The boat captain followed them down into the cabin after a few minutes, and Steve was glad of the excuse to focus on something other than the tense silence that greeted all of his attempts to get Iron Man talking. Iron Man, who was huddled on the floor of the cabin as best he could in the armour, as though trying to warm himself up and protect himself from something, for all that they were safely on their way out of enemy territory.
Whether they would manage to escape their pursuit as easily as they'd gotten out of the base was another question entirely, though.
"Iron Man," the boat captain greeted him like an old friend, stooping to put a hand on the armour's shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
"Jar--Jarvis?" Iron Man stuttered. He seemed in a better way than before. Another couple of dots connected, for Steve, and he took another longer look at their boat captain. This had to be the Mr. Jarvis that Iron Man had mentioned in Fury's office, thirty six hours and forever ago.
"Yeah," Jarvis replied gruffly. "What's wrong?"
"Not-- Not sure." Iron Man sounded like he was getting shakier again.
"Mr. Jarvis," Steve put in, unable to keep silent any longer at the sheer distress he could all but physically feel coming off Iron Man, at this point. "I realise that Iron Man's identity has to be protected, but isn't there a way to do that and still help him?"
The question got him a sharp look, as Jarvis considered. "It'll take a lot of care to get him out and leave the helmet where it is. But you're right about one thing. I should check him over. I don't like that stutter one bit."
"J-Jarvis, no." Iron Man tried to protest.
"You're not wriggling out of this." Jarvis sounded implacable, now. "Captain," he demanded, "get me my tool set from under the helm and keep us on a north-northwesterly heading while I deal with this idiot."
Jarvis caught and held his eyes, and Steve shut up. "If I need your assistance further, I'll ask for it," Jarvis told him.
Wishing he could take off his cowl and run a hand through his hair, Steve eventually gave in. "Fine."
Actually retrieving the tools was the work of a few seconds. Convincing himself to leave the room when all of his instincts were screaming at him not to... well, took a little longer. That part took all of his -- admittedly fraying -- self-control.
Standing at the helm and guiding the boat through choppy seas the same color as the slowly brightening pre-dawn sky, Steve tried not to let himself focus intently on what was happening below decks. He really shouldn't be reacting this way to Iron Man, and he knew it. But it had seemed like it might be reciprocated, based on the way Iron Man had defended him in that stairwell.
Which, in the end, left him with the same problem he'd started with at the beginning of this mission: his identity was top secret. So was Iron Man's. And there was no simple way to resolve that. None, anyway, that didn't have a lot of consequences.
He could just come out to Iron Man and Jarvis, and hope that they would keep his secret, but there was no guarantee. Sure, they'd kept Iron Man's secret, but that didn't mean they would keep his. And if it got out that he'd told anyone, Fury would skewer him without a second thought.
Lost in his thoughts, Steve didn't hear Jarvis step up beside him and startled when the toolbox came to rest at his feet with a clatter.
Fighting down his embarrassment, Steve chose not to acknowledge his reaction. "He alright?" he asked Jarvis instead.
He got an amused huff in response. "Physically, he's as fine as he can be."
That was a very specific phrasing. Steve caught Jarvis' eyes and held them. "And otherwise?"
Jarvis huffed, sounding caught between irritation and amusement. "Otherwise, he's in fine fettle. Decided he needed a stiff drink. He's got this idea in his head that he's reacting to that cube you brought back with you. That it's making him think he's bonded to you. Which, excuse me, sounds like total horseshit to me."
Steve startled and stared at Jarvis. "And if I told you I was feeling the same? That I have since we left New York, and before we got anywhere near the cube?"
Jarvis looked unimpressed. "You and I both know very well that bonds take time to form."
"Not always," Iron Man called up from below decks, copping to the fact that he was listening in. He appeared at the top of the steep stairs leading down into the cabin, weaving slightly but on his feet. "If the Captain feels the same, maybe there's more to this."
Steve felt like his eyes were magnetised to stick to Iron Man. He couldn't seem to look away. Jarvis rolled his eyes and hip checked him away from the helm. "Quit making googly eyes at him and make him sit the hell down, would you?" he instructed gruffly.
His motions automatic, Steve stepped over and caught Iron Man by the waist as a wave hit the boat and made Iron Man stagger. The feeling of having Iron Man in his arms with nothing between them save some clothes and the helmet Iron Man was wearing to preserve his identity all but overwhelmed Steve. It felt like a sudden clarity had descended on him. Iron Man somehow monopolised all his senses; everything else faded away, including the sound and smell of the ocean all around them. The two of them stayed in that same position until the next deep swell made them both stagger.
Iron Man pulled out of his grip the moment he felt steady again, and Steve felt the loss keenly. Iron Man did follow Jarvis' instructions, though, and sit, his back against the low wall of the cabin. It took a long moment, but Iron Man eventually took the thread of the conversation back up. "Jarvis," he insisted, "you know as well as I do that there's been research published on this."
