Everything went black at the initial impact.
When he woke up, he had been thrown into the control panel, smashing gears and dials. His chest ached, bruised.
The cockpit was dark; the ice pressed hard against the windshield was translucent and luminous gray.
Everything was cold. The cold seeped past his uniform, crept into his skin, burrowed down into his bones. He opened his mouth, and cold rushed in.
He reached, fumbling, for his radio, pressed the transmitter. “This is...Captain Rogers. Captain Steve Rogers, issuing an SOS from…”
He’d crushed the plane’s navigational tools.
He pulled out his compass, though a compass on its own would hardly help. Still, he flipped it open.
He could barely make out Peggy’s photo; it was too dark.
“...I don’t know,” he said to the radio. “It’s very cold. It’s-- someone come in?”
But he knew he wasn’t getting a signal out.
He tried to open the door. He pushed it, pushed it as hard as he could, but it didn’t budge. He tried again, shoving his shoulder into it, hard and heavy, but still, nothing, not even a creak.
It was still cold.
He found a parachute, made of fine, strong silk.
He wrapped himself up in it, head to toe, cocooning himself inside like the worms that wove it, and curled up in the command seat.
He went to sleep, and prayed he’d wake up.
Tony groaned, and didn’t bother to flip up his welding mask. “Tell them I’m not here.”
“Sir, they’re quite insistent.”
“Tell Coulson--” Tony started, turning back to his project. He picked up the spot welder from the bench.
“It isn’t Coulson,” JARVIS answered. “It’s an Agent Morse, Sir, she says--”
“She?” Tony asked. Now he flipped up the mask. “It’s a lady agent? Why couldn’t they assign me a-- I mean, apart from Natalie, I guess--”
“--says there’s a Code Blue, Sir, and her instructions--”
Tony blinked, then frowned. He felt like he should know what this meant. “A Code Blue?” he asked. “What’s a Code Blue?”
“Agent Morse says that her protocols instruct her to inform Howard Stark or his descendants in the event of a Code Bl--”
“Okay,” Tony replied. “Okay, okay, I get it. Shit, Dad,” he muttered, and he pulled his welding helmet off completely, then did away with his safety gloves and wiped his hands down the front of his jeans. “Howard and his fucking-- J, can you tell the lady agent I’ll call her right back, and then bring up all of Howard’s sealed records; I guess it’s going to be SHIELD stuff, so at least that saves us a little hunti--”
“I’ve found the Code Blue file, Sir,” JARVIS informed Tony, and a digital image of the file appeared on the holoscreen just as Tony approached it.
“Nice work, J,” Tony said gratefully, and he frowned at the old SSR seal on the front of the file. “Just show me the pertinent bits.”
The first files detailed a series of Arctic missions, readings of reports of gamma signals, and Tony reached for his phone, hoping Bruce Banner was somewhere with satellite service as he began to dial.
But then JARVIS swapped the pages. “Ah, I believe these articles are secondary to--”
There was a photo of an airplane. A photo of a handsome young man in a military uniform, another of a smaller, slighter, sickly-looking young man who bore a strange resemblance to the first, and Tony wondered for a moment if they were brothers before JARVIS brought up the next photo.
The next photo was all too familiar.
Tony felt his breath catch in his throat. “Well, shit, J,” he said, looking at the costume the man in the photo wore-- a white star on a blue field, stripes along the torso, a ridiculous-looking hood with wings, an unforgettably iconic shield.
“I guess I know why they call it a Code Blue.”
He tried the radio again, though with less hope.
“This is Captain Steve Rogers,” he said, carefully, into the transmitter. “Location unknown. I appear to be buried in ice. If anyone can hear me, please come in?”
He tried the door again, looked out the windows at the ice, and wondered how thick it was, whether he could dig or chop his way through it. He found a small hatchet in an emergency compartment, and frowned at the windows, where the glass had cracked, but not shattered.
He wondered how much colder it would get if he cracked them open.
He tried it anyway, shattering one of the smaller windows, the glass scattering into the cabin, not out, clinking against the floor.
It wasn’t any colder, not really, he told himself.
He chipped, carefully, at the ice, clearing it away from the space just outside the window, a few inches out.
There was still more ice.
The ice chips fell into the plane, spilled onto the floor with the glass. They didn’t melt.
