Steve Rogers never liked the winter.
It brings back memories of bouts of fever and bony knees clanking together on the way to an early-morning class. Shivering. The feeling of breaths freezing before they reach your lungs.
When Steve was seventeen, winter brought pneumonia through the snow-caked window panes and brought his mother her final breaths.
Each winter, all Steve does is pray for spring.
* * * * *
Clint’s the first to notice the first few flakes in the air outside the Helicarrier (which surprises all of no one, because Clint really does have impeccable eyesight). Another enemy defeated, another mission complete, and there is a tired but confident hum among the sort-of-mess of a group known as the Avengers as they head back to HQ.
Bruce (who has effectively de-Hulked himself and thrown on the warm spare clothes provided for him) holds out a hand to the falling flakes, an amused half-smirk on his usually silent and sunken face. Thor laughs a bit too loudly because he does everything a bit too loudly, squinting up at the sky and declaring something or other about the quaintness of frozen Midgardian precipitation. Natasha wraps her arms around herself, her scowl replaced by a goofy grin as she points out the snowflakes in Clint’s hair.
It’s really a sight. Something out of one of those old family paintings his mother used to like, except a lot more dysfunctional, and Steve’s pretty sure none of those paintings ever included a booming Norse god stomping around on the fluffy white below him like there’s no tomorrow.
Cap tries to focus in on his team, his pretty fantastic team who just defeated an army of cyborgs in a matter of hours, and tries to let their relieved enjoyment wrap itself around him, too . . .
The winter wind around him is no louder than a soft whistle, but it howls in Steve’s ears, and he clutches his shield to his chest, training his eyes hard to the ground . . .
“You have your Stoic Grandpa Face on. Why the Stoic Grandpa Face?”
Steve snaps up his gaze at the voice, and Tony Stark is standing in front of him, iron helmet discarded somewhere or other. His head is tilted back, specks of shimmering white decorating his dark hair, and he’s sticking his tongue out, trying to catch the flakes as they fall.
He looks very much like a child then. Considering he so often acts like one, Steve thinks it’s appropriate. He clears his throat and retorts flatly, “I told you I don’t like when you call me that.”
“Hey, man. Lighten up. Snowing! Live a little.” He lifts a metal-coated arm to clap him on the back.
The armor is cold.
Steve shivers, forces a smile, and turns sharply on his heel to go inside. He doesn’t give himself enough time to watch Tony’s perplexed face staring after him.
* * * * *
Splat. A painful rush of coldness skidding down his shirt, the feeling that he can’t quite grasp enough air to take a breath, and it’s ice, ice all over him, he’s drowning in it—
“Holy shit, Nat. You got him good!” is Clint’s voice hooting from somewhere behind him. Steve spins around to see Natasha with a sly grin on her face, a snowball braced in her gloved left hand. Her moment of glory doesn’t last very long, though, for within seconds Thor is plummeting five and six snowballs at her, and she raises a hand in surrender between cusses and sporadic bursts of laughter.
Steve’s eyes dart back and forth at the scene before him, trying not to let panic overtake him. It’s okay. They’re just having fun. When Clint’s about to charge at him, though, he’s quick to hold up his hands with a, “I-I dunno if a snowball fight in the tower’s a good idea. Is it?”
“Ah, good Captain. Do not be concerned!” Thor shouts in between being tackled by Natasha in a vengeful attack only she could muster, “Friend Stark is the one who started it!”
Of course he is. “Oh.” They just want to have fun. Let them be. If you wanna lose that Grandpa title, just let them be.
The remnants of Natasha’s snowball sting his skin. He clenches his fists in an attempt to keep from shaking. If he could just get the hell out of this hallway—
When Clint jumps up behind him, Steve doesn’t really think. He just does.
He whirls around and slams Clint against the wall, breathing hard, forearm digging across the other man’s chest. Clint lets out a fraction of a laugh before sobering immediately, brow furrowed as he shoves Cap off him, nonplussed. Dammit.
“Whoa!” Natasha is forcing her way between them in half a second, “Take it easy, you two. What’s up with you, Rogers?”
A part of Steve wants to shout. Wants to make them understand, wants to himself understand why they don’t, why they can’t see--
“Seriously, Cap.” Clint lifts his arms defensively. “I was only messing around.”
Thor frowns. “What troubles you, Captain?”
All eyes are on him now, and Steve feels his face grow hot. “I, uh—it’s nothing. I’m sorry, Barton. Just a little . . . on-edge today, is all. It won’t happen again. Are you hurt?”
Clint shakes his head, looking quite a bit more perturbed than Cap would like to see, and Natasha crosses her arms over her chest. “But you just--”
“Leave it, Romanoff.” It’s not Clint or Thor who steps in then, but a voice behind Steve belonging to none other than Tony, who strides toward them with raised eyebrows. “Seriously, we all have our bad days. Right, Cap? And let’s face it. We’ve all wanted to throw Clint against a wall at some point—oh, oops, did I say that out loud?”
