From a very early age, Steve Rogers was aware that he was going to die of cold.
Of course, anyone who knew him would have said there was no reason to be the cold, specifically. When Steve was born, the nurses thought he wouldn't make it through the night. His list of health issues didn’t seem so much a list as a compilation. From heart issues to bad lungs to a three-page-long allergies list, there didn’t seem to be many things in the world that couldn’t kill Steve. In the 20th century, death was always around, but, to Steve, it was almost like a scent, a constant threat following him around everywhere, to the point where it wasn't even scary anymore.
The cold, though. That scared him. He had a clear memory of being eleven-years-old, curled up under a bunch of blankets in his mother’s bedroom, shaking desperately as she held him tight, arms rubbing his shoulders to warm him up, because they simply could not afford to buy coal. Heat could be annoying, but cold was inescapable - it was merciless, crawling under every surface, slipping through the tiniest crevice and consuming your whole body.
And it had been inescapable, hadn’t it? His eleven-years-old self had gotten it right: He died frozen. The papers said missing in action, and his death certificate said plane crash, but Steve knew the truth. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel the water in his throat, the frostbite burning his skin.
Cold had gotten him, it the end.
And then it hadn’t.
And now there he was, 70 years later, stuck in an apartment with a heater he couldn’t figure out how to turn on, unable to sleep because laying on the fluffy mattress felt like drowning.
He could call someone, he guessed. Hill had made clear SHIELD was available to help with anything he might need, but Steve would rather go back to the ice than going through another “my air-conditioning is broken” situation. The agent had taken one look at the room before politely telling him keeping the windows open made it impossible for the machine to do its job. Steve had immediately closed every door afterward, barely resisting the impulse to lock himself inside forever.
He used to be able to maneuver any new gun or upgrade Howard came up with, during the war. Even now, weapons were easy to figure out, especially in the heat of the battle. It was just the everyday stuff that threw him off - there was so much he didn’t understand the need of, let alone how it worked.
He did understand the need for a heater, though. He could feel the cold slipping under his closed windows, sending chills down his spine. A lot of things could change in almost a century, and one of them, apparently, was that the winter in New York seemed colder than ever.
Steve shook his head, giving up his stare contest with the machine. So he couldn’t turn it on. Fine. It was just a bit chillier than normal. Steve got an extra blanket, made sure all the windows were closed, and went to bed.
He barely slept, but by now, he was already used to it.
As with most things in Steve’s life in the 21st Century, someone else had to figure it out for him.
“Why is your heater broken?” Natasha asked, raising her eyebrow, barely ten minutes after Steve let her in. She took a sip of her coffee.
Steve just stared at her. Natasha’s visits were always uncomfortable, because it was strange having a guest that was only there to check on him on SHIELD’s behalf, making Steve feel like a child in constant need of babysitting. He didn’t have a problem with Natasha herself – everyone thought he would have, which made him want to point women hadn’t just sprung into the army in the 2000s or something. Natasha’s clothes had surprised him at first, but, compared to everything else about the future that made his head spin, having a woman as a teammate actually felt like a nice novelty.
Peggy would’ve liked it, Steve thought, with a pang of sadness in his chest.
He looked away immediately, focusing on the closest window. No point in thinking about that now.
“Steve?” Natasha’s voice echoed in the kitchen, mercifully bringing him back to reality. “Your heater. It’s broken.” She indicated it with her head. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Uh. Because it isn’t?” Steve tried, but Natasha’s gaze was skeptical. “I just can’t figure out how to turn it on.” He admitted, feeling his face flush with embarrassment. God, he hated this, he really, really did. “I thought it was supposed to be the button, but…”
“It is the button.” Natasha said gently. “It should be working.”
“Oh.” Steve scratched his head. He hadn’t expected that. “I suppose I could call a mechanic.”
Natasha’s lips curled into a small smile. “You know I can’t just let you pick someone from the yellow pages, right? I’m sure you don’t want to get me fired, as much as you’d like for SHIELD to get off your back.”
Steve sighed. “Is it that obvious?”
Her smile grew. “Everything is obvious to me, in one way or the other. But we don’t have to call them if you don’t want to.” She took another sip of her coffee. “You could just come to the Tower instead.”
Steve crossed his arms, his posture stiffening before he realized it. “I really don’t need-“
“I’m not asking you to move in.” Natasha said, watching him attentively. “Thor arrives next week, so you will have to come over anyway. It’s not going to hurt to arrive a few days earlier.”
Steve clenched his fists unconsciously. Right, he thought, a bit ashamed that he’d managed to forget, even for a few moments. Thor was going to bring them whatever information he managed to get from Loki about Chitauri weaponry. The fallout from New York had resulted in many wannabe criminals having their power of action improved by alien tech, so a clean up was in order. Steve was sure the entire team wouldn’t be needed for something like this – he’d probably be deployed, along with Natasha and Clint, but that was about it. They’d need to have Thor around, though, and, anytime he was on Earth for Avengers business, he stayed in the Tower.
“I suppose so.” He said, even though he knew very well Natasha’s logic was perfectly sound, and there was no reason to refuse it. Well… No reason other than the Tower’s owner, but Steve wasn’t ever going to say that aloud. “I guess I can come over tomorrow.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “How much luggage do you have?”
A backpack with a few clothes and a bunch of books, Steve thought. “Not much.”
“Start packing, then.” She smiled fully this time. “I’ll drive you.”
Steve attempted to smile back, but a cold breeze came through the window, sending chills down his spine and making his stomach twist.
“I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re speechless because of my incredible engineering skills and overall good taste.” Tony’s voice sounded light-hearted. He leaned back against the wall with a smirk.
On any other person, it would have seemed friendly. But Tony had a special talent for making Steve feel off-balance – more than anyone else, talking to Tony made him feel out of place, old-fashioned, dumb.
Not that they had talked much, after the Chitauri battle. They shook hands after sending Loki off, and Steve supposed that was as amicable as their interactions were ever gonna get. He could still easily remember the helicarrier, the wave of anger he got at Tony’s flippant attitude, the spark of fury in those big brown eyes as he snapped back at him. You’re a lab experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.
Of course, he had been wrong about Tony, then.
He wasn’t that sure if Tony had been wrong about him.
“Uh.” Steve made a gesture towards the living room, looking for something to say that wouldn’t sound too rude. “It’s… Big.” As Tony’s expression didn’t change, he tried again. “It’s bigger than I’m used to.”
“That’s what she said.” Tony winked. On the couch, Clint laughed. Steve, who was one second away from asking who “she” was, realized that it was a joke, and, from the malicious look on Tony’s face, probably a dirty one.
He felt his cheeks warming, looking away. From the corner of his eye, he could see Tony and Clint exchanging an amused look at his expense.
We had dirty jokes, too, Steve thought, ridiculously. I bet none of you would understand if I told them, either.
“Aw, Cap, come on, don’t pout.” Tony said, hand patting his shoulder. Steve felt his posture stiffen. “I’ll do my best to keep the conversations G-rated for your sensibilities, ok?”
Steve kept looking at the wall, hoping Tony couldn’t tell he didn’t understand what that meant, either. Talking to people felt like a minefield, sometimes. There were so many tiny details that could throw him off, words and slangs and jokes that came up in conversation so naturally no one would have thought to explain, and that went over his head completely. He kept note of every reference to search for it later, but his ability to answer on the spot was always limited.
“Don’t worry about it.” He said, because it seemed like a reasonable answer, but Tony’s smile faltered. He had expected Steve to play along, he realized, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. That was probably Tony’s attempt to make his arrival less awkward, to lighten the air between them a little.
“Well. That covers the general tour, I guess.” Tony said, turning his back to him, voice quickly picking up his usual fast-paced cadence. Steve felt a knot in his throat. “Anything else you need, ask Jarvis, he’ll take care of it.” He walked out of the room in large steps.
Steve opened his mouth to say something, anything, but Tony was already gone.
He could feel the cold creeping up – sneaking under the bulletproof windows and finding him on the bed, helpless to fight its power. The cold covered him like a blanket, sharpening the air around him, making the way-too-soft mattress seem like it could swallow him whole – cover him with ice, stop his heart in his chest for another seventy years, transporting him to a place where no one could understand why he hadn’t just died, including himself.
