The island’s trees were tough, Tony thought as he gazed upward. The plane’s frame was torn and tattered, pieces stuck in the trees’ branches or scattered on the floor. A few twigs had broken but that was all the damage the trees had allowed. Aside from a few scratches on their bark and the presence of the plane’s carcasse, there was no evidence someone had crashed landed here.
And miraculously survived.
The storm had caught him by surprise and while Tony considered himself a good pilot, there was only so much he could do when everything tried to kill him. He’d seen the island and oriented his plane toward it, hoping against all odds he would make it there and land safely.
The landing had sucked. Big time. But Tony was still alive and that was something to feel thankful for, which Tony did.
Waking up, still breathing and alive had been a surprise. The pain erupting everywhere as soon as he made the mistake of moving, on the other hand, had been a kind of surprise Tony would have done without.
Still. Alive and breathing, if only a little painfully because of what he guessed might be cracked ribs. Not broken, luckily enough. Tony was banged up pretty bad but not enough to keep him from wandering around and trying to figure out where the hell he was.
Before heading (sneaking) out of his own place and taking the plane, Tony had taken his time to prepare his journey and that included learning the map by heart. With the wind, the plane’s pace and if he hadn’t made any mistake on his way - which he did not - there shouldn’t have been any island there. Not that he wasn’t grateful for it but, but still, maps were generally pretty accurate, especially those in Tony’s possession.
That an island hadn’t been pinned down on any map could have two explanation. Nobody had seen it, which was very unlikely considering the sheer size of it. Or, and Tony leaned heavily toward this one, it had been kept off the maps on purpose. Given that the island also happened to be deep into Hydra’s territory and near an unknown, very powerful, source of energy… Yeah, the second one definitely held more weight in the balance.
“Great. Now let’s find supplies and then we can try and find out if the power source is coming from here.”
His voice was hoarse but it felt good to hear it. It was the only familiar sound around, aside from the whispers of the wind running through leaves. The birds’ songs sounded different, the animals’ sounds he could hear from afar were nowhere near anything he had ever heard before. Which couldn’t be good.
Gathering everything he could use - and reach - from the plane, Tony filled a bag with it and strapped it on his back.
Rhodey, Jarvis and Pepper would be pissed at him once they found out about his little escapade but that wasn’t anything new. What was unusual, though, was Tony’s regret over not telling them anything about where he was heading. They wouldn’t know where to go, what to look for and the thickness of the trees’ foliage would hide the plane’s remains from view. Regardless of his reasons to keep them out of this quest because they wouldn’t agree to go in Hydra territory, he should have left a note. Something, at least, to give them a direction to start looking. On the other hand, the power source was a solid trail, something he couldn’t afford to ignore.
All in all, Tony was stuck on the island until he found a way to leave it.
Luck had left his side and decided to make fun of him.
There was no way Tony could leave the island on his own. Which was fucking great.
Survival on an unknown island was one thing. Tony knew his way around woods, jungles and mountains, could find his own food and build shelter without too much trouble, what he was definitely not used to was to be the freaking prey.
He could deal with being the target or being tracked down by killers and he knew pretty well how to work around it. When the hunter was human, Tony could outsmart pretty much anyone and be done with it fairly quickly. When the hunter was not human, however, things tended to change, and not in Tony’s favor.
He was running short on ammo, there was only one clip left in his bag which was now made of more holes than actual fabric. The backpack had saved his life a couple times but it was quickly running out of clothe. Soon Tony would have to find another way of carrying his stuff or kill something and sculpt a small bone into a needle. Which implied finding a way to make some threads which would then lead to actual sewing.
Tony sucked at sewing.
The only good part of it? Tony wasn’t alone anymore. His protégés were weak and unsteady but they were nice and cuddly and warm at night. Tony could definitely use the warmth when the temperature dropped so low Tony was grateful to be unable to know the actual degrees. When he had left for his journey, he had packed light enough and prepared himself for warm weather, not for the heavy chill that descended on the island when night came upon it.
