Another hour. He was gasping for air, his throat burning with cold, his heart a straining ache in his chest. Ice dragged at his boots, his beard, ice scraped the bare skin of his face and scoured his lungs. Breathe, Stark. Walk. Breathe. Keep walking.
Air dragged through the respirator with each hissing inhale, so cold he flinched from every breath. His eyes were sore behind the shielding of the snow goggles, his feet dangerously numb in the heavy padding of his high altitude boots, his hands awkwardly encased in the down of his over-gloves. Every step hurt. Every step upwards was a small lifetime, a clumsy, shuffling commitment to a desire so strong it had brought him here, to the death zone, where life was measured only between one breath and the next.
There were no more ropes, no lifelines, no get out clause. There was only Tony, and Tony existed in the space between one footfall and the next, an endless treadmill of aching effort so hard-won he could barely encompass why he was still moving. Upwards. On his left, the dizzying blue of the sky dived down to the startling sun-silvered ice of the glacier, a sheer drop of nine thousand feet. On his right, the overhanging cornice hid the broken, smashed cliffs of the West Face. Misstep, and he would be nothing more than broken, shredded flesh and bones, a smear of blood on an indifferent mountainside, a fallen, failed challenger.
In front of his boots, there was only ice. He walked.
Behind him, on the ice, there was a shadow he knew only by the echoing gasp of snatched air that was not his. In front of him, on the ice, another shadow. Strain and struggle and pant as he did, that shadow was always ahead of him, although the snow he walked through was broken by its trail, softened underfoot.
He walked. The ridge narrowed, the trail in front of him inexorable, a knife-slash he must follow to live. Behind him, the low murmur of voices was unintelligible. In front -
In front of him was only sky. He stopped, gasped for breath. There was a shadow in front of his eyes.
Oh, yes. That was his name.
"Tony?" The voice was sharper now.
"I'm fine," Tony said. He had to drag the oxygen mask away from his mouth to shape the words, and the thin air cramped his lungs and starved his blood. He heaved for breath, prayed for it, pressed one hand against the frantic beat of his heart as if he could still it with a touch. He knew that voice. That voice was...safe.
"Your goggles are misted. I'm going to take them off. You should see this."
"Yeah, it's me," Steve said. His hands were tugging at the straps around Tony's head, his touch so deft he must have taken his over-gloves off and left his skin dangerously exposed to the cold.
Tony knew what he wanted to say, but the words refused to form in the freezing air, oxygen so scant he was dizzy with the lack. "No," he managed. "Steve. Your hands."
"Look," said Steve.
Tony was looking. Suddenly, without his goggles, the unshielded sunlight starred the snow into searing clarity. The shadow in front of him, masked by the ice that had ringed his oxygen mask, his nose and cheeks reddened and his eyes the same blue as the sky, was Steve. "Put your gloves back on," Tony said. It was important. Steve's hands would freeze in moments, protected only by the thin wool of his under-mittens.
"In a moment," said Steve. He was spitting into the glass eye-shields, using the tail end of the sling from his climbing harness to smear and dry the glass before it froze. "Here," he said, "Now they won't fog up."
Tony had known that. He wondered idly why he hadn't bothered, himself, but Steve had looked after him. "Thanks," he said, and was startled by the flashing white of Steve's smile. He was fascinated by it for an endless moment, Steve's smile, magically warm in this world of snow and ice. Then he dragged the goggles down over his eyes - snow-blindness, Tony, be careful, be safe, more people die on the way down than the way up - and by the time he could see again the smile was gone. But the respite had given him fresh energy. He was suddenly aware, not just of Steve, tall and powerful in his down suit, but of Thor in front of Steve, long blonde hair ice-tangled under his hood, and of Natasha, narrowed-eyed, her face fiercely determined, and beyond both of them, still coming up the ridge, Clint's broad-shouldered, plodding, powerful figure. And Bruce - Bruce was there, by Thor, as if he'd been there all along and Tony hadn't noticed.
In front of them, he could see blue sky and sunshine. "Steve," Tony said urgently. "Steve, we're here. This is the top."
"Nearly," said Steve. He had his gloves back on, but his mask still hung loose around his neck. His face was haggard, looking almost as racked by effort as Tony felt. "A few more steps. We'll do it together."
"Right," said Tony. He waited. "Steve, is Thor okay?" There was a wisp of cloud in the sky, high and moving fast.
"Fine," said Steve. He had his hand on Tony's arm, and although there were eight layers of clothing between them, the weight of his touch was a heartening warmth.
The cloud was thickening.
"He's fine," said Steve. "He's here."
Steve's other hand was on Thor's shoulder. Tony reached out, and Natasha's hand was in his, small, so small for the strength of it, and beyond her Clint looked up and grinned. Joy was starting to flow through Tony's body, sweet as oxygen, a passionate, victorious elation. Shared. He could see it in Steve's eyes and Bruce's small smile and in Clint's raised fist, feel it in the grip of Natasha's fingers and the fierce energy that powered through their joined hands from Thor's triumphant shout.
They walked forward, together, to the top of the world.
He didn't have time for failure.
"Who the hell arranged this?" he muttered to Pepper. It was a rhetorical question. Even here in central Pakistan, Tony Stark was news. The welcome party, sweltering on the macadam in dress uniforms and formal suits, was backed by a heaving, thrusting, shouting crowd of reporters and hawkers and taxi-drivers, off-duty airport staff and travelers caught in the confusion.
"Smile," said Pepper.
"I am smiling," said Tony, through bared, clenched teeth. He could taste the dust at the back of his throat.
"Ambassador Tremont on the right in the blue tie," said Pepper softly. "Governor Mazood on his left."
The metal of the airplane steps burned under the thin leather soles of Tony's Italian loafers. He skipped down, fixed smile in place and hand already out-stretched. Young, thrusting, dynamic, healthy - Tony was all about the image. "Ambassador!" he said, and the flash-bulbs popped. "Tony Stark. And Governor Mazood - it's a pleasure to meet you. My CEO, Pepper Potts."
Pepper bowed. "Salaam," she said quietly. The flash bulbs went off again. Someone shouted, "Zindabar America!"
"What she said," said Tony, grappling with the Ambassador's clinging, limp grip. "Is it always this crazy hot?"
Ambassador Tremont blinked three times. His skin against Tony's was sticky with sweat. The crowd had started to shout, "Pakistan! America! Pakistan!"
"No, seriously, it's fine," said Tony. He shook the Ambassador's hand again, their palms sliding together. "Super. Great climate. Great. Puts Florida to shame. You should be proud, Governor. Dudes, do you have some sort of party organized? Let's get it over with and get to work."
"Stark!" someone shouted from the press corps, heaving behind the thin blue-uniformed line of Pakistani police. "Stark! Tony Stark!" and then, "Pakistan!"
"Mr. Stark, we'd be grateful if you'd take a moment to talk to the press," said the Ambassador, still clutching Tony's fingers. His fingers tightened and he leaned forward, hissing, "Don't mention the war."
Tony had to snatch his hand free and wipe it on his pants. "What war?" he asked.
"Border disputes," said the Ambassador, shooting the Governor an uneasy look.
"A small matter," agreed Governor Mazood. "Mr. Stark-"
"Call me Tony," said Tony.
He stuck out his hand again. Gingerly, the Governor took it, bowing. His moustache twitched. "Mr. Tony Stark," he said, "It is a delight to welcome such an eminent businessman to our city. Our journalists would be honored if you could spare a few words, and then we have arranged transport for you and your party." Unlike the ambassador, Governor Mazood looked both cool and collected, the moustache sharply trimmed and every piece of gold braid on his uniform burnished.
"Sure," said Tony. "Journos? Throw me at them." He looked around for Pepper, usually at his shoulder, but behind him the two Stark Europe flight crews were already leaving the plane and the engineers moving in to check the engines. Pepper must have gone to find Clint. "But, just so you know," he said, falling into step beside Mazood and ignoring the shouts and the heaving line of policemen holding back the crowd. "I'm here to climb a mountain."
Mazood said quietly, "This we will discuss later." His timing was superb. As he finished the sentence, the doors to the terminal were opening, and inside was a podium and a small girl with a garland of flowers, standing on a chair.
"What do you mean, discuss?" Tony asked sharply. "The climbing permit is in order. The transfer went through. I have your name on the dotted line."
"This is my daughter Dawa," said Mazood. "Dawa, say hello to Mr. Stark."
The small child dimpled, but the dimples were shaky. One of her braids was tangled into the wire of the garland, and the flowers were already wilting. Tony was three hours later than his flight plan. They'd stopped in Beirut for the kind of meeting that took an hour to get beyond pleasantries and involved many glasses of sugared peppermint tea.
"Say hello," urged Mazood, frowning.
"Charmed," said Tony, gingerly extracting the garland. "Lovely flowers. Very nice. Mazood-"
"Stark! Here! Here!"
"Tony Stark! - three million dead! When will Stark Industries give us arms again?"
"Stark! Over here! Here! India! Vietnam! Nixon!"
"Crap," said Tony under his breath, and stepped up onto the platform. Tony Stark, here to make the world a better place. Clean living through engineering. Cleaner. He grimaced, and the noise doubled. He waved. Then he put the garland around his neck and smiled some more, which seemed to go down better. Finally, the hall quieted, and from the plinth Tony caught sight of his teammate. Clint was propping up an arrivals hall pillar, Pepper by his side, but Tony could not see Thor nor Bruce.