He was already dead, in a way. He was a ghost, lost among the living, unable to convince anyone he belonged anywhere other than a museum or a graveyard.
Then he was a child again, weak and helpless in his mother’s arms, feeling her nervous hands running over his shoulders, desperately trying to push away the cloud of death surrounding him. Except Sarah Rogers’ hands were suddenly red, and her touches left a layer of ice over Steve’s skin, and there was water in his mouth and lungs and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t even die for good-
Steve opened his eyes. He was covered in cold sweat, soaking the sheets.
Technically, Steve knew that didn’t make sense. Everything in the Tower worked perfectly, the heating system included, and although on the outside the temperature kept dropping, Steve was aware his room was comfortably warm.
Still, he jumped to his feet, taking a series of sharp breaths. He closed his eyes. It took a few moments, but his breath evened, and he gathered the sheets in his arms. Natasha had mentioned a cleaning crew, but it felt unfair to let others clean up his mess.
“Jarvis,” Steve asked, hating how weak his voice still sounded. He coughed a little before continuing. “Is there anyone else awake?”
“Sir is awake, Captain. He is working on Agent Romanoff’s gun in the lab.”
Steve swallowed. “Am I going to run into him if I go use the washing machine?”
“Not likely, Captain.”
“Ok.” Steve said. He clenched his hand a few times, trying to get it to stop shaking, and left.
Jarvis didn’t lie – he didn’t run into Tony that night.
He ran into him two nights later.
“Oh. Hey, Cap.” Tony said, right after barging inside and going straight to the coffee machine, seemingly only noticing Steve’s presence after he had turned it on. It was five in the morning, but his face looked manic. There were drops of sweat on his forehead, as if he had been working out - which Steve knew he hadn’t, because he had spent the last two hours in the gym, beating up a punching bag frantically just to get some warmth running in his veins.
“Hi.” Steve managed, a bit startled by how incredibly awaken he looked.
A silence followed.
“Are you working on something?” Steve asked. Tony’s head snapped towards him, his eyes wide and bright as if he had gotten eight hours of healthy sleep through the night, and Steve felt himself shifting on his seat.
“Nothing special.” He said, with a hand wave. It was a strangely graceful gesture, quick and precise in a way Steve was sure he’d never manage to imitate. “Just running some schematics for the next Mark. Extra features, mostly. Poison resistance, temperature regulation, this kind of stuff. If it works, which let’s be real, it definitely will, I think you all could use some new tricks. No offense, but that glorified sock Coulson got you isn’t going to be much use anywhere other than a comic convention.”
Steve thought of arguing, but there was something strangely tense about Tony’s rambling that held him back. Besides, at the end of the day, it was true – it was an exact copy of his bonds tour outfit, and that was far from ideal in a battlefield. Some upgrades were probably a good idea. He nodded.
Tony’s expression seemed a bit strange for a moment, like he had expected him to react differently. Then the silence returned, and Tony turned to the coffee pot again, crossing his arms. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and Steve couldn’t help but think that Tony was probably cursing his fate for running into him instead of someone like Clint or Bruce, with who he could probably have a semi-interesting conversation with.
(Everything special about you came out of a bottle.)
Steve tried to focus on his book, ignoring Tony. He heard it when the coffee got ready, as well as the sound of Tony pouring himself a mug. He risked a glance. Tony was staring at his cup fixatedly, but his eyes darted towards Steve for a second, turning away immediately when he saw Steve looking at him.
Steve felt frustrated. He had never been a great talker – Bucky was the charismatic one of the two of them, that had always been true – but it was different now, to know how much of a stick in the mud everyone else thought he was. Irrationally, he wanted to say something, anything, to let Tony know there was a time where he was able to exchange more than two sentences with someone without being confused by something they said.
“It’s cold tonight.” Steve heard himself saying, as Tony headed towards the door. He felt his face heating a little as Tony turned towards him. Really, Rogers, he thought. Weather talk? That’s your way of seeming sociable?
Tony smiled, though. “It’s December, Cap. It’s only going to get worse.” He paused for a moment, fingers tapping his mug, as if he was thinking. “Or not, I guess. Global warming and all, it’s hard to tell.”
Steve felt a pathetic burst of relief in his chest. He had read about global warming. It was in the files of things SHIELD had deemed necessary for him to know. “So, you, you think it’s going to be warmer this time?”
Tony shrugged. “Maybe. Hope not.” He took another sip of his coffee, noticing Steve’s puzzled look. “Always been more of a winter person myself.” He finished the coffee, looking back one last time. Big, bright brown eyes stared at Steve for a second with an unreadable look, before he nodded towards him. “Good night, Cap.”
Steve opened his mouth to answer, but he felt a knot in his throat, and the words didn’t come out.
Steve ate his breakfast quietly, under the sound of Clint and Bruce talking. When Natasha walked through the door, he liked to believe he didn’t jump at his feet too eagerly.
“Jane says he’s going to be late.” She said, not even waiting for him to ask. “Apparently Loki escaped. How shocking.” She deadpanned, dropping on a chair next to Clint and stealing a piece of his toast.
Steve clenched his fists under the table. “Well, can’t we start some recon work? Surely SHIELD has some data we could use.”
“All whispers and rumors, Cap.” Clint picked up another pancake, passing the rest of his toast to Natasha. “Without Thor, we’d just be knocking at terrorist doors and going ‘Hey, do you happen to have any alien guns laying around?’.”
“I thought following whispers and rumors was your job.” Steve said, dryer than he meant to. He sighed. “How much longer?”
“She doesn’t know.” Natasha eyed him astutely, and Steve did his best to keep his expression neutral. “A couple weeks, maybe.”
Steve definitely failed to keep his expression neutral. “Weeks?”
Natasha seemed almost compassionate for a moment, which made everything worse. “Your heater is working, by the way.” She said, mercifully ignoring his outburst.
Steve looked down at his clenched fists, vaguely registering his hands were shaking. Weeks. Weeks sitting on that ridiculously huge Tower, doing nothing more useful than punching a sandbag, reading about the ever-growing list of things he didn’t know and feeling like he was going to drown in his bed.
He took a sharp breath, looking at the window.
It was snowing outside.
He couldn’t even go for a run.
Steve crossed his arms, terribly conscious of Natasha and Clint staring at him. He forced himself to pull it together. The last thing they needed was their ostensible team leader wallowing in self-pity.
He picked up his empty place and stood up, heading for the sink. “Can I?” He asked, gesturing towards Bruce’s plate. He nodded.
“Just put them in the dishwasher, Cap.” A fast-paced voice came from the doorway, because, obviously, Steve’s morning needed to get better.
“It’s just a few plates. I don’t mind-“
“Of course you don’t, you’d probably put on an apron and sweep the floor singing to the mice if we let you. Come on, it’s just a few buttons, nothing as complex as electric panels.” Tony said, and maybe it was the frustration of Natasha’s news, the callback to the helicarrier, or the reference he didn’t understand, but Steve felt a burst of anger inside of him. “I’m not going to pay you for housekeeping duties.”
“Some of us can clean our own messes, Stark.” He said dryly. Tony’s sly grin faltered for a moment, before his eyes sparkled with anger.
“Yeah? Like washing sheets at four a.m.?” He took a step forward, staring at Steve intensely, making his stomach drop. “Should I get you some geriatric diapers, Cap? Because I’ve got to tell you, that’s one hell of a weird time to be doing laundry.”
Steve dropped the plates in the sink too loudly. He turned towards Tony, face flushing in humiliation, hands clenched at his sides. “That’s none of your business.”
Tony didn’t back down, smiling sarcastically. “Yeah? Some would say since it’s my Tower, it’s definitely my business.”
Steve took a step forward. He had to look down to stare at Tony like that. “Stark.” He said, and he knew his voice sounded too low, too angry.
“You know,” Bruce interjected, his voice calculatedly calm cutting through the tension between them. “The Other Guy hates when people fight during breakfast.”
