“I already told you bastards,” Tony Stark said cheerfully, as he flicked the ashes from his cigar on the floor. “I work alone. Me, my team, my people. No passengers.”
“The Brotherhood has need of your abilities,” General Fury replied, leveling a stern gaze at the adventurer, and then looking pointedly at the pile of ash smoldering on the centuries-old stone of the cathedral. “Your father would have--”
Tony squared off, crossing his arms over his chest. “My father would have done a lot of things for a lot of people,” he said. “And that’s why he’s a dead man.”
“I would assume you would want to pierce the heart of the Reich as much as we do,” Fury said coolly. “And I think, once you understand, you might be more agreeable to the arrangement.”
Tony groaned, and rolled his eyes, and shrugged at the General. “Fine, Nick, but only because you went for the loyalty-to-the-dead angle. Tell me, are you Catholic?”
“Not that I know of,” Fury replied.
“Well, my mother’s Catholic and my father’s Jewish,” Tony answered. “And that means you can’t do anything without feeling guilty over what a dead relative might think about you.” He grinned. “Do go on.”
“Your partner for this mission,” Fury replied, as he keyed a code into a huge, imposing ironwood door, and a lock clicked. “Is waiting inside. He’s been briefed. He was close with your father, Tony; we were all close during the last war, and he needs someone who can--”
“Saddling me with another decrepit pile of bones?” Tony Stark asked jovially, as Fury pushed the door open.
“You could say that,” answered a voice from inside the room, but its owner was anything but.
Tony blinked at the tall young man, at his broad torso and massive arms, at his classically good looks: honey blond hair, brilliant blue eyes, chiseled jaw. Tony came up to the man’s shoulder, up just high enough to stare straight at the star pinned to his blue, scale-mail enveloped chest.
He was looking back at Tony with an expression of awe on his face. “Tony Stark?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” Tony said, and he took a step back. “No, no, I’m not doing this. The hell, Fury, you put a guy in a Captain America suit, after—after everything? How many boys got killed because--”
“It’s not just a suit,” Fury said. “Go on, Steve. Tell ‘im.”
Tony took a step back, staring, shaking his head. “Don’t—don’t—You died.”
“You were just a little kid,” said the man in the suit. “You were--” He holds a palm out, estimating a height that was still taller than Tony was the last time he’d seen Steve Rogers alive. “You were always taking my shit apart, a regular engineer in nappies.”
“If you don’t believe us, we got you this,” Fury said, tugging a faded photo from his jacket pocket—brown and curling at the edges, but unmistakably a photo of the man who stood in front of him now, in full costume, holding a tiny boy with curly, dark hair.
Tony took a breath, squinted, stared at the man, then the photo, then the man again, until he was certain that if this wasn’t the genuine article, someone had gone out of their way to find a perfect replica. “Captain Rogers,” he said, softly.
“Steve,” said Steve. “You can call me Steve.”
“Great, great; I’m misty-eyed,” said Fury. “You ready to fight some Nazis?”
Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “You joking?” he asked. “I built her myself. She’s smaller than my team’s usual, but seeing as we’re a two-man crew, we’re not going to be able to maneuver the real deal, here. Trust me on this.”
Steve crossed himself and murmured a prayer before, cautiously, climbing down the hatch. Tony raised an eyebrow.
“Boss,” Jarvis said, approaching Tony with a cautious look. “Boss, we need to--”
“No, we don’t,” Tony answered, with a shrug.
Jarvis raised an eyebrow. “Son, don’t do this.”
Tony crossed his arms, leaning back against the side of the submarine. “You heard Fury. Somebody has to get onto that island. He needs a scientist and he needs muscle, to get this done.
“It doesn’t have to be you,” Jarvis said gruffly, grinding his teeth. “They’ve got plenty of other scientists.”
But Tony was resolute, and he shook his head, feeling a prickle on the back of his neck. “Did you see Fury’s films?” he asked. “Lightning storms. Lightning storms that don’t stop. If--I have to see it, J. If there’s a power source I can--”
But Jarvis’ expression didn’t brighten. If anything he looked gloomier, grayer around the edges.
“It’ll be all right.” Tony patted his heart, hoping to reassure the older man. “I can manage. Nothing’s stopped this old ticker, yet.”
“We haven’t worked out the...irregularities from the last trip,” Jarvis said, cautiously. “You need a thorough examination before--”
“Rhodey says I’m fine,” Tony objected. “He cleaned out the black junk, filed off the rust--”
“A thorough examination by a doctor,” Jarvis amended.