Time was pressing. They had a window of two months of good weather before the monsoon winds tore into the Karakoram. And while Everest's climbing season was reliably mild for a Himalayan summit, K2's was as unpredictable as a cyclonic front.
"I'm going to keep this short," Tony said. He'd been dodging questions about arms trading since he was seventeen, and he had a war of his own to fight, once he got this dog and pony show done with. "On behalf of the Stark International 1968 K2 Expedition, thank you for your support. We're delighted to be here in Rawalpindi." He paused, sound bite ready. He'd said the same phrase in front of the board, at the JFK press conference, in London - "In 1909, when the Duke of Abruzzi surveyed the mountain, he said that if anyone gets to the top, it will be a pilot, not a mountaineer. I'm here to tell you that it's going to be an engineer standing on that summit. Come back in two months, gentlemen, and I'll have a story for you like nothing else you've ever heard. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a mountain to climb."
"Will you find Captain Rogers?" shouted a man at the back.
Tony's "No," was a snapped-out growl. He shoved his sunglasses higher. "No more questions." The swift flare of anger when he heard the Captain's name was all too familiar. Rogers was his father's failure, not his. Never his.
He said, peremptory, stepping down from the podium, "General. Where's the way out?"
Hustled out of the airport and into a gleaming, vintage black Rolls Royce, Tony, still annoyed, only gave half an ear to Clint's quick-fire summary. "Good to see you, Stark. Baggage got here fine. Thor too. Flying out on Tuesday, gives us four days to repack." It was a measure of his irritation that he only acknowledged Mazood's smiling retreat with more handshakes. Too late, too immediately thankful for the air-conditioning in the Rolls and being able to strip off the tropical jacket with which Jarvis had replaced his usual suit, he remembered the Governor's comment.
"What did Mazood say about the permit?"
"Ah," said Clint.
"Oh, for the love of god," said Tony. "What?"
It had taken three years and two ambassadors to get his K2 climbing permit in the first place. There was unrest on the border, the Pakistani government was worried about insurgency, about foreign climbers risking their necks on Pakistani soil, about India, about the Russians, about insurance - Tony had a frigging hole in his heart, who the hell did they think was gonna insure him, God? He had yanked hard on every connection he'd made in seven years of aggressive foreign expansion, he'd built a factory in Lahore and sponsored four engineering scholarships, and he'd paid three times the nominal cost of that piece of paper in personal donations. It was worth every dime. Priceless.
"You'll need to talk to Mazood," said Clint. "He won't discuss it with me. But he's been great about getting the porters sorted out, so whatever it is, it's not a no."
"We're not turning back now," said Tony. He could feel the arrhythmic, heavy beat of his heart, a single warning misfire.
"No one's suggesting that," said Clint. "And he wants to see you tomorrow."
"Fine," said Tony. "Pepper, how much cash do we have?"
"Enough," said Pepper, turning back from the window. "And if you need more, Jarvis can wire it across."
"Good," said Tony.
"Don't think you're getting out of repacking," said Clint. "I babysat those cases for six weeks, Stark. It's your turn."
"That was a free cruise," said Tony. "C'mon."
"On a freighter?" said Clint.
"Waves are the same," said Tony.
"Not when you're in the Southern Ocean and they're sixty feet tall," said Clint. "No alcohol, Tony. Six weeks. No women."
Tony took off his sunglasses. "Worth it?" he asked.
Clint's grin was swift. "Yeah," he said. "Can't wait."
"Same here," said Tony and, finally, he let himself relax into the lumpy cushions of the upholstery, watching the crowded, dusty streets of Rawalpindi slide by. Street food and vivid saris and beggars, marigold garlands and mosques, goats in the street, ox-carts and battered jeeps and water-sellers, not that different from any other Asian city. When the permits had finally come through and the expedition plans were taking shape in Tony's Malibu house, he had tried to hire a hotel for the expedition's base, and then a house, but the Ambassador and the Pakistani government had both objected. He'd ended up agreeing to stay with the Pakistani Army's Captain Nazir, of the newly formed Border Scouts, the man who would be their liaison officer on the overland trek to base camp. Anwar Nazir had a house on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, a low white bungalow contained within a compound wall high enough to deter casual curiosity. He also had a meticulously organized and growing geological collection, a rose garden, and an astonishingly green swathe of lawn. On which, in uneven castellated piles, 4,000 pounds of Stark International Expedition baggage was stacked. The Rolls, slowed to walking pace on the driveway, circled it in dignified disdain.
"We trucked it in from the railway station," said Clint. "Our guy doesn't hang around. We must have had half the garrison helping. But Tony, be careful - his wife keeps purdah. She's Rajput, very religious." He winked.
"Is that so?" said Tony, interest piqued.
"Tony, no," said Pepper. "Clint. Really."
But Tony, distracted, was craning to see through the rear window. "Did you see that dude at the gate?" he asked. He was sure he recognized those plimsols. Way back when he was young and pretty and hadn't thought twice about every breath he took, he'd spent a month in 1961 following a pair very like them up fingertip holds on sun-warmed Yosemite granite.
"What?" said Clint. "You mean the beggar? He's been there for a couple of days. The Begum sent out food and then the guards tried chasing him off, but he always comes back."
"He's not Pakistani," said Tony. He hammered on the screen behind the driver. "Stop. Stop!"
Flinging himself out of the door while the car was still moving, he jogged down the driveway. The shadows were longer and the heat of the day dissipating, but he was still sweating by the time he reached the compound gateposts with their impassive uniformed guards. Sitting cross-legged outside the compound wall, the man he'd seen was a bundle of ragged clothing and ratted, filthy hair, the plimsols on his feet held together with duct tape. But Tony knew those shoes, and those dirty, calloused hands.
"Banner," said Tony. "When's the last time you had a bath? You look like a hippy." He was trying for nonchalant, but the sheer bubbling joy of Bruce's presence gleamed in his voice. He'd sent the telegram to the last PO Box number he had, in Delhi, six months ago, and the reply had come back via Mumbai. It had read, 'Yes'.
Bruce Banner, scientist, doctor, Tony's best friend and partner in crime at MIT, slanted him a look from under eyebrows matted with dust. "Still coining the corporate dollar, Stark?" His voice was hoarse, hesitant as if it had been a long time since he'd spoken English.
"How else do I keep you in rations?" said Tony. He was smiling, wide and relieved. "Get up. We've got sixty-four boxes of shit to repack and you stink. I'm not getting in a plane with you until you've at least shaved."
"Might have to borrow a razor," said Bruce.
"I'll buy you anything you want, you crazy reprobate," said Tony. "Come on. We've got a mountain to climb, Dr. Banner."
The last member of his team arrived back from the bazaar just as the servants were bringing in dinner, and he was trailing two small boys and a cargo of cooking pans and umbrellas. "Friend Tony!" he bellowed, striding across Captain Nazir's Kashmiri carpets in his socked feet. Thor's mother knitted his socks. They had little reindeer around the cuffs. "It gladdens me to see you here! Now we may begin!"
Caught awkwardly between the formality of Captain Nazir's careful conversation and Thor's exuberant greeting, Tony stood up and, ridiculously, offered his hand. Thor didn't even notice, sweeping him up into a rib-cracking embrace. "My friend, I am filled with joy to share this venture with you," he boomed in Tony's ear.
"Sure, good, great," said Tony, breathless. "Thor, put me down. Thor!"
"My heart is glad," said Thor simply.
Dropped onto the carpets, a little compressed about the ribs, Tony could not but smile. "Good to see you too," he said.
"And Miss Potts!" said Thor, offering Pepper a smacking kiss on each cheek. "You grace us!"
Even Bruce was smiling. Exuberant, unassailably cheerful, Thor was the powerhouse of the climbing team, a beast on the mountain. Tony was a technically skilled amateur, Clint a brilliant sports climber on rock, steady on ice; Bruce was Tony's wild card, the man who had set the Yosemite community alight for one short summer seven years ago. Of them all, Thor was the only expedition member who was a career mountaineer. In his native Norway he'd won first ascents from walls no sane climber considered summitable, and in the Alps, he'd bagged new routes on the Dru and the Grandes Jorasses. In the Himalaya, he'd been on the English expeditions to Kanchenjunga and Broad Peak, and he'd come within two thousand feet of the summit of Nanga Parbat in '66. But for all his prowess, Thor had yet to scale a Himalayan summit, and it was on that hunger Tony had gambled when he'd offered a place on the team.
It didn't hurt that Thor was built like a blond god. Pepper was blushing.
"No offence meant," Tony muttered quickly, suddenly envisaging Thor causing a diplomatic incident before they'd even started. Etiquette was hardly his forte, but he'd learned fast at the conference table. "He's European. They do this."
Captain Nazir raised an eyebrow. "I did attend Cambridge," he said.
"Oh," said Tony.
"My wife attended Vassar," he added.
"Well," said Tony brightly, "In that case, I've got a bottle of excellent Scotch in my luggage."
Which is how he ended up telling Anwar about Captain Steven Rogers, war hero, outstanding climber, and the man who had died on Howard Stark's rope in 1947. The expedition ghost. "It was an avalanche," Tony said, halfway down the bottle and slurring. "But Dad was haunted. He died thinking if he'd hung on, the Captain would have lived. They were at 22,000 feet, how the hell did Dad think they were going to get off the mountain with an injured man? But he was obsessed. Five separate expeditions just to find a body," said Tony, mourning, "And they never even found a scrap of clothing."
"My father never stopped fighting partition," said Anwar. "It was his dream to see India and Pakistan united as they were under the Raj, Muslim and Hindu together. He could not understand my pride in our new country."
