“Buddy, are you sure you want to do this?” Tony asks. “Cause we can blow this joint any time, just say the word. Whatever they told you in boot camp, there's no law against a nice strategical retreat.”
It's a warm summer morning in Asgard, the newly risen sun streaming through the high, open windows into the guest quarters of the royal palace, promising another hot, dry day ahead.
Tony sounds worried, irritable the way he does when he feels concerned. Steve would turn to look at him, check the expression on his face, but his eyes are glued to the deep blue Casket sitting on the dining table, to the swirl of power inside it, the glittering eddies of frost. He feels cold already, his skin breaking out in goosebumps despite the beginning heat of the day.
“Tony's right,” Natasha says, coming up on his other side. Her small hand is warm on his arm, strong and reassuring. “It's all right if you want to change your mind. It's still your call.”
Steve takes a deep breath and tears his eyes away from the Casket, looks up at the man standing behind it.
“Can you do it?” he asks.
Loki smiles; a slow, sardonic twist of his mouth.
“With the Casket – the use of which the Allfather has so graciously granted you – it will require hardly any skill at all. Any Frostgiant with even a modicum of magical talent could do it. My talent, of course, goes a bit further than that. You will be perfectly safe, I assure you.”
“I still say if you need this, we should find another way.” Clint, from the window sill at Loki's five o'clock. He's sitting cross-legged on the marble, a picture of relaxation, but his eyes haven't stopped tracking Loki since the moment he entered the room. It's not right, that Steve's brought him here for such selfish reasons, but when he'd said as much, Clint had just glared at him, and told him not to be such an idiot.
Steve isn't sure whether he's being an idiot here or not, to be honest, but he does need this, he knows that much.
He needs something, that's for sure.
He's the first one to arrive at the 8 am briefing, as he usually is. He wishes he could say it's because he's eager to report for duty, and maybe some mornings that's true, but today he was simply thankful to have an excuse to leave his bed while it was still dark out.
He sinks into his usual chair at the conference table, hunched over in his leather jacket, pulling it tighter around him although he knows perfectly well that the room isn't cold. Not objectively speaking. He takes another drink from his Starbuck's coffee, holding the paper mug in both hands to let the heat sink through.
His eyes want to drift shut – he's had too little sleep, the sleep he had was what it was – but he keeps them open. He doesn't want to deal with what will be there if he nods off.
“If you weren't the very embodiment of human perfection,” Tony Stark says from the doorway, “I'd say you look like death warmed over.”
Steve snorts; a dry, humorless sound to his own ears.
“You always do have just the right turn of phrase, don't you?” he says.
Tony takes a step closer, his hands leaving his pockets, his brow knitting with...puzzlement, maybe, as he studies Steve's face. His mouth opens to speak, but before he has a chance, Director Fury is sweeping past him into the room, and Steve's back has snapped to attention, whatever Tony saw in his expression wiped away.
Still, throughout the meeting Tony keeps throwing him thoughtful glances. It's actually more help than the coffee, in as much as Steve's found anything to help at all.
“It has been over a year since we agreed to trust my brother's return to Asgard,” Thor says. He's standing on Loki's side of the table, the red of his mantle burning next to the blue ice of the Casket. A part of Steve wishes he would wrap the damn thing up and take it away again, but he knows he's come too far for that. “You know I would not let this take place if I thought any harm would come to our captain, nor would my father.”
“We'll be monitoring his vital signs and keep a close watch on his brainwaves the entire time, Clint,” Bruce says. “He's going to be okay.”
As so often, Bruce sounds much calmer than the others, a quiet voice of reason. Steve's pretty sure none of this is reasonable, but the effort Bruce has put into making it as close as possible is humbling. As if just the fact that Steve asked for it made the idea perfectly logical from the start.
“Should I come back when you've quite finished debating?” Loki asks. “I realize it's hard for you to fathom, but I do have other demands on my time. Even beyond the many hours a day I spend meditating on the horrors of my past crimes and engaging in... What is that lovely human custom? Oh, yes.” He grins, bright teeth and cutting chill. “Self-flagellation.”
Steve hates trusting him, but he's here now, they've planned this. And he can't go on the way he is.
“No use dragging it out,” he says. “Let's do it.”
He wakes up screaming.
For a few endless seconds, he's still caught in the dream, caught in the terror, all he can feel the cold and the loneliness and the desperate impotence weighing him down. Then the real world floods back in, and he realizes that waking up screaming is really not the thing to do when you're sharing your bed with two of the deadliest people in the world.
Clint is crouched in the tangle of sheets at the foot of the mattress, his naked body pale angles in the darkness, shadows and tension and skin. A disconnected part of Steve, somewhere far beneath the panic rushing through him, thinks I need to draw him like this, storing the image away like a snapshot, calmly, while his heart is thumping itself bloody against the insides of his chest. The light from the city outside the Tower glints sharp on something in Clint's hand: a knife he must have grabbed for among the pile of their crumbled clothes.
Steve wants to reach for him, say something reassuring he doesn't feel, but though he's awake now, he still can't move. Not with Natasha's hand across his jugular, her knee on his chest pinning him up against the headboard.
For a wild, surreal minute, they all stare at one another, pupils wide, the moment taut like a rubber band about to snap. Then Clint drops the knife.
“Shit, Cap,” he says. “Jesus. What was that?”
Natasha scrambles off him, as if she can't move fast enough, the hand that was around his throat shifting to stroke through the short hair at the back of his neck as he sits up, rubbing at his eyes. His hands are trembling. He's having trouble getting air into his lungs.
“What does it look like?” Natasha says. Then, softer, gentler: “I'm so sorry, Steve. I guess we both have a bit of a hair-trigger. Are you all right?”
He wants to say that he is. He should be, with her warm and soft against his side, with Clint crawling up the bed to flank him on the other. He knows where he is now. He's safe. They're here. Tony and Bruce are probably still arguing the finer details of something incomprehensible in the lab two floors down. Thor is sleeping beside Jane in the apartment next door. All safe. All alive. He should be all right.
“Nightmare,” he says. His voice comes out choked, too brittle. “Didn't mean to startle you.”
“Yeah, I'm pretty sure you don't get to apologize for that one,” Clint says. He reaches out and flicks on the bedside lamp, the low energy bulb enveloping the bed, the three of them, in a slowly spreading circle of light.
“You want to talk about it?” Natasha asks. She must feel how cold he is, or maybe it's just that he's still shivering, but she pulls the blanket up around him, presses herself closer. Instinctively, he slips his arm around her waist, holding on.
He doesn't want to talk about it, not really, but somehow the words are there, anyway.
“I dream about the ice,” he says. “About being in the ice.”
“I thought you didn't remember that?” Clint says.
He shakes his head.
“I don't. All I remember is crashing the plane, and then waking up seventy years later. But in the dreams I'm awake. Trapped in the ice and awake and everyone I know is dying but I can't get to them. I'm stuck and everyone is disappearing and it's so cold.”
“Ssh,” Natasha says. “It's okay.”