Tony blinked a few times, big eyes seeming startled, as if he had forgotten there was anyone else in the kitchen. He turned his back to Steve.
“Good point. I should be going anyway. I have actual work to do, you know, instead of just sitting around waiting for someone else’s intel.” Steve felt his face heating more with shame. Tony picked up his coffee mug, walking out.
The silence that followed was deafening.
“Try not to take him so seriously, Steve.” Bruce said, his voice genuinely soft now.
“Yeah, he’s just an asshole.” Clint commented.
Natasha rolled her eyes, but said nothing.
Steve looked at the floor, at the freezer, at the stupid plates in the goddamn sink.
He risked a glance at the window. The snow kept falling.
Technically, Steve guessed, his body should be able to withstand colder temperatures than most, now. It was the reason he was alive, after all. Yet, when he got to the gym, there was a freezing feeling on his chest – spreading, suffocating.
He punched the sandbag, desperate to get his blood flowing, to feel his body moving, to remind himself it could still move, it wasn’t trapped under the ocean anymore. He punched the sandbag and thought of the wet sheets, of broken heaters, of snowflakes piling over the sidewalk and trapping him inside, useless, a ghost who had done his job and now just didn’t have the sense to go back to the tomb and make everyone else’s lives easier.
He thought of Bucky – falling, screaming, body hitting the icy ground, buried under the last winter he’d ever seen.
The sandbag got loose, hitting the wall behind him as Steve threw a punch. It took a while to break this chain, Steve noticed.
Someone had probably reinforced it.
There was a loud music coming from Tony’s workshop. When Steve stepped in, Tony didn’t even notice him, hunched over his work station, tinkering with engines.
For a few moments, Steve just stood there, watching him. There was anger irradiating from Tony’s body, sure, but what caught Steve’s attention was that… Energy. Like a cloud of ardor around him as he sat there, head distractedly bobbing along to the song, picking apart the engine with quick, precise movements. Tony held it closer to his face and twisted it, pressing a tool to the side, and Steve found himself watching closely, almost holding his breath. It was just a machine, but in a way, it felt important, with how Tony’s brown eyes were focusing intensely on it, as if it came alive just by being on his hands.
Then Tony raised his head and saw him.
Steve tensed up, ready for whatever blow Tony would want to throw at him. “I wanted to speak with you.”
“You don’t have access. Jarvis,” He called, turning in his chair, dropping the engine as quickly as he had been tweaking it before. “He’s not on the list of authorized personnel.”
“He’s not on the list of non-authorized personnel either, Sir.” Jarvis’ voice came. Tony rolled his eyes, dragging a hand over his face.
“I don’t remember ever programming sadism into you.” He said, finally turning his chair around again to look at Steve, though his eyes didn’t meet his. “What is it, Cap?”
Steve swallowed. “I owe you an apology.”
Tony’s eyes widened for moment, and Steve couldn’t decipher what he saw in his face – but, as quick as it came, it went away. He made a flippant gesture with one hand. “I can barely remember what I ate during breakfast, Cap, let alone what we talked. Forget about it.”
“We talked about the dishes.” Steve said, even though he knew Tony hadn’t forgotten at all.
There was that same expression in Tony’s face again – surprised, sure, but also something else, that Steve still didn’t fully get. Then he twisted the chair again, picking up a schematic, not looking at Steve at all. “Oh, that’s right, your maid complex. Don’t sweat it, Cap, really, everyone’s entitled to a hobby, as unusual as it might be. God knows I shouldn’t be one to judge-“
“I.” Steve interrupted, feeling his face heating. “I don’t know how to use the dishwasher.”
Tony stopped talking, looking at him for a second.
“I. I didn’t want to ask. In front of everyone, I mean.” Steve blurted out, hands clenched at his sides. He forced himself to sustain Tony’s gaze. “I can understand it.” He added, because he felt like he had to. “When someone explains, it's easy. But I didn’t want to… I used to help my mother with the dishes, when she was sick. It. It was never a huge problem.”
He didn’t add the rest – that washing plates was easy, simple, something he could actually do to help, when no one would offer a job to a sickly kid and they could barely afford food, let alone medicine. He didn’t add that he didn’t even fully understand the concept of a dishwasher, because he couldn’t imagine having so many dishes you couldn’t just wash them all yourself. He didn't add that, like many things in the future, it seemed meant to fill a necessity he didn’t even know existed in the first place, and, irrationally, it made Steve frustrated, as if it was just a reminder of how much that world wasn't his anymore.
At Tony’s silence, Steve clenched his fists tighter, and continued. “I don’t know who sings to the mice.” He said, feeling his face heating again. Tony opened his mouth to say something, but Steve kept talking, determined to get it all out. “Most of the times, I don’t understand half of the things people say to me. Especially you.” He paused, taking a sharp breath. “I wished I did.”
“Steve.” Tony breathed, and Steve finally understood that he – he was confused. In any other context, Steve would be glad for that role reversal, impressed with himself for being able to leave Tony Stark speechless. Now, though, he needed to get through this, and he wasn’t done.
“That’s not an excuse to snap at you. I’m sorry.” Tony opened his mouth again, presumably to tell Steve to not bother, and there was something almost nervous in his eyes, as if he hadn’t completely grasped what was happening. Steve took another breath. “And I’m sorry for before, too.”
When Tony’s eyes widened, they got even bigger. Steve didn’t know how it was possible. “Before…?”
Tony seemed startled. “You- Come on, you can’t be serious.” He babbled, voice too fast for Steve to get a word in. “That was months ago, Cap. You don’t have to apologize for not being able to fight freaky alien mind control, I think Barton’s got the monopoly on that.” His voice was painfully casual, forcefully so, but Steve could sense a tightness on it.
“No. I misjudged you.” Steve said, privately relieved that his voice seemed calmer in comparison. “The scepter made us angry, but it didn’t gave us any new thoughts. I thought you were a bully. I was wrong. And for that, I apologize.” Tony’s mouth gaped open, and Steve wondered for a moment if he was going to say something else (You’re a lab rat, Rogers), but he didn’t, so he carried on. “It was generous of you to allow me to stay here. You’re a kind person.” He added, without thinking. He wasn’t sure if that was out of the line, because Tony let out a small gasping noise, still not saying anything. Steve took a look around the room, hand scratching the back of his neck, feeling sheepish as the rush of the words wore out. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your work. I’ll leave you to it.”
He turned around and walked out in fast steps. He didn’t risk looking back, but he had a feeling Tony hadn’t moved at all.
At night, he felt his fingers stop moving. He woke up shaking, not as sweaty as the other nights, but nervously feeling like he needed another blanket.
The blanket didn’t work – it made him feel smothered, small (weak).
It made him feel eleven-years-old again.
He stood up, gathering the blanket and placing it on the floor. He grabbed a pillow and laid down.
The hardness on his back was familiar. It didn’t feel like water.
Steve closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep. If he focused hard, he found he could hear the hum of a fast beat a few floors bellow, the faint sign of what he knew was probably a very loud song.
It was strangely comforting.
“Where the hell were you?”
Steve took off his jacket, wiping his feet at the entrance matting. Tony’s face was almost comical. He was wrapped in a heavy blanket, contrasting with his usual tank top. His hair was messy and he stared at Steve with narrowed eyes, as if he’d just gotten out of bed.
“Told you.” Natasha’s voice came from the couch, startling Steve, who had not seen her there. She smirked at him.
“It’s freezing.” Tony said, staring at Steve with an expression between shocked and offended. “Plus, it’s – what?” He gave a quick glance to the clock. “Fucking nine in the morning, Jesus Christ, what am I even doing awake.” He turned back to Steve with impressive speed, a sharp contrast with his drowsy face. “Please tell me you got out five minutes ago and decided to just run, I don’t know, ten miles and call it a day. If you woke up anytime earlier to jog on this weather, I’m going to call SHIELD and tell them you’re in need of another psychiatric evaluation.”
Steve blinked. “I think I got out at… Four?” He had finally fallen asleep by two in the morning, waking up immediately afterward and being unable to sleep again. He hadn’t looked at the clock then, just put on his jacket and a pair of shoes and left. But Tony didn’t need to know that.