Tony sighed, let his arms fall slowly to his sides. “It’s two weeks, J. I’ll be back in two weeks, and I promise you, I’ll submit myself to a full battery of examinations the minute I’m back.”
Jarvis didn’t look convinced. “I’m holding you to that,” he said, grimly. “No more updates to the armor until you do.”
Tony swallowed. He knew when he’d lost a battle. “Understood.”
“So,” he said. “Steve. You gonna tell me how you came back from the dead?”
Steve, who was trying, without much success, not to bump his head, dropped into the chair opposite, raising a nearly-invisible blond eyebrow at Tony. “Who said I died?” he asked.
“You want to tell me why you haven’t aged a day since Nineteen Eighteen?” Tony amended.
Steve shot Tony a dry smile. “Because I was dead.”
Tony snorted. “Come on, pal,” he said. “Give me something to work with.”
Steve stared at Tony for a long moment. He opened his mouth, then shut it, pursing his lips, as if he was considering the question. “I hear your father died,” he said, finally. “I’m sorry. He was...he was a good man.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, and he shrugged, reaching for his father’s watch in his pocket. “Me, too. Are you avoiding my question?”
Steve’s jaw stiffened. “Yeah,” he answered. “Yeah, I am. You wanna show me around this big metal snail of yours?”
But the Steve on board his submarine was quiet, pensive, met personal questions with a steely look. He was an eager enough worker, willing to help with the heavy lifting—which was fortunate, given Tony’s current condition. He didn’t seem to eat much; he barely slept. Tony, himself, being the sort to burn the candle at both ends, but whose body was not exactly forgiving of that habit of late, didn’t mind that. He was able to stay up all night and know that if he slept too late in the morning, Steve would be there. He was a quick study with the controls of the submarine, and within a day or two, Tony had a competent co-pilot.
They were sitting at the table, late one evening, later than supper should have been, Tony with a particularly intricate piece of circuitry in one hand while he shoveled his face full of canned soup with the other, when Steve started to talk.
“Your father,” he said carefully, staring at the empty bowl in front of him. Whatever else Tony had learned about Steve, he knew the man was as fast to eat as he was slow to talk. “Was it the Nazis?”
Tony put his spoon down. “Yes and no,” he said. “It’s a complicated question; he…”
“I hear they murder Jews,” Steve said. “Jews, and Gypsies, and--”
“Queers, and cripples,” Tony supplied. “And hell, anybody Hitler doesn’t take a shine to.”
“How--” Steve’s brow furrowed, his expression went dark—angry, even. “How are people letting this happen?” he demanded, as if Tony were somehow at fault, as if he could even begin to answer it.
“Folks are scared,” Tony answered. “Germany was a wreck after the last war; people started blaming whoever they could. And other folks—they don’t speak up, they think if they do, people are gonna start blaming them.”
“But—if this is happening,” Steve said, slowly, his eyes afire with rage, “if this is happening, why--why isn’t America fighting?”
Tony watched Steve, watched the emotions that flickered over the other man’s face—the rage and confusion and fear. “You really haven’t been around for twenty years, have you?” he asked, quietly.
Steve looked away.
“No questions,” Tony assured him. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. God knows I’ve had my share of secrets, friend. But anything you want to ask.”
And Steve began to ask. He asked about Roosevelt and Churchill; he asked about movies, about music, and Tony sang a very out-of-key, creaky rendition of ‘Don’t Get Around Much, Anymore,’ and promised to play records for him the minute they got back home.
Tony told Steve about the Charleston and the Crash, about the first time he’d seen a talking picture, about radio dramas and commercial airlines and ballpoint pens. And then, on a whim, he put the kettle on.
“Watch this,” he said, feeling half-giddy.
“Watched pots don’t boil,” Steve pointed out.
So they waited, waited until the kettle whistled, and Tony poured steaming water into two mugs. “Welcome,” he said to Steve, as he stirred the contents of one of the mugs and handed it over, “to the miracle of instant coffee.”
He waited, one night, until Steve had gone to bed, to unplug everything, and tried to scrape the corrosion from the contact points. It was thick and green-white, smelled noxious, and he grimaced at the thought that it was so close to his heart.
He pulled out a file to smooth the rough surface left where he had chipped off the worst of the corrosion, but when he slid it against the side of the contact point, the metal snapped.
He swore under his breath, and went looking for a new electrode.
He was there, shirtless, the motor from his chestplate lying out on his workbench with wires exposed, tired and feeling a little clammy and feverish, when he heard footsteps behind him.