What he desperately needed, now, was to find a safe place to start and build a base. It must be done quickly if he wanted his new friends to survive more days along his side. Thing was, the island held more dangers than Tony was used to deal with. Dangers he never thought he would have to face one day. He hadn’t been prepared for what the big, tough trees were hiding under their thick canopy.
“Not like anybody’s prepared for this kind of crap,” Tony muttered angrily as he shouldered his bag, pushing his legs to hike farther up.
While finding a safe place would be difficult if not impossible considering the island’s inhabitants, Tony had seen an interesting place on the mountain’s north-east flank. A cleared area where he could see anything coming from miles away, and he’d seen what could be the entry of some cave.
Going there would probably mean fighting off anything living in the cavern, but Tony was ready to fight for his life and his protégés’. He needed the safe place and this one was as good as any. Better, because he could reach it before nightfall. Then he would need to figure out if what he had seen was correct and a cavern was actually there and available.
Fear and dread coiled tight and strong in his guts. It felt like ice cold water running in his veins, chilling him from the inside out. Fighting for his life was one thing but going straight to some very dangerous, very deadly situation felt like stupidity. However, his other options were limited and none of them held a great chance of him and his protégés surviving for long.
Tony knew he had to find a place to live and build, to fortify against intruders and hunters.
Their lives depended on it. Luckily enough, Tony Stark did great in desperate situations.
His choice to save his protégés had been the good one. It had made his first months harder to go through, but it was worth it in the end. Hunting with them, while still dangerous and life threatening, was now easier. So was digging metal ore and bringing back wood, stone and whatever else Tony might need to reinforce his little base.
In order to leave this hell hole, Tony had considered going back to the crash site and see if he could fix the plane. When he got there, however, nothing could be saved. The island’s inhabitants had made a mess of it, breaking the wreckage further until nothing could be done aside from retrieving what he could use. There was only so much Tony could do without parts and he had nothing to create them with. He could find ore here and there, he could cut wood and break stone, he could build a house and make grow own food but his abilities stopped there. He couldn’t make any wire, no way of making a motor and nothing to power it to begin with.
Tony hadn’t given up all hope about leaving the island yet, but he knew it would have to wait until he found a way. Leaving by the shore was still a possibility to consider. Building a raft and trying his luck on the ocean wouldn’t be too hard. Tony knew he could make a pretty good boat if he had the materials and the time, and it so happened that he had plenty of both. What could be a problem, however, was that building said raft would take days and he’d need to keep it safe until he left. The creatures living on the island would probably not attack the boat on purpose but Tony had seen enough broken trees to know better than to leave anything valuable out in the open.
The last thing that made him reconsider his plan - for ever probably - was that one time he saw the massive body of a gigantic creature swimming lazily on the water’s surface before disappearing. There was a possibility of it being entirely harmless - aside from the damage its size would do - but Tony wouldn’t take his chance, not with that one. Not when a single snap of its jaw could crush his boat and swallow him whole without blinking an eye.
Living on the island made it hard to keep track of time, but Tony kept track of time in the shape of small stick drawn into the cavern’s wall. They looked like an army already. Over a year had passed since the plane had gone south and crashed. The growth of his protégés could probably attest of the time but it wasn’t reliable. Those beasts had a fucked up growth rate.
All in all, Tony thought as he looked at his house, he had done well and he was still alive. Pretty sure not everyone could have pulled this one off.
The cave had been closed with stones Tony had carved out of the mountain’s flank, not so far away from there, and a bit from the inside where he had enlarged the space for himself and his friends. The empty spaces between the stones had been coated to keep the wind from entering and strengthening the walls. They wouldn’t hold if any of the island’s biggest inhabitants tried to come in but they would give Tony and his friends enough time to either fight back or flee.
As soon as he found the first vein of metal, Tony started building a forge and everything he would need, putting together some rudimentary workbench. He’d improve it once nails and better tools were made.