Hours later, he’d cleared a space large enough for him to push his torso out into the ice. There was no sign of the surface, no sign of any more sunlight.
His belly rumbled. He wriggled back into the cabin and rummaged around, mostly fumbling, half-blind, before he came to the conclusion that there was no food on board.
“Hail Hydra, indeed,” he muttered.
There was an ache in the pit of his stomach, tight and hollow and reminding him that even if he was hard to starve, he could get hungry.
He squinted, resigned, back at the window.
He cut away a few more ice chips, and let them fall into his hand.
He put them into his mouth, one by one, where they burned, icy and raw, but they melted, and as the water trickled down the back of his throat, he realized how very thirsty he’d been.
His stomach gurgled, still, but it was better, not so painful.
He looked back at the window and realized he wasn’t getting out today.
He took out his pistol, removed all the bullets, cleaned the chambers and each casing, then reloaded, patted the gun as he put it back into its holster.
He circled the cabin for a while, trying to see if there was anything he had overlooked. The bombs were all there, black and heavy and devoid of purpose, unable to complete their mission. He gave each of them a pat, as if they were large animals.
He did one hundred push-ups, and then two hundred, and then three, and then started from the beginning again, until he was lost in the monotony of the repetition, until his arms ached and he lost count.
But it was bitter cold, and there was a hazy grey twilight that lasted all day, soft and dissembling, making everything seem a little fuzzy around the edges.
The SHIELD agents and scientists on the team hadn’t known what to make of him at first, and he’d had to prove himself to every one of them; none of them let Tony Stark rest on his laurels, which irked him as much as it delighted him. And by the time they arrived at the crash site, he had won his merit badge, as far as the rest of the team was concerned, even if he had driven them half-mad with his complaints about the quality of coffee and had tried to convince them that they should have some proper roast flown in, and they had agreed to let him join them on the fun part of the expedition, as long as he behaved.
So, there, breathless, he stared in wide-eyed wonder at the wing of the jet peeking out of the ice-- just a few inches, only discernible because the dark steel contrasted so harshly against the grey and white of the snow, as the team carefully dislodged the ice.
The plane had, by some miracle of science or fate or who-knows-what, been almost perfectly preserved under the ice for god knows-- Tony counted-- what was it, sixty-seven, sixty-eight years? Something like that. It was German manufacture; Tony could tell by the riveting patterns alone, but it wasn’t quite like any other plane Tony had seen: enough small details were off that he was fairly certain it hadn’t come off a Nazi production line.
And then he saw the mark painted on the wing. A red skull, in a circle, reaching out with grasping tentacles.
He’d seen it before, but always in images, always in grainy photographs or on scraps of worn paper, never in reality, as if it were part of some grand conspiracy of the past, as if someone had worked very diligently to wipe every trace of it from record. But here it was. He pressed a hand to it, and shivered. It wasn’t from the cold.
“Hello,” he said, into the radio. “This is Captain Steve Rogers of the U.S. Army. Come in? Hello?”
He cleaned his gun, did his push-ups, then looked around again, wondering what else he could do.
He took out his knife, and picked a spot on the wall-- a small metal panel-- and made three marks on it.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been sleeping-- it could have been an hour or two, could have been a day or two. But it was the best he could do; the light never changed, never gave any sign of the passage of time.
He went back to his window, to his small tunnel in the ice, and began chipping away at it again.
He rehearsed lines as he worked, chipping away at the ice. He imagined scenarios, scripted what he would say when he surfaced, when his inevitable rescue appeared. He pictured Peggy’s reaction, pictured the way she would stare, silent and relieved, and then scowl at him, all in jest, when he apologized again for being late.
He imagined his next meal, piping hot food, his mouth salivating as he mentally considered the possibilities: roast beef, he though. Roast beef with potatoes and carrots and gravy. Or maybe a whole chicken, maybe just a good, piping hot bowl of soup.
He stopped when he'd cut about twenty feet out into the ice. It was hard, slow-going work, even for him, and he needed to conserve energy.
At least, working like this, he felt a little warmer. Maybe. Maybe he was just telling himself that.
He tried the radio again, fed himself a little more ice, and, without intending to, drifted off to sleep again.