“Shut up, Stark!”
“I mean, personally, I still resent you for spying on me in the shower that time--”
“It was a dare!”
“—A dare you secretly enjoyed, I bet, because hi, me in the shower . . .”
Clint and Tony are bantering back and forth, now, but Tony’s brown eyes occasionally flicker toward Steve, and he realizes this is Tony’s ridiculous way of bailing him out. Of giving him time to collect himself. To be okay again.
He heads off to clear his head, to change his shirt, and to look at his tired reflection in the mirror and tell himself that winter was no match for the great Captain America.
The incident doesn’t come up again. It’d been Steve’s turn to make dinner tonight and he guesses the stew he’s just made is delicious enough that his comrades may have forgotten about the whole thing entirely. He pats Clint on the back absently on his way to his chair at the dinner table just in case, and he turns around and gives him a nod. It’s all okay. It’s all fine.
Snow falls outside, and Steve pretends not to notice it. He makes a point to give Tony Stark a significant glance as he passes the vegetables, though, one he hopes says Thank you.
Tony returns the look and settles back in his seat, and the intensity of his gaze tells Steve that his message got across just fine.
* * * * *
Steve jolts awake, panting, scrambling—to warmth.
In his peripheral vision the television blares an I Love Lucy rerun. Draped over him is a wool blanket that Steve knows for a fact hadn’t been there earlier, and before he really has time to question it—
“Y’know, some people are trying to work at three in the morning, Steve.”
Tony Stark half-sits on the arm of the couch, absently fiddling with one of his ridiculous tablets. He’s in a t-shirt and sweatpants, a strange contrast to his usual ostentatious attire.
Steve shakes his head a little, willing the disorientation out of his mind. “By some people, you mean ‘you’, I’m assuming,” he replies, rubbing his eyes. He doesn’t remember falling asleep after wandering down to the games room (an insomnia-induced routine of his), but evidently he had. Despite the terror of his nightmare, bits and pieces of which are floating in his consciousness even now, Steve feels oddly . . . okay. And warm.
The latter he figures must be due to the (very comfortable) quilt on top of him. Which he’s still a little confused about.
“Did you, um.” He tries to meet Tony’s eyes, but the man’s still too busy pulling up something or other on the tablet, “Is this yours? The, um. The blanket.”
Tony shrugs and explains conversationally, “I mean, I really couldn’t concentrate on analyzing these schematics while you were chattering away like that. Literally. Your teeth were chattering.” When Steve can offer nothing but an incredulous stare, he sighs theatrically and adds, “Yeah, it’s mine. Got it in Montreal. I think. I was drunk for half that trip; you’d have to ask Pepper.”
“Oh.” Steve doesn’t know why he’s blushing, but he is. He mutters, “Thanks,” and realizes it’s the second time in a few short weeks he’s thanking Tony Stark for helping him fight the cold.
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t use it anyway.”
For a few minutes, they let companionable silence trickle over them, Tony on the edge of the sofa and Steve propped up on the cushion. And soon enough they’re side by side on the couch watching Lucy Ricardo smash up grapes with her feet.
If Tony sits a little closer than normal, Steve doesn’t say anything. And if Steve sort of leans in a little for warmth, Tony doesn’t say a damn thing either.
And if the next afternoon Steve stops into his room on the seventh floor and a certain quilt is folded up on his bed, he decides some things just don’t need saying at all.
* * * * *
He’s so immersed in his own thoughts that he doesn’t hear Tony Stark slip into the kitchen, and nearly jumps ten feet when Stark slams his hands onto the table as some kind of resolute gesture. “Okay,” he says. “Come with me.”
Steve blinks. “What?”
“Ugh, God. I know you’re our mighty leader now and all, but I’m pretty sure you remember from your good old army days how to respond to an order when you hear one. Come with me.”
“Since when do I take orders from--”
Tony interrupts him with a yank of his arm, and an extremely agitated Steve hobbles along behind Tony, knowing full well he’s going to regret getting involved in whatever’s about to transpire. With Tony’s swipe of his access card and the door leading to the sidewalk out front sliding open, it becomes very apparent very quickly that Steve’s assumptions were correct. “Check it out,” Tony says, dragging him a little ways outside before dropping his arms to clasp behind his back.
Thick, fluffy snowflakes dance around Steve. New York is blanketed in a crisp, clean alabaster, bright even in the darkness of the not-quite-risen sun; it’s the most snow they’ve had all winter so far. To anyone else it’d be a beautiful sight. To Steve it’s a nightmare.
The cold is absolutely biting. It grates against Steve’s skin, claws at his hands and makes them red. “Are you crazy?” he sputters, throwing a wide-eyed stare at Tony, who hums happily as he peers up at the sky, “You’re not even wearing a coat!”
“Neither are you. Relax. You’ve got super-soldier cells that’ll keep you warm enough for now.”