He tensed, instantly.
“Tony?” Steve asked. “What are you doing up? It’s almost morning. We’re supposed to hit our--”
Tony rubbed his forehead, took a deep breath, and turned toward Steve, his chestplate in full view, the hollow where the motor attached dark, just over his heart.
Steve paled. “You--”
“C’mere,” Tony said, and he gestured for Steve to come close. “Sorry, I don’t like to bother folks with my mess.”
“Your heart,” Steve said, and he gave Tony a sharp look. “What’s wrong with it?”
Tony shrugged easily. “Eh,” he said. “Everyone likes to say I’m dying.”
Steve walked up to Tony, stared him down, hands on his hips. “Are you dying?”
“We’re all dying, Steve,” Tony said. “Can you do me a favor? I need—here...can you hold this in place?” He pointed at the motor.
Steve looked warily at Tony, but held the motor in place. “Got it,” he said.
Tony yanked out the connection to the old electrode completely, rewired it, attached the new contact point.
“Thanks,” he said. He could see Steve’s hand, trembling ever so slightly, over the motor. “Good job. You did a good job. You ever want to give up the Captain America thing, I could use an apprentice electrician.”
Tony snatched up the motor, attached the electrodes back to the chestplate, and popped the motor into place, twisting it sharply until it clicked and whirred back to life. He plugged the long generator cables into his chestplate sockets to recharge.
Steve gave him a dry look. “Sounds like a real opportunity,” he said.
Tony shut his eyes for a few moments, let the motor do its work, until he felt somewhat more revived, could feel his pulse normalize. “You wanna see something?”
“Is it weirder than a man with an electrical heart?” Steve asked.
“It’s not technically my heart,” Tony pointed out. “It’s technically the motor that keeps my heart pumping.” Then he grinned. “And it’s much, much weirder.”
Tony hopped up from the stool. “Did Fury tell you who I am?” he asked.
“You’re...an adventurer. A...treasure hunter?” Steve ventured. “And a mechanical genius, like your father.”
Tony couldn’t help but grin. He dropped to his knee, jerked up a panel in the floor.
He didn’t know what sort of reaction to expect, when Steve first looked at the armor. Steve drew in a breath, stepped closer, tilted his head as he peered down at it.
“Is that a robot?” Steve asked. He looked awed, dropping down beside Tony. “What is--”
“It’s a suit,” Tony answered. “It’s a flying combat suit. And I’m the pilot.”
Steve whistled, and then looked up at Tony. “This isn’t how you--” he nodded at Tony’s heart.
“Nah,” Tony assured him. “But this--” he tapped at the chestplate, “helps with the--”
Tony was interrupted by a violent jolt, as the submarine was jerked off-balance, and both men were tossed across the room, the cables charging Tony’s chestplate ripped free.
“Fuck!” Tony shouted, as his shoulder slammed into the steel wall of the submarine.
Steve, it seemed, had better training in how to land when his entire body wasn’t cased in protective armor, and he crawled toward Tony. “Tony?” he asked. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
Tony shook off his arm. “It’ll wear off; just a bump,” he assured Steve. “But I don’t know what’s wrong with the Aronnax. We’d better get her up to surface.”
Steve looked around, at the bits and bobs that had been jostled from Tony’s workbench—fortunately, the furniture was all bolted down. “You think we’ve been hit?”
“Nah,” Tony answered. “That--” And they were thrown again, tossed back across the room. “Steve!” he shouted. “Can you get to the controls? Drive up; aim for the surface; the sub’s got sensors; she should be able to--”
“I can’t see anything outside!” Steve said, as he gripped the control lever tightly in one hand and shoved it into the upward position. “It’s black; it’s like--”
The porthole view was inky black. But then it blinked.”
Tony gulped, staring into a massive yellow eyeball.
“Right,” he said. “That...shouldn’t be there.”
“D-Damn right, it shouldn’t!” Steve exclaimed.
“I mean...we’re barely below the surface; we’re not deep enough for a giant--”
The vessel was jolted to the side again, and Steve pushed hard against the lever. “I can’t hold it!” he exclaimed. “It’s--”
Tony shivered. He swallowed, weakly; he was sweating again, and his chestplate had barely charged. He crawled over the floor, gritting his teeth to ignore his bruises, as he managed to reach the armor in its vault.
The next creak was louder, and there was a loud, screeching sound, like something was tearing.
“Steve,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice calm as he buckled himself into the armor. “Forget the lever. Get your shield. And an oxygen tank.”