The cold stirred him; he tightened the parachute around himself, but it was of little use, and finally, he opened his eyes, peered into the dimness of the airplane cabin.
There was ice everywhere, hard, jagged chunks of ice in a pile like rubble on the floor beneath the window he’d broken, the window he’d used to dig out.
His tunnel was blocked. His tunnel was blocked, and now the ice was indoors.
Shivering, he picked up one of the largest chunks of ice and tried to shove it back out the window, but the tunnel had well and truly caved in.
“Hello,” he said, to the radio. “This is Captain Steve Rogers of the U.S. Army. My plane went down somewhere near the Arctic Circle, please, if anyone can hear this, please send help.”
He marked another mark on the panel. And then, taking the knife to the other side of the cabin, he sat down on the floor and began to etch in the metal of the cabin wall. It was hard to see; he didn’t attempt anything fancy. Little flowers, little curlicues, abstract shapes.
It was easy to lose track of time. He made his little scratches on the panel, but he wasn’t sure if he was counting days. The light didn’t change; it was always very faint, but it was never completely pitch black. He ate ice chips; he tried the radio. He etched patterns in the wall. Sometimes he slept. His sleep was dreamless; he decided that he must be too cold to dream.
He went back to his little bunk-- the quarters were cramped, and even Tony Stark had to satisfy himself with a tiny, claustrophobic box. He’d done the best he could, installed holoscreens on the walls and JARVIS’ AI on a remote system, and now, now he rummaged through his duffel bag, put on a pair of latex gloves, and pulled out a small vinyl portfolio, emptying the contents on his bed.
Here was Captain America #1, the image of Cap punching Hitler, the tiny picture of his pal, Bucky, in the corner, and Tony breathed as he held it up, still in its protective sleeve, and, reverently, trying not to think about how much he was diminishing the resale value, he pulled it out, holding it in his latex-encased hands.
He smelled it, the dusty smell of old, fragile paper, and wished he could touch it, but he didn’t dare. He leafed through the pages like he was reading a prayer book, mouthing along all the dialogue, which he already knew so well, and then, his heart thumping like he’d just run a mile on the treadmill, he put it back away, carefully, and resealed it.
Tony took one more look at the cover before he put the comic away. “See you tomorrow,” he said, hopefully, in a whisper.
Then he had JARVIS call Pepper. The connection was rough, out here, staticky and inconsistent, but it was enough.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Cold,” Tony replied. “Really cold. Hey, so--”
“I feel an absurd request coming on,” Pepper said cautiously.
Tony huffed defensively. “Not absurd!”
“I’m not having anyone deliver Taco Bell to the North Pole, Tony,” Pepper informed him.
“It’s nothing like that,” he assured her. “I would at least ask you to send Ricky’s, Jesus. I was-- no, I mean...” He took a breath. “Have you ever organized a memorial service?” he asked. “I’m gonna want to…”
Pepper was quiet for a moment. “No, but I can’t imagine it’s any different from any other event. More flowers, less red carpet, is all.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s just...if we find the body...I want to have everything in order, yeah?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I understand.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Thanks. And, uh, find out who at the Smithsonian we should talk to about donating the shield. Assuming I can convince these government stiffs to part with it.”
“Well,” Pepper said, thoughtfully, “As CEO, I think it would be a shame if their Stark contracts got pushed back another six months. I’m sure you can remind them of that.”
Tony whistled. “Oooh, mercenary.”
“Learned from the best,” Pepper answered. “Listen, I’ve got that visit from the Boeing people in ten minutes, but I’ll take care of this tomorrow. You need anything else?”
“Yeah, can we build a time machine so I can go tell ten-year-old me about this? Because he’ll fucking flip his shit.”
Pepper snorted. “I’ll get right on that, Boss,” she answered, before hanging up the phone.
He could feel the warmth of a fire before he even built it, shut his eyes and imagined it flickering against his skin, and he looked around the cabin for things that he could burn.
There wasn’t much in the way of wood or paper, and he wanted to save the cloth, but he made a little pile in the center of the cabin, being careful to conserve more for later, and siphoned off a small amount of fuel.
The fire was glorious. It didn’t burn for very long, maybe ten minutes at the most, but those ten minutes were warm and reassuring and full of light and the smell of burning wood that made him feel like there was still life in the world.