Clint's hand is on his leg, squeezing his thigh through the blanket.
“So that's like something you dream a lot?” he asks. “Cause, I hate to tell you, Cap, but that sucks.”
It's silly, but the emphatic tone of Clint's voice startles a laugh out of him, the kind of shaky laughter that's next door to tears. He feels a little warmer. Maybe that's why he can say it.
“On and off since I woke up. But it's worse now, it's...” He takes a deep breath, tries to think how to put it. How to say the words without thinking of how he sees them dying, rotting, withering to dust. Leaving him alone. “At the start, I dreamed about the people I used to know, before. All the people who died in the war, or while I was frozen. But the closer I get to you, to the Avengers, the more you're in the dreams, too. The more you keep dying in the dreams while all I can do is wait for the ice to crack, knowing when it does, you'll all be gone.”
“Fuck,” Clint says.
Steve glances at him, tries a small smile that his lips will only just agree to shape.
“It does pretty much suck,” he says.
Natasha tightens her hand on his neck, tugging him closer, and leans her forehead against his temple.
“We're not going anywhere,” she says. “Whatever happens while you sleep, we'll still be here when you wake up.”
Steve wraps both his arms around her, presses his face into her hair. He trusts her with everything. He wishes he knew how to make his mind believe what she's telling him now.
In the chamber they've chosen – large and airy, morning sun through the windows, light and heat – he strips down to his underwear and climbs up to lie in the center of the massive bed. It feels strange, to settle back on the mattress with them all around him, watching. It makes him think of the day Dr. Erskine gave him the serum, how self-conscious he felt, with all those people in their expensive suits looking on from the viewing gallery. But then Tony sits down on the edge of the mattress, and he remembers that the people here now aren't nameless strangers come to observe an experiment. They're his friends, the people he loves. They've come to help him.
“Okay, Cap,” Tony says. “Next stop winter wonderland. Still green on all the things we've discussed?”
He takes a moment to review it all in his head, but, no, he's jittery with adrenaline, but he doesn't want to take anything back.
“Yes,” he says. “Still green.”
Tony's mouth twists up at the corner, but his dark eyes are serious.
“Well, never let it be said that Captain America doesn't know how to make up his mind.” He puts his hand on Steve's forearm, rubs his thumb across his skin, almost more kneading than caress. “See you on the flip-side.”
“I'm counting on it,” Steve says. And he does. Most of him does. But of course they wouldn't be here if all of him did.
There are other hands on him, then, all of their hands. A quick squeeze to his ankle, a pat on his shoulder, a brush over his knuckles, fingers curving on his hipbone. He isn't sure who's touching him where, but it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all. When the mattress dips again, though, on the opposite side from Tony, he knows from the shifting weight who it is before her hand is on his cheek, turning his face towards her.
She looks calm, encouraging.
“One for the road, soldier,” Natasha says, smiling, and bends down to kiss his lips.
He wants to cling to the warmth of her mouth, keep it as a talisman for what's to come.
She pulls away too soon.
“You'll do good,” she tells him, chasing the touch of her lips with a stroke of her thumb along his lower lip. It's not hope, or even faith; it's an order.
“Yes, ma'am,” he says, and somehow that makes him feel steadier, accepting this from her like a mission.
Then she leaves the bed, and Tony does, too, all their touches slipping away as they step back.
At the foot of the bed, Loki takes a step forward. In his hands, he is holding the Casket. His skin is Frostgiant blue, as if frozen.
“As we agreed,” he says. “A day and a night. When the sun rises tomorrow morning, you will begin to return.”
“As we agreed,” Steve says. He doesn't understand how his voice can sound so steady. “Go ahead.”
Loki raises the Casket.
“You should close your eyes, Steve Rogers,” he says.
He throws his shield, felling one of the Frostgiants with a knock to the side of its head, but the others keep advancing, closing in. He catches the shield as it comes back, sweeps it up, punching a giant's jaw in with a crunching noise, spins and follows through with a slice of the sharp edge across its chest. Another one down.
The third one stabs at him with a blade of ice, cold rushing past his face as he ducks to evade it, moving in beneath the giant's guard.
The giant grabs his arm.
The cold is searing, a pain like the rip of a bullet through flesh. He stumbles, tries to yank himself free. The cold spreads.
There is a clang of clear metal, unmistakable and familiar, and the giant drops unconscious to the floor, its fingers losing their hold. Behind it, Thor stands with his hammer raised. He looks magnificent, and somewhat sheepish, which Steve guesses he might, too, if his family's arch enemies kept following him around everywhere he went with new plots to hurt his loved ones.
Jane is safe, though; Tony and Natasha have that covered. There's nothing to look sheepish about, really, except the fact that they're standing in the ruins of yet another blown-out floor of the Avengers Tower, for the third time this month. They do seem to wreck a lot of furniture.
“Captain,” Thor says. “Have you been hurt?”
Steve looks down at his arm.
The cold feels as though it's receding, but there is ice covering the sleeve of his suit, the leather of his glove. He turns his hand over, mesmerized. The ice is smooth, shimmering in the sunlight. His breath is coming in quick, shallow gasps, like the asthma used to give him. It's like his dreams, but he's awake, conscious to feel it.
“Captain?” Thor says again, moving closer, placing a hand on his shoulder.
When he closes his fingers to a fist, the ice cracks, falls in shards like breaking glass.
Like his dreams, but he can end it. Control it.
He looks up at Thor, holds his frozen hand up between them.
“Can your brother do this?” he asks.
He closes his eyes, and the cold washes over him. A blanket of it, thrown to cover him, sinking through him, through flesh and bone. There is an instant of pain, like diving into frozen water, but it's quick, a single shock that makes his muscles spasm, and then he's already too numb to feel it. But with the numbness comes the panic.
He can't lift his hands, can't feel the bed beneath him, can't feel the sun on his skin. He is caught, trapped, and when he tries to open his eyes, they stay shut. There is nothing, just this darkness, just this sense of being locked down, held in place, frozen. It's going to be like this forever, until the world ends, until everything, everyone he knows is gone, and there is nothing he can do. He can't even open his mouth to scream.
There is something, though.
“We're still here, Cap.” Clint. “No getting rid of us, I'm afraid.”
“Your vitals are looking good.” Bruce. “Slowed down, as expected, but steady. Strong. You're doing fine, Steve.”
“The slowing down of his body's functions will likely make it hard for him to focus for any length of time.” A sharper voice, less familiar. Loki. “You should not expect him to hear everything you say or be conscious of everything that happens. Rather, he will shift in and out of awareness.”
“Great. Thanks for the info dump, it's been fascinating.” Tony. Sarcastic. Pretend cheerful. Entirely himself. Entirely there.
Still here. They're still here.
“Come, brother,” Thor says. “I believe it is time we returned the Casket to safekeeping.”
“It's not that you're intruding --” Tony again. “-- but, oops, I guess you are.”
Something softer he can't catch, Thor and Loki speaking between themselves. Receding footsteps. A door opening and closing.