“Four. Four in the morning. To jog.” Tony ducked his head, making the blanket slip a bit off his shoulder. He quickly pulled it back, squeezing it around himself. “And you decided to go with… A light jacket. In the snow. Say, are you trying to go for another season as a Capsicle again?”
Steve felt his posture stiffen immediately. He risked a glance towards Tony only to see a glimpse of a nervous expression on his face, as if he immediately regretted his words.
Steve felt embarrassed. I’m not made of glass. He wanted to tell Tony, for some reason. I can take a joke.
“Thought you liked winter.” He heard himself saying. Tony still seemed a little stiff, but he grinned.
“I like to enjoy winter like a normal person. You know, with good food, good wine, laying in front of a fire on a bearskin rug, the usual.”
“I can’t wait for spring.” Steve deadpanned, and, to his surprise, Tony let out a short, honest laugh.
Something strange jumped inside Steve’s chest, and he felt weirdly proud of himself.
He walked around the kitchen counter, taking a glass to fill with water. When he looked up, Tony was still watching him, with an attentive, almost thoughtful expression.
Then, he moved, sliding around the counter, next to Steve. Their bodies bumped for a second, and Steve could feel the heat exhaling from Tony. From that close, Steve could see the way the kitchen light hit his eyes, pulling out some traces of green and light brown, big and wide staring at Steve’s face.
“Cinderella.” He whispered. His voice was low but still fast, and Steve felt a weird impulse to ask him to keep talking.
Tony smiled, reaching for a glass on the sink. “She’s the one who talks to mice.” He said as he rinsed the glass, whispering as if they were sharing a secret. Then, under the counter, he poked Steve slightly, nodding his head on the direction of the dishwasher.
Steve just stared.
I didn’t want to ask. In front of everyone, I mean.
Tony’s smile grew. “Well, in the movie, at least. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what the Grimms were going for.” He pulled the top rack, his voice getting higher, way higher than he needed to speak to Steve so close. He placed the glass there, face down. There were a few plates laying around, and Tony made a show of rolling his eyes, picking them up and placing them in the bottom rack. “Plus, she’s blonde, blue eyes, eh, ok, not one of my best jokes.” He picked up some detergent in the top drawer, filling a small compartment over the racks. Then he closed the racks, gesturing towards a panel next to the compartment. “Nobody fully understands everything I say, I think.” He said, his voice going softer for a moment, before returning to the regular tone. “Rhodey says he has keywords to pull himself back into the conversation so he knows when I’m actually saying something relevant.” He babbled as his fingers went over all the settings, finally tapping above the one saying light wash. Steve nodded, and Tony pressed the button, grinning. “Hell, sometimes even I tune myself out and just pray for the best.” He said, his hand going to a bunch of buttons bellow, tracing over them without pressing, finishing with a dismissive wave and indicating the draining board instead. Then his eyes glanced back at Steve, big, warm, and almost nervous.
Steve felt himself smiling in a way he didn’t remember doing in a while.
Thank you, he mouthed, and he liked the way Tony smiled back, lips slightly curled as if he was trying to suppress a bigger grin.
For the next week, the snow piled too high for anyone to go outside, let alone running. Steve tried opening the door, but the cold wind was impossible to stand. He closed it and sighed.
“Well, I guess you’re going to be forced to just have coffee and wait for the sunrise like the rest of us mortals.” Tony’s voice came from the kitchen, and Steve, as always, felt startled by his maniac energy at ungodly hours.
“Not really a fan of coffee.”
Tony snorted. “Of course. You probably only drink water and…” Tony stopped for a moment, as if he was thinking. “Green smoothies.”
Steve smiled. He knew what green smoothies were – Natasha had them sometimes. Then, he realized Tony knew he knew that, too, and the realization that he stopped to find a reference Steve would understand caused that weird jumping feeling in his chest again. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a smoothie, actually.”
“No? You should, they taste great.” Tony grinned, picking up two mugs and walking over the living room table, sitting on the couch. “Come on, Cap, come get your winter spirit working.”
“With green smoothies?” Steve asked. He was rewarded by Tony’s smile.
“No, though that would be an interesting experiment, I’ll say. With hot chocolate.” He pushed one of the mugs on Steve’s direction. “Come on, it took me a lot of work to… Pour what the machine made in two cups. I’m very proud of myself.”
“I can see why.” Steve picked up the mug, pretending to examine it. “The chocolate is definitely… There.”
Tony snapped his fingers at him. “Exactly! Now you’re talking. Ok, so, go, take a sip.” He said, and as Steve glanced at his face, he saw that same nervousness from a few days before. It made him feel strangely warm.
He obeyed. The taste was nice. It made him think of nights before the cold got too scary, nights where his mother’s extra shifts resulted in the nice surprise of a few cookies and hot cocoa, nights where Sarah Rogers covered both of them with a blanket and held her son just because she wanted to, not because she was afraid he’d die of hypothermia.
With a shock, Steve realized he had closed his eyes. He opened them, startled, to find Tony staring at him, smiling in a way Steve hadn’t seen yet, something a bit more serious and intense on his eyes, that Steve didn’t really get.
“I take it that you liked it.”
Steve smiled. “It’s nice.” There was a pause, and maybe it was the comfortable silence between them that made him add: “My mother’s recipe was better, though.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t seem offended. Instead, he leaned forward, propping his chin in one hand. “Yeah? Was she a winter person?”
“Uh. Not really.” Steve said, a bit awkward. He hadn’t talked about her with anyone yet, in the futu- Where he was now. “We didn’t, um. We didn’t always have the money to buy coal. And I fell sick at the slightest wind, anyway. There was a running bet in the neighborhood to see when hypothermia would finally get me.” He added, aiming for playful, but Tony’s eyes widened.
“Of course. It was the fucking Depression. Shit- A winter person. God, every think piece Christine Everheart ever wrote about me is true.” He ran a hand over his face, and Steve felt his stomach sink slightly.
“It’s fine. Really.” Nervously, he took another sip of the chocolate – a long one, that burned his tongue. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, suppressing a cough. “The-The chocolate is great.”
Tony watched him for a moment and opened a small, sincere smile. “Glad to hear it. You should give me her recipe next time. I can get Jarvis to program it in the machine.”
“She never gave it to me.” Steve said, smiling fondly at the memory. “She wasn’t that great of a cook, to be honest. Not that I ever risked complaining.” That made Tony’s smile grow, which gave him the confidence to continue. “She was good with some things, like cookies or hot chocolate. When… When she got… Sick, I had to take over with that. She said my soup was way better than the hospital's.”
Tony nodded. “Shitty hospital food, apparently a timeless phenomenon.”
“Yeah. So, that was when… When winter wasn’t so bad, I guess.” He said. It felt strange, to speak so much about something so personal, at once. Tony’s face was hard to read, but he was watching him carefully, as if he didn’t want to miss a word, and it felt… Good, in a way. Like letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
Tony’s voice was incredibly soft when he spoke. “And now?”
Steve took a moment, staring at the floor. He thought of the nights – of the cold wind knocking on his window, of the soft bed, of waking up in soaked sheets and scared that another lifetime had passed by the time he opened his eyes.
He didn’t want to lie to Tony, but the words felt stuck in his throat, unable to be pushed out.
“I’m handling it.”
There was a glimpse of something in Tony’s eyes, something shadowy and heavy over the brown and the green. He gave Steve a small smile.
The floor was cold.
Steve was shaking, even though he wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t supposed to be cold - it was supposed to be rough ground, to be next to a fire, to be surrounded by rocks or grass so he could jump to his feet immediately if Morita saw something moving in the distance. It was supposed to be warm, because Bucky was supposed to be by his side and Gabe on the other, because they couldn’t afford to sleep too spread out, there wasn’t much space to remain hidden. It was supposed to be a good day, because Howard had finished some upgrades on their guns and Steve never had a problem with Howard’s tech, never had to figure out what was the point of upgrading a weapon. It was supposed to be the day to lay out the latest plans, following Peggy’s latest intel, and Steve had a great idea to tell the guys, a very good one, where they’d zipline into the train-
When he opened his eyes, Jarvis turned the lights of his room on, and Steve had a moment to ponder on the fact that even an A.I. could tell he wouldn’t be able to stand the darkness right now.