"And you know," said Tony, "It's all anyone ever asks about. Will we find Rogers? Are we looking for his body? Fuck them," he said, and hiccupped. "It was twenty-two years ago. Who cares? I'm just here for the summit."
"Fathers," said Anwar, and shrugged.
"Yeah," said Tony, and clinked their glasses together. "You're a good man, Anwar," he said.
"Thank you, Tony Stark," said Anwar. "I too am glad to unite our countries in this aim."
The ensuing hangover did not enable Tony's aims in the morning. Dragged out of bed at a time he considered utterly unreasonably early, although, as Pepper tartly informed him, the rest of the team had been hard at work since dawn, his head was pounding, his mouth bitter, and the sunlight far too bright. Also, there was no Jarvis, for whose absence Tony blamed the fact that he walked into Mazood's office without even seeing the woman waiting by the door.
"What do you mean, my team is incomplete?" he said. "This isn't a taxi service, Mazood. We're not building a highway to the summit, here, there's no helicopter, no passengers, and we can't carry someone. Do you understand me?" He had his fingers on the bridge of his nose, but the headache was still sharp.
"I don't think you understand our position," said Mazood. "We are not America, Mr. Stark. My country is young, and we have powerful neighbors. We would do far more than...enable this one event, to keep the peace."
"Fine," said Tony. "Fine. So we take this woman - who is she, anyway? - and she falls off the mountain and dies. That's for real. That could happen. Who's going to keep your peace then?"
"I am assured this will not be the case," said Mazood. He leaned forward. "We will issue one permit, each year, for each mountain. Any more, and the mountains become a death trap. And we can rescind that decision at any point. So, my question is simple. Do you want your climbing permit, or not, Mr. Stark?"
Mazood's windows were unshaded. Tony glared at them, but the sun refused to dim. His whole day seemed surreal, out of his control, and he hated things he could not dictate.
The mountain was just as inevitable. He said, "Right. Fine. Don't blame me when everything goes up the wazoo."
"I do not believe," said Mazood, "You will regret your decision. Tony." He stood up. "It would be best, would it not, to meet your new companion right away? Team bonding, is that not the word?" He was holding the door open. "Tony Stark," he said, "Let me introduce you to Natasha Romanoff."
"Oh no," said Tony. "No. I don't think so. Romanoff is a myth. She's a construct, a communist media heroine, she's no more real than a - a paper doll."
The woman standing by Mazood's door was dark, slight, but built with the same long, lean muscles as an Olympic gymnast. Her face was sharply pretty, but she was not smiling.
Tony said, hung over, furious, and unforgivably rude, "I hope you can cook."
Her face did not change. "I am not here to make tea," said Natasha Romanoff, her diction as precise as the strike of a typewriter's keys. "I am here to climb K2."
'Crap,' thought Tony.
"So," he said, back in the air-conditioned, shaded comfort of the Rolls, because he could do this, he could be a generous host, and Romanoff was female, which helped, even if Pepper would have his balls for actually saying so. "What brings you to Kashmir, Ms. Romanoff?"
Natasha flicked a glance at him that summed up the state of his hangover in one simple judgment, and stayed silent.
"I mean, really, I don't see why you picked this climb. Why not Everest?" said Tony. "Now there's a media coup for you. First Russian on the summit of the highest mountain on earth. First woman. I'll buy your tickets. Hell, I'll even fly you out there."
"K2 is a climber's mountain, Mr. Stark," said Natasha. "And I am a climber."
"Ms. Romanoff, this is not a sport," said Tony. "This isn't a day trip. We're shipping four and a half thousand pounds of supplies onto the mountain, and all you've got is a kit bag."
"I have everything I need," said Natasha.
"Oxygen?" said Tony.
Natasha's mouth firmed, her chin up. "I will climb without."
"And put the rest of us at risk?" said Tony. "You want to play dice with your own life, that's fine, but not with my team. Not on my mountain."
"Even your money cannot buy K2, Tony Stark," said Natasha. "I have fought for this chance. I will not cede it to a...capitalist pig." She spat the word out, fiercely contemptuous.
"You're here without a visa, aren't you?" said Tony. The pieces clicked into place with the inevitability of a closed system. "No minder, no equipment, blackmailing your way-"
"Po'shyol 'na hus," hissed Natasha.
Tony said, "You know what? I like that." He stared, openly, at Natasha's slim build, the grip of her hands on the seat, the brace of her shoulders. "But you're not going to get up there alone. None of us will." He was an egotistical bastard at the best of times, it came with the territory, but that much he did know.
Natasha stared back, stone-faced.
Tony said, "We'll have six camps on the route and all of them need supplies. If you carry loads, I'll give you your oxygen. I'll even throw in a mask. Above camp four." She'd last until camp two, three if they were lucky, and an extra person capable of fixing rope and humping supplies worked for him.
Natasha's tight smile was white-toothed and entirely predatory. "Done," she said.
Sitting on Anwar's lawn surrounding by lists and packing cases, Pepper allocated their new expedition member one of the custom packing cases, which meant a porter of her very own. "Tony, you've got three, and that's before we even start on the generator and the satellite phone. Don't cross me." At her back, Anwar, clearly recruited as Pepper's able lieutenant, was hiding a smirk under his moustache.
"Fine, right," said Tony, and with no workshop to escape into, joined Clint and Thor re-packing the ration allocation. Two months of raisins and pre-dried onion soup. He couldn't wait. The Duke of Abruzzi had taken champagne, tinned oysters, salami, his own feather bed - but the Duke had failed.
Tony packed another bag of rations and scrowled at his own individually produced, fortified, freeze-dried chicken. Nothing that dessicated was going to taste good.
It did not help that Clint had a burgeoning case of hero worship. "Did you hear about the Kourobatcho Zom?" he said, staring at Natasha. "Winter ascent. Solo. And unapproved - the Soviets were furious. I can't believe she's actually here."
"Neither can I," said Tony shortly. He was over Romanoff. They had a deal. She'd make it to camp three if they were lucky. "Who the hell picked this stuff? Since when do dried apricots constitute snack food?"
"We had many discussions on the subject," said Thor.
"Fine," said Tony. "I'd just like to register my objections."
Thor's hand closed over his. "Tony," he said. Under the untidy shock of his blonde hair, Thor's blue eyes showed nothing but a puzzled concern. "What troubles you?"
"It's nothing," Tony said. "Nothing." But Natasha's arrival had shaken him. He'd been so careful. Everything was planned, every element of chance calculated to the smallest degree, he'd thought of everything, planned for every contingency, and yet before they'd even set foot on the mountain everything had changed. He had so little time.
"One foot in front of the other," Thor said. "Just as on the ice. The mountain will be ours soon enough. I have faith."
Tony snorted. "Right," he said. But Thor shouldered him, less gently than he'd probably meant to, and they had made it to Rawalpindi, and in a fortnight's time they would be at the base of K2 itself.
"Do not belittle yourself so," said Thor.
"That's alright for you to say," said Clint, back with them. "We're not all giants. Have you seen the matches? Pepper says we should have five hundred boxes and she can only find two."
"No?" said Thor. "But the Begum Nazir is a bargainer of great renown, and I would gladly adventure again with her at my side. To the bazaar!"
"Is he for real?" said Clint, watching Thor stride away towards Anwar. "Thor and the Begum?"
But, twenty-four sealed, sorted ration packs later, they saw the Begum's curtained Bentley roll out of the driveway with Thor on the running boards, as proudly erect as any knight errant.
Re-packing took four days. All the equipment and food Pepper had so carefully organized in Malibu, the cases Clint had taken across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, had to be re-sorted into fifty-five-pound boxes ready for the waiting porters in Skardu. The high altitude ration packs were split out into their two-man, one-day packages and the tents were double-checked for any weakness in the canvas that, harmless at low level, would rip to shreds in the sixty or seventy mile an hour winds they were all hoping not to encounter. Ropes were inspected and re-coiled, crampons and ice-axes sharpened, boots waxed. Maps were studied, photographs pinned up and examined, and Tony coaxed a smoother flow and a few more cubic inches of pressure from his oxygen regulators. On June 5th, the whole expedition, matches, raisins, umbrellas, Russian stowaway, generator, ropes, and the Begum's gifts of a silk Pakistani flag and four live chickens, was loaded into their chartered airplane by Captain Nazir's Border Scouts.
The expedition flew in to Skardu over the Sind Desert, a featureless expanse of dust that only Thor, nose pressed to the window, could watch with any interest, but the first foothills of the Karakoram drew even Tony to stare at the landscape beneath the airplane's shadow. Slowly greening, schismed with great gorges, the Karakoram was wilder and harsher than anything he had seen before, the hills rising sheer and stark into the sky on either side of the plane, jagged-edged and snow-capped. The drop to the valley of the Indus was precipitous, the elderly DC-10's engines whining in the thin air and the fuselage juddering, but the pilot brought them down gently onto the runway at Skardu.
Tony took one look and reached for his tie. There was, unavoidably, a small group of people waiting on the runway. In reverse order of preference, carefully aligned, three Colonels, two Rajahs and a Governor. On his best behavior, Tony accepted several more garlands and a walking tour of the town that took in a classroom of small boys singing the National Anthems of two different countries and a hospital with a ward that, unsurprisingly, was named after his mother. The small collection of relicts from his father's expeditions, the photographs and sketches and porter's medals, was far less welcome. Tony gritted his teeth, smiled, and swore to himself that if he came back he'd walk straight through on the Skardu road. Track. Yak trail. Hell, he'd take a raft if there was one free.