When everything was set, he started on the most important part : building a reinforced front door with hinges and a real door-frame. He reinforced the cave’s front with each passing day, making it harder to break in and safer to use as a living place. The hardest part however, was to put the door in place. He had had to adapt its size to his friends too. While they weren’t too large - yet - they still probably had some growth spurt to go through. Which implied some guesswork, but Tony had managed it somehow.
He had every intention of finding a way to leave the island but his options were very limited so far and he needed to survive until he devised a plan. If he could find the energy source he had detected before heading out on this damned mission he could build a plan around it.
If the power source was on the island to begin with, which Tony couldn’t be sure until he found it or not.
It meant staying and putting every chance he could on his side to make it out of there alive.
Finding out he was followed by Hydra goons shouldn’t have been surprising and yet it was. They hadn’t seen him yet and he was out of range of their radar, but the chances that they would find him eventually were too high for him to ignore. He needed a plan, find a way to stay out of their reach and specifically to remain unseen.
He found it in the shape of an island.
He had flown around Hydra’s territories for years but he couldn’t remember anything about an island being there. Though, to be fair, his memories were faulty at best and it was highly possible the island had always been here and he just hadn’t paid it any mind.
The good point was that he would reach it after the night had darkened the sky, giving him one of the best covers he could wish for. It was a cloudy day, which had been one of the reasons he had chosen it to put his escape plan into action.
Everything went perfectly, right up until his heightened senses had first picked up the sounds of engines over his own and then had seen them. They were too far to be able to hear or see him yet but if he didn’t do anything soon, everything would have been for nothing.
When the night draped its dark blanket over the world, he dipped his plane, using the clouds as cover until he reached the mountain towering over the island, hiding behind its pike. There weren’t many places he could use to hide his aircraft but he found a large area clear of trees, ideal for landing.
He landed easily and let the plane roll under the trees’ cover, hiding it from above, and killed the engine as soon as possible. It would take a bit of time before his pursuers would fly over the island but he needed to make sure they did prior to do anything further.
Maybe he could stay a couple days on the island. He had packed enough food for that and if he didn’t want to use his stock yet, he could still hunt.
From the sky he had spotted the silvery ribbon of a river running down from the mountain’s flank and going further into the hills. It disappeared under the canopy but he was pretty sure it kept going, running deeper into the island. It was a sure source of water. He had food and water, he could survive a few days before leaving.
Staying in the plane, he pulled his package toward him and dug around until he found his water bottle. Since his pursuers hadn’t yet passed by the island and hadn’t spotted him - yet - he could stay inside and wait. If they somehow saw him and started a landing maneuver, he knew he could go out and get ready to welcome them properly.
His night vision was way better than theirs and he could use it to his advantage. It wouldn’t take them much time to land but it would be enough for him to get familiar with his surroundings and make the best of it.
Drawing his gun out of its holster, he held it in his lap as his eyes remained on the windscreen, watching the night sky with rapt attention.
He was ready for a night of vigilance.
Watching the sun rise had never felt so good as it did this morning. The light poured over the horizon, flooding the grass and gliding through the trees, playing on the ground a game of shadows and golden light.
It felt like a new dawn for him too.
There were no chains anymore, physical or metaphorical. No orders and no one above him to tell him where to look and what to think. Nobody on the other end of his leash to guide him like a behaving lap dog. He was free.
Or soon to be, anyway.
Shaking out of his immobility, he holstered his gun and stretched with a groan, feeling and hearing the way his bones popped back into place. It felt good too.
As predicted, Hydra’s planes went by the island during the night without stopping, they had come back later, following a new trajectory, but left again. Since then the sky was clear of threats.
As the night was alive around him, he had heard some interesting, unusual sounds. It had lit a spark of curiosity, something he hadn’t felt for a long time. At the time, he couldn’t have looked into it, his eyes locked on the sky and ears strained to hear any sound he could relate to any approaching engine.
Nothing had come, though, and he was now free to satisfy his curiosity.