“Thank you.” Steve muttered softly.
“You’re welcome, Captain.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair, sitting up. His hands clutched the blanket, and he thought of going to the gym, of punching the sandbag over and over, of going for a run, of his best friend falling to his death because of his bad leadership.
He laid down again, closing his eyes. In his head Peggy’s voice echoed, He damn well must have thought you were worth it. But Peggy was gone now, as well, that determined voice replaced by a fragile tremble, and she wouldn’t remember enough to talk to him even if she could tell who he was.
Then, in the back of his mind, he heard the hum, the faint beat coming from Tony’s lab. Steve could easily imagine him there, sitting on his workbench, head bobbing along to a rhythm he couldn’t identify. He didn’t know what Tony was working on – didn’t know if Tony was tinkering with some engine, agile hands breaking something apart to pull it together in a new, unthinkable way; didn’t know if he was looking over schematics, finding ways to improve things Steve never thought could even exist in the first place. He didn’t know why he worked so late, why he didn’t seem to mind finding people in the kitchen at four A.M., why his eyes were always so big.
What he knew was that Tony was awake – that he was moving, thinking, creating at the same time Steve’s breath got sharp and it felt like his lungs were freezing again. Steve knew he was irradiating warmth and he liked winter and hot chocolate and coffee, and his movements were always precise and graceful, and if Steve closed his eyes and focused a lot he could feel that same heat from behind the kitchen counter next to him, the way Tony’s smile had worked better than a furnace.
“We need to stop meeting like this.”
Steve didn’t need to look up from his book to know who it was, but he did it anyway.
“It’s only midnight.” He pointed out, smiling a little at the sight of the same big blanket wrapped around Tony’s shoulders. “A bit early for your coffee break.”
“I just woke up, actually.” Tony said, dropping onto the couch next to him. Their bodies didn’t touch, but Steve felt a rush in his chest anyway. “So, I take it Natasha brought your stuff in?” He looked at the books scattered around. “Still no word from Thor, huh?”
Steve sighed. “No. I… Will have to be staying here longer.” The thought wasn’t as bad as it had been a few weeks ago, but he still would have give anything for a mission, for a chance to do something that mattered. “Sorry.”
Tony rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively. “Cap, if the big “A” in front of the building didn’t give in, this isn’t my place anymore. Room’s yours as long as you need it.”
“I know. Thanks.” Steve said. A silence followed, uncomfortable in a way he wasn’t used to, and Steve felt incredibly aware of Tony’s leg next to his. He felt like he should say something, but he didn’t know what. Talking to Tony was strange – sometimes it felt incredibly easy, and he could say things he never told anyone; other times, Tony would stare at him with big, bright eyes and Steve’s tongue would feel heavy in his mouth and nothing he could think would seem interesting enough to put into words.
“So, what are you reading?” Tony said, quickly snapping the book from his hands. Steve couldn’t help but smile as Tony leaned forward, picking up his other books. “Open veins of Latin America. The Age of Extremes. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Modernity and The Holocaust. Oh, hey, this one is a comic book!”
“It’s about the Islamic Revolution.” Steve helped, and Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “It’s really good.”
“Jesus, even your comics are depressing.” Tony said, dropping the book in the table exaggeratedly. He eyed Steve with an amused expression. “You do know you must know more about contemporary history than people who lived it by now, right? I wouldn’t know how to tell you about half of this stuff.”
Steve shrugged, scratching the back of his neck. “The SHIELD debriefings only covered America. I wanted to get a sense of what happened in other countries.”
Tony’s eyes darted from the one he was holding now – The Origins of Totalitarianism – and, when he spoke again, his voice was more serious. “Germany.” He said, not as a question.
Steve nodded. “At first, yeah. I… I wanted to see what happened to Augsburg.” He swallowed, the memory of kind eyes and a calm voice and one of the few people who ever believed him still fresh in his mind. So many people forget that the first country that the Nazis invaded was their own.
Tony stared at him. “Eskrine’s city, right?”
“Yeah.” Steve looked at him, a little surprised. “Most people don’t know. The films… Didn’t talk much about him.”
“’Course not. Not good for propaganda to call attention to the fact our newest superhero came from the idea of a German scientist.” Tony said, his voice light as always, but there was something kinder in his eyes.
“I suppose so.”
Steve watched Tony’s fingers moving over the cover of the book, tracing Hannah Arendt’s name.
“Do you miss him?”
Steve felt his chest tighten. I miss everything, he thought. That sudden clarity was painful, creating a knot in his throat that made it hard to speak. “A little. I didn’t know him very well. The whole process lasted only a few weeks. But.” He swallowed again, trying to keep himself steady. “When I woke up, I thought… I felt I owed it to him to check, at least. He bet everything on me.” He paused for a second, staring down at his own hands. “Sometimes I wonder if he got it right.”
Tony made a strange noise, his eyes widening. “You.” He opened his mouth to say something, Steve guesses, but immediately closed. He repeated the motion a few times, apparently startled. “You really-“
“I, uh. I should probably go to sleep.” Steve stood up, because he felt like he’d talked too much, and Tony was probably not waiting for that conversation to get so… Intimate. He probably didn’t want to be in the position of comforting him, especially because – his stomach twisted at the reminder - Tony definitely understood his line of thought (Everything special about you came from a bottle).
“No. Steve, wait.” Tony blurted out, his hand grabbing Steve’s wrist. The contact sent a shiver down Steve’s spine, and his knees felt weak with Tony’s fingers against his veins, his eyes staring at him intensely, closer than before and-
“Well,” A cold, amused voice echoed in the living room. “Talk about interesting timing.”
Steve jumped back, instinctively taking a fighting stance. From the corner of his eye, he saw Tony snap his fingers, turning on the Tower’s alarms.
Loki, standing right next to the television, rolled his eyes.
“Hopefully, you won’t drag this display for much longer,” He said, seeming strangely tense. “Because we don’t have much time.”
“No fucking way.” Clint said, holding his bow firmly, eyes burning with rage. Steve laid a hand on his shoulder – he was shaking.
“I’d like to point out that, if it were a trap, I could easily take Thor’s appearance to trick all of you. It would be immensely dumb to just walk inside your door in the faint hopes you’d buy my farce.” Loki said, eyes never leaving Bruce, who was staring at him very seriously, with his arms crossed. “And I’m not dumb.”
“Highly debatable.” Tony poured himself a drink, taking a sip in such an obvious imitation of calm that Steve wondered if there was any chance in the universe Loki would buy it. “However, assuming it’s a blue moon somewhere, and you’re telling the truth,” He turned towards Loki, who kept his glance fixated on Bruce. “Why us?”
Loki smirked. “I assumed you’d care about my brother’s well-being, Stark. Perhaps you’re smarter than I initially gave you credit for.”
“Hard to understand why we’d be your first choice.” Natasha interjected. Loki’s gaze darted away from Bruce for a second, to give her a furious look. “I’d imagine Asgardian warriors could do a lot more damage to these… Giants than we ever could.”
Loki’s face twisted with something unpleasant, almost guilty. “He wasn’t supposed to go.” He said, voice the slightest bit softer. “When I escaped, our-his father told him to forget about me, that I’d starve looking for a place among the realms.” His mouth curled with disgust. “My brother, as you might be aware, is not very good at following orders.”
“So, what? If you came back and told them Thor was in danger, he’d knock the door on your face? He hates you so much he’d sacrifice Thor’s life just to piss you off?” Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “Sorry, not buying it.”
Loki let out a bitter laugh. “It’s incredibly flattering that you think he’d believe me. If I show up in Asgard to say Thor has been kidnapped, there’s not a single person who wouldn’t think I was the main culprit. By the time they finished attempting to beat the truth out of me, he’d already be dead.”
“And you’re still a fugitive.” Steve said, as it dawned on him. “They’d execute you.”