But by the time he was escorted back to their expedition campsite, every piece of cargo had been unloaded and checked, their porters had been hired, their tents were pitched and their newly recruited cook had produced not only a roast chicken pilaf but a blancmange that would have graced a Rajah's table. The expedition ate royally, only slightly disconcerted by the staring townspeople.
They were all grateful for Anwar's patience and Pepper's impeccable organization in the morning, as a hundred and twenty local porters loaded the expedition's supplies in ungainly, haggling groups. Diving headlong into the melee, Thor could be heard chaffing the porters in a broken mixture of Balti and Norwegian which all parties seemed to find hilarious. Tony's generator left, swaying heavily on its poles. The cook tent. The cook. Bruce, his medical supplies already plundered.
Pepper tucked the last of her notes into her knapsack, surveyed the empty campsite, and smiled.
"Yes," said Tony. He pushed his sunglasses firmly onto his nose, and smiled back. "Miss Potts, have I told you lately you're the best CEO I've ever had?"
"I'll hold you to that," said Pepper. "Afterwards. I expect a pay rise."
"You'll have one," Tony promised. He'd make a note, when she wasn't watching.
Ahead of them, the last of the porters disappeared down the track.
Although the road that would link Skardu and Askole had been planned since 1959, most of the route was still tracks and paths, clambering precipitously over the ridges and valleys of the Karakoram. The expedition scrambled through thickets of rhododendrons and wild roses, crossed freezing melt-water streams in bare feet and balanced across rope bridges that were little more than three hawsers and air. Despite the altitude, the heat of the day was stifling, although the umbrellas Thor had bought in Rawalpindi, dotted across porter and climber alike, made excellent parasols.
For the American expedition before them, the walk in to the mountain had been the time when the climbers had bonded as a team, but for Tony it was a torturous delay. He slept late and woke early, nagging at the porters and itching to be on the mountain, irritated by Bruce's calm good humor and Thor's booming laugh. "Come on, come on," he muttered, and beside him Pepper sighed and rolled her eyes. Clint took to skulking in the rear-guard, Thor to long, bantering conversations with the porters, and in ten days of traveling, the only time Tony saw Natasha before evening was the day they crossed the Indus. On goat-skin rafts.
Next time - if there was a next time, he'd pack a folding canoe.
As they walked, villages grew further and further apart. Orchards and barley fields were terraced into the hillsides, steeper and harder to irrigate the higher they climbed, and the jungle of the lower river valleys vanished. More and more, they were walking on bare rock and shale. The air grew thinner, dry but still hot, and Tony became unbearably aware of the way his heart struggled and his lungs strained after every breath, irritated and angry with his own weakness.
At Askole, the headman was formally welcoming, the campsite pitched on the last grass they'd see in two months, and over Tony's protests the expedition took an afternoon to redistribute their stores and enjoy the hot springs that bubbled in untidy pools through the scree of the hillsides. Disconcertingly, Natasha and Thor discovered a shared pleasure, leaping in and out of pools and whipping themselves with stripped branches, but for Tony Askole was a frustrating delay. He fiddled with the valves on his oxygen sets, snapped at Pepper, and drove an exasperated Clint into leaving him alone. Clint took refuge with Bruce. Later, morose enough that even his own company palled, Tony found the pair of them bouldering in the afternoon sunlight, laughing.
He'd never been a team player. He was here to climb a mountain, not make friends.
The next day found the expedition on the Baltoro glacier. After the shade of the valleys, the sheer heat of the sun was debilitating, light striking off the ice and snow, but worse were the shifting gravels and ice of the main glacial flow. The porters, experienced, climbed along the shale of the moraine between glacier and mountainside, but the climbers, eager to catch their first glimpse of K2, negotiated the crevasses and seracs of the central flow in uncomfortable caution up to Concordia, where K2's Godwin-Austen Glacier joined with the Baltoro in slow, grinding negotiation.
From here, for the first time, they saw the mountain. Looming over the shoulder of Golden Throne, K2 was awe-inspiring. It was vast, an impassive pyramid of rock and ice, towering, terrifying, mesmerizing. There were no easy climbing lines on K2. Every ridge was sharply serrated; every face plummeted from snow cap to glacier in a dizzying, eight, nine, ten thousand foot fall. Every line of rock was bold and stark, a child's image of what a mountain should be, realized in rock and snow so massive that the sharp point of K2's summit, thirteen thousand feet above their heads, seemed almost unattainable.
Even Thor was speechless. Only the shift and groan of the ice under their feet broke the silence. Finally, it was Bruce who took off his glasses, polished them, put them back on, and said as if surprised, "It looks just like the photographs."
Clint cracked up. Even Natasha was smiling.
Tony said, "Guys, come on now, let's go."
Base camp went up in three hours of tent-pitching and latrine digging, and then Pepper and Anwar paid off the porters. Reacquainted with his generator, Tony spent a frustrating afternoon recalibrating his experimental satellite phone, while Thor and Clint raced each other up a nearby pass, measuring both equipment and each other. In the evening, they laid out their supplies, the ropes and oxygen bottles and tents and food that would build a ladder to the summit. Back in Malibu, Clint and Tony had planned on six high camps, each one a stepping stone to the next, each one needing to be equipped and supplied and used before the late summer storms kicked in. Tony had Dr. Houston's excellent notes from the 1953 American expedition, and copies of Sella's glorious, large-format photographs of the mountain, marked up now with notations and question marks, Tony's scribbles and Clint's bold arrows. They were as well prepared as they could be, their plan of attack simple and bold, but the mountain was an unpredictable enemy.
Tony let the map roll closed on the mess tent table. He had the best equipment, the best weather forecast money could pay for on twenty-four hour call, and his planning was perfect. They could not fail. He would not fail. "Tomorrow," he said, "We climb."
Beside him, Clint had his hands thrust into the pockets of his jacket, head down. Bruce was staring out of the open tent door; Thor was frowning. They were not a team yet, and Tony knew it, but he'd summit the mountain if he had to crawl his way up there and he knew, whatever their differences, they'd do the same.
Thrust into the pocket of his jacket, his hand closed over the second set of notes Dr. Houston had given him, the hyperventilation techniques and breathing exercises the doctor had pioneered on air force pilots and used himself on K2. For the other climbers, their war was the mountain. Tony's battlefield was his own body.
He'd always been impatient and perfunctory with the base camp puja, but Thor was so obviously serious about the ritual even Tony dragged himself out of bed early enough to lend a hand with building the cairn. It was Thor who set up the massive stones of the base, but the Hunza high altitude porters and the climbers worked together to pile stones into the six foot pillar. Thor even had a string of bunting in his rucksack, gravely pinned out on the glacier and fluttering in the wind along with the porters' brightly colored, hand-printed prayer flags, and his face during the interminable chanting was so absorbed Tony almost looked away. He'd never thought of Thor as superstitious, but although all the climbers took their turn smearing the cairn with ghee and scattering millet, it was Thor who joined the porters in their prayers for protection to the Goddess of the mountain. Even Bruce was taking the ceremony seriously, his face grave under his newly-shorn hair.
"Superstition," Tony muttered, two hours after sunrise, as they finally headed to breakfast. "Bunkum."
He hadn't realized Thor was so near. Or so tall. Spun around by Thor's meaty hand on his shoulder, Tony had to look up to meet those pale blue eyes.
"Do not travel blindly through that which you do not understand," Thor rumbled.
"I don't believe in magic," Tony said. "There's no goddess up there in the clouds with a chariot and a pair of goat demons. Stones fall because the ice melts. Avalanches start when the snow fractures. We're not gonna get up the mountain just because you paid your respects to some green-haired pagan deity with dibs on the last three feet of virgin snow."
"We are guests here," said Thor. His fingers were biting into Tony's shoulder, his eyebrows low over the fierce glare of his eyes. "Show your respect."
"I am," said Tony. He counted off on his fingers, "No sex, no porn, no killing animals, build a stupid cairn right in the middle of a glacier, don't set foot on the summit. What more does she need, blood?"
"Be very careful, Stark," said Thor. "Takar Dolsangma is not the kindest of her sisters. Do not let her hear you."
Tony should have laughed. But that was the moment the winds shifted, and the breeze across the back of his neck was cold, and his chest felt suddenly hollow with the altitude. "Sure," he said, unwillingly, to Thor's stern face. "I'm chill." He swallowed, uncomfortably aware of the moment when the wind had thrown his scattered millet back in his face.
It was almost midday by the time the camp one party headed up the glacier to the base of the ridge, heavily loaded in the heat of the sun. The ice underfoot was melting, the melt water streams bursting from their overnight frost and the crevasses opening as they walked. Every footstep had to be tested, sweating, dangerous work, shot with the sickening fear of plunging through the snow into fathoms-deep ice. It took most of the day to walk six miles to the base of the south ridge, and mark the route with willow poles for the return trek. But the campsite was level, tucked under a moraine for protection. Close up, the snow at the base of the mountain was tumbled and rock-pitted, and although the face had not avalanched that day, the snow old and stable, it clearly had done and would do so again. More immediately worrying were the constant stone-falls from the face, uncomfortably threatening.
"Houston was right," said Bruce, squinting up at the stepped line of cliffs that formed their route, the Abruzzi ridge. "It's the only safe line I can see."
Clint hissed through his teeth, almost silent, eyes tracing the route to the summit.
"Climb early enough, and the rocks will still be frozen," said Tony shortly. He checked his watch instinctively, and swore. "Hell, the radio. I promised Pep I'd make that six o'clock call. Bruce, you free?"