Steve left his post and just managed to grab his shield as the hull split, and water rushed in with a crash, knocking Tony off his feet.
Inside the armor, he had a clear view: he could see Steve struggling against the water, shield in one hand, a pained look on his face. And there, above them, past the rip in the hull, a giant, hulking thing with two golden eyes and massive tentacles still gripping the submarine, like a cracked nut.
“Fuck,” Tony whispered, and he powered up the suit, speeding for Steve.
He caught Steve in one arm: Steve hadn’t managed to get to an oxygen tank, and he was resolutely holding his breath. Steve was a supersoldier, Tony reminded himself. He could probably hold his breath for, what, how long could most people hold their breath? Two minutes? So Steve could last, what, five, six, ten? Tony had no way of knowing.
“Steve,” he said. He nudged the other man as he popped the oxygen tube valve on the armor, capping the end of the tube with one finger of his gauntlet, and passed it over.
It took Steve a moment to realize what Tony was doing, and he cupped a hand over his mouth and nose, his chest rising as he breathed in from the tube, then handed the tube back with a nod.
Tony had just barely replaced it when something snatched them up in a tight, sinuous grip.
He watched Steve flex his muscles, trying to strain out of the massive tentacle that held them, but he wriggled a hand free and put it to Steve’s arm, briefly, then aimed it at the creature and fired.
It was enough. The thing seemed barely affected, but it twitched just enough to loosen its grip momentarily, and Steve was able to kick free as Tony propelled himself away, catching hold of Steve’s belt to drag him farther from the creature.
Once they were clear, he reoriented himself, facing the faint glimmers of light above, and sped upward.
They broke the surface, and Steve took a gasping breath as Tony snapped up the faceplate of his helmet.
Steve panted, treading water beside him. “Are you--”
“Fine,” Tony assured him. He checked the gauge on his suit. Steve didn’t need to know that he was only charged to fifteen percent power, not yet. That gave him nearly three hours. “I just need to…” He chuckled. “Any land in sight?”
He watched Steve squint out in all directions. The sun was blazing bright overhead; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the light danced on a calm ocean, barely a breeze in the air. The sea stretched out, green and glassy, all the way to the horizon. “Not looking too like--”
But then he stopped, and nodded out with his chin. Tony turned his head in the direction Steve indicated, and there, off in the distance, was a small patch of grey, like a smudge in the middle of the otherwise serene and sunny day, and the air flickered violet.
“There’s our storm.” Steve observed. “That must be it.”
“Well,” Tony said cheerfully. “We weren’t so far off. Although I guess this would be a good time not to say you told me so about the submarine.”
But he popped open one of his emergency compartments, and removed an inflatable raft. “How’s your lung capacity?”
Steve gave Tony a pointed look, as if it were foolish of Tony to even ask, and he reached for the raft.
The thing was inflated in minutes, as Tony bobbed in the water, grateful that Jarvis had at least made this last set of improvements to the armor for buoyancy so he hadn’t sunk at sea, and as the raft looked more like a vessel and less like a wadded-up bit of rubberized canvas, he peeled off the plates of armor and dumped them into the raft.
Steve clung to the side, eyes shut, breathing slowly before he hauled himself in. He held an arm out to Tony. “Here,” he said. “Take a hand.”
Tony gripped Steve’s hand tightly as Steve tugged him into the raft, and he lay there, head against the tubing that made up its sides, eyes shut, for a long moment. “Well,” he said. “I’ve had better days.”
He pulled his radio transceiver out of the armor, and tried to turn it on, but the only sound it made was a sloshing, watery noise. “Gonna have to let that dry out before we can bother anybody.”
Steve chuckled, his laugh hollow, and he squinted out at the horizon. “Please tell me you have water in that thing,” he said.
Tony removed a small canteen. “This is all, though,” he said. “It’s...not meant for two.” He gave Steve an apologetic look.
Steve gritted his teeth. “I can go without,” he said. “Food?”
“Depends how you feel about dried beef and yeasty sawdust bricks,” Tony answered.
“I’ve had worse,” Steve assured him. “At least I’m not stuck in a block of ice this time.”
“When’d that happen?” Tony asked, but then he saw the pained look on Steve’s face. “Uh--”
Steve shook his head. “You asked where I’d been for twenty years?” he answered.
“Oh.” Even thinking about it made Tony shiver. “No wonder you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Here,” Steve said, lifting off his mail shirt, and then his shirt underneath, holding the latter out to Tony. “You don’t want to get burned.”