“Alone at last,” Tony says. “So. Just to state the obvious. You're covered in ice. It's not a bad look on you, but I'm still holding out hope that one day we'll find something that is.”
A quiet snort of laughter, probably Clint. The sound is very close.
It's still dark, but it doesn't seem as frightening. He isn't sure when, but he's stopped trying to scream.
“I'm holding your hand,” Natasha says. He can't feel it, but if she says it, it must be true. She's never lied to him. “The ice is cold, but it doesn't seem to melt. I'm not getting stuck to it. Tony has your other hand.”
“Strictly scientific curiosity,” Tony says. “Huh. Magic ice is weird ice.”
“I love it when you bring the big science words, Stark,” Clint says. “Tell us more.”
“Just for that, Bruce and I will co-author a paper on the molecular structure of magically generated ice, and the only words you'll understand will be the conjunctions.”
“Hey, don't drag me into this,” Bruce says. “I stopped co-authoring papers with you the fourth time you blew up my lab with me in it, remember? The Hulk finds it hard to type. Steve, I'm sitting near the foot of the bed. My hand is on your shin. Clint is sitting on the pillow next to you, his hand is on the top of your head.”
“Thor went out with Loki,” Natasha says, “but he'll be back soon. We're not leaving you alone.”
They're not leaving him. He's not alone. There' no reason to be scared.
The room is quiet, still. He can hear them breathing.
“So,” Tony says. “How about them Yankees?”
“You want to do what?” Tony asks. He looks incredulous, almost upset.
Steve twists his coffee mug around in his hands. The ceramic makes a faint scraping noise against the wood of the kitchen table as it turns.
“I think it might help,” he says.
“In case you still haven't noticed, this is the 21st century. We've got therapy for that.”
Steve looks up sharply, looks Tony in the eye.
“I've done therapy,” he says. “In case you still haven't noticed, it hasn't worked.”
Tony's hand goes up to touch his own cheekbone, the fading bruise there where Steve hit him three nights ago, waking up ice cold and wild with panic in his bed.
Steve is so sick of this. Sick of being damaged, sick of damaging others. Sick of his mind not letting go.
Tony nods, and folds his gaze down. Well, he doesn't have to like it.
“So you want to, what?” Clint says. “Recreate the trauma?”
Steve turns to look at him, sitting on the kitchen counter, one leg pulled up to his chest, coffee mug resting on his kneecap, the other dangling over the edge.
He isn't sure he can explain this outside his own head, but he knew he would have to. He wishes it made more sense.
“I guess I want it to happen for real,” he says. “So I'll know the dreams are wrong. Sometimes I think, if I could remember what it was like, when it did happen, I wouldn't be stuck imagining it.” He looks down at his cup again. “I don't know, I'm not expressing this very well.”
“No,” Natasha says. She pushes her half-empty glass of orange juice out of the way and reaches across the corner of the table to him, puts her hand on his arm. “You're being very clear. You want to experience what you fear in a controlled environment so your subconscious will see it's not as bad as it thinks. It makes perfect sense.”
“Do we need Loki for this, though?” Clint says. “No offense, Thor.”
“None taken,” Thor says. “I understand your concerns, although I do not believe they are warranted.”
Steve doesn't know when it became natural to have the god of thunder at his breakfast table, drinking his fourth cup of coffee in worn jeans and a too-tight Mötley Crëw t-shirt he's pretty sure belongs to Tony, but it is. He supposes in the greater scheme of their lives, what he's asking isn't all that weird, really.
“I'd suggest trying a scientific approach,” Bruce says, “but without extensive human testing, it would just be an experiment. There's no way we could reliably achieve the specific effects Steve's looking for. Magic is a much safer bet. And there's a sentence I never thought I'd hear myself say.”
“I'd have to read up on cryogenics to be sure,” Tony says, “but, much as I hate to admit it, Bruce is probably right. It's the part about remaining conscious that's tricky.”
“Exactly. I'll set up a monitoring system, though. Some safeguards to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
“So what do you need from the rest of us, Cap?” Clint asks.
They're talking as though it's been decided. As though this is really going to happen. Steve has to swallow down the lump of too many warring emotions caught in his throat before he can speak.
“I just need you to be there,” he says. “That's all I wanted to ask.”
“We wouldn't want to be anywhere else,” Natasha says.
No one seems to disagree.
After a while, he must have drifted away, because when he comes back, there is only one voice instead of many.
“...but Rhodey refused to let me install that function in the War Machine,” Tony is saying, “so now we'll never know.”
It sounds like the tail end of a story Steve has missed, but he doesn't mind. Judging by the direction of his voice, Tony is sitting right next to him, perhaps with his back against the headboard, his legs stretched out on the mattress, and he's been telling Steve a story. If the ice would let him, Steve would smile.
Somewhere along the way, it seems he's lost the panic. There's an odd stillness in its place, like floating in deep water.
The silence after Tony stops speaking lasts long enough that he's certain they must be the only people in the room. It feels more intimate than standing back to back in battle, than sinking into Tony's tight body in the dark: the knowledge that Tony is the only tether keeping him from floating out of reach, from being lost.
There's a rustle of fabric, Tony shifting on the bed.
“You know I really hated the idea of you doing this,” he says. “Still do. That's ironic, I guess, coming from the guy who dealt with his own post-traumatic whatever by strapping himself into a flying tin box of you-can't-touch-me-now, but this freaks me the hell out. You'd never guess, I know, but I'm not that good with silence. Giving up speech, communication, I don't understand how you could choose to do that. I'm still a bit pissed off at you for it, truth be told. But that's my problem, not yours, I actually realize that. Well, Pepper might have had to explain it to me, but the point still stands. So, you know, I'm trying, here, is what I wanted to say. I'm sorry if I'm fucking it up, but I am trying.”
Steve isn't sure what he would say to that, even if he could speak. But then again, it's not words he's missing, but motion, the freedom to reach out and touch.
Later, he tells himself. Afterwards. He'll store the frustrated impulse to hold and caress away until this is over.
Tony will be here for him to hold when this is over.
It hits him that he knows that. He doesn't doubt it at all.
A sudden noise startles him out of the moment, the heavy door opening and closing. For a second, he feels the panic rushing back in, not knowing what's coming, not being able to defend against it, if it's bad. It could be someone wanting to hurt Tony, they could kill him here just like in Steve's dreams, Steve having to listen, helpless to stop it.
But then, before the anxiety really has a chance to take hold, Tony says:
“Oh, look, Steve, it's Bruce,” and Bruce says:
“Hey, Steve, I'm just going to pull up a chair next to the bed,” and it's safe, they're safe, nothing's going to happen.
There's nothing here to panic about.
“You should stick with Bruce, Steve,” Tony says. “He likes this little project of yours so much he wishes he could try it himself.”
Bruce gives a small sigh, a sound of exasperation, but Steve is pretty sure he's smiling, just a hint of it on his lips. Tony goading him nearly always makes him smile.