"We're not in line with base camp," said Bruce, hurrying across to the mess tent at Tony's side. "But if we head over to the big serac, I think reception should be okay."
"Grab the aerial and we'll find out," said Tony, dragging the heavy base radio out of its case. The battery followed, slung into a rucksack.
"Poles!" Bruce yelled after him.
Over the radio, Pepper's voice was crisp and clear, reading down the weather forecast. "Clear and mild at 20,000 feet," she said. "Looks like a good day. Said says there's a weather system building up in the Maldives he's keeping an eye on."
"Did Thor and the porters get back?" asked Bruce, bending over the mouthpiece, with one hand still holding up the aerial.
"Safe and sound," said Pepper. "Did 'Tasha get to you?"
"What?" said Tony. "Romanoff? She's coming here?"
"Yes?" said Pepper.
"Tony," said Bruce quietly.
"Fine," said Tony shortly. "Same time tomorrow. Pep, don't go far alone. The glacier's unstable."
"Not my first base camp," said Pepper. Then her voice softened. "I'll be careful. You too."
She'd be fine. The trusts were already set up. He'd done everything he could. "You know me," said Tony. "Over."
"Over," Pepper said back to him, and the click of the switch from base camp sounded at the base of the mountain.
Natasha came over the last rise as Clint was doling out the last of the rehydrated stew, her small figure dark against the evening grey of the ice. She was carrying a full load, the rucksack on her back dragging against her shoulders and her footsteps sinking into the snow, but she was walking with a confident swing to her stride and a small smile that only faded when she dropped the pack down.
"We didn't bring a spare plate," said Tony.
"You forgot the descenders," said Natasha. "And Clint's camera."
"Aw, thanks," said Clint. "And don't mind Tony, he's always grumpy before we get going. Stew okay for you?"
"Not at camp three yet," said Natasha. "I brought my own food."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," said Bruce. "Clint, use the pan lid. 'Tasha, of course we're going to feed you. Another pair of hands is always useful."
Tony, glowering, moulded his lumpy reconstituted chicken into small piles with a bent aluminum fork. "I'm not sharing a tent with you," he warned.
"Tony snores," said Clint cheerfully. "Like a train. I think Bruce medicates. More stew?"
"You always were a ladies' man," Bruce muttered quietly, ironic, after they'd turned the lantern out and the world had narrowed to the canvas over their heads and the restless shift of the glacier underneath their sleeping mats.
Sound carried over the ice. Tony said, "I wouldn't care if she was a camel. She's not one of this team."
"Fine," said Bruce, his broad shoulders rustling under the sleeping bag as he shrugged.
In the freezing cold of the early morning, Natasha was the first of the climbers to crawl out of the tents, a mug of steaming tea held between her gloved hands, and when Clint joined them she'd brewed for him too. The pair of them set off, roped and laden with pitons, while Tony was still struggling with a damp box of matches.
"We need to be better organized," said Bruce, watching the snow melt in the pan.
"Pass me those mugs," said Tony.
But when they caught up with Clint and Natasha an hour later, the pair were still under the ridge. "Tony!" Clint yelled. "Tone, dude, back me up here. The '53 guys must have gone under the gendarme - there's no way in hell they went to the left."
"It is the correct route," Natasha said, her voice clipped.
"Have you looked at it?" said Clint. "There's no line - there's a damn overhang up there. At 18,000 feet?"
Squinting up, Tony couldn't see the overhang - no surprise, Clint's eye for rock had always been far better than his - but the whole route looked almost untenable, unstable and precipitous. "We're going right," he said.
Bruce raised an eyebrow at him.
"Don't look at me like that," Tony muttered, and gave Bruce both coils of the rope in revenge.
But, two hours later, it was Tony who had to admit defeat. The route he'd chosen didn't peter out; it slammed to a halt with a crack that pitched down four hundred feet beneath the front points of his crampons. He'd been wrong. He must have been wrong. Even worse, none of the team said anything to him, retreating in silent, efficient haste.
Back where they'd started from two hours before, he said to Natasha. "Right. We'll try it your way." He was ungracious enough to hope she'd been mistaken, but by the time they got to the overhang, they were already finding rusted pitons in the ice where the '53 team had fixed their ropes, and Clint, leading, had found a crack to the side of the overhang that took them right up to the edge of the ridge. He'd climbed it as smoothly at eighteen thousand feet above sea level as if he was on the climbing wall at MIT. To Tony's chagrin, Natasha had followed his lead so quickly he and Bruce were caught making tea when Clint shouted down. But from the top of the circumvented gendarme, a short scree slope led up to the snow-covered platform they were expecting. Camp two tents pitched and secured against the weather, rucksacks emptied of supplies, they swung down the route on the fixed ropes and marched back into camp one in the knowledge that they'd made the first sally onto the mountain and won.
In their absence, Thor and the porters had brought up another load of supplies, and Thor himself and their camp one cook had stayed. Another day's load-carrying to camp two, and they'd be ready to push further up the mountain, but Tony would not be with them: Pepper's call that night was fraught and crackling. Anwar had - Anwar had - "permit," said Pepper's voice urgently over the radio. "Incursion..."
"Dammit all to hell," said Tony, and stomped back into the mess tent in a rolling temper that was not improved by Clint's animated retelling of the Great Gendarme Route Debacle.
"We'll take the other radio up," Bruce promised. "There's a clear line from camp two, right? We'll call at six."
It was poor enough consolation for not being on the mountain. Tony was itching to push higher, harder, faster. They had so little time. He left notes, plans, "Make sure all the porters know how to use an ice-axe. We've got twelve hundred pounds of supplies to get up the mountain, we're gonna have to start carrying up to two right now."
Bruce said, quietly, "We know what we need to do, Tony."
"Right," Tony said, irresolute.
"Go," Clint said.
Natasha watched him leave, dark eyes under the fur-fringed hood of her down suit. He could still feel that level gaze on the back of his neck halfway down the glacier, hurrying over the unstable scree and gravel, slipping in the morning melt water. The sound of the Hunzas chatting as they wandered towards camp one with fresh loads grated on Tony's nerves, but when he caught sight of them they were heavily laden and determined, flashing him eager smiles from under expedition sunglasses and battered woven hats.
Even after so few days on the mountain, the air at base camp seemed rich and heavy, although by the time Tony walked into the tent circle the afternoon mist was clinging to the glacier, cold and damp. "Pepper?" he called.
Anwar talked him through the call. There was tension on the border, and the governor was worried. Tony promised to withdraw the moment they were asked, promised they'd seen nothing - how could they, three days up a glacier from Askole? - promised anything, so long as the permit was still valid. Pepper ran through the first mail delivery, signatures and contracts and proposals that could have waited, and Tony raced back to camp one in the evening light, long shadows smearing the ice with unfamiliar angles.
His team had pushed up beyond camp two, the rock steep and unstable, slow going. It had been Natasha and Clint who'd surveyed the route, while Bruce and Thor had spent the day fixing ropes for the porters on the smooth slabs of the gullies and the loose scree up to camp two. With that route secure, Thor would take the first party of Hunzas up tomorrow, while Bruce and Tony pushed on up Clint's route. "It's tricky climbing," Bruce warned him, late that night. "Exposed as all hell. Clint said he and Natasha had more trouble finding a stance to belay safely out of the rock fall than fixing the route."
Too late for dinner, Tony had crawled into his sleeping bag on an empty stomach, dizzy with impatience. "Tomorrow," he said.
He paid for his carelessness with a rough day on the mountain, weak and uncomfortable, already panting for breath. At that altitude his body needed fuel, food and oxygen, and without it he was failing. Frustration sent him stumbling up the ridge, gasping with each step and fiercely resentful of Bruce's patience on the other end of the rope. They only managed to extend the route out by four hundred feet, although Bruce secured all the fixed ropes Clint and Natasha had left in place. The retreat was rough on both of them, Tony pausing every ten steps, feeling as if his overburdened heart was trying to claw its way out of his chest: Bruce watching him silently as he struggled.
"You're having a rest day tomorrow," he said. "And I'm telling you that as your doctor, Tony, not your friend."
"Right," said Tony.
"Why don't you sort out the lifting gear?" said Bruce. "It came up today, and none of us know how it works."
"I don't need to be humored," said Tony, sharp and miserable.
Bruce didn't answer him.
Sulking, Tony didn't even watch the two ropes set off the next morning, Bruce and Thor behind Clint and Natasha. He slept late, and woke up to a mug of tea thrust into his tent by their camp one cook, Ghulam, and the shouts of the porters already arrived from Base Camp. If he'd been fitter, he could have taken three or four of them up to camp two, shown them the route and the ropes, made sure they could handle themselves on the rock, but instead he was stuck down here at camp one, useless on the mountain.
His tent door shook. "Mr. Tony? Boxes."
Pepper had sent his toolkit and the oxygen masks and the respirators. He'd been worried about the flow rate from the tanks, surprised by how needy they all were for oxygen, even this low on the mountain, the back of his mind toying with adjustments and compensations even as he'd struggled, yesterday. While he couldn't force the route on the mountain, it was still his equipment that was going to get them all to the summit. Tony spent the afternoon fiddling with the oxygen kits, glancing up at the looming face above the camp, starting with every splattering stonefall. He even adjusted one of the fittings to match Natasha's smaller face, a tricky fix that finally worked just as Clint came back into camp.
"Yo! Camp three, dude!"
Clint was holding his hand up for a triumphant high five.