"That's true," Jarvis conceded, sounding somewhere between mollified and irritated at Iron Man's stubbornness. Steve, on the other hand, was sliding down the scale closer to pleased and hopeful. "But what about the implications for both of you, if you do pursue this? Can you honestly say it won't affect your motivations? Your missions? Hell, can you tell me it won't compromise you both to an extent where you won't be able to continue running your missions at all? There's also been plenty of research on the effects of prolonged separation on bond-mates."
"It would, even if we didn't pursue it, Mr. Jarvis," Steve pointed out, "if it truly is what we suspect. And I'm not above insisting that Fury allow us to work as a team, if Iron Man is interested in pursuing this," Steve put in. He could tell he'd surprised both Iron Man and Jarvis with his willingness to jump into this with both feet. There was a long silence following that declaration of intent.
He'd been thinking about meeting someone like this, dreaming about it, for years, and Steve was not about to let this opportunity just slip away because he hadn't said anything.
Iron Man was the one to speak. "You'd do that?"
Steve decided enough was enough. Closing his eyes and reaching up, he hooked his fingers under the edge of his cowl and peeled it back from his face, enjoying being able to feel the spray of the waves without the leather in the way to catch and hold the moisture. Before he reopened his eyes, he could feel the weight of the others' eyes on him, and smiled. "Yeah," he answered, "I would."
Turning to Jarvis, he offered a hand. "Steve Rogers," he introduced himself, feeling like he was flying, freefalling, "but you probably know me better as Captain America."
Jarvis, suddenly smirking and looking pleased, took his hand. "Pleased to meet you properly at last."
Iron Man made a strangled sound, half transmuted to static by the helmet he wore. Steve looked over at him, letting Jarvis' hand drop, in time to see Iron Man's hands go up to his helmet, and hesitate.
When the tableau broke and Iron Man's helmet came off, Steve stared, stunned. That was--
"Tony Stark," Iron Man gave him a rueful look. "Pleasure."
Well, hell. Steve suddenly felt he needed to sit down, himself.
That was Tony Stark, the man he'd admired from afar for over half his life, and there were better than even odds that they had already spontaneously bonded.
What were the goddamn odds?
Steve allowed his knees to fold, settling clumsily on the deck next to Tony. "I guess we're doing this?"
"I'm game," Tony grinned at him. "I'd be a fool to pass up someone like you."
Steve huffed but couldn't help smiling back. "Funny. I was just thinking the same thing."
Tony shook his head, but his expression was fond. Moreso than it probably should have been, considering they'd known one another for all of 36 hours.
Steve shifted, wanting the physical contact, and only realised once his shoulder met Tony's that both of them had had the same idea. Somehow, though, that made the whole trip worthwhile in a way that retrieving the cube hadn't. Sitting there, Tony's scent of iron and coconut in his nose and the sea lulling him, Steve fell into the level of relaxation he could normally only achieve after hours of sketching or sleep.
When Jarvis chivvied them down into the cabin to bunk down, a few minutes later, neither of them questioned the order, content to strip down and cuddle on the lower bunk. Without bothering to search for enough words or coherence to hold a conversation, they leisurely explored exposed skin with hands and lips, but it went no farther. Neither of them particularly wanted to push that particular limit, just yet. There were be far better times and places for that type of exploration. When Steve hesitated over the metal plate in Tony's chest, he got a shake of his head and a muttered 'I'll explain later.' It took them a while to fall asleep, in the end, Steve silently wondering what the future would bring, and what Tony was thinking. He could tell that Tony wanted this to work, which was kind of amazing considering how little they really knew about one another, but Steve really couldn't throw stones, considering his own stance on the matter.
That was the moment Tony picked to start finger-combing Steve's hair, and he closed his eyes so he could focus on the pleasant sensation. Pulling Tony in so that he could wrap his arms around Tony's waist, Steve surrendered himself to the feelings washing over him and reveled in the bare skin touching his. Even the metal plate was nice. It was part of Tony, after all. The kiss that Tony pressed into his hair was just icing on the cake, and made Steve smile. The transition from wakefulness into sleep crept up on him unnoticed, after that.
Jarvis woke Tony for his shift at the helm without any real ceremony a few hours later. Steve protested sleepily, but let himself close his eyes again when Tony ran a gentle hand through his hair.
It didn't occur to either of them until far later, that Steve had still been wearing his harness and pack -- containing the wrapped cube -- throughout their discussion and the disclosure of their identities. But, despite the proximity, Tony hadn't had the same reaction to it that he'd had in the base.
It didn't occur to Steve to puzzle over that until late the next morning, when he woke the second time, that time to Tony's startled shout.
"What the goddamn hell?!"