The chair scrapes against the floor as he sets it down, settles into it.
“What I said was, I understand where you're coming from. My greatest fear is the Hulk hurting the people I love.”
“And I keep telling you that won't happen,” Tony puts in, “because the Hulk loves us, too. We're just that loveable. Or some of us are – I don't know what he sees in Natasha.”
“Right,” Bruce says. His tone is so dry, Steve has no problem picturing the tiny roll of his eyes. “But I can't know that, and so I keep imagining all the worst case scenarios. If there was a way I could experience what the Hulk thinks and feels, maybe knowing would stop my mind from spinning in circles, imagining. So it makes sense to me that you'd want to replace your nightmares with experience, Steve. If I had a chance of doing that, I'd take it.”
“Or you could just trust yourself, and your friends' judgment,” Tony says. There's an edge of annoyance in his tone.
“Or I could do that,” Bruce agrees. It feels as if this is a discussion the two of them have had many times before. It's another kind of closeness, unexpected, to be invited into it. “But I doubt that will happen any time soon. Tony, if you want any lunch, you should probably go eat before Thor has his fifth helping.”
“I wouldn't worry,” Tony says. “They can't run out of bacon in Asgard when they have that self-reviving pig. They do have the self-reviving pig, right? I'd be terribly disappointed if it turns out the pig, of all things, is a lie.”
“If the pig is truth, I'm not sure I want to know about it. Is zombie bacon really something you want in your diet?”
“Okay, that settles it. I'm going to have to go ask Thor how the zombie bacon works, or I'll never get any peace.” There is the sound of him moving on the bed, and then his voice is much closer, directly in Steve's ear. “See you later, Cap. Oh, wait, we're doing the thing where I'm supposed to tell you when I'm touching you.” A pause, the sound of Tony shifting again. “That was a kiss on your cheekbone. Right...here.” Steve can't feel it, but somehow it still leaves a flare of warmth, a smear of it, where he's sure Tony has followed his kiss with a brush of his fingers. There is another pause, more shifting. “That was...” Steve can hear the grin on his lips, that sudden flash of mischief that always drives him up the wall. “No, on second thought, you're just going to have to guess what that was.” And then his voice is further away, heading towards the door, as he says: “Back in a bit. Won't let the undead farm animals get me, promise.”
The door opens and closes behind him.
“Oh, no, Cap,” Bruce says, laughter in his voice. “I'm not telling you. You'll have much more fun trying to imagine what he did, anyway.”
Which sounds to Steve as if it's contradicting everything they just talked about, but then he can't say that Bruce is wrong.
“But you will not be able to feel us touching you,” Thor says. He's lying on the floor, resting on his elbow, the TV behind him running the muted menu sequence of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on a loop. Because Thor's wish to learn more about Earth's legendary heroes has somehow resulted in a series of movie marathons; Steve has to confess he's rather enjoying finding out what Hollywood has done to the stories of his childhood in the last seventy years. When it's not making him despair of humanity altogether. “Will that not make it unneeded?”
“Not to mention potentially creepy as fuck,” Clint says, from where he's sitting with his back against the front of the couch, Tony sprawled behind him so that the heel of his bare foot is resting on Clint's collar bone. “When you can't pull away.”
It's on the tip of Steve's tongue to say that Clint has touched him plenty of times when he wasn't in a position to pull away, but of course this is different, he knows that. Still, the thought sends a shiver up his spine, makes him shift in his seat, his fingers tighten in Natasha's hair where his hand's been resting. She's stretched out on her back, using his thigh as her pillow. His movements make her tilt her chin back to look at his face, blue eyes studying him.
“Steve?” she asks.
“It's still something I want,” he says. “I know I can't feel it, but I still want to know you're there. Physically.” He feels a bit ridiculous saying that. Too needy. But it's so close to the heart of why he's doing this thing in the first place. He doesn't think he can go through with it if he won't know they'll keep him anchored, keep his body connected to where they are, to when they are.
“Then what if we told you everything we did?” Bruce suggests. He's in the opposite corner of the couch from where Steve's sitting, a book in his lap – closed now, with his finger marking his place – and Tony slumped against his side. “If we narrated our movements, described how we touched you. Would that work for you?”
“Yeah,” he says. “That would help. I'd like that.”
“Okay,” Bruce says. “So we'll do that.”
Tony lifts his head from Bruce's shoulder, studies Steve through slitted eyes. He's had a day of board meetings Pepper made him attend, and he's still wearing the remnants of a half-discarded three-piece suit. Steve suspects he's been asleep through most of the last movie; he looks rumpled, vulnerable, but now his eyes are sharp.
“You realize everything we tell you could be lies?” he says.
Steve meets his gaze, holds it.
“No,” he says. “It couldn't.”
They're his team. He knows this.
Natasha reaches up, finds his hand in her hair with her own and squeezes his fingers. He squeezes back.
There is a moment of silence, the kind of quiet that tends to settle around him and Tony when they're facing off over strategy, arguing about morality, the others letting their disagreement play out before weighing in. Then Tony's face changes, his expression softening into something easier, warmer.
“Seriously, Cap,” he says, “how do expect me to maintain my image if you won't let me keep my cynicism? After all, it's the trademark accessory of devastatingly handsome billionaire playboy superheroes everywhere. I might as well donate my Lamborghini to the Salvation Army.”
Clint laughs. Natasha kicks Tony in the chest.
He drifts again. When the world comes back into focus, Natasha is there, and Clint, their voices on either side of him, near him on the bed.
“You'd think with the interdimensional travel and all that shit,” Clint is saying, “the Asgardians would have invented air conditioning.”
“Apparently it's an unusually warm summer,” Natasha says. Her voice is so close her head must be on the pillow, her mouth to Steve's ear. “It's hot outside, Steve. Sif took me out into the orchard to teach her that Tae Kwan Do move I used against the Green Goblin last time she was on Earth. I think I burnt my shoulders.”
“Guess that means you need sunscreen even if you're not a real redhead,” Clint says, teasing. The reply he gets is a smacking sound, like Natasha slapping his arm.
There is a space of time – a moment, a minute, Steve is beginning to find it hard to tell – when they're both of them silent. Then Clint adds:
“You would love Nat right now, though, Cap, if you had all your senses.” His voice is different now. Private. Confiding. “Her skin smells like sunlight and summer sweat, and she's draped all over you.”
Steve shivers, somewhere inside beneath the ice. He can imagine it, the feel of Natasha's sun-warmed body, the scent of her. Thinking about it almost makes him believe he can taste the sunlight.
“You're so cold,” Natasha says. “I could rub myself all over you just to soak it up.”
“Not that she's ever needed an excuse,” Clint says.
Natasha laughs, a breathless, thrilling sound. If Steve weren't frozen, it would make him hard.
“I'm taking my clothes off now, Steve,” Natasha says. “I don't need an excuse for that, either, do I?”
No, ma'am, he wants to say, an instinctive response to the tone in her voice. Because she doesn't need any excuses at all, no explanations. She can do what she wants with him. That's what he's for.