Resentment slammed back into Tony's head so fast it left him reeling. "Super," he said, bending his head back over the aerial. He had a theory that if he could stretch the wire out to their broadcasting spot, they could use the radio in camp, despite the big seracs cutting off direct transmission.
Clint's gloves slammed down on the rock in front of him. Startled, Tony looked up, and Clint's face was darker than he'd ever seen it before. Startled, he stood up. "What-"
"You're my friend, Tony, but I am sick to the teeth of you and your attitude," said Clint. "This isn't just about you, Anthony Stark. We're not pawns you can push around just to get yourself up the mountain. I get you've got issues, but stop taking it out on your team." He was breathing hard, his face pale except for the angry flush of scarlet over his cheeks. "Don't manage every move we make. Stop ragging on 'Tasha. And for the love of God, smile. You're a damn fine climber, Stark, but it takes more than that to lead a team and we both know it."
Speechless, Tony could only stare back. Natasha was already coming over the moraine, and he could hear Thor's hearty laugh behind her.
"Just sayin'," said Clint, picked up his gloves, and stalked to his tent.
Dinner that night was unusually silent.
In the morning, despite his uncomfortable perch on a rope between Clint and Natasha, Tony was climbing well. The three of them made it up to camp three by midday, stopped for tea, and then headed warily up the couloir ahead. In the warmth of the afternoon sun, the slope was unstable, and stones freed from the ice whistled past them to the airy fall of the south face, but the snow was old and firm and the sky clear. They made good time, securing the fixed ropes as they went, and by the time they called it a day, Tony was still on edge but aware that Clint had only said something the rest of the team had been thinking. He'd felt it in the rope, Clint's jerky climbing, Natasha's unaccustomed hesitation, the bitten-off comments that meant Clint and Natasha had built a partnership in which Tony had no place.
They spent the night at camp two, leaving it too late descending to get off the mountain safely. "We ought to get a radio up here," Tony muttered into the silence, over onion soup and jerky.
"Tomorrow," said Clint.
"And the oxygen," Tony said, staring at his mug. "The other tents. We've only got the one stove up here."
"Tomorrow," said Natasha. She was staring out at the valley beneath them, the magnificent curve of the glacier and Manaslu's pointed silhouette, flushed pink and gold in the sunset.
"Are you going to eat that or just look at it?" asked Clint.
Tony picked up his spoon.
Bruce and Thor must have started climbing before dawn, arriving at camp two very early in the morning, just as the first brew was ready, with full rucksacks. Unpacking, Thor flung his supplies into one of the tents, spare sleeping bags, two more stoves, the first of the respirator sets they'd need higher up the mountain. Neater, Bruce stacked his load of oxygen bottles next to the biggest tent, where Clint was still struggling into his boots, the leather inners stiff from the overnight cold.
"My brothers," Thor said, "And sister. Today we reach camp four!" He and Bruce had barely paused, both of them still roped and ready to go, neither of them seeming to suffer from the altitude. "Our journey continues!"
"Why do I always feel like he came straight out of Tolkien?" muttered Clint. Crampons firmly on his boots, he picked up the rope and pushed it into Tony's hands. "I'm climbing with the big guy," he said.
"Natasha?" said Bruce.
"I'm going down," said Natasha. "Too many falling stones for three people on a rope."
"Don't," said Tony, sharply enough that Bruce's head snapped around and Clint's hands stilled on the straps of his climbing harness. "Don't. I've got - Pepper will have sent the post."
"Are you sure?" said Bruce, frowning.
"Yes," said Tony. He'd already clipped onto the fixed rope heading up the scree. Now he unclipped, and trudged over to the start of the route down. "Have fun."
He could hear Thor's puzzled, "Never have I seen the Iron Man retreat before. What ails him?" from thirty feet below the tents, but Tony could not face another day of Clint's silence. He was going to have to fix this, soon, but he had no idea how. This was why he had Pepper, but Pepper would not - couldn't - climb the mountain with him. He was an engineer, goddam it, a businessman, a climber, a man about town, not a goddam soft people person. And his heart - Tony had to stop on the ropes, staring blindly down at camp one with one hand pressed to his chest and the other gripping desperately to his descender. His heart was faulty, damaged, beating so hard he was surprised he could still stand upright. He had to wait for it to slow, panting, the cold air searing his throat and lungs.
At this rate, he'd be lucky to make it past camp four.
By the time Natasha came back down the mountain, two days later, he'd sent up all the respirator kits. The radio, the carefully packaged rations, the tents, pushing the porters to carry on up to camp two. He'd fixed the aerial, written out replies to all the asinine queries the board had sent, because even halfway up a mountain he seemed to be the only person at Stark Industries capable of making an informed decision, and moved the camp one tents, because the daily melt-freeze cycle of the glacier had left them perched on pedestals of ice a foot above the surface.
"We have camp four," Natasha said, coming straight to the point although her face was drawn and her eyes sunken, the markers of life snatched from the thin air at altitude. "Stocked. Bruce tried the chimney. Failed. Clint is...not well."
"How bad?" snapped Tony. He was already thinking, no way in hell they'd get a stretcher up there, but with five or six porters he could rig up a lift, get Clint off the mountain somehow.
"Cough only," said Natasha, quickly, almost surprised, as if she'd thought he wouldn't care. "He's coming down. Behind me. Bruce sent to say, come up. Lead the pitch."
Tony took a deep breath. He said, "You could have done it."
Natasha's eyes widened, just a fraction, enough for Tony to know that she understood what he was saying. She shrugged. "Other pitches to come." But she said it slowly, looking Tony in the eyes, and there was a confidence in her voice she had not shown before.
"I'll hold you to that," said Tony. He smiled at her, an uncomfortable grimace, and then went to find Clint. He had an apology to make, and he did, uncomfortable and unhappy. He promised to do his best, knowng both of them were aware his best probably wasn't good enough. Then, so long as they won the summit, what did it matter?
But the days of rest had done him good. Climbing strongly, Tony made camp three in the late afternoon, and knew that behind him camp two was fully stocked. Even his lifting gear, his secret weapon against the mountain's bastions, had been carefully carried upwards. Tomorrow, the porters would carry again, up to three, but for tonight he had the camp to himself. He made himself eat, brewed tea over and over again, and for the first time on the expedition he slept well at altitude. He was at camp four before Bruce and Thor emerged from the little pup tents that were all they could squeeze onto the platforms.
Looming over tents, vertiginous and crumbling, was the limestone wall that barred their way up the ridge. It was a formidable defense, thirty feet of fingernail holds and then a hundred and fifty foot crack, but it had been climbed before and Tony knew it could be climbed again, despite the thin veneer of fragile ice, the unstable stones poised to tumble headlong onto the climbers, and the damp, glassy surface of the bare rock. At sea level, Bruce would have balanced his way to the top, all delicate moves despite his bulk. Thor would have powered his way up the route. He still did not understand why Bruce waited for him, but as Tony looked at the line of the climb, found the quiet place in his head that allowed him to think of nothing but the placement of his hands and feet and the smooth shifts of his balance on the rock, he was grateful.
Bruce had him safely belayed. "Climbing," Tony said quietly, and set his hand to the first hold.
He nearly came off two thirds of the way up. He was balanced on two crampon points and a lay-backed handhold that would have been showy on a Colorado boulder and was desperate on a mountain at twenty thousand feet. He'd got his ice-axe dug into blue ice, old ice, and thought the hold was stable, but it wasn't. The ice cracked, and suddenly the axe was loose in his hand, his weight tipping backwards, and under his boots was ten thousand feet of nothing but air. He grabbed, desperately, at a handhold, had to let go of the axe to do it and screamed the warning, "Below!" even as one crampon slipped and he was left dangling from a single hold. "Fuck," he was saying, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," which at least disproved the theory of his life flashing before his eyes, because all he could see was ice and his clenched, slipping fingers. His knees were banging off the rocks, little patters of snow tumbling down the face, his legs whaling, and the piton he'd put in twenty feet below was never going to hold, but he'd been desperate then and he was almost lost now.
"Tony!" Bruce was yelling, his voice echoing up the chimney. "Tony, hang on!"
"I am fucking-" shouted Tony, and then his crampon caught.
His crampon caught. Stilled. His knees were shaking. He breathed, once, again. Then shifted his weight, tiny shifts, so careful, waiting to see if his points would hold.
He'd lost his ice-axe. His heart was shorting out on him again; he was dizzy, sick, alive. He leant his head against the ice and breathed. Breathed some more. The cold was burning his skin.
"Lost my ice-axe."
"I know. Can you haul one up?"
"Get one on the end of a rope and I can," Tony shouted. He let himself rest a second longer, then fumbled a piton and a sling from his harness and jammed it into a crack between rock and ice, hand-slammed. It was all he'd got, but the angle was good and he thought it would hold.
"Wait," Bruce yelled. "We're just - pull!"
Tony pulled. The ice-axe came slowly up on the loose rope, banging off the rock and penduluming against the sides of the crack, a hefty, uneven weight. Tony dragged it up with one hand and his teeth, and tried not to think about the horror of Toni Kurtz on the Eiger, knotting ropes with frost-bitten hands, dying twenty feet away from his rescuers - "Fam! Froid!"
The axe was in his hands. Two feet shorter than his own, it had a steeply angled head and a minimal adze. It was Thor's, made in Norway for the great ice walls of his homeland, and it looked more like a hammer than an axe, but it was lightweight and utterly secure, driven into the ice. Tony let himself rest on the safety of that hold for a few moments longer, and then he roped himself in and secured the rope. He had to climb down, unwilling to trust his own pitons and shaky around the knees, and by the time he got to the base of the chimney the afternoon was mostly gone.