Tony snorted, but accepted the shirt appreciatively, tugging it on. It was too large, saturated, and clung to him everywhere, but he felt somehow less vulnerable, with his chestplate hidden from Steve again. It wasn’t the thought of the other man seeing how unwell he was, how much he depended on a piece of machinery to keep him alive, but more that he didn’t want Steve to ask what the gauge meant.
He shielded his eyes from the sun and frowned at the lightning. It was eerie, and somehow silent. “I’d say our friend the lightning storm is about...six miles away. If we can--”
Steve just looked at him, blankly.
“What?” Tony asked.
“You want to go see a lightning storm in a raft?”
“Fair point,” Tony admitted. “Though it really wouldn’t be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” He sighed, and angled an arm up to use to check their position in relation to the sun.
Steve chewed at his lower lip for a moment. “What...is the stupidest thing?”
Tony grinned. “It would be hard to choose an objectively stupidest thing, but there was this time in Argentina, when we were looking for this ancient crown. It’s...supposed to grant mind-control powers to the wearer, or, variously, depending on who you ask, turn the wearer into a willing slave of an ancient demon.”
“Sounds lovely,” Steve replied. “Give me a bearing for land?” He frowned at the mess of armor on the floor of the raft and picked up both of Tony’s boots.
“Actually not all that it’s cracked up to be,” Tony replied. “And based on the map--” he tapped his temple; they’d lost the paper map in the submarine, but between the lightning storm and the sun above, he had a fairly good idea of where they were. “We head fifteen degrees north of east, we should hit land in a little over half a day.” Tony would have to figure out a way to charge his motor in the next few hours, he supposed. But he had time, and the parts of the suit, and the sun, and a lot of salt water. It would be a good challenge, he told himself, pushing his fears to the back of his mind.
Steve nodded, plunked both boots into the water, and began rowing.
Tony smiled appreciatively at the makeshift oars. “So, you want to hear the long version? Since we’re not going anywhere fast?”
“Sure,” Steve agreed.
Tony felt a slight twinge in his chest, and he frowned, looked down at the chestplate where the ridges of it pressed through Steve’s soaking shirt.
Tony looked back up to see Steve watching him, with a cautious, worried look, but he shrugged and went on.
“So, you need to understand the dynamics of my usual team,” Tony explained. “This is back before I found out my sweetheart was a Nazi, so there’s me, Gia, Jarvis, Rhodey, and Munsey—Munsey’s the guy who wrote my books before his, uh, untimely demise. We’re in the jungle, right? And It’s got to be—it’s got to be a hundred and ten degrees--”
His chest twinged again, harder this time, and he suddenly felt lightheaded. “A hundred...and ten--”
“Tony?” Steve demanded. “Tony, are you--”
He assumed Steve was asking if he was okay, because by now, it was very, very clear that he wasn’t. His feet went numb, followed by his hands, and when he moved to pull off the shirt, he couldn’t grasp. His fingers wouldn’t bend at all; they dangled limply and uselessly.
He told himself to stay calm. “Steve,” he said, and his voice came out like a croak. “Steve, I think I need your help with this.”
Steve lunged toward him, dropping the boots in the bottom of the raft, more hastily than Tony expected, coming at Tony with a rush, and tore the shirt down the center with his bare hands and a resounding rip.
His face screwed up in an expression of concentration, he stared at the chestplate and the motor. “This says four percent power,” he said, his tone brusque, almost accusing. “Tony, it’s--”
“It was at ten a moment ago,” Tony said, but he could feel it, now, the way his heart slowed as the motor tried to conserve energy. “It--it shouldn’t--”
“It’s at four now,” Steve tapped at the gauge, and the entire thing made a loud, awful sputtering sound. “Tony, tell me--”
“Turn the motor counterclockwise,” Tony answered, “It...might have—come loose.”
Steve grasped at the motor and twisted. It tightened, but as it did, blue sparks shot out of the apparatus, jolting Tony and throwing Steve’s hand back.
“Ah!” Steve exclaimed, shaking his fingers out from the shock. “That's not good, Tony,” he said. “That's not--”
He swore. “The power’s down to two percent,” he said, and then he pressed his lips together, in a grim line, glaring at Tony’s chest, as if he could raise the power gauge by sheer force of will.
“Okay,” Tony said, trying to keep calm. “Two percent...normally that’d give me about twenty minutes, and I’d have a few minutes once it stops, so...what we need is an energy source, if you can grab my helmet for a second, we can maybe siphon some reserve power. That could give me another minute or— I just need...just need to work out--”
Steve wasn’t listening. He’d picked up the boots again and was rowing, at a jumpy, yet breakneck speed.