The thought alone, the freedom of doing so without fearing consequences, made his insides feel weird, but it was a fuzzy, happy kind of weird. There was no word to put to it but it felt good nonetheless.
Shouldering his back and strapping his weapons to himself, he went outside and closed the plane’s door behind him.
The air, he noticed, felt fresher and more pure than anything he had breathed before. It was clean, smelling of pine trees and earth, of animal musk and rain. The grass was waterlogged and soft under his feet, the ground felt… like no one had ever set foot on it before.
The trees were taller and thicker but there were undeniable tracks of living creatures wandering the island’s grounds. The barks of some trees had been scratched, high enough from the ground that he had to get on his toes to reach it and follow it with his fingertips. Whatever had scarred the trees was tall and big, strong enough to mark it without meaning to.
Fear arose alongside awe, reducing the latter to a dull feeling in the back of his mind. As he looked around, his eyes scanning the ground, his suppositions started to take form, confirming themselves in the shapes of clues and trails.
There were things on this island he had never met before.
He’d been to a lot of places, before and during his time with Hydra. He’d seen plenty of creatures, some that did not even figure in books, but this exceeded one anomaly. Every trail lead to something unknown to him. He should have found rabbits’ tracks by now or foxes’, but there was nothing of the like. He had found, however, a wolf’s paw print but the size of it didn’t fit. There was a whole pack of them, at least half a dozen individuals of wolves bigger and probably taller than himself.
It was a disturbing idea.
The fear coiled tight in his chest, his instincts awakening in the wake of the realization that, maybe, he wasn’t the apex predator he thought he was, despite his guns and knives.
He thought about his surviving skills, thinking about leaving the island right away, precaution be damned, and fly away as far as he could go.
But the curiosity… the curiosity lured him onwards, sending him roaming further away from the plane as his eyes scanned the ground. Finding more tracks, more clues and each and every one of them fed the curiosity, brightening it, making it difficult to resist.
His curiosity, for once satisfied, almost got him killed.
As he was studying a pair of alarmingly big prints, two monsters burst out of the trees, breaking branches thicker than his waist without slowing down, charging him with every intent of killing him. They were roaring like thunder, opened maws showing rows of long, sharp teeth. Six and a half feet of killing machine covered in feathers.
He remained frozen on the spot, very well aware that the plane was too far away for him to reach before they got him in range. There was nothing he could think of to stop them. Each strike of their monstrous legs on the ground made the earth quake, reverberating to him and making his bones shake.
He’d never experienced fear like he did to the sight of those two hellbeasts charging him.
The cave was huge. Its roof hang at what seemed to be ten feet above the ground, maybe more. The walls had been carved clean, some shelves cut into the stone and holding tools and things of use. Bones, skins, scales, the man had been there long enough to have a disturbing collection of bones. There was the skull of some massive creature lying in a corner and the first name coming to mind was terrifying enough he would rather not think too much about it.
In a corner, neatly ordered despite the chaos surrounding them, were a forge and a workbench. Roughly made nails stuck out of the walls with tools hanging on them. It made him wonder for how long the man had been living here.
Surviving, he corrected himself as his eyes roamed back to the man. While obviously muscled the man was awfully thin. His face was gaunt, all sharp angles and matted hair. The man had tried to trim his beard but the result was uneven. He probably had tried to cut his hair too but seemed to have deemed it a lost cause if he was to judge from the patchy strands he could see. His body, however, talked about fights and battles, all of them won or at least unable to take him down. He had broad shoulders and a strong back, arms wiry with lean muscles. There was pretty much nothing else but skin covering bones and muscles, all the fat had been lost a long time ago.
Among all the data and information he had started to collect about the man, there were two details he still couldn’t understand.