"Tony," Bruce said, and wrapped him up in a bear's embrace of a hug.
"Still here," Tony said, muffled. "Squashed."
"Idiot," Bruce said, his voice strained.
"I must have been twenty feet from the top," Tony said, looking up. "I should have kept going." He'd left the piton in and the rope was fixed, they could go again, but he'd failed.
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Bruce said, and finally let go. Peering over his shoulder, Thor's face was equally concerned.
"Oh, look, it's all fine," Tony said, irritated, and then his left leg gave way underneath him and his heart was suddenly pounding against his rib cage and he had to sit down, abruptly, slamming into the drifted snow under the chimney.
Bruce stared down at him. "Really," he said, and then, "Thor? Can you get the stove on? Tony and I are going to have a small discussion about personal safety."
"Consider it had," said Tony quickly. There were little black spots in front of his eyes. He tried to focus on a pair of upright rocks, but they turned out to be the battered remains of a tent from one of the earlier expeditions. He hoped it was Houston's in '38, the first exploratory expedition, but had a creeping suspicion it might have been his father's. The canvas was a faded military green.
"Were you ever going to tell me about your heart?" Bruce said.
It missed a beat. Another.
"No," Tony said.
"I was so
stupid," Bruce said. "I should have known you'd - I didn't know
it was this bad."
"Right," said Bruce.
He heaved Tony up, his hands dragging at the down suit, harsh and heavy. Tony tried to complain, but the words were thick in his mouth and the sky seemed awfully dark - he hadn't been resting that long, had he? But then there was tea, Bruce holding the mug for him, and his sleeping bag, and he was so tired.
In the morning Bruce said to him, "You're going down. Tony, no. I'm not arguing and neither are you."
The sun was shining through the walls of the tent, but Tony's breath was clouding in the cold air and there was frost flaking off the inner liner. Thor's shadow moved against the canvas, unfeasibly big. "There's nothing wrong with me," Tony muttered. The mug in his hands felt unsteady, and the liquid in it was shaking. His mouth tasted of metal; he couldn't tell if it was tea or coffee. Must be tea. Coffee dehydrated, he'd had the last cup back in Rawalpindi, breakfast on Anwar's big mahogany table, chapattis and marmalade.
"Don't lie to me," Bruce said. He looked tired. "You've got an arrhythmic heartbeat and your blood pressure's dangerously low. You need to rest. I'm going to send you down with instructions - I've got something in my pack I think will help."
"I'm fine," Tony said. "Bruce, you don't understand. I need to be here."
"I'm not sending you off the mountain," said Bruce. "I know you won't go. But what if someone else had been on that rope? What if someone died because you were too stupid to let anyone know you're ill?"
He hadn't thought of that. "There was no one else on the rope," Tony said, but his voice was small and he was imagining it now, Bruce falling, Clint, because he was too unwell to hold them onto the rock.
"Go down, Tony," Bruce said. "Thor's going with you. Send Clint and 'Tasha up. Stay down. I'm giving you a prescription, okay? Don't come back up for a least a week."
Tony had seen that determination before. He said, grumbling, angry, "Yes."
"Good," said Bruce. He gathered up his suit. "Get dressed. Come out when you're ready."
It was a gorgeous day, but Tony hated every minute of it, stumbling down the fixed ropes in Thor's footsteps, coming down off the mountain when he should have been going up. He'd cracked the chimney, he knew it, just another few feet and he would have been there. And Bruce was stuck up there with no one to belay him, working on the ropes, and it would take another day for Clint and Natasha to get up there - they were flirting with the death zone, every minute counted.
He would have stomped straight past camp one if Thor had let him, but it was almost dark, and even Tony had to concede he wasn't going to make base camp that night. He'd pushed himself as hard as he could, his legs shaking, his hands sore from the descender even through two pairs of gloves. Meeting Clint and Natasha on the fixed ropes, just above camp two, he'd barely brought himself to nod.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. If he had to die, now, before the operation that might kill him anyway, he wasn't going to die on the dirt of the glacier. He was going out up there in the crisp white beauty of the snow, the summit his, a blaze of glory so much greater than the casual accumulation of wealth or the patents that would eventually be outclassed and outdated. He wanted to be something that would shine on into the future, an Amundsen, a Livingstone, a hero.
But despite Tony's sullen silence Thor's smile was unfaded and his good humor unassailable. The next day he talked them both down the glacier to base camp, commenting on the fallen seracs and the chough flying above their heads - "It is a wonder," he said, "Did you know the English saw butterflies at base camp on Everest? Such a small thing, but such vigor in it, Tony." And "My father had that hammer made for me, years ago, when it became clear my life was in the mountains." And "Can you not believe, even now, that the goddess has her hand over us? All will be well."
"Oh, shut up," Tony muttered, but could not hold his ire in the face of Thor's rough, kindly concern.
It was only a week before he could go back. And Clint was the best climber he knew, on rock. They were probably at camp four already. And then Bruce could come down, and rest, while Natasha and Clint finished off the chimney and maybe even went on to camp five. Why was it he'd not wanted Natasha on the team again? If it hadn't been for her, they would be struggling now.
"I was wrong about Natasha," he murmured, and thought he'd said the words to himself.
He hadn't. Thor's big hand clapped him on the shoulder, sending him skidding through a melt water puddle. "I knew you would see her true in the end," Thor boomed at him.
"Yeah, well," said Tony, to the ice.
At base camp, he went through Bruce's tent and found the right herbs, in the white paper packet, and persuaded Vilyati Khan that he really did want tea made from them. He recognized the taste of the first cup from the walk in, and wondered if Bruce had been worried even then, if he'd been miserably obvious, if Pepper knew. But Pep was as efficiently organized as she always was, no change, his bright, beautiful girl, and after the work was done he slept - he slept, hard, for three nights in a row. The air at base camp was so rich with oxygen he felt as if he could lean back into it and float, his lungs full, his heart quiet.
Then, he was bored. He fretted about the mountain, about Bruce and Clint and Natasha, nearly sent Thor back up and then didn't, because both of them should be fresh for the second push. It was worse when Bruce got the radio up to camp three, with its direct line of sight down to base camp, because then he could get his news in real time but so little of it, they had to conserve the battery, and the three climbers working on the mountain were spending too much time in the upper camps. Tony tinkered with half-finished projects, got the satellite phone working for thirty seconds and then a whole two minutes, redesigned the satellite and then the receiver, but had nothing to build them with. Ridiculously, his hospital admission notes arrived, three weeks after they'd been posted in Manhattan, and he read them sitting on a glacier in Pakistan, in the evening shadow of the mountain, and had to laugh. He had, what, six weeks? Seven? Six and a half, until he was wheeled into surgery. If he took the risk, if it was worth the gamble, maybe longer. He had the designs for the pacemaker in his pocket, the waterproof paper soft with re-folding as he scribbled calculations and minute readjustments.
If he died on the mountain, he'd never have to face that unknown future.
Restless, he took to walking around the campsite, climbing the small peaks that lined the valley, bouldering on the glacial erratics, just to keep fit and ready. He kept expecting to see Thor, but never did. Thor left camp early and came back late, looking worn and content, with a tired smile at the corner of his eyes, eating his own bodyweight in supplies. In any other situation that would have made Tony slyly grin and wink, but in the middle of a glacier Thor's abstraction suggested a relationship with rock, ice or alternatively snow leopards that was probably better left unspoken. Anwar was companionable but distracted, spending his time amassing a reference collection of geological samples in which Tony could only briefly find interest.
But the enforced rest and rambles over the glacier allowed him to acclimatize, not only to the lack of oxygen, but to the unexpected living beauty of the mountain environment. Blinded by ice and haste on the way to the mountain, he'd missed the evidence of the enduring wildlife on the glacier, the small beetles and moths of the ice, the ravens, the chough. Now, on enforced rest, he noticed the snow leopard paw prints in new snow, the tiny lichens on the underside of the rocks in vivid greens and yellows and the single primula flowering almost under the ice that their cook left an upturned bucket over, during the night, just in case.
So when he saw the blue in the ice, his first thought was that it was a butterfly. Then, closer, he realized that the color he'd thought was wings was actually shredded cloth, caught by the ice and tugged by the afternoon breeze.
Then he got closer still, and realized that what he was looking at must be something lost from the upper slopes of the mountain. A tent, a rucksack. His father had camped here five times, fruitlessly. There'd been two Italian expeditions, one of them winning the first and only ascent. One ill-prepared and determined British expedition, with the formidable Alastair Crowley, who had been mad enough to whip his porters and pull a gun on his team-mates. Three American expeditions. All of them had lost gear on the mountain. Some of them, men.
When he was close enough to see the pale flesh under the cloth, Tony thought, unsurprised, 'Oh. It's him. It's Rogers.' The thought was so very clear he had to stand and examine it for a moment, shocked at the certainty in the words. But he was undoubtedly looking at a body, lying in the ice. He could see the rounded curve of a shoulder, the flesh almost down to the bone: the stretch of a desiccated thigh and the rounding arch of a rib cage under the fabric of what must, once, have been a military issue parka. He thought the skin was too pale to be one of the Hunza porters, the bones under the flesh too long to be those of Dudley Wolfe, who had died alone at camp seven, abandoned by his team-mates in the teeth of a days-long storm. It had to be Rogers.
Ignobly, flushed with triumph, counting score against a man years dead, Tony thought, 'Screw you, Dad. He was here all the time. You missed him.' He thought of his lonely first graduation, his forgotten birthdays, and the projects that had never caught his father's attention. 'He was here all the time.'