He can hear her, moving on the bed, and it's so easy to picture her, slipping out of her pants, her top; the way her breasts fall out when she unhooks her bra, large enough that you can see the pull of gravity; the first glimpse of hair when she peels her panties off. He wishes he could touch her, but it does something to him, knowing that he can't. It always does, but he wasn't sure this would be the same.
It is, though. It is the same, only more.
“Mmm,” Natasha says, “that's better.” He can hear her breathing. He only ever hears Natasha breathing towards the end of a long battle, or when they're making love. “I'm lying next to you, Steve, my left leg across your hips. You feel so good, solid and cold against the inside of my thigh, against my pussy. You know how hot I am there. The contrast is...” A small moan, so familiar, from when she presses herself against him in bed, when she lets him run his tongue along her folds. “...perfect.” Beautiful. “I want to come, Steve. I want to just lie here and grind myself against you until I come, knowing all you can do is take it. You like that so much, don't you, Cap? Being tied up and made to take what I give, immobilized, helpless. This is even better, isn't it? You're so still. I could do anything.”
Her breath hitches on that last sentence, and he wants to beg her, wants to plead for whatever she can think to do to him, to use him for. But his lips stay closed. He has no power here, no will at all. In his dreams, that scares him, terrifies him. But like this, it's right, it's what he needs. It's not the ice that controls him, it's Natasha. All he has to do to be safe is trust.
When it comes down to it, it's easy.
“I should have jerked you hard right before you got frozen,” Clint says, and he's breathless, too. Hungry. “Given Nat something nice and cold to ride. I'd bet you'd love that, to stay hard like a toy for her to use, as long as she wanted. Not even feeling it yourself – your big, fat cock existing just to please her. You're such a whore for it, aren't you, Cap? Such a good little soldier eager to serve.”
Yes, Steve thinks. It's all he's ever been, even though he'd never be able to put words on it like Clint does, without shame. No one has ever reached down to the truth of it like the two people here with him now. He wants to please them, wants them to take everything he has to give.
Here and now, he's nothing but something to be taken.
“You are good, Steve,” Natasha says. She sounds so close. There is the depth and roughness in her voice that mean he's almost tried hard enough – just a little more and she'll be satisfied, just a little more and he'll have earned the way she touches him, the way she speaks to him and makes him shake. “So very good. Always. God, I want...”
She moves again, her body shifting against his, and then there is stillness, quiet. He has just enough time to wonder what she's doing, to feel the tug of vertigo at not knowing, at being helpless to reject it if he did. But then Clint's voice is in his ear again.
“She's kneeling astride you,” he tells Steve. “Looking down at you. Her hands are stroking your face.”
It should be strange, maybe, to have Clint as the narrator of what's happening to him, of every intimate touch Natasha allows him, but instead it's strangely familiar. He's used to Clint being his eyes in the field, from some impossible vantage point high above, describing what they're up against, feeding him every piece of information he's going to need to guide them through. Here, it feels natural, reassuring. Clint has never failed to tell him what he ought to know.
“You look so serene,” Natasha says. “Cold and beautiful and untouchable. I want to touch you, Steve. I want to reach right through the ice and touch every part of you, heat you up from the inside out. Sometimes I think there are places inside you that are still frozen, that never defrosted when they thawed you out. But maybe this is your second chance, maybe this time when the ice breaks, you'll know it's safe to take everything back with you. I hope you will.”
He would like that. He would like to never feel the ice inside him instead of the faith he used to have, instead of the conviction and the fearlessness. He needs for the last of it to finally melt away.
“Clint's going to fuck me now,” Natasha continues, calm, certain, knowing the words are fact as soon as they leave her mouth. “He already has his cock out, stroking himself as he watches us. He's going to straddle you, too, right behind me, and he's going to fuck me on my hands and knees, on top of you. I will be face to face with you the entire time, watching you. I'm going to press my breasts against your cold chest as Clint pounds into me, drag my tight nipples over the ice. I'm going to kiss your lips when I come. And afterward, I'm going to rub myself all over you, until I come again, and again, dripping my juices, Clint's semen, smearing it on your frozen skin. And you're going to listen. To our every breath, every sound we make. There's nothing here but us, Steve. Nothing but what we do to you, to each other. We are your focus. There are no other things to worry about. Understood?”
There are birds somewhere outside the window, the voices of people in the gardens below, wind in the apple tree reaching its branches over the corner of their balcony. There is cold, a darkness somewhere in his mind that he fears, that has hurt him. None of it is relevant.
“You want it now, Nat?” Clint asks.
Natasha gives a small laugh, a warm sound, eagerness and self-mockery and trust.
“Five minutes ago would be good.”
Clint laughs, too, a quick huff, somewhere between sarcasm and love.
“I'm afraid time-travel isn't part of my skill-set,” he says.
“I wouldn't dawdle, then, if I were you,” Natasha says.
There are sounds then, of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, moans and grunts and half-broken words.
Steve strains to hear it all.
It sounds like life.
“So when you say you want us to touch you,” Tony asks, “are we talking comforting pats on the shoulder and a bit of supportive hand-holding, or are we going for an x-rating with this thing?”
Steve feels himself blush. Trust Tony to make him talk about the things he's only barely let himself think.
“Either,” he admits, ducking his head, his voice coming out almost a mumble. “Both. Whatever you're comfortable with.”
Natasha smiles up at him from where she's still lying in his lap, a grin that is somehow both happy and predatory. It's an expression that makes Steve's cheeks grow hotter, his jeans feel too tight. In a different setting, it would make him sink to his knees.
“I was hoping you'd say that,” she says.
“You find this endeavor arousing?” Thor asks, from his place on the floor, looking from Steve to Natasha with interest. The question could be judgmental, appalled – might be, from anyone else. From Thor, it's simply curious, honest and open, wanting to know. There's no way to answer him but honestly.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I mean, in some ways. I guess... It could be really... You know.”
“Oh, thank fuck,” Clint says. “I was afraid I was the only one getting a boner from thinking about the potentially creepy stuff.”
In Steve's lap, Natasha laughs.
“Definitely not the only one,” she says. Her body arcs a little on the couch, her shoulders shifting against Steve's thigh, and when he looks down at her, he's suddenly acutely aware of the fact that she isn't wearing a bra beneath her top, of the fact that her nipples are hard, pressing up against the thin, white cotton. He wants to touch them – no, he wants her to make him touch them, or maybe he wants her to make him work for the privilege. It frightens him a little, how much he wants that, even now, sitting here talking about handing her, handing them all, a kind of control over him that he can't quite imagine. But then she looks at him – not laughing, serious – and reaches up to touch his neck, and says: “And, Steve, it won't be creepy. We'll make it not creepy, okay?”
His lips curl at the corner of his mouth, a shaky kind of smile.
“Okay,” he says. It will be okay. She says so.
“Yeah, that sounds great,” Tony says, and the forced cheer in his voice makes Steve's smile drop, his eyes snap up, “but if no one has any objections, I'm going to be opting out of that section of the night's entertainment.”