“Steve?” Tony asked. He was growing weaker by the moment; the numbness was crawling up his arms.
“Six miles,” Steve said. “You said six miles. I can row six miles.”
“Row?” Tony asked. He wasn’t following.
“To the goddamn lightning storm,” Steve answered. “You need a power source? We’ve got a power source. Six miles away.”
Steve rowed with the force of an entire team, the raft practically skimming over the water. And here, out at sea, where there was nothing but water in every direction for miles, the lightning storm came up at them fast—Tony’s eyelids were growing heavy, but as they neared the lightning storm enough that he could see each bolt, discrete and purple between the water and that tiny field of stormclouds, he blinked them open and stared.
The sky flashed again. “Steve,” Tony said, realizing that while Steve might make it to the lightning, Tony might not be awake to fix this. “Steve, you’ve got to listen to me.”
“Listening,” Steve answered, but his eyes were fixed ahead on the lightning, his expression one of intense, stubborn concentration.
“You’ll need to take the battery cell out of the chestplate; you can’t just harness the lightning into the motor or I’ll be electrocuted. And you’ll need a conduit. The suit—you can use the suit; there’s a slot for a battery in the back of the suit; you can use the helmet to conduct the lightning, and then--”
“What?” Steve asked. “Tony, I can’t understand...you said use the suit, and then everything--”
Now he looked at Tony, and there were sharp lines in his face, worry in his eyes. “You’re not making sense.”
“Okay,” Tony said. His tongue was beginning to feel clumsy in his mouth, heavy and slow. “Sorry, I go too quickly sometimes; I--”
“I still don’t understand you,” Steve said. “You’re...you’re talking, Tony. You’re talking, but those aren’t words.”
Don’t panic, Tony told himself. His mental faculties were still there. He tried again, speaking as slowly and as carefully as he could. “Can. You. Understand. Me. Now?”
The look on Steve’s face was pained. “Barely,” he said. “Yes, but barely.”
Tony watched Steve look from him to the pieces of the suit strewn about the raft, and then back up at him. “Tony,” Steve said. “Don’t strain yourself; you need to conserve your energy.”
“That’s not how this thing works,” Tony answered, but from the look on Steve’s face when he spoke, he knew his speech was still garbled.
“Just rest,” Steve said to him. “You should rest. I’ll—I’ll figure it out, Tony. I’ll--”
Resting sounded good. His eyelids were drooping; everything was hazy.
“Tony?” Steve said. “Tony, don’t—try not to sleep; If you go to sleep--.”
Tony couldn’t help himself. He tried to stay awake, tried, but now even his thoughts were coming slowly; it was hard to think.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to wake you up again,” was the last thing he heard, on the periphery of his consciousness.
When his eyes opened, Steve was hovering just above him, there was a heavy pressure on his chest, and something softer, gentler pressing his cheek.
“Tony?” Steve asked, and Tony realized that it was Steve’s hand up against his face, his thumb brushing over his cheekbone. There was worry in his eyes, a dip in his brow. “Tony, can you hear me? Can you--say something?”
Tony grunted, a little; the pain was still flaring in his chest. “Something?”
“Good enough,” Steve said dryly. He held the canteen to Tony’s lips. “Drink?”
The water dribbled into Tony’s mouth. It was warm, in this hot weather, but still refreshing, and he closed his eyes, savoring it like it was a rich meal.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked.
“Like hell,” Tony replied. “But alive? Which is, ah...better than the alternative.”
Steve smiled at that, and dropped back to sit down, jostling the raft a bit as he did.
Tony turned his head—he could see the strange electrical storm, still silent, still flashing, a little ways in the distance. “It worked?” he asked.
“Yeah, it--” But Steve frowned again, and leaned back toward Tony. “No,” he said, and his lower lip curled out a little, his brow furrowed a little, and he prodded at the power gauge. “It was just at one hundred,” he said. “It’s already down to ninety-four. It--”
Tony couldn’t let Steve know how cold he felt—the terror that maybe the battery wasn’t holding a charge, here, where he had no supplies, no equipment, no tools, and no promise of anything soon. “The battery might have gone bad. Did you charge the one from the suit, too?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered. “They’re both charged, I—I think.”
That was good; that should have been enough to run his chestplate for thirty-two hours, if only the battery wasn’t draining so quickly. “If all else fails, I could build a saltwater battery, I suppose.” Tony mused. He frowned; it wouldn’t hold enough charge, and he knew it.