Loki’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “I was hoping to avoid that, yes.”
“What makes you think we’re not going to do this right here, right now?” Clint stepped forward, voice serious as Steve had never heard before.
“Because you won’t get there without me.” Loki answered. “And, if you don’t get there immediately, Thor will die.”
Steve clenched his jaw. He could be lying, he knew. Looking around the room, he found Tony’s eyes, a silent question in them. He glanced back at Loki, who still wore the restraints Natasha had put him on.
He could be lying, but they couldn’t take the chance.
Steve stared at Clint, giving his shoulder a squeeze. Clint’s eyes widened at him.
“Oh, fuck no, Cap.” He said, but without conviction.
Steve looked at everybody else – Natasha’s expression didn’t change; Bruce stared at him solemnly, a distant twinkle of green already in his gaze.
Tony’s eyes were big and expectant as Steve turned towards him. He nodded.
“So, how are we supposed to get to… What did you say the name was?” Steve crossed his arms, taking a step forward. “Jotunheim?”
The planet was all ice.
Steve took a deep breath. He wasn’t cold. The suit had gone through adjustments, no doubt Tony’s idea, to keep his body warm at the lowest temperatures. He wasn’t cold.
“Path is clear through here.” Natasha’s voice came through the coms. In the middle of the rocks and ice, Steve could barely see her, which, of course, was the entire point.
“Clear as far as I can see.” Clint sounded way too casual, which betrayed his nervousness. “Which is pretty damn far.” Steve heard him moving, jumping from a mountain to the other.
“Keep going.” Steve said, following Natasha’s trail. “We should run into guards soon.”
There was a loud noise through the line – not an explosion, but something heavy hitting the ground, like an avalanche.
“Found them.” Natasha whispered. “Three of them guarding the entrance.” There was a pause. “The rocks end where I am. No way to sneak in.”
“So what, we just knock on the front door?” Clint asked.
“You’re wasting time.” Loki hissed. He was still wearing his restraints, watched closely by Bruce and Tony. “You must release the beast at once.”
“When were we demoted from Earth’s mightiest heroes to the Hulk’s mightiest sidekicks?” Tony quipped. His voice was comforting through the coms – fast-paced and warmer than anything else in that damn planet could ever be. “Hey, since he’s so eager to get the show going, I say we take our friend here and drop him into the palace. Best distraction ever.”
Steve stopped. “That’s it.”
“What?” He could almost hear Tony’s frown through the comm. He almost smiled (he wasn’t cold, he wasn’t).
“Widow, Hawkeye, assume attack position. Iron Man will drop me through the roof. As soon as the guards come inside, it’s a Code Green. Give them all you’ve got.”
“Wait!” Tony’s voice sounded nervous. “Why don’t I just barge in? You know, since I’m the one who actually flies here?”
“Exactly.” Steve was already seeing the palace, looking for a good drop point. There was a space between the two main icy towers that should do it. “I need you to provide air support in the front assault. You guys get in and go straight for Thor, wherever he is.”
There was a repulsor noise through the line, and the Iron Man armor landed next to Steve.
“Cap, that’s one hell of a drop.” Tony said, lifting the faceplate. He seemed unsure, eyes searching Steve’s face, and Steve felt a burst of warmth on his chest, something strong and good fighting off the cold.
“Iron Man,” Steve said. “Now.”
Tony closed his eyes for a moment, the faceplate going down again. “Fuck.” He muttered as Steve held onto his shoulders, enlacing his waist with his metal arm and taking flight.
Steve felt the cold wind hit his face, and he focused on the metal under his fingers. It shouldn’t feel warm, he guessed, but it did – because it was Tony, Steve realized, suddenly, when they were so high he could no longer see the others on the ground. Tony was all warmth, all heat, and Steve craved it, needed it as he never needed anything else before.
The metal armed squeezed his waist tighter. “Position your shield.” Tony said, and his voice felt like a song against the roar of the cold wind. Steve yielded the shield, one arm still around the armor’s shoulders.
He looked down. Maybe he shouldn’t have, but it hadn’t really made a difference, the other time.
I gotta put her in the water, he heard himself saying, and he felt the cold air again, inside his throat reaching his lungs.
He was cold.
He was freezing.
He was freezing and he couldn’t be.
“Iron Man,” Steve managed to say, his Captain voice speaking for him as he felt himself shake. “Lift you faceplate up.”
“What?” Tony asked, confused, but he obeyed, and that – that was what Steve needed, those brown eyes staring at him, Tony’s voice, his face. Steve leaned forward, feeling the warmth of his breath, breathing on it too, taking in air that would never suffocate him.
“Now.” Steve said, and they were so close he could see Tony swallow as he let go of Steve’s waist. Steve didn’t look down, he just looked at Tony. He leaned forward and held onto the armor strongly one last time, just enough to press their lips together for a moment.
He took a second to feel the wave of hot, delicious warmth that came over him, a shiver coming down his spine, and he couldn’t freeze now, being so alive.
“Thank you.” Steve whispered to Tony’s shocked, beautiful face, and he let go.
The shield hit the ceiling with a loud, resonant bang, and there was a sharping pain on Steve’s arm. For half a second, he feared that it wouldn’t be enough, but then he was falling inside, hitting an icy floor, body as curled beneath the shield as it could humanly get.
His arm burned, and Steve felt a blinding pain on his legs as well – but there was no time to worry about whatever bones he might have broken, he figured immediately, as he barely dodged a spear aimed at his chest.
“Intruder!” One of the giants said, and Steve was startled by how tall they were, but there was no time for that, either. He ran through the guards, forcing himself to ignore the pain of his body.
The inside of the palace was huge and roomy, covered with ice on every surface. A slightly smaller giant aimed a punch at his head, but Steve caught with the shield. He went for the legs, throwing the creature off-balance for a moment, using the wall behind it for a throw that hit its head.
“He comes for the Odinson.” A bigger one said, eyes staring at Steve with seething rage. Steve was vaguely conscious of the noise of the coms – he thought he could hear Tony’s voice amidst a lot of shooting, but he couldn’t stop to try to listen.
He turned around, running to the center of the salon, when he noticed an empty area. The giants circled around it, clearly wanting to stop his advance, and Steve didn’t need to see it to feel his stomach drop.
“The hammer is here!” He said on the coms, only to realize his speaker was broken from the fall. He dodged an attack from a sword, kicking the giant’s arm to get it to drop it. Before he could turn, though, he heard a noise – something being beat against the wall continuously, and what seemed like screams.
Steve took off running through the hallway, searching for the sound. He came out on an icy cave and an animal that seemed like a cross between a wolf and a lion growled at him.
“Rogers?” A voice came from the other side of the room, rough and tired but unmistakably Thor’s. “Steven, is that you?”
The animal lifted its head to growl at him, and Steve took the opportunity to hit it with the shield, knocking it unconscious. He took a look around, searching for more guards, but there weren’t any.
“We’re all here.” Steve said, looking at Thor and finally understanding the lack of security. He had cuts all over his face and chest, indicating a fight, but his arms were firmly trapped in front of him by a huge, thick block of ice. “Hold still, I’m going to break you free.”
Thor shook his head. “It’s not average ice. It’s cursed. We must get out.” He said, charging through the hallway. Steve followed him, shield raised.
They arrived in the main room. “I think this is right beside the entrance.” Steve said. He could hear the noises of the battle through the wall.
“We must get to Asgard! There’s a forge-“
“You’re not going anywhere, Odinson.” A giant said, the tallest of them all. Around them, the other giants watched, respectful for a moment. “You’ll pay for the crimes of your father.”
“He has magic.” Thor said quickly. “The Jotun people don’t crave war, theirs is a rebel faction. I was tracking Loki, I didn’t imagine-”
“Quiet! You and your human pets will regret this.” The giant growled, stepping closer, raising his hand, and suddenly Steve felt it, that cold of before, the cold he’d pushed away by thinking of Tony’s eyes and now it was there-
“HULK NOT PET!” The Hulk roared, bursting through the wall and advancing over the giants. “HULK SMASH PUNY GIANT!” He took one of them in his hands, beating him against the floor like a ragdoll.