In the back of the cave, curled up together like two harmless puppies, were the two dinosaurs who had charged him earlier. It was weird to think of it while starting with ‘always’ since he couldn’t remember much but he always thought dinosaurs were ugly and covered in scales. These, on the other hand, were covered in feathers from head to calves, only leaving their arms and feet bare. Their deadly maws were closed, but teeth poked from their upper lips, showing pointy edges and sharp sides. They were also remarkably clean, pearly white still. Which meant-
“They’re still young,” the man said, noticing him staring, before he headed to the workbench. He dug around, putting specific tools and leather aside. “Winter Chill, meet Edward and Gertrud.”
He said nothing, memorising the names as his eyes roamed over the beasts’ shapes. Young, maybe, but no less deadly. Their arms were long enough to lunge and hurt, long and thin fingers ended by dark curved claws. He had seen enough of their teeth to know what to expect from that part. They looked well fed, more than the man did.
It was smart and logical, though. Not well fed and the man would be their next meal.
It wasn’t like the lack of food was impeding the man’s strength anyway, he noticed. He was grabbing tools and manipulating leather with ease and practice, hammering it into shape with powerful strikes.
Leaving the man to his task, his gaze wandered back to the beasts.
Back where he had landed the plane, the monsters had ran to him, the earthquakes strengthening as they grew closer, making it difficult to remain steady on his feet, but he had managed. He had drawn his weapon, assuring his footing before raising the muzzle of his gun. There was no chance of surviving. He had known running away would only draw it out without assuring him anything, aside from a blow to the back and dying without seeing it coming.
There were no reasons to try his luck, however. He knew the dance, he could at least try a few steps before the curtains were closed over his dying body. The beasts were big, it would hinder their agility, maybe he still had a chance to fight and win. A very thin, very uncertain one but a chance nonetheless.
His finger had ghosted over the trigger when he had heard someone call out.
“Whoaaaa, hold on, is that a plane?!”
The monsters had stopped dead in their tracks, stumbling awkwardly as one of them danced, turning sideway until its flank faced the plane. On the beast’s back, sitting on a rough makeshift saddle was a man. He was staring at the plane in wonder and what was very obvious hope.
Then, the man’s eyes had landed on him and everything became a blur of words like storms, drawing questions like squalls on their wake and it was everything he could do to keep track of what was being said. He hadn’t answered much, unwilling to give anything away to a perfect stranger, but in the end there wasn’t much he could do aside from following them to his base of operation, as the man called it.
Beforehand, they had to put the plane in a safe place and the man, of course, had known the perfect place for that. In a matter of a few hours, they had it secured in a cave carved by water near the shore. The entrance was covered by a waterfall which should keep pretty much everything from entering it.
The night had just started to fall when they reached the “base” and hunger was digging a hole in his belly. He kept quiet on the subject, however. He couldn’t trust the man farther than he could throw him even if, so far, nothing had felt like a threat. Which would always be better than what he had lived through under Hydra’s grasp.
“Usually people take a cat if they feel lonely,” he heard himself say, the drawl of his voice foreign to his own ears. It felt natural, though, more so than his “ready to comply” ever did.
The man snorted and glanced at him over his shoulder before his gaze hovered over the two beasts curled up together in the back of the cave. The bigger one was nibbling on the other’s neck, seemingly preening the feathers covering it. There was no mistaking the utter fondness taking over the man’s eyes.
“Yeah, well, most people don’t end up stranded on an island crowded by dinosaurs and whatnot,” he answered, before going back to his work.
In a few steps, he settled against the cave’s wall, leaning his back to it and crossing his arms over his chest, his eyes remaining on the man’s back. With the tip of his finger, he stroked the handle of his guns, comforting himself with their presence.
The man followed his movements from the corner of his eyes, belying the easiness with which he was turning his back on him. The man kept on working on his project, but now he knew he was under scrutiny, he wasn’t trusted as much as might appear, by being invited inside what seemed to be his house.
“How did you end up with them?”