“Tony, if you'd rather we didn't...” Steve starts, and he means that, but there must be some kind of regret in how he says it, because Tony cuts him off immediately, sitting up straighter. His voice is earnest, not forced at all.
“Hey, no. You want it. You should have it. I'm all for everyone having what they want, especially if it's something outlandish and wildly inappropriate. Kind of a basic tenet of my philosophy, right there. I just don't have that awesome a history with temporary paralysis.” There's a story there, one Steve hasn't heard; from the twist of bitterness in Tony's voice, he's sure of it. He would ask, he wants to, but Tony doesn't do well with personal questions. It's better to wait. “It's come with a bit too much personal betrayal and attempted murder and way too little hot D/s play for me to really get the turn-on factor. But I'm not the one who'll be going all diving bell and butterfly, here. I can leave the room. It's all opt in for me.”
The moment Steve stopped worrying about not understanding Tony's steady stream of references to things he's missed while he was frozen was the moment he realized that he knows Tony well enough now to get at the meaning of what he's saying, anyway. He can see what Tony's asking here, even if it isn't phrased as a question.
“It is for me, too,” he says. “This is where I opt in.”
Tony looks at him for a long moment.
“All right, then,” he says at last. “As long as you know that's what you're doing.”
He does. He's pretty sure he does. It scares him, knowing that once it's actually happening, he won't be able to opt out again, but then that's the point, isn't it? It's starting to bug him, that Tony doesn't seem to trust him to understand that that's the point. He's about to say as much, when Bruce shifts behind Tony on the couch, turning further towards Steve, and asks:
“So what exactly is it you want to opt into? I think we'll all feel better if we have some more specific data to work with.”
Steve isn't sure he's meant to see it, but he can't help noticing how Bruce's hand settles on Tony's wrist, how the touch makes Tony sink back against him, his body relax again into something like the lazy sprawl of a few minutes ago. Backing off, and Steve doesn't really know how he feels about that, doesn't have a chance to make up his mind before Clint says:
“Yeah, spill, Cap. Give us the filthy details. We're all ears, here.”
“It doesn't have to be filthy,” Steve says, reflexively. It doesn't. He wants them to know that.
“But?” Clint prompts. “Your face is strawberry colored – don't tell me there aren't any buts.”
There are, of course. There are a lot of buts. He closes his eyes, lets the images of them rush past behind his eyelids.
He's asked these people for stranger things. He should be able to ask them for this.
Natasha moves in his lap, turning, rising up. He feels her palms cupping his temples before he opens his eyes to find her right there, face to face, astride him. Her hair is tousled, a curtain of red fallen forward to cover her right eye.
“I know it's hard,” she says, her thumb brushing his cheekbone, “but all you have to do is say the words.”
Haltingly, disjointedly, little by little, he does.
It's not as hard as he would have thought, before any of these people kissed him.
For some of it he is there, awake, present in the moment. For other parts, he slips away, into slumber, out of focus. For all of it, the Avengers are there with him. Sometimes all of them, sometimes just one or two, sometimes speaking quietly for only him to hear, sometimes joking, arguing, discussing with each other.
In his head, more than once, he draws them. Charcoal sketches and quick watercolors, trying to capture them as he imagines them from their voices, their words, the way he hears them move and turn. He doesn't know when his mind soaked up their details, the finest brushstrokes that make up who they are, separately and together, but he doesn't have to try to paint them; each fresh page behind his eyelids fills up easily, with the twist of a smile, the angle of a shoulder, with the shape of a touch, the pattern of bodies leaning together. He can see how they fit, the composition that makes each picture right. He can see where he fits within it.
Once when he wakes there is the sound of thunder, rolling in the distance. He remembers being a kid, hiding from the downpour in a Brooklyn doorway, watching lightning play over the silhouetted spires of Manhattan; remembers being a soldier, sheltering with his men beneath a bridge in a German forest, hearing the whip-cracks of lightning strikes; remembers being scared, being small. But thunder now is safety, is a back against his to shore him up when he's close to falling, and if he feels small tonight, the sound of it is a blanket wrapped around him, keeping him warm, keeping him close.
It dawns on him, with a sense of wonder, of surprise, that he isn't scared at all.
The images he draws are different, one from the next, but they don't change, not really.
Nothing is lost.
No one is slipping away from him.
He's sitting on the flight deck of the helicarrier, feet dangling over the edge above the choppy waters of the Atlantic, when Thor comes to find him. It's the gray hour just before dawn, and when Thor sits down beside him, his mantle, caught in the wind, is a shock of color against the dim haze of sea and clouded sky.
“I have spoken with my brother, Captain,” Thor says without preamble. “And with my father. As soon as you wish it, we are welcome in Asgard.”
Steve curls his gloved fingers against the metal of the ship. His mouth is suddenly dry, his skin cold beneath the tight armor of his suit. It's ridiculous – “as soon as he wishes it” doesn't mean now, doesn't even mean this week. They're in the middle of a mission, they have other obligations after that. All the same, his heart is beating faster than it was a moment ago.
He glances over at Thor, who is busy sweeping his hair back, trying to keep it out of his eyes.
“You don't think it's strange?” Steve asks.
“I understand that the team is wary,” he says. “But I do not think it strange that my brother should choose to help you. It is a sign of good faith.”
“No,” Steve says. They've talked about that aspect before. Whatever concerns he has, he's already decided to set them aside. “No, I meant, you don't think it's strange, that I want to do this?”
“Ah,” Thor says.
Behind them, a jet takes off, a roar of engines for a minute blocking out any possibility of conversation. Steve turns his head, watches the sleek, black shape of the aircraft until it's as small as a bird, its wings frail above the horizon.
Then Thor speaks again.
“In the far, distant reaches of my realm,” he says, “there is a wilderness, little traveled by men. In this wilderness there is a cave, and in this cave, there dwells a great beast. So ancient is it that none remember its name, so powerful that it cannot be slain. It has long been considered a worthy trial for the bravest of our warriors to enter its lair, to remain therein for three nights and three days, to emerge alive. To achieve this is a mark of great honor.”
Steve, to be honest, has never really been one for bravery for its own sake. He believes in doing what has to be done, and sometimes that takes guts, sometimes it takes more guts than any one person should need to have, but the world is so full of real, concrete troubles asking for you to act, he can't see the point in making up abstract tests of courage. He said as much, once, in the first days of the team, when Thor was going on about the honor of meeting skilled warriors in single combat. Tony looked at him as if seeing him for the first time, then, and said, “No one ever tells you Captain America is a pragmatist, do they?” Steve wasn't that fond of the word choice, but he supposes it's true, in a way. People like to associate him with ideals, but all he's ever done is respond to specific situations. He's not sure honor has anything to do with it.
He knows Thor thinks it does, though, that Thor thinks the abstracts matter.
“So you've gone through this trial?” he asks, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Thor says. “The Lady Sif is the only warrior of our generation who has gone to the cave and returned to weave songs about her triumph.”
