, resolute in his conclusions. "... I know that the world we live in doesn't treat decent people very well, most of the time. And sometimes, that's exactly what makes that one soldier special. Not always, sometimes he's kind of a tool just like the rest of us."
Tony seems to have gotten all the nerves out of his system, and he comes back to sit down again, satisfied that his feet work. "...But it makes you that much more important to me. I don't have a good name for it because I don't think there is one, yet; names are for people who differentiate. I don't. It's all the same kind of intense, for me, and I trust you, and trust really fast-tracks everything else."
Steve smiles the longer he listens, but when he takes too long to answer, Tony laughs uncomfortably. "Sorry, that was a sentimental monologue in a hospital, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, a little. That's all right, though, it was... it was nice." Steve smiles, and reaches over to the chair next to the bed, where his rather badly-used motorcycle jacket is hanging, and puts it on, and then offers Tony the black fleece zip-up hanging underneath it. "So we won't have to argue over mine," he says.
Tony laughs, and puts it on; it's a few sizes too big, but it's warm-- and all it once it's much warmer, because Steve is hugging him close, one hand in his hair and the other close around his waist, gently so as not to upset his cast. And just as quickly, they let go, and Steve offers Tony his shoulder, so they can go see the rest of the team without him having to limp the whole way there.
Eventually, when Tony's fully healed and they have time alone, they'll laugh and pick on each other, they'll talk about Bucky and Obadiah in quiet voices over stiff drinks. They'll keep it cool and professional in battle and then refuse to be apart that following night, even if they have to obfuscate it with arguments and sparring matches. And eventually, when all of that stops being worth the trouble, they'll retire to Tony's bedroom and take it slow, because Steve won't let them do it any way but the right way.
But for now, there are a few long hallways and an elevator ride between them and the rest of the world; there's no one to comment on the way that Steve lets Tony guide him down the hall at his own pace, or the way the way the sleeve of Tony's Steve-sized coat pools around his wrist, or the way their fingers link together as they walk.