And then it flickered out, and he sat close, close to the fading embers, and watched their red-gold hearts wink at him as they darkened to cold, black lumps.
When the lumps cooled, he took one in his hand and crawled across the floor to the wall, the one he’d been etching with his knife, and he pressed one charred nub up against the wall, leaving a sooty impression among the etchings. He frowned at it, then wiped it, leaving some of the marks on the wall a rich, black color, where the others were lighter, glimmering silver.
He breathed in as he ran his fingers over the etchings.
“This is Captain Rogers,” he said, to the radio, “of the U.S. Army. Can anyone hear me? Come in?”
He cleaned his gun; he did his push-ups.
There was the day he found a chocolate bar and a tiny bottle of brandy. It was real chocolate, Austrian chocolate, not American Army-ration chocolate, and he supposed it must have been worth a small fortune to a Hydra soldier. They had been wedged tight in a compartment where he was certain they hadn’t been meant to be found.
His stomach roared at him. He tried to remember flavors, flavors besides ice chips. He peeled back one corner of the gold foil wrapper, and broke off the tiniest piece, less than a sliver of a square, and put it in his mouth.
It tasted like nothing he’d ever eaten. He wanted to eat the rest; it was all he could to to wrap it back up, push it away from himself across the floor.
He measured out a few drops of the brandy in the bottle cap, and sipped those, too. They burned on his tongue, and the stinging-sweetness of the brandy mixed with the earthy-sweetness of the chocolate, and if he closed his eyes and ignored his stomach, he could pretend he’d eaten a meal, pretend these were the lingering flavors of an indulgent dessert.
“This is Captain Rogers. Captain Steve Rogers. I’ve been buried in ice for…” he looked at his panel of markings. “One hundred days. I think. Could be shorter, could be longer. If you’re receiving this transmission, please come in.”
He ran a hand over his face, over the thick beard growth, and chuckled darkly. Before the serum, he’d never been able to grow a beard.
He found his knife, and carefully cut it back, then took the knife to the hair on his head, hacking it, choppily, until it was an inch long.
Then one day, he woke up, and everything was black. The light from the ice had vanished; it was truly pitch dark in the plane. He wondered if he’d sunk further beneath the ice, wondered if something had happened.
Then he remembered Arctic winter.
He shivered, and braced himself for darkness.
It took him a few tries to learn his way around the cabin in the dark. As much as he wanted to light another fire, he forced himself to save what fuel he had for an emergency.
An emergency, he thought bitterly. As if this weren’t already the worst of emergencies.
He could still feel the etchings on the walls, still drew, even though he had to work out the images with his fingertips. He still marked the days, still talked to the radio.
It got colder. He had never imagined that it could get colder.
Time passed, and he kept drawing, kept cleaning his gun, kept pushing-up, kept marking time, kept sending radio transmissions that no one would hear.
It got light again, and dark, and light and then dark. He ran out of space on the panel to count the number of times he’d woken up, the little tallies spilled out onto the wall of the cabin.
It was in that cold, in that dark, that he decided to shoot himself. He cleaned his pistol, counted his bullets, and, as he reloaded the gun, he ran his fingers down the length of the barrel, shivering, and slowly raised it to his head, on impulse, as if the thought should have occurred to him before.
It was so easy.
He slid his finger over the trigger before he considered the potential problem with this course of action.
He wasn’t dead.
He’d been down here for who-knows-how-long, and he wasn’t dead.
And he wondered what would happen to him, if he shot himself in the head and the shot didn’t kill him, either. If he lay bleeding, on the floor, still alive, still alone, in the dark and the cold. If he survived, brain damaged, still alone, in the dark and the cold. If it blinded him or lost him the ability to speak, and he was still here, still alone, in the dark and the cold.
A lump formed in his throat, and he put the gun away.
He crawled to the radio transmitter.
“This is Captain Steve Rogers, of the U.S. Army,” he said. “It’s very dark, and very cold. I’m still alive. Please come in.”
They were clearing the ice away from the hatch when one of the members of the excavation team cried out. “Hey!” he called. “There’s something moving in--”
And a shot fired, through the broken window of the airplane.
The poor man screamed in panic, but the bullet whizzed by his head, slicing off a tuft of the fur that lined his hood.