“Okay, you've lost me now,” Steve says. “Why haven't you gone?”
Thor's fingers seek the handle of his hammer, an unconscious gesture, as if looking for support or confirmation.
“What is your Earth expression?” he says. “The trial does not play to my strengths. In order to survive the beast, you must remain still. The slightest motion or smallest sound, and it will detect you, will tear you apart. The cave is a trial of a warrior's patience, of their heart's serenity. If nothing else, the past few years have taught me that I have much to learn in this regard.”
The wind is picking up, carrying saltwater droplets that Steve feels against his cheeks, tastes on his lips when he wets them with the tip of his tongue. The day is slowly lightening, the sun preparing to rise somewhere behind the leaden clouds.
“Why are you telling me this?” he asks.
“They say that as the warrior waits there, silent in the cave, all that his life has been passes through his mind, all he knows is sifted through the sieve of the darkness and the dread, and what stays with him are the things that will allow him to survive. This is the true value of the trial, to learn what you truly own, what weapons are yours to wield. Sif would not share with me all that was made plain to her, apart from one thing: that the knowledge of the friends who were waiting for her, who believed that she would return, was a much sharper blade to carry than she had yet realized. Captain...” Thor turns to him, claps a hand on his shoulder. “I think perhaps this undertaking you have your mind set on will be your time in the beast's cave, a worthy test for a great warrior. The wish in my heart is that you will learn, as Sif did, that your brothers and sisters are there with you, that you will not be raising your weapons alone. That is the thought I bear.”
Thor's hand, changing its grip, is warm in the morning chill, huge against the back of Steve's neck, just above his pushed-back cowl. The wind is insisting on playing with the loose strands of Thor's hair, bright streaks dancing in front of his face. Steve has an urge to tangle his hands in them, in Thor's steady heat.
“I do not think your choices strange, Steve Rogers,” Thor says.
Thank you, Steve wants to say.
He has the odd feeling he sometimes gets when Thor touches him that he is small again, fragile for a moment the way he used to be, all his life, that the proportions are restored to what they ought to be. It's weird, because it doesn't make him feel weak. It simply makes him certain that Thor is one person he will never break. A good certainty to have, when too many have broken around him already.
He lifts his hand, puts it on Thor's wrist where it rests against the side of his throat. Squeezes.
He hears the sound of the unmistakable aircraft approaching even as Thor looks up and says,
“It is time.”
Turning, Steve sees a bold brushstroke of red and gold sweep across the sky; imagines, as he always does, that he can make out the fragile accent of a glowing blue light within it. Of course he can't, though. Tony has been nowhere near that easy to read, lately.
He gets to his feet, letting Thor's hand fall away, as Iron Man disappears through his landing hatch into the bowels of the helicarrier.
“Let's go find out what air reconnaissance has to tell us,” he says.
Thor follows him across the deck, a warm presence at his side.
He is cold.
He wakes, and after all this time of nothing at all, he feels cold. Bone-deep, encasing him. He would shake with it, but when he tries, he still can't move. He is frozen, freezing.
He's been here before.
Only, this time there are voices.
“His vitals are up,” Bruce says. “If I were to guess, I'd say he's regaining sensation.”
“Well.” Tony. “Only one way to find out.”
Warmth. Muted, far away, but there. Seeping down to him through the ice. Two points of it, moving, and those must be Tony's hands, stroking down his chest.
“I don't know if you'll be able to feel this yet, Cap,” Tony says, “but I figure I'll just keep going till you do.”
Heat. Sudden, startling heat, and that isn't Tony's hand, that must be his mouth, furnace hot, lips and tongue and Steve can't make out the point where they touch, but he can feel Tony there as warmth, as the bright, flaring heat of his body. Low on Steve's belly, trailing down. Along his hip bone. Further. He was wearing underwear, but Tony must be pushing it down as he goes, the ice must be cracking enough to let him, because there can't be anything between Steve's frozen skin and Tony's mouth, or it wouldn't feel like this. He has an image in his head of Tony with a blowtorch, with a soldering iron, with metal heating in his hands to bend on the anvil. He thinks: he is the metal now, so cold at the core, but warming, temperature rising. All he wants is to reach the red hot point where things can be reshaped, where things can melt and be reformed. But he is still so cold.
“Seriously, Stark?” Clint asks, from a point beyond the bed. Disbelieving.
The heat leaves him. He wants to arc up after it, but his limbs are numb.
“Off the top or your head,” Tony says, “do you know many better ways to wake up?”
“Point,” Clint says, and then there's Natasha's voice, closer, saying,
“Carry on, Tony,” at the same time as the heat rushes back over him, over his groin, a lick of flame.
He is so cold it hurts, and he's going to burn.
The heat is around him, around his flesh, and then Tony sucks, and, oh, Lord, he felt that, he feels that, and, oh.
“Steve?” Natasha says. Warmth on his cheek. Her hand. “Steve? Are you there?”
He's gasping aloud.
He can... He could...
“Present, ma'am,” he says. It comes out hoarse, barely more than a whisper. “Cold.”
Someone laughs – Clint – a sound of relief. Tony's hand squeezes his hip. The grip is almost tight enough to hurt, but he can feel it now, that's all that matters. He can feel it, just as he can feel himself grow hard in Tony's mouth, feel Tony's tongue, deft and wet and soft, coaxing him to thicken, lengthen, press into all that heat. When he shudders, it's only half from the chill.
“I know,” Natasha says, her fingers stroking his face. “We'll get you warm, I promise. You'll be warm soon.”
“Captain, if you have no objection,” Thor says, but he doesn't wait for Steve's reply. Simply grips his shoulder and turns him over, turns him to lie on his side. Tony follows, guiding his hips, moaning as the roll of their bodies pushes Steve against the back of his throat – an eager noise, hungry and pleased. Then Thor is there, behind him, pressing up against his back, and he is naked. Warm skin, enough of it to cover Steve, to drape around him like the thunder in the night, Thor's body large enough to hold him properly, to be everywhere the cold is. Steve rubs up against it, wanton, soaking in all that unhesitating touch.
Thor's cock is hard, thick against his backside. As perfectly, searingly hot as Tony's mouth. He wants... God, he wants.
“Please,” he breathes.
“Yes,” Natasha says. They're face to face, he can feel her breath now, warm across his cheekbone when she speaks. “I told you, didn't I? From the inside out.”
Someone lifts his leg, pulls it up over Tony's shoulder. Someone's fingers find his balls, stroke, wet and slick, up between his buttocks. Bruce, he's pretty sure that's Bruce, the touch sure, precise, pushing into him, pushing him open. Good, so good, making him quiver, making him bite his lip.
“No, don't,” Natasha says. Her thumb brushes his mouth, the place where his teeth dent his own flesh. “You're done being quiet, okay?”