Steve, meanwhile, was fidgeting with the motor again. “No,” he said. “Look.” He pressed down on the motor’s cap. “It stops sinking when I press it, like this.”
“Huh,” Tony said, though he was now swimming in relief. A problem with a connector somewhere, that was much easier to resolve. “Well, then I’ll just need to keep a hand on it till we land, no problem.”
He put his own hand on the motor, and nudged Steve’s out of the way. But the moment Steve moved his hand, the gauge started dropping again. Not quite so precipitously, but visibly, appreciably, certainly. “It’s not--”
He looked at Steve. Steve reached back for Tony’s chest, pressed his own hand up against the motor.
The gauge stopped.
“Well, hell,” Tony said.
“Why is it doing that?” Steve asked.
Tony chuckled “You have to ask why, Mr. Strength-Of-Twenty-Men?”
Steve gave Tony a pained look. “I’m pressing it harder than you can?”
“You’re pressing it harder than I can,” Tony agreed. “Aren’t you glad you’re getting a chance to put your superior fitness and honed military prowess to good use?”
But Steve didn’t laugh at the joke. “This is good use,” he said. “If it keeps you alive, it’s good use.”
They had to rearrange themselves in the raft, had to sit beside one another, so that Steve could keep one hand on Tony’s chestplate, and row with the other. Tony didn’t have Steve’s immense strength or speed, but he was a passable oarsman, and he took the other boot and paddled on his side of the raft.
He was still tired, still feeling weak and fragile, and he had to rest again. Steve patiently laid down his makeshift oar, and slid his arm around Tony, letting Tony curl up against Steve’s chest as if he were a pillow.
And so he lay exhausted in their little raft, his eyes closed, the water rolling gently beneath them, Steve’s heart beating strong and even, so unlike Tony’s own, until his strength came back to him again, and they rowed a little further.
It took more than half a day for them to reach land, what with the fact that metal boots were not quite as well-suited to the task as actual oars might have been, and with Tony’s need for frequent rests, but by the time land came into view, he was revived somewhat.
“I didn’t get any documentation of that damn storm,” Tony said, mildly irritated with himself, as the tide washed the raft the last few yards up onto the sandy beach. “Fury’s going to be just thrilled.”
“I think we had slightly more important things on our mind,” Steve pointed out. He frowned at Tony, and adjusted his arm slightly, then picked up his shield in his free hand. “I think...I can keep hold of you,” he said. “If I just...if we both stand at once, now.”
Tony followed his lead, and stood when Steve nudged him, and together, they stepped out onto the shore. The place was deserted, quiet apart from the breeze blowing through the cattails up the beach a little ways.
“You want to explore?” Tony asked, eyeing the cliffs to one side of the beach, and the trees to the other.
“Sure,” Steve said, and started toward the trees. He kicked the raft further up the shore as they walked, until it cleared the high water line.
They discovered that they were on a small island, and it didn’t appear to be inhabited by anyone else. There wasn’t much in the way of food—at least, nothing edible that either Steve or Tony recognized, but they did find a little freshwater pool, and they each took turns drinking from it with gusto, and refilled the canteen.
As the sun went down and the island was plunged into shadows, the temperature plummeted, and Tony was only wearing Steve’s torn shirt. The shirt had since dried out well, but it was barely protection from the cold. And Tony, still not as well as he could be, still weak, couldn’t keep himself from shivering.
Steve tugged him in closer, gave him a concerned look. “That’s just the cold, right?” he asked. “You’re not going to die again?”
“Pretty sure it’s just the cold, yeah,” Tony replied, though he was now conscious of Steve’s body pressed against him, the heat where his skin made contact with the fabric of Tony’s—well, Steve’s—shirt. He leaned into it.
They stood like that for a long moment, neither of them speaking, before Steve jerked his head up and surveyed the area. “Right, well, we’ll need to do something about that,” he said, suddenly businesslike.
How Steve managed to gather firewood, build, and light a fire with only one free hand, having to drag Tony around with him, was a complete mystery to Tony, but when they finally sat down in front of its toasty warmth, he sat and watched the flames dance, red and orange and gold and tiny hearts of blue.
Steve put out the fire, and then walked Tony down to the beach and back, dragging the raft up near the smoldering embers, where it was still warm. “Figure it makes a good bed,” Steve said, as Tony changed over the battery in his chestplate. The current one still had a few hours on it, but Tony didn’t want to have to risk changing them in the middle of the night, after he’d already gone to sleep. “It’ll keep the wind off, a little, and…”
He cleared his throat, and didn’t quite make eye contact. “And if you’re cold, if you need to--”
Tony smiled. “I got it, Steve,” he answered. “Thanks.”