Tony put his hand to his heart, pressed against the hard surface of the arc reactor between all those layers of clothing, and, for once, was struck silent.
But the SHIELD agents took over, unruffled, as if it was every day that they unearthed planes from beneath meters and meters of ice and found someone shooting at them.
They dodged another shot as they approached the window, and, just as they came near, a large, muscled arm, clad in worn, greyish fabric that looked as if it had been blue, once upon a time, flung itself out, toward them.
And in that very moment one of the agents, the stoic, sarcastic one who carried a bow, of all things, fired a dart into that arm.
The arm froze, still, for a moment, and then flopped, listless.
“That should do it,” said the agent, still calm, still matter-of-fact, and Tony wondered at how he could do that, under the circumstances.
When they cleared the hatch completely, and managed to break the seal and get into the cabin, the man who was slumped against the cabin wall was wearing Captain America’s uniform.
The shield was lying in the cockpit. Tony took a trembling breath as he crept aboard the plane and reached for it, caressing the paint, still shining, if a bit faded.
And then he turned, and saw the walls of the cabin.
One wall was covered, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with tiny tally marks.
The other was decorated with flowers, with curlicues, with all kinds of abstract designs, a massive mural etched into the metal. Some of the lines shone silver, others were dark, black.
He stood, shield in hand, staring at the wall, at the patterns that emerged, at the complexity of it, and realized, with a chill, exactly how long it must have taken to make.
He kept the shield with him. He’d held on to it that day, while they retrieved Captain America from the ice, and sat on top of it when he rode in the helicopter to the hospital.
His father had built it, he decided, that meant it was his. His, at least, until its owner claimed it. If its owner claimed it.
Tony stayed in New York. They kept the man under heavy sedation after the first time he woke, screaming about Bucky Barnes and something called a Tesseract, which Tony was fairly certain he only remembered from a book he’d read as a child.
After three days in the SHIELD hospital, while they tried to pump nutrients into a body that didn’t look nearly as malnourished as Captain Rogers’ readouts suggested, they told Tony to go home.
Home, he decided, meant a hotel across the street. He hid the shield beneath the mattress, above the boxspring, and ordered room service.
“He’s coming around,” said a voice. “Should we--”
“Nah,” said another voice. “Let’s see how he reacts, this time.”
They were voices. Real voices, not made-up ones, not his imagination. He blinked his eyes open, but the lights were so bright; the lights were blinding, and he winced and shut them again.
“Captain Rogers?” asked one of the voices. “How are you feeling?”
“Can you...turn the lights off?” he asked. His voice felt strange, foreign. He’d spoken every day, but it had always been a variation on the same words.
“Go,” said one of the voices, and he heard footsteps, and a soft click.
“The lights are off now,” said the voice. “Can you open your eyes?”
He tried again. It was still so bright, the light from the sun outside the window warm and golden and something he’d forgotten.
The room was like nothing he’d ever seen. If he had thought Hydra technology was advanceds, the things in this room-- the tiny movie screen hung on the wall, the beeping machines with graphs and charts made of tiny specks of light-- were beyond his wildest dreams.
“You’re in a hospital, Captain Rogers.”
“I’m afraid that’s classified,” said the-- he’d assumed, of course, that the woman in front of him was a nurse, but she was wearing a shiny badge that said “Dr,” and was dressed in a lab coat and soft, shapeless blue-green shirt and pants. So, the doctor, then.
“I’m afraid that’s classified,” said the doctor. “But rest assured that you are in New York, and you’re safe. This is a government agency, the successor to your SSR.”
“Success--” he started, and then remembered that he’d been in the ice for a long time. “Oh. I--” He took a breath. “Can I...can I make a phone call?”
“Not yet,” said the doctor. “Soon. We need to run some tests, first. Make sure everything’s ship-shape.”
She gave him a warm smile, and he winced as he remembered. “I shot at someone,” he said, softly. “I--”
“It’s perfectly common,” the doctor said. “For someone who’s experienced severe trauma to--”
“I shot at-- was that my rescue team?”
The doctor pursed her lips. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
A lightness filled him, and he let himself lay back. “You got my transmissions,” he whispered.
“Flowers?” Pepper echoed, sounding confused.