He nods, tries to nod, breathes out, loud and shaky against the pad of her thumb. Licks at it, salt and the bright taste of her, the warmth of her pulse. He takes her in his mouth, moans with his tongue pressed against the bend of her knuckle when Bruce pulls out of him, when Thor pushes inside.
Huge, and so warm, filling him up with it, stuffing it into him, deep, so deep, again and again, over and over, until there's no room for the cold, no space inside him where it can hide. Heat and pleasure crowding it out, making it yield, fall back, abandon the field, and all there is is them, all around him, hands holding him, bodies moving him between them. Warm, living, sparking inside him like lightning, and there might be tears in his eyes, Natasha's lips kissing them from his cheekbones.
He's going to come like that, just like that, between them, but then Tony's mouth is gone, the heat of it pulled away, and he shivers, has time to feel the air on his wet skin, one last chill, before Tony's hand catches him, drives it away.
“Sorry,” Tony says. “Sorry, Steve, I just can't not. Bad impulse control. All right?”
“All right.” Natasha, laughing, warm, and then Tony's mouth is where her thumb was a moment ago, Tony's lips on his, his tongue slipping inside, and Steve moans, arcs to open for it, and Tony is pressed against him, his leg over Steve's hip, his cock another brand of heat against Steve's belly, and, oh, he's guiding Steve to his opening, pushing down, downdowndown, and something about the tightness of him, the fire – pulsing, uncontrolled – makes Steve remember he has hands to reach out, he has freedom to move, and he grabs at Tony's body, yanks him closer, holds him there. Holds on, and Thor thrusts into him, thrusts him deeper into Tony, and everything, every point where they touch, is warmth. Nothing but warmth, tearing through him, out of him, as the very last ice cracks and falls away.
It's cold on the rooftop, his own breath clearly visible to him in puffs of white smoke that he hopes can't be seen from below. On the opposite building, he can just make out the glint of Hawkeye's scope, trained on the alley between them, Clint a dark, still shape crouched in the shadows, as he is, waiting for the villains they're hunting to step into their trap. From here, he can't see Black Widow at ground level, but he knows where her hiding place is, knows from what angle to expect her strike. Their position is as strong as he can make it.
He shifts his weight from one leg to the other, trails his fingers through the dusting of snow on the flat roof, scoops a handful up into his cupped palm.
They might be done here tonight. And after that... After that, they could go. Thor said whenever he wished it, he just has to make the call. He's not sure he's ready, though. Then again, he's not sure he can stand to put it off.
The white flakes melt into the leather of his glove, leave flecks of moisture where he rubs them between his fingers. He brushes the snow off against the shaft of his boot, tries to brush off the thoughts he shouldn't be having here.
“So, Cap,” Tony's voice comes over the radio inside his cowl. “What happens when you've defrosted?”
He knows better than to give in to the impulse to look up – Iron Man will be circling too high for him to see with his bare eyes, nothing but a dot among the night stars – but he doubts the timing of the question is a coincidence. Iron Man has night vision, has the technology to magnify any visual input to catch the smallest detail. He's pretty sure Tony was looking over his shoulder.
Steve could tell him to cut the chatter – this isn't the time – but Tony is using a private channel and they can both tell nothing is happening right now. And if Tony still doesn't trust that Steve knows what he's getting into, if Tony still thinks he needs to be looking over Steve's shoulder, then maybe they need to have that out.
“How do you mean?” Steve asks.
“I mean we've talked about what you want from your experience as Capsicle 2.0, but at the end of it, you'll thaw out and wake up, and you haven't said anything about that yet. So, what do you want to wake up to? Good old-fashioned bugle call? Full English breakfast? Sex?”
Steve shifts in the snow again, adjusts his grip on his shield.
“Would that bother you? If I said sex?”
“Would that...?” Tony makes a noise, half lost in the background roar of the Iron Man's engines, the rush of wind around him. It could be a laugh, incredulous. “You live long enough, I guess you do get to hear everything once.” Silence, then: “Look. This thing you plan to do, that you plan to have done to you, it's pretty extreme. And when a person wants extreme things, sometimes they don't think to ask all the questions they should have asked, beforehand. They're too caught up in the prospect of getting what they need, getting someone to give them that, getting to go far enough. Getting hurt enough. And sometimes when they're older and wiser – although of course still possessed of an irresistible boyish charm – they wish that, on a couple of occasions, they'd asked more questions and set more terms.”
He isn't sure what to say, there's nothing really that Tony wouldn't reject right now as too personal, so he opts for teasing.
“Tony, was that you just admitting to having limits?”
“I know, it's a shock. Don't tell Pepper, okay? Or Bruce. Or Natasha. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“I'm pretty sure they already know that about you.” He pauses, considers what Tony is trying to tell him, what Tony has been trying to tell him. “I'm pretty sure they know that about me, too.”
“If you tell them, they do. Turns out that contrary to what I believed most of my life, people don't just magically know what you want and fall over themselves to give it to you. Bit of a rude awakening, let me tell you.”
For a minute, neither of them says anything, but the silence feels easy, a space willingly shared.
He traces the edge of his shield with his thumb, the vibranium a sharp line of cold through his glove.
In his dreams, when the ice melts, the shield is the only thing left for him to hold.
“I think I can probably manage without the bugle calls,” he says. “Just... Be close. I'm not sure there'll actually be such a thing as close enough, but I'd like to try for it.”
“So that's a yes about sex, then?”
He thinks about that, about that kind of closeness, that kind of warmth. Thinks about feeling Clint's heartbeat in the cock filling his mouth the night before, the throb of blood in Natasha's clit under his tongue. The pounding, fragile rhythm of life in the vein on Tony's neck where he buried his face as they ground together, as they shook apart.
“Yeah,” he says. “That's a yes.”
The grin in Tony's voice is blinding.
“Now that,” he says, “is going to be the fun part.”
“You realize you haven't actually opened your eyes, yet, right?” Tony says.
Steve hasn't thought about that, really. He's let the others move him, guide him, let them bring him back. But the ice has lost all hold on him now; there's only this final step left. He supposes it's his own to take.
He blinks his eyes open.
The world is bright, hazy and golden with sunlight, its contours simultaneously too sharp and washed out in a shimmer, blurred like the soft edges of a charcoal drawing smeared beneath the artists thumb.
Tony's face is in front of him, only inches away on the pillow: dark, warm eyes creased with laugh lines, lips flushed from kisses, from the cold they've chased away. Steve's throat is too tight, thick with all the things the ice kept locked down, silent. With every breath, he feels them all, each of them – his team, his people – his skin shifting against theirs wherever they touch.
He lifts his hand, lays it against Tony's cheek.
“Not gone,” he says. He can feel himself smiling.
It's Natasha who answers. Her hair is a gleam to rival the sunlight, somewhere beyond Tony's shoulder.
“It would take a lot more than that to shake us off,” she says.
“Think I'm starting to figure that out,” Steve says.
“Good to know you're not too terribly slow on the uptake, there, Cap,” Tony says, but he's turning his face into Steve's palm.
Steve thinks, if he fell asleep now, his dreams would have no memory of cold.