The man shrugged, setting his hammer aside and turning around. He sat on the workbench, still holding the leather and now even he could see it was the beginning of some kind of harness. Distrust and wariness grew heavy in his chest but he remained still, keeping track of every move. Definitely not shuddering at the snap of teeth from one of the monsters. A glance to the side revealed them still curled up together but they were now nodding their heads at each other, weirdly reminding him of birds. They quietly snapped their maw, making small growling sounds and chewing playfully on each other’s snout.
It could be cute if it wasn’t terrifying.
When he came back to the man, he still had his eyes on his hands where they were transforming bland strips of leather into a full harness. It was fascinating.
“Don’t even know myself,” he mumbled, frowning. “Their mom died. They were starving, they tried to kill me.” He shrugged again like it was nothing. How long has this man been here? How tall were the beasts when they tried to make a meal out of him? “I couldn’t kill them so I kept them and now they’re still here.”
He hummed, thoughtful. Was it really possible? The proof was right in front of him but it was still kind of unbelievable. To be fair, the whole island was impossible and was still very much real. He had had the doubt of being maybe back into Hydra’s custody and his mind played with but had discarded the idea. It was all very real and very crazy.
He was startled when the man hopped off the workbench. His fingers rested steadily on his gun’s handle without taking it out of its holster but the man saw it, eyes sharp.
“Let’s get this over with,” the man snapped, annoyed. “You kill me and they kill you,” he added as he pointed between them, voice hard and angry, and then at the beasts now looking toward them. Their nightmarish eyes staring straight at them, smarter than he would have expected. “I try to kill you, you kill me, they kill you,” the man continued, “I’m not stupid and I’ve met my fair share of killers, assassins and what not, so I kinda know what to expect from you. You don’t know what to expect from them.”
“That makes a lot of killing,” he drawled sarcastically, fingers steady on his weapon but the need of drawing it out had faded faster than the man spoke.
Taken aback, the man shook his head, a small smile playing on his lips. “Yeah, and I’d very much like to avoid that. I didn’t survive on this island to get killed by my own kind. Listen,” he added wearily, “I fight enough every day to keep on breathing, I’d rather not have to watch my back around you too. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, that’s fine. I just want to get away from this hell hole, whatever you did, whatever you want to do, I don’t care. I just wanna go home.”
Years. This man had been here for years. The bone deep tiredness talked about weeks and months fighting his way out of desperate situations. There were scars, ugly and long, some recent, visible from under the rags the man used as clothes. His pants were in tatters, leaving the bottom of his legs uncovered and unprotected. The man’s eyes were hard like steel, it felt like iron beaten into shape. Nothing seemed to be able to break it and yet there was this small crack in the shell, bare and raw for him to see.
He’d felt the same way not so long ago, standing on the edge’s knife, waiting to fall on one side or the other, fighting every hour to remain sane despite the horrors of every day. He had left it, flew away from the edge when he had taken the plane and took back the control of his own life.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he whispered, voice hoarse.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he repeated louder. “I don’t kill if I don’t have to and I’d rather not.”
The man smiled, then. A little something, genuine and soft. “That’s great,” he said quietly, “because we’ll need each other if we want to get out of here.”
The muscle on his cheek strained, pulling at the corner of his lips, and he felt himself smile for the first time in forever.
“What should I call you? I can’t keep calling you Winter Chill in my head, it’s starting to be weird.”
Even he knew he was smirking when he answered: “Winter will do.”
After all, they called him the Winter Soldier and while he has some hints of his real identity, he doesn’t quite feel like being James yet. He’s no longer the Asset, though, and that is a relief.
“Aaaww, come on!”
“You didn’t ask back how to call me.”
“That’s because I’m fine keeping on calling you “doll” in my head.”
The snort it earned him made him smile.
The more Winter stayed on the island, threatened by death every day despite their possibility to leave the island at any given time, the more he smiled easier. It had nothing to do with fighting his way through scales and deadly fangs and the wild shot of adrenaline coursing his veins each time he had to run for his life and more with the way the man looked at him, grinned at him. In the smallest touches, the trust that had built between them.
They could leave anytime but they decided to stay. Just for a little while.