“In other news, life as a sidekick is not so bad.” The Iron Man armor landed next to Steve, turning towards him as the faceplate went up. “Hey.” Tony said, softly.
“Stark, this is so not the time.” Clint said, shooting a giant that was coming at them from behind. “I need a lift to that window, you can drool on Cap when there’s not a bunch of murderous aliens after our heads.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but obliged, grabbing Clint clumsily by the arm and taking flight. Natasha appeared by Steve’s side, guns ablaze, aiming carefully for the weak points on the giants’ bodies.
“Loki is knocked out.” She said. “The Hulk wasn’t very happy to see him again.”
“Shame.” Steve deadpanned. Natasha smiled, and he tried to smile back, but the burning pain he was trying to ignore hit him again and he stumbled as he made a throw with the shield, barely managing to catch it.
“Steve?” She ran towards him. “Guys, Cap is wounded.”
“Shit!” Tony’s voice came through the comm, and Steve could see him drop Clint on the window, turning towards them on the ground. “You must have broken something. Jarvis, check his vitals.”
“I can make it.” Steve managed, forcing himself to stand steady. “We need to find a way out.”
“Asgard.” Thor said. “We need to get to Asgard.”
“No, we need to get Cap’s stubborn ass to a doctor, as soon as we-“
Tony’s voice was interrupted by a deafening creaking noise. Steve fell to his knees, along with Thor and Natasha next to him. There was a pressure above him, something pulling him to the ground, making it impossible to move and hard to breathe.
“You. Are. Not. Going. Anywhere.” The giant leader said, smirking, sparks of his magic floating around his hands. Steve looked around – even the Hulk couldn’t stand it, squirming on the floor like a child. Clint, on the window’s edge, struggled, attempting and failing to reach his bow. Tony was at the center, Steve noticed, feeling his chest tightening. He was turning his repulsors on, power increasing exponentially, to no avail.
Steve tried to focus on moving. He could crawl – catch his shield, maybe throw the giant off-balance for enough time for the Hulk to grab him. Steve tried to force his body, managing maybe one inch of movement when he felt the pressure lighten around him.
The relief was momentary, as he stood up and looked around, seeing how everyone else was still stuck. The giant leader was staring at him, and although Steve didn’t feel his magic anymore, he could feel the presence, the power floating around them, sending a shiver of fear down his spine.
“You, first intruder. You shall be the first to die.”
Steve took a few steps backward, eyes searching the room, looking for a good angle to throw the shield.
His fingers didn’t move.
Steve lifted his hand in front of his eyes, watching in shock as the ice covered his fingers. Suddenly, he heard it all again – the crash of the plane, the water splashing around him, You’ve been asleep, Cap. And there it was, finally, cold coming to get him again, to get him for good. It was covering his skin and crawling through his veins and he’d never be warm again, he’d never…
But Tony was on the floor.
Tony was on the floor, Steve thought, his mind focusing, grabbing onto that one thought. Tony was on the floor, and so was Natasha, and Thor, and Bruce, and Clint, and Steve couldn’t just go, couldn’t leave them there, couldn’t ever allow that creature to decide which one of them would be next.
He took another step backward. Somewhere in his mind he could hear the giants watching, laughing, and the ice was at his elbow now – it was going to be slow, Steve understood. He was completely surrounded, there was nothing he could do.
Steve told himself to stay calm. He took a step closer to Thor, where he could see a good angle. He could hit the giant from behind. Steve went down on one knee to get the shield and-
It was frozen.
Not completely frozen, but covered by a thin layer of ice. Steve tried to hold onto it, but it was useless: It was too slippery, and he dropped it loudly on the floor, causing the laughter of the giants to increase.
Steve took a deep breath. He glanced around – Natasha watched him, as if she was thinking, desperately trying to find a way out; the Hulk was getting dangerously quiet, which meant he had to move fast, because they needed him to get out of there; and Tony, Tony, Steve couldn’t look at Tony, he needed to stay focused, needed to figure something out. He looked away, focusing on Thor instead, seeing the ice on his hands, the ice that was coming up on his arm too.
Steve blinked. What had Thor said? A forge. There’s a forge…
The cold hit him again, stronger and harder than before. His right arm was almost completely frozen now, the ice reaching his shoulder. Steve let out a grunt of pain at the frostbite. On the floor, the Iron Man armor struggled harder, and if Steve closed his eyes now, he could imagine Tony inside the suit, trying every new calculation possible. He could see Tony in the kitchen, finding a way to teach him something because he knew Steve was too embarrassed to ask. He could see Tony wrapped in a blanket, messy hair falling on his forehead, chuckling at something he said. He could see himself laying on the floor, closing his eyes and hearing Tony’s songs, not thinking about dying, thinking Tony was awake, Tony was the most alive person he had ever known. He could see Tony’s eyes, bright and stunning, staring at him before the fall, after one kiss that could never, Steve realized, be even close to enough.
“To be very honest with you,” He summoned up the strength to talk, panting. “I think I’m done with dying.”
With his free hand, he reached behind and grabbed the hammer.
It was incredibly heavy, weighing on his grip lin a way it had never done to Thor before. But Steve pressed forward, muscles clenching, thinking of everyone on the floor, of sleepless nights, of Peggy and Eskrine and Bucky and Natasha and Clint and Bruce and Thor and Tony, always Tony, feeling a burst of warmth on his chest as he lifted the hammer above his head and laid it down, hitting the ice on Thor’s arms.
The last thing Steve felt before passing out were metal arms around his body, holding him up, hugging him tightly.
The last thing he heard was a very loud sound of thunder.
When he woke up, there was a second of confusion – a moment of terrible familiarity, opening his eyes after spending an unknown period of time unconscious. However, it was gone as soon as it came, as he felt warm hands touching his face, caressing his hair.
“Geez, Stark, leave a piece of him for the rest of us.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Steve felt himself smiling lazily as his vision focused. He recognized the Tower's medical area, glancing down to see the bandages all over his right arm and torso. As he sat up, Tony’s hands left his hair immediately, and Steve almost winced, mourning the loss. Natasha smiled and squeezed Steve’s hand.
“Ah, you’re awake!” Thor’s voice came from the bed next to his, strong and excited as if he was ready for a sparring session.“I owe you the finest Asgardian mead one can find, Rogers. Though I shall say I refuse to give the throne to you.” He laughed. “At least not until a fair match!”
“I don’t think the gym is that reinforced.” Bruce commented, shaking his head with a smile.
“Give me two days.” Tony said, but his eyes were still on Steve’s face. “You should rest. Try to get some sleep.”
“I never do.” Steve let out, still a bit drowsy to realize what he was saying. Something fond and sad shadowed Tony’s eyes.
“I know.” He said. “But you have to try, ok?”
“Man,” Clint said, startling them both. “Two days and you’re basically ready for another round. I’m going to have to wear this casket for a month.”
“The serum is really extraordinary.” Bruce stated. “I didn’t want to stare, Steve, but even now, watching it work... It's, it's really something.”
Tony nodded, and something on Steve’s chest tightened. The memories were starting to hit him – from the fight, the battle, but also of before, of… He felt his face warming. He’d given Tony no warning, out of nowhere, in the worst possible place imaginable. He hadn’t even waited for him to respond.
“Eskrine wasn’t kidding around.” Tony said, and Steve felt his heart drop.
(Everything special about you came out of a bottle.)
It must have shown in his expression, because Tony’s face seemed worried. “Hey. I meant that. Get some rest, ok?”
Steve couldn’t say no to those eyes if he tried.
They were right, of course. The serum had him healed in a few days, and, just like that, Steve was back at his bedroom, laying at the floor, staring at the ceiling at two A.M., unable to sleep.
He didn’t hear the music from Tony’s lab, though.
“Jarvis?” Steve asked, as if it could possibly be someone else. “What is it?”
“Your presence is required in the living room.”
Steve had the impression that, if Jarvis could sigh, he would have. “Your presence is required in the living room. I was instructed not to tell you by whom, which I’m sure you’ll understand why, considering the astonishingly long list of people who could possibly be interested in meeting you at the Tower at this time of the night, making this secrecy incredibly necessary.”
