They knew. The bad guys - of course they knew. Anyone with a history book knew the story of Captain America being lost in Arctic ice. Anyone with media access knew the "wow" if not the "how" his miraculous defrosting. Anyone seriously attempting to take Captain America out of the superhero equation tried to weaponize the cold against him. The only surprise to Tony was that it hadn't been attempted more often.
Before the Avengers stormed the Hydra base, JARVIS had difficulty locating Steve's energy signature. Once they were on site, JARVIS managed to pinpoint Cap's life signs, but they were distressingly weak. Tony chose to focus on the fact that there were still life signs to be found as he tore through level after level tracking them down. The cube of a room - freezer, it was really a freezer - where Steve was being held was deep under the Hydra base.
Tony desperately wanted to blow the door wide open. But with no way to predict the blast field it would create, and the high probability that Steve would be unable to withstand any damage from the debris, Tony was reduced to spot welding. The imposing steel door was frustratingly thick, so Tony had to spend over a minute outside, anticipating the worst as the lock mechanism slowly gave way under the heat from his gauntlets.
When the door finally opened, Tony rushed forward. His stomach lurched as the combined light from the hallway and his suit's arc reactor illuminated the space inside the cell. For a split second Tony was convinced he was too late; his heart raced in his chest and his anxiety froze him into immobility. Even the low patter of JARVIS relaying Steve's life signs in his ear were not enough to persuade Tony that Steve wasn't dead, because he sure as hell looked like death.
Steve was seated on a low bench with his torso slumped against the wall and his chin down on his chest. A lacy web of frost dusted Steve's hair making it look dull and lifeless. Tiny crystals of ice had accumulated on Steve's ridiculously long eyelashes, and it didn't seem he had made any effort to brush them away. His skin had taken on a waxy, grey pallor and his lips were blue. There seemed to be no evidence of respiration.
Then a warm current of air from outside the room reached Steve and he twitched violently. Steve's eyes fluttered open, but weren't able to focus. He gasped like a drowning man breaching the surface for the last time. Steve surged forward before being limited by the chains restraining him; Tony hadn't noticed them before. Seeing the chains transfigured Tony's anxiety into rage.
"JARVIS let the others know I have eyes on Cap. I need them to secure the lower levels of this place so we can get him the hell out of here." Tony swallowed hard against the anger that threatened to overwhelm him then he added, "It's probably best not to send Hulk down here."
"Yes sir." JARVIS' quick, familiar reply gave Tony the lifeline he needed back to reality. He stepped forward. "Cap? Steve?"
With no thought to the ambient temperature in the cell, Tony retracted his helmet exposing his head. His skin immediately felt as though it was being stung by a thousand, frozen needles and all of the moisture was sucked out of his eyes. Ignoring all of that, Tony stepped forward and addressed Steve again.
Steve surged up from the bench again, but couldn't coordinate his limbs. Tony quickly reached out to steady him and then reseated him on the bench. Tony kept his left hand on Steve's right shoulder. "Cap? Hey, Cap? I'm right here, okay?"
Steve's breath started to come in huge gasps as he groped blindly toward the light of Tony's chest reactor. His hand skittered aimlessly across the armor until he managed to grasp Tony's right shoulder. His eyes still wandered unfocused as he choked out, "Tony?"
The plea in Steve's voice broke Tony's heart. It was the voice of a man who simply couldn't believe what he desperately needed to be true. With his right hand Tony nudged Steve's left arm a little higher until he could catch Steve's hand between his shoulder and cheek. Steve's icy fingers were painful against Tony's exposed flesh, but the warmth that leeched across to Steve was enough to make his eyes snap to Tony's face and really see him.
"Tony." This time it wasn't a question. That one word held so much relief and hope it was nearly overwhelming.
Steve's fingers caressed Tony's cheek, and Tony tried not to read too much, or anything at all really, into it. Cap was half dead and reacting to the warmth radiating from Tony face. And in spite of the fact that Tony was holding Steve in what could technically be called an embrace, it was all about keeping Steve steady and nothing else because it couldn't be anything else especially right now.
In spite of Tony's internal monologue, he was more than a little annoyed when Barton burst in and the moment was over.
"Fucking hell...how COLD is it in this room?!" Clint yelled as he got far enough in for his face and bare arms to feel the chill.
