The mud was dragging him down. The rain had been bad enough, seeping into his coat, getting into everything, chilling him to the core, but the mud, the mud was worse.
He'd never been a good runner, but now, with wet socks in terribly worn boots and a rifle too heavy for him to carry with numb arms and chilled fingers in front of him, too important to lose, running was the only thing he had left. Bucky had joked once that he got into so many fights simply because he was a bad runner, not because he didn't see the reasons for running away.
Bullets were spurring him on now - German shouting, explosions all around him – and he was running so fast that his lungs were burning so hot and searing, that taking even one more breath was excruciatingly painful. He wouldn't be able to keep it up. But if he wanted to get away he had to try.
Why hadn't he listened to Bucky? Bucky had told him that falsifying his papers to get into the army was a bad, bad idea. It will get you killed one way or the other, Steve. Don't do it. Everyone else had simply told him that he wasn't cut out for it. If they had known him at all they would have realized they were only giving him reasons to prove them wrong.
He tried to shake the thoughts as he ran, trying to be calm, trying to ignore the frantic beating of his heart and instead concentrate on steadily counting down. “3... 2... 1!”
When the final explosion rippled loudly through the night behind him, he was thrown forward, the gear he was carrying clattering to the ground. He landed hard on the rifle, and ducked his head, his face hitting the mud. Laughter tore itself from his chest and it was glorious and painful and stole his very last breath away, but damn, did he feel like nothing else mattered right now.
He'd done it! The first real mission Nick Fury had sent him on was completed. Perhaps he wasn't going to survive this, but at the very least the Germans would have to fight this war without a death ray or better bombs, because Steve had just blown it all to bits and pieces. Sirens were howling through the night, but even from here he could see that one of the watchtowers had been taken out by the blow too. But soldiers were swarming out, coming after him, and he knew he had to get up now or be shot on sight, or, worse, taken prisoner.
And he knew what happened to prisoners, knew where he would end up if he was lucky, or unlucky enough to survive the interrogation.
He needed to get up...
Before he had even managed to push up half-way, he nearly fell back, as something big ad heavy landed with a frightening noise right beside him. In a futile attempt to shield himself his arms came up and he waited for the inevitable explosion. But there was a loud barrage of shots being fired in rapid succession and then another sudden explosion somewhere to his left, but he was apparently unharmed. Carefully he peaked out from under his arm, and the next breath again became painfully stuck in his throat.
He'd seen the armor a thousand times or more, tracing it on the covers of Marvels, sketching it endlessly in notebooks, when he wasn't thinking up heroic poses for himself alongside Tony Stark and his aids.
This was a dream. It must be. He had been shot and was dying here in the terrible soggy cold.
“Get up, soldier,” a slightly distorted male voice told him. “You must be one of the Howling Commandos, one of Nick's guys? There's always stuff exploding where you guys are involved.”
His ears were ringing so loudly that it was hard to hear, but even through the haze he decided he liked that voice. It wasn't the deep, dark baritone he'd imagined in all too many childish fantasies, but a nice voice nonetheless. Even though he still had a hard time getting air into his failing lungs, he got up and did as Iron Man directed: He ran while the bulk of metal and fire power guarded his retreat.
* * *
Then someone made a content humming noise and said: “Sorry, soldier. Someone has to get up and stir this fire before it dies and I think it's going to have to be me.”
That woke Steve like a cold barrel of water. He shot up, immediately taking stock of his surrounding until his eyes fell on the face, so familiar and yet different, of Tony Stark, and seconds later he realized that they were huddled beneath the half bent over armor, only haphazardly protected from the wind and drizzle of the newly started rain.
“Blasted rain,” Stark complained, as he slipped out from the blanket, leaving Steve suddenly bereft of the warmth of a warm, human body beside him. Mortified, he could feel his face heat up instantly. He'd been huddled up against Tony Stark. Touching.
“You're quite something,” Tony said, as he made sure their little camp fire wasn't dying.
“I am?” Steve was unsure he wanted to hear what came out of the mouth of his hero next, when he too would tell him that someone scrawny like Steve had no place being here, fighting this war.
“I planned how to take out that facility for a good, long month,” Tony went on. “And you just bomb it all to hell before I even get there, soldier. That's quite a feat even for a Howling Commando.”
“Steve,” he said automatically, his face heating up even more as he realized he'd just introduced himself to Tony Stark and in the most rude sounding possible way. "My name is Steve."
His heart did a surprised back-flip when Stark smiled at him and nodded. “Nice to meet you, Steve. I'm Tony,” the man said easily and to Steve's utter amazement returned to his place beside him to slip back under the blanket with him. “You look a little feverish. We better see that we get you out of here, as soon as the armor recharged. I'm a bit low on energy too.”
He was not going to point out that his cheeks were glowing for other reasons, especially not as Tony pulled him closer against his side and explained in a neutral tone: “Keep close. It's wet and freezing and we both can use a bit of warmth till morning. I really hate the cold.”
Tony couldn't know that Steve had no intention at all to protest. Who knew when he'd ever get the chance again to be this close to his hero?
“Go back to sleep,” the man said. “I'll take the first watch.”
He hadn't even realized that he was still exhausted and tired, but the warmth returning to his body was enough to let him drift back off immediately. The feeling of comfort and safety returned so fast, his eyes were already dropping. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled, trying for a tired salute, but his hand getting caught in the scratchy blanket.
The rich and warm chuckle was like balm to his ears.
Peeking at Stark from beneath his lashes, his head having fallen to rest on his shoulder, Steve thought this was all a bit surreal. Too strange even to be a dream.
No, if this had been a dream, he would have heroically saved Stark, like he'd been fantasizing so often when playing out his own Marvels adventures in his head, and the man would be eternally grateful to him now.
No, this was definitely not a dream.
This was his real life hero, saving him, warm and alive and real and here.
It wasn't like his daydreams at all. Too dirty and gritty and painful to be daydreams. But this once, Steve thought, he'd be able to live with being the one who got saved. Aching, wet and his fingers feeling numb, his back hurting, he still thought this had all been worth it. This was the best day of his life.
He would never have met Tony Stark, sitting around at home in safety.