“…Thank you, Jarvis.”
“Hey.” Tony said.
Steve didn’t know what he had expected when he came down to the living room, but it was not that.
There was a jar on the table, the smell of hot chocolate strong and sweet. On the couch, there were piles of blankets, around the cushions and over them. The floor was covered by fluffy, slim mattresses. There were seven or eight chairs around the couch, all supporting different blankets that hung over it, like a ceiling. Inside, Steve could see little bright dots hanged around – Christmas lights.
“Tony,” He said, feeling a bit choked up. “Is that a…?”
“A blanket fort? No, no.” He shook a finger at Steve’s direction, grinning. “It’s the blanket fort. The Hulk wouldn’t be able to pull this thing down, I guarantee.” Steve remained speechless, and Tony’s grin grew. “Come on, let’s get inside.” He picked up the hot chocolate, filling two mugs and handing Steve one. “I figured I ought to give you at least one nice winter experience. Especially now that you’re in line to be Asgard’s next ruler or something. I bet they don’t have hot chocolate there.”
Steve followed him inside, still startled. Tony dropped down on the couch, patting the spot next to him, and Steve felt his face flushing as he sat down. Tony laid a blanket over them, still smiling.
Steve’s posture stiffened immediately. They weren’t even touching, but it felt… Intimate, to be next to Tony like that, the place so warm and comforting Steve felt a nervous feeling clutch his stomach, anxiety bursting at the idea that he was sticking out like a sore thumb, rigid and flushed and holding onto his mug too strongly.
“Hey.” Tony’s voice came, softer than Steve had ever heard before. “I was also thinking I could, uh…” He raised his hands in front of him, making grabby motions. He looked smaller, curled up on the couch like that, and Steve felt himself smiling a little. “Hey, I’m serious, ok?” Tony said, but he was smiling, too. “I’m pretty good at it; in fact, I think my backrubs were the only reason Pepper didn’t throw her Louboutins at the board members during her first meetings as CEO.” He paused for a moment, considering. “Hell, it was probably what kept her from throwing her Louboutins at me when we were together.” Steve chuckled, and Tony leaned forward, patting his shoulder. “Come on, Cap. Turn around. Promise you’re not gonna regret it.”
Steve obeyed. It took a bit of maneuvering to not move the blankets around too much, and Tony opened his knees and Steve let himself approach between them.
“Yeah, like that.” Tony said, and his breath touched the back of Steve’s neck, sending a shiver down his spine. He felt incredibly conscious of how close they were – how he’d only have to lean back a bit to feel Tony pressed against him. He felt himself blushing and hunched forward a little, careful to not touch Tony by accident.
“Is – is this all right?”
“…Yeah, of course.” Tony said, his voice slightly hoarse for some reason. “Try to relax, Cap. That’s kind of the whole idea here.”
Steve opened his mouth to respond, but the next sound that came out of him was nothing short of a moan, when Tony’s hands started working on his back, pressing at his muscles. Steve felt his eyes going heavy, back relaxing at every movement of Tony's hands, melting against his touch.
“There you go.” Tony whispered, his voice slightly amused. Steve felt embarrassed, but then Tony’s fingers were on his shoulders, and it was like something was being loosened that he didn’t even know could be.
He felt his body leaning back unconsciously, and he was about to lean forward again when Tony pressed at his shoulder blades and Steve let out an actual sigh. It felt like he was taking weights off his back, thousands and thousands of pounds Steve didn’t even know he was carrying melting away easily at the tip of Tony’s fingers.
Then Tony’s hands came back to his shoulders, to the back of his neck, pressing in small circles and Steve felt dazed, peaceful as he’d never felt before. There were waves of warmth going through his body, a steady, delicious relaxing feeling.
He was leaning back completely now, feeling Tony’s body around his, small and lean, fitting against Steve's back as if it had always been meant to be there. He wondered for a second if that was ok, but then Tony’s arms were around his waist, moving him closer, dragging Steve with him as he laid down on the couch.
It felt like sleeping, Steve thought, in a glimpse of clarity. Like sleeping before, before the cold, the nightmares, the fear. He laid his head at Tony's chest and he could hear Tony’s heartbeat, feel the smell of his cologne, and he didn’t want to feel anything else, ever again.
They stayed like that for a while, in silence. Steve had no idea how long it was, but it could have been hours, or days, or an entire lifetime, for all he cared. All he could feel was Tony – Tony’s breath, Tony’s hands stroking his hair, Tony’s warmth enveloping him in something so much bigger and greater than a hug.
He felt Tony shifting slightly and opened his eyes slowly, feeling dozy.
Tony stared at him, brown orbs sparkling with a million things Steve would never understand.
“Something wrong?” He asked, and Steve thought he could easily be dreaming, now, stuck in one of those rare dreams that didn’t make him wake up shaking and sweating cold. One of those dreams people were supposed to have, once in a while, that Steve had forgotten were even possible - dreams so good you didn't want to wake up from.
“I’m sleeping.” Steve said, and Tony’s lips curled as if he was holding back a laugh, and Steve felt like floating, like flying, like walking in the streets of New York with a t-shirt reading Tony Stark thinks I’m funny.
And because he was dreaming, Tony didn’t pull away, staying still when Steve lowered his head to rest their foreheads together. Tony’s eyes kept watching him, and Steve wanted to dive into them and never come back. He was dreaming and it felt so good, so right, and he leaned forward and pressed his mouth against Tony’s, feeling the softness of his lips and the prickliness of his goatee.
It was a short kiss, the warmth of Tony’s mouth tingling Steve’s lips, and he was pulling away slowly when he felt Tony’s hands come up to his face.
“Is this… Is this ok?” Steve asked, suddenly hesitant. Tony licked his lips, opening the most gorgeous smile Steve had ever seen.
“Ok?” He laughed, a soft, fond laugh Steve hadn’t heard before. “God, it’s – it’s so much more than ok. Come here.” He whispered, voice low and syrupy in a way that sent shivers down Steve’s whole body.
Tony pressed another kiss to his mouth, chaste and soft. Then he pressed another, and another, and another - short, fast pecks, making Steve smile lazily against his mouth, sighing against Tony’s lips.
“God, you’re so- You’re too much, I can’t take it.” His hands were cupping Steve’s face, his thumbs drawing circles on his jaw. He kissed him again, this time letting a bit of tongue brush against Steve’s lips, and Steve’s mouth opened immediately and Tony let the kiss deepen for a moment, slow and gentle, pulling away carefully. His eyes were big and bright and full of wonder too, amazingly, almost as much as Steve felt, and Steve wondered if two people could dream the same dream at the same time. “Every time you’re around, I just, God, it feels like my brain short-circuits. And you don’t even know, shit, you have no idea.” He was babbling, pressing kisses all over Steve’s face now, and Steve marveled at that, at Tony babbling with his voice low and soft in a way only Steve could hear. “Asking me if Eskrine made the right choice, fuck, Steve, he made the only choice. I can’t believe you don’t see it, I just, you are so - Shit, Steve. They don’t make bottles that big.”
Steve kissed him again, because he felt his eyes watering and he knew the words wouldn’t come out. He lowered his head a little, burying his face on the curve of Tony’s neck, to- To- To just feel, feel Tony there, his warmth, his scent. He felt his heart fluttering; he’d never fall again.
“Oh, baby, you’re so fucking exhausted.” Tony said, and the endearment made Steve’s heart soar, basking in that same sweet, low voice that felt his. “Do you want to sleep?”
Steve nodded, slowly. “Will you still be here tomorrow?” He asked, looking up, wanting to see Tony’s face until his eyes couldn’t stay open anymore.
Tony’s hands stroked his hair and he pressed a kiss to Steve’s forehead. “Baby,” He whispered. “I will be here as long as you want me to.”
“Good.” Steve managed, smiling against his skin. “Me too.” He added, before closing his eyes.
“I know.” Tony muttered against his ear, as Steve dozed off, dreams following the sound of Tony’s voice. “I know you will.”