Steve's hand slipped back down to Tony's shoulder as he leaned forward and rested his head against Tony's chest. His mumbled "Language…" made Tony beam in spite of the circumstances. Tony brought his free hand up to set briefly on Steve's head. "Glad to see your priorities are still straight, Cap."
Tony addressed Clint, "C'mere Legolas and keep Capsicle steady. I'll take care of these chains." It probably wasn't the most appropriate time for that particular nickname, but hearing Steve's voice lifted a weight off of Tony's chest, in spite of how bad Steve looked. Tony held his arms out straight to push Steve back against the wall and Clint slipped into the void between them.
"Hey, Cap," Barton's voice was unusually low and soothing. He held up his hands and took Tony's place. "I'm just going to keep you steady for a minute." Steve tried to nod and ended up falling forward with his head against Clint's chest.
Tony fought a violent stab of irrational jealousy as Clint caught Steve's face in his hands and Steve leaned into the heat he found there. The jealousy surged again when Clint pulled Steve up slightly against his chest and then tucked his head into the crook of Clint's neck while Clint restlessly ran his hands up and down Steve's neck and into his hair. Intellectually Tony understood that Clint was using his own exposed skin to transfer what body heat he could to Steve, but his gut strenuously objected. But when Clint glanced over to catch Tony's eye, the archer's expression was naked with an unprecedented level of concern; Tony turned his attention to the chains.
It seemed to Tony that once he freed Steve from the chains holding him, everything started moving in fast forward. Thor and Widow arrived together. Thor unceremoniously threw his cloak around Steve and lifted him up like a child. Steve was still too far out of his wits to complain and too busy trying to burrow into Thor's warmth to be embarrassed. Natasha corralled Tony and Barton back toward the Quinjet. It wasn't until they were in the air that Tony realized that Natasha, not Clint was flying them home.
Tony didn't quite put his finger on his own level of disconnect until they were back at the Tower and JARVIS explained that exposure to the extreme cold had affected both him and Barton. Without the protection of the Iron Man suit, Clint was much worse off than Tony was. True to form, Clint argued that he was "fine" and refused to go to medical until Natasha whispered something to him about not wanting to leave Steve to wake up from the cold alone; then Barton was all about "let's share a room!" - Tony had regained enough clarity to see that Barton was somewhat delirious.
The medical suites in the Tower were generously appointed and equipment was plentiful. By the time they'd maneuvered an extra bed into the room to house Clint, Thor had changed and returned with a surprising array of rainbow colored throw blankets. Tony was pretty sure they had Darcy to thank for that.
In the bed on the left side of the room, Clint curled into Natasha. It was a measure of just how much the brief exposure to the intense cold had taken out of him that he refused pizza and ignored the TV. Whereas Clint was restless and uncomfortable, Steve was improving steadily. After taking in some warm fluids, Steve had somehow convinced both Thor and Bruce to crawl into the bed on either side of him and was dozing under a blanket decorated with glow-in-the-dark aliens proclaiming "The Truth is Out There".
Tony watched the team settle one by one. He sat on a chair near the door and tried to stay busy on his StarkPad coordinating information that JARVIS had gathered in a download dump from the Hydra base and developing specs for an upgraded Captain America suit that would provide better insulation for Steve without losing flexibility or integrity; but mostly Tony tried to not appear so desperate to join them.
Natasha regarded Tony from where she lay against the pillows and waved him over. Tony hesitated, but then gave in and walked over. Tony was surprised when Natasha leaned up off of the bed, reached out over Clint and gently brushed his right cheek with the back of her hand.
"What happened here?" she asked quietly.
Tony reached up to touch the area. It wasn't until Natasha brought his attention to it that Tony noticed how it radiated with heat, like a low-grade sunburn. It took him a moment to figure it out.
"It was Steve," Tony responded. "That's how cold his hand was. I guess it burned me." Tony was suddenly overcome with a mess of conflicting emotions; every muscle in his chest constricted painfully. He glanced over to the other bed and although he could see Steve was there, right there - sleeping, tucked under Thor's arm and cozily curled into Bruce - in his mind all he saw were the frozen crystals on Steve's eyelashes and his blue lips.
"Hey," Natasha insistently tugged on Tony's wrist. Tony reluctantly met her eyes with his. "You got there in time. He's okay."