“You know, for Captain America,” Tony replied. “Flowers. Because he’s in the hospital, and I bet no one’s brought him any flowers. And if I do bring him flowers, should I-- I don’t know, is it tacky if they’re red, white, and blue? Would you-- If you were Captain America, Pep--”
“Tacky,” Pepper assured him. “Chocolate, not flowers. He’s from the Forties, Tony. I don’t know anything about the Forties, but I don’t know what he’ll think about a strange man bringing him flowers.”
“Even in the hospital?” Tony asked. “Anyway, he was friends with Howard; he’s probably had strange men bring him flowers.”
“Tony,” Pepper said, and he was pretty sure he could imagine the look on her face.
“I mean, even if they were probably exploding flowers, they were still flowers, am I right?” Tony asked hopefully.
Pepper was quiet for a moment. “Do you want me to say yes, Tony, bring him flowers, Tony, I unwaveringly support your inclination to give Captain America a big bouquet, Tony?”
“Uh,” Tony replied, bouncing back and forth from one foot to another as he tied his tie. He felt like to visit Captain America in the hospital, he ought to wear a tie. “Yes, I think so. Can you make it more, I dunno, sincere and adoring and maybe throw in some flattery while you’re at it.”
“Pink Gerbera daisies,” Pepper said nicely.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Pep,” Tony replied. “Be serious.”
Pepper sighed. “Tiger lilies.”
So Tony went to the hospital laden with tiger lilies and the biggest box of chocolates he could buy.
They-- someone-- had given the man in the hospital bed a shave and a haircut, and he looked younger than he had when they’d found him in the airplane. Younger, and more subdued. Tony wondered if they still had him hopped up on drugs.
“Cap?” he asked. “I, uh-- hi. I--”
Captain America, in his hospital gown, with a little plastic bracelet around one wrist, looking very young and very vulnerable, stared up at Tony with wide eyes. “You’re Howard Stark’s son,” he said, in a mechanical way, as if he were only repeating information he'd been given.
Tony sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “Is the resemblance that--”
Captain America shook his head. “No, they told me to expect you,” he said. “They told me you...funded the mission…”
Tony shrugged. “They’re giving me too much credit. I didn’t actually know I was funding the mission.”
And Captain America smiled at him. “Still,” he said. “I’m...it’s lucky someone was looking.”
Now that he was here, Tony had no idea what to do with the flowers or the chocolates, and he wasn’t exactly sure how to make small talk with Captain America. “These, uh…” He waved the flowers in the air. “These are for you; I figured--” he looked around the gray-drab hospital room. “You could probably use some color in--”
“I forgot about flowers,” he said, and it astonished him, even as he said it. He'd been drawing flowers, of course, but they'd become a symbol, an icon, a pattern repeated over again. He'd forgotten that they had a scent, forgotten the colors, the textures of petals and leaves. “I forgot…”
The man holding the flowers was Howard Stark’s kid, Howard Stark, a person Steve was only beginning to remember, after being shown photos and newsreels. But his only child was older than Steve, now, it seemed. He held the flowers out toward Steve.
Tony Stark, Steve reminded himself, Tony Stark, that was his name, and Steve wondered, impressed, from the vague recollections he had, that Howard had ever gotten married, and tried to imagined what his wife must have been like.
“Here?” Tony offered, tentatively, and then frowned, and pulled them back a little. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
“I’m not allergic to anything,” Steve assured him. “I--”
“Good,” Tony said, looking relieved, and Steve took the flowers from him.
Steve reached out, cautiously, with a single fingertip, and traced one of the petals. It was silky-smooth, flexible.
“I’ve got a bad track record," Tony said, "with giving people presents they’re allergic to; I don’t want to kill Captain America.”
Steve had forgotten Captain America, too.
He drew the flowers closer to himself, as if they could protect him, like a shield, and, for a moment, he felt cold again.
“Well,” he managed, hoarsely. “I appreciate the sentiment.”
Tony took a deep breath, and Steve wondered if Tony could tell how ill-at-ease he was. He reminded himself that this was Howard’s son, someone had said that this was the person who’d paid for his recovery, that without him, he’d still be buried for who-knew-how-many-more years.
And then Tony held up a cardboard box, and shot Steve a lopsided grin. “Did you forget chocolates?”