Steve decides he’s having none of this. “Just what the hell are you playing at, Stark?” he snaps, voice choppy and cracked with cold.
Tony turns to him, the left corner of his mouth curving up into a grin as he replies, “Sometimes you just gotta tell fear to screw it.”
Steve crosses his arms, trying to keep himself from violent shivers. “Who’s afraid?”
“You are.” His tone isn’t accusatory, contrary to what Steve had been expecting. “And I, being the Good Samaritan I am, have decided to help you out with that.”
Steve chuckles in spite of himself. “Why do you even care, Tony?” As soon as he’s said it, he realizes how horrible it sounds. But Steve doesn’t like to skirt around the truth. He genuinely wants to know—why does Anthony Stark care?
The Good Samaritan in question tilts his head in consideration for a small moment before answering. “Because I’m not stupid.” He pauses. “Well, okay, obviously not; I’m a genius. But I noticed as soon as the first snowfall happened—it freaks you out. The cold. Winter. You’ve been off your game. But, fun fact--” He turns his head upward toward the sky again. “Just because you wanna take a season off doesn’t mean the rest of us can. This is the real world. We kinda need you in it. So, exposure. Exposure is good. Hence dragging you out into the snow, which, by the way—really fucking cold, so you owe me for this. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—or in this case, whatever doesn’t freeze you--”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Steve all but snarls. And to think, he actually believes he’s helping—
“Do you know how long my dad spent looking for you? Out in the ice?”
Tony’s voice rings out in an echo, bouncing between them. Steve gulps, old memories of Howard Stark replaying in his head like a record. “He went to his grave believing you were still out there somewhere. Takes dedication. Too bad he put all that dedication into sending me to boarding school. But I digress.” Tony looks at him. The usually analytical, calculating brown of his eyes is now an oddly comforting shade that reminds Steve of summer. “So, you were stuck in the ocean for decades. Not surprising that wintertime doesn’t exactly bring memories of warm fuzzies and hot chocolate by the fire. I get that.”
“Do you?” Steve catches how small his voice sounds, wishing he could sound braver. Stronger. “I was alive, all that time. And I was alone. And it was terrifying.” Admitting it—finally saying it out loud, to the one person he’d least expect to ever listen, is somewhat liberating, Steve can’t help but think.
And then Tony smiles, the absolute nerve of him—he smiles, shaking his head a little. “You are actually so completely thick sometimes. Don’t you get it?’ He waves his arms spastically. “You think you’re still stuck frozen in the ice by yourself. But I’m standing here freezing my parts off right next to you. You’ve got some moderately insane but genuinely supportive teammates back in there who’d do the same, too. It’s just a thing. Get used to it. We’re not going anywhere.” He lets out an exasperated huff, as if explaining to Steve that he’s there for him and that he’s not alone had been the most time-consuming of chores.
It’s ridiculous, it’s childish, and so very, very Tony.
It’s then Steve understands he’s spiraled into this mess within his mind because he’d been so afraid of doing all of this alone: waking up in the 21st century when just moments prior for him it’d been 1943, withstanding the cold. It’s taken until now to realize he doesn’t have to.
He takes a deep breath, finding that--despite the temperature and the icicles on the buildings that remind him of where he’s been--he really can breathe, he’s not drowning, he’ll be okay. And Tony Stark’s still standing next to him.
“Only you would risk getting sick to prove a point, Tony.” Steve tries to sound annoyed or resentful, but his tone gives way to a small smile.
Tony replies, quiet enough that Steve’s not quite sure he even hears him correctly, “Not just to prove a point.”
The arc reactor on Tony’s chest lights up among the flurry of white. A reminder. Tony Stark, of all people, is a reminder that Steve’s not frozen anymore. And that it’s high time he start acting like it.
He looks at Tony again—Tony, all red-faced and bright-eyed and catching snowflakes on his tongue--and in that moment sees so much more than the other man had ever let on.
“So, um.” Tony speaks up to break the heavy silence that had pushed its way between them. “You okay, Cap?” The three words encompass a lot more than the mere question suggests, and Steve knows it.
He decides to answer the multi-faceted question with an answer he hopes is of equal caliber. Gingerly, he reaches out a hand to clasp one of Tony’s, lips quirking into a smile at the warmth he’d known without a doubt would be there. Tony is now what he’s always been: an erratic, emphatic, spastic, astounding kind of warmth.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’m okay.”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Tony’s expression change to one of sheer surprise for a brief moment, before it’s replaced with his usual contended cockiness. He gives Steve’s hand a squeeze, though, which gives him away.
In the heavy snowfall, Steve has never felt warmer. He doesn’t pull his hand away, and neither does Tony. Another instance, Steve thinks, in which maybe no more words are needed. And it’s more than okay.
Steve Rogers never liked the winter. Maybe he never will.
But for the first time he truly knows he’s not alone on the ice anymore.
And that’s a start.