"Yeah. He's okay." Tony's bitter laugh belied his words.
"Stop talking. Get in." Clint mumbled.
Tony blinked. He stepped back from the bed; well, he tried to step back, but Natasha had never released his wrist. He glanced at her, surprised. She smirked, not surprised.
Clint rolled slightly away from Natasha and reached behind him. He lifted the blankets to make an opening. "Get in quick before all the heat gets out."
Tony hesitated, surprised by the invitation. Clint made a distressed noise as the air from the room seeped into the previously warm space. Natasha frowned in disapproval. Tony took the blankets from Clint and crawled into the bed. After a few moments of adjustment Tony settled against the archer's back and Clint sighed in content.
Tony glanced at Natasha over Clint's head. He raised his eyebrows at her, "This is not how I thought I'd end up in bed with you, Romanoff."
She quirked an eyebrow in return. "This is the only way you'd end in up in bed with me, Stark."
Clint giggled drunkenly. "Insert snappy one-liner here," he added.
Natasha tipped her head down to his. "Hush, you fool," she admonished softly. She glanced at Tony and he was warmed by the fondness she showered on him as well. "Sleep, you fool," she ordered him. Tony was surprised at how easy it was to do.
When Tony woke the next morning the bed, and the room was far less crowded. Thor was gone. Bruce was puttering and talking softly to Steve. Natasha was seated in an armchair she'd positioned between the two beds. Clint was wandering toward the hallway swaddled in most of the blankets from the bed; it was his movement that had woken Tony in the first place.
Tony stretched and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Natasha, seeing that he was mostly awake asked softly as she nodded her head toward Steve's bed, "Are you going to stay for a bit?"
Tony answered with a nod and Natasha headed in the direction Clint had vanished. Tony took the seat she'd vacated and tuned into the conversation Bruce and Steve were having. Bruce stood on the left side of Steve's bed holding a data pad; the top of Steve's bed was inclined so he was in a seated position.
"From the tests I've been able to run it seems like you've bounced back admirably," Bruce stated. "I want to do a full workup later, but in the meantime….if you're hungry, eat. If you're tired, sleep. And let me know if you need anything else."
"Thanks Bruce," Steve responded. "I don't want to cause a fuss."
"Hydra caused the fuss, Steve. Everything else is just us looking out for each other." Steve nodded. Bruce gave Tony a significant look. "I'm going to get some breakfast. I'll bring you back some coffee in a bit."
Tony gave Bruce a what-was-that look, but before he could figure it out, Banner was out the door.
"You don't have to stay, Tony." Steve stared at his hands, loosely folded in his lap. Tony stood up. His first impulse was to take the easy way out; Steve gave him the perfect opening. But he'd come too close to losing too much to take the easy way at this point.
"It's like Banner said, Steve," Tony answered with what he hoped was his normal, breezy flair as he made his way to the edge of Steve's bed and eased into a seated position. "We've got to look out for each other."
Steve took a deep breath, but didn't say anything. Tony's brows creased with worry. "You okay there, Cap?"
Tony was startled when Steve reached up to lay his left hand on Tony's right cheek. Tony could feel the burn Natasha had pointed out to him flare with heat at Steve's touch. "I'm so sorry I hurt you. I had to make sure you were real. The suit was just as cold as everything else."
Steve flushed deeply, with embarrassment or something else, but when he tried to pull his hand away, Tony caught it and held it in place. For once Tony was at a loss for words. Steve swallowed hard and reached out with his right hand. He placed it on Tony's left cheek and the warmth it generated made Tony turn his head into it just as Steve had the night before.
Steve's eyes were wonderingly wide as Tony captured his hands beneath his own. "So warm," Steve breathed. With his hands cradling Tony's face, Steve scooted closer to him on the bed. "You drive the cold away, Tony."
Still holding Tony's face, Steve leaned in to capture his mouth in a kiss. Tony breathed him in - vibrant and warm. It was over too soon, but held a promise of much more to come. Tony ran his thumb along Steve's lower lip, pleased with how that small touch created a ripple of reactions in Steve. Tony leaned back slightly; both of them were breathless and flushed.
"I get the feeling," Tony said grinning, "that cold won't be a problem anymore."
Art prompt for this fic can be found on Tumblr at: post/148544157037/capim-tinybang-title-bring-me-in-out-of-the