“I don’t suppose you store any pillows in your armor, do you?” Steve asked.
“I’ll have to figure out a way to do that, for next time,” Tony replied.
So Tony lay there, in Steve’s arms, his head on Steve’s shoulder, feeling Steve’s slow, even breathing.
“Warm enough?” Steve asked.
“Well, I can’t exactly complain, can I?” Tony retorted. “Seeing as it’s not nearly as cold as you’ve been already.”
“To be fair, I slept through most of that,” Steve pointed out.
“I’m planning on sleeping through most of this,” Tony admitted. “But—you’re not.”
Tony imagined Steve might have pressed down a little harder on the motor cap. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to sleep.”
There was something comforting, Tony thought, as he drifted off to sleep, knowing that Captain America was keeping vigil for him.
“Tony?” Steve murmured, nudging him gently. “Tony, do you hear--”
“Yeah.” Tony fumbled to find it, twisted the dials until the feedback subsided. “Good. It—it’s dried out, now.”
“Hello?” he asked, into the transmitter. “Hello, this is Tony Stark.”
“Boss!” Jarvis’ voice exclaimed. “Boss, where the hell are you? I got a distress signal from the Aronnax, and now I can’t pick her up at all.”
“Ha, er, ah--” Tony laughed. “Funny story about that. Remember that bet we have about whether krakens exist?”
Tony gave Jarvis their location, and within hours, they could see Tony’s airship approaching.
Steve whistled low at it. “I’m not going to ask if that’s seaworthy,” he said.
“Actually,” Tony replied. “That’s something I’ve been working on.”
As the dirigible lowered itself, and Jarvis appeared to toss out the moorings, Steve glanced sidelong at Tony, and Tony wasn’t sure whether it was deliberate, the way Steve leaned in closer, or squeezed Tony more tightly around the shoulders, or pressed his hand more firmly to the motor cap on the chestplate.
On board, Jarvis gave Steve dispensation to let go, and Tony didn’t think he imagined the shadowed look that passed across Steve’s face for a moment.
“Go sleep,” Tony urged, looking Steve in the eye. “Take a rest. You earned it.”
And Steve retreated toward the bunks, with instructions from Jarvis to sleep anywhere, glancing over his shoulder as he walked off the bridge.
Tony was faced with Jarvis alone, who was already tinkering with the motor.
“Well,” Jarvis said, inspecting it with a frown. “I think we’d better bypass the battery completely for a while and just plug you right in.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Tony admitted. He sat back in a chair which Jarvis fiddled with the mechanics. “And this is the second time in as many days I’ve had to ask someone not to say ‘I told you so.’”
Jarvis raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to listen, next time?”
Tony shrugged. “Probably not.”
“That’s my boy,” Jarvis answered, with a grin.
“Thanks, J,” Tony said. “I mean it.”
“I know you do,” Jarvis assured him. “But so do I. We can’t just keep on patching up your holes, boy; we need to replace all your guts.”
“If I could replace my actual guts, we might be getting somewhere,” Tony said. He pressed down on his knees, let out a sigh, and then glanced toward the bunks. “We can do it, J. I’m not taking a risk like that again.”
“I’ve never heard that out of your mouth before,” Jarvis said, lightly.
Tony yawned. “I’m too tuckered out. My brain doesn’t know what my mouth is saying.”
With one last inspection, Jarvis let him go with a clean bill of health, and Tony left for the bunks.
He found Steve, asleep, in a narrow hammock that was too small for him, his feet hanging off the end.
Steve stirred as Tony opened the door, rubbing at his eyes.
“Sorry,” Tony said, and he started to close the door again. “I’ll come back later.”
“Don’t,” Steve said, with a strange urgency in his voice, and Tony started at that, but then Steve frowned and rubbed at his eyes. “I mean, don’t leave. I mean, come back now.”
So Tony slipped inside the narrow, low-ceilinged space, shutting the door behind him, and Steve sat up fully, his hair ruffled and his eyes still bleary from sleep.
Steve reached up, and pressed his palm back to the motor cap on Tony’s chestplate. But there was no urgency now, nothing but the soft, even whirring sound of the motor.
“It’s working?” Steve asked.
“Good as new,” Tony assured him with a nod. “You don’t have to--” He looked down at Steve’s hand. “You don’t have to do that anymore.”
“Maybe not,” Steve answered, and he met Tony’s gaze. “But I kinda want to.”