The ice was still melting in the heat of the midday sun, smoothing into clear curves against the shattered face of the glacier. The snow around Tony's feet was pitted with fallen ice where either the heat or the underlying rock had calved great seracs from the fissures and crevasses. Carried down the flow from base of the mountain, Rogers' body was slowly coming free from the ice that had been his tomb. As Tony watched, another fragment of ice shook free, and through the transparent shear of the clean ice left behind he could see the curve of a cheekbone and above it, not an empty eye socket, but a sliver of pale blue eye staring back at him.
He shivered. For a moment, standing in the sunshine on the blinding ice of the glacier, he felt as if he was not alone, as if Rogers was not dead but sleeping.
Then, because he was Tony, he made a quick assessment of the rate at which the ice was melting, the probable degree of thaw, the ease of chopping a body out of the glacier and reburying it, and went back to camp for some porters, an axe, and a stretcher. And a blanket, because the pale blue eye that stared back at him out of the fractured ice was just a little too alive for comfort. Oddly, he found himself hurrying over the glacier, as if it was not too late - twenty-two years too late - for the man in the ice.
art by zephre
Thor was not in camp, and by the time Tony had rounded up four of the resting porters - luckily, the Muslim villagers on the message route from Askole, because the Hindu Hunza porters were even more uncomfortable with the long-unburied dead - the ice had melted faster than he'd estimated. Rogers' left arm lay free of the sheared ice, the ratted remnants of his parka blowing in the afternoon wind, and the ice over his face had fractured into white fault lines that hid his expression. But despite the strong sunshine, it still took Tony and the porters an hour or so to chop the body free, whole. Still surrounded by ice, it lay solidly on the stretcher, and for a moment Tony was tempted to roll it into one of the deeper crevasses. An honorable burial for an honorable climber. But the thought of having proof of success - a camera, a letter, Rogers' identification - to lay against his father's failures was too tempting for Tony to ignore.
Nodding, Tony took the weight of the end of the stretcher, and between them he and Jamil and Ahmad and the Muhammads carried the body back to camp.
He'd thought first to lay the body out on the mess table, the only flat surface in Base Camp long and sturdy enough to support the weight of flesh and ice. But both Vilyati and Pepper were united in absolute refusal, and even Anwar, consulted, failed to prioritize the interests of science over dining. Tony was forced to lay the corpse out beside one of the empty tents, insulated from the ice by a disused groundsheet. He also reluctantly vetoed for himself the grand idea of using boiling water to speed the thaw, worried about damaging any evidence Rogers' pockets might still contain.
The ice melted faster than he expected. Quicker, though, was the night frost, blooming over the shreds of cloth and smooth skin. Under the beam of the flashlight, when Tony checked on his way to his tent, the body was almost covered in thin, feathered fronds of ice that would melt with dawn, but for now obscured those haunting blue eyes.
He did not sleep well. The wind got up about midnight, whistling through the guy ropes and tugging at the canvas, and although the cold of the night froze the melt water streams, the glacier creaked and groaned. Alone in the tent, Tony huddled in his sleeping bag and tugged his hat over his ears, but his heart was beating fast and he was - he could not stop listening, as if he was waiting for footsteps in the night.
Dawn found him bleary-eyed and tired, but the urge to check on Rogers' body dragged him out of the warmth of his sleeping bag and found him half-dressed before Vilyati tugged the tent door open with a welcome mug of strong tea, sharply sugared. Tony took the tea out into the pale light of the early morning. There was still mist on the glacier, and K2 itself was hidden, although the nearby small peaks drifted in and out of sight. The air was heavy and damp, but not cold. Another fine day in base camp. Tony thought longingly of the others on the Mountain, wondered if they'd made it to camp five, if they'd broken out the oxygen regulators yet and how his experimental design was working.
Then he took a fortifying gulp of tea and walked over to the other side of his tent.
Rogers' body was missing.
The groundsheet was still there, crumpled and frozen to the glacier, but there was no trace of the dead man. Nothing. No shred of cloth, no footsteps in the overnight snow to suggest the porters, unhappy with an unburied soul, had turned the body into one of the crevasses. It was as if Rogers had melted with the ice.
"Pepper?" Tony said quietly. Then louder. "Pep! Thor! Anwar!"
It was still early. The porters must have set off at break of day, but for the non-climbers, day was yet to begin. No one answered.
"Pepper!" Tony shouted. His voice echoed through the mist, oddly hollow, and in the returning sound Tony heard a strange, doubled response, almost a whimper. Head on one side, silent, he listened.
The sound came again, low and hurt, somehow more personal than the scraping groans of the glacier, as if there was someone out there in the fog.
"To me!" Tony shouted. "Here!"
When the stumbling figure loomed into sight, he thought at first it was one of the porters. But the shape was taller, broad-shouldered, more like Thor, although Thor had never worn such ragged clothing or stumbled, cramped and hesitating, hunched against the cold. This was a stranger.
"Hey," Tony said, hurrying forward, careless of the ice underfoot. "You're safe, here, I've got you." Nonsense words, but in his mind Tony was envisaging a tragedy of Homeric proportions, another team struggling down the glacier from Broad Peak or Masherbrum and somehow stumbling on his base camp. "Easy now," he said, and caught hold of the man's shoulders.
The cloth of his parka shredded under Tony's touch as lightly as ash, and the eyes that turned to his in that drawn, white face were the same blue that had stared up at him from the ice.
"Holy crap!" he yelped, and let go, stumbling back.
It was Rogers. Horrifically, it was Rogers, his bare flesh showing white through the remnants of his clothing, his face little more than skin over the bones of his skull. But the thin mouth was trying to shape sound, and his skeletal hands were groping, blind, across the snow. He was kneeling now, deep in the fresh snow, and he was shuddering with cold, although his skin was not black with frostbite but pale and smooth.
The sound that came out of his mouth was strangled and desperate.
"Stark," muttered Tony, "I think we've got ourselves a live one."
Then he walked forward, because for all his bluster, he had never lacked courage.
"Captain? Steven Rogers?" he said, and laid his hand on that bare, frozen shoulder, for the warmth to soak through. "You're safe." Then he lifted up his voice and screamed for Pepper.
Rogers was a dead man walking. They had to carry him into the mess tent, his joints so damaged he could barely move his legs or his arms. Convulsively, he was racked with shudders so intense they had to lay him on a nest of sleeping bags and blankets next to the stove, and his hands were still frozen stiff. Tony spent four hours spooning hot tea, fortified with honey, into his slack mouth. Yet all the time he was struggling to speak, eyes intent on Tony's face, the spoon, the mess tent with its maps and photographs and piles of supplies, Pepper's careful hands cutting away the uppers of a pair of leather boots, then wool long johns and tweed breeches, four layers of cotton shirts and a parka, all rotten and frost-blackened.
Rogers' tongue was frozen in his mouth. After the first few tries, he gave up on talking, but his eyes - his eyes were so brightly alive, so downright, pathetically grateful, that Tony found himself babbling of nothing and everything to the silenced man behind them.
"He never gave up on you. Never," Tony found himself saying, his own hand none too steady on the spoon. "If he could have come back after partition - but he died. He would have come back if he could. He would. And - Captain, can I call you that? Captain, I swear to you, if I'd known-" He was shaking himself. "Pepper."
"Captain, it's going to take a while for you to thaw through," Pepper said, tucking the blankets closer. "But you're safe now." Her smile was brightly reassuring.
So stiff Tony could almost hear the bones creak, Rogers raised his hand. It was a broken sketch of a salute, that gesture, but Tony had to turn his face away, his eyes inexplicably stinging and the lump in his throat unaccountably stubborn.
By midday, Rogers managed his first words. "Thank you," he said, his voice grating and cracked, the words almost indistinguishable. "Thank you."
"Captain," said Tony. "More tea." They tried broth, and then soup; the skin under his hands was flushing pink, and where the bones had been stark beneath the Captain's skin there was live flesh, the rounding growth of muscles Tony had known only from battered black-and-white photographs.
"I - I," said Rogers, his hand curled around Tony's on the spoon. "How. How long?" The expression in his eyes was heart-rendingly questioning.
Tony looked at Pepper. Pepper shook her head, but Tony looked back at that steady gaze and could not bring himself to lie. "Twenty-two years," he said. He could have done without ever hearing the low, racked sound that came out of Rogers' mouth.
Eyes closed, Rogers' hand tightened so strongly on Tony's that the bones grated together. 'Twenty,' his mouth shaped, silently. 'Twenty.'
"Er," said Tony. He shook his hand a little, just hinting.
Rogers' hand tightened. "But - Howard?" he asked. "My team? What happened?"
"Dad-" said Tony.
The grip on his hand tightened so swiftly Tony was lucky not have broken fingers. Rogers' eyes were wide, searching. "Anthony?" he said. "Anthony Stark?"
Even through the wreck of his voice Tony could hear the absolute shock.
"Yes." He said. Then hastily, "Tony."
"An - Tony. Tony Stark," said Rogers. "I remember you. But you were-"
The blue of his eyes was incredible, the color of tropical sky shading into evening, that intense blue of the line where the sea meets the sky.
"...small," said Tony.
"Yes," said Rogers.
"But," said Tony firmly. "If you could, let go? Because, I use these hands."
He was free so quickly he rocked back on his heels. But Rogers - Rogers was blushing, the color coming up pink under the white of his skin, unexpected and amazing.
Pepper coughed. "Captain?" she said. "More tea?"
"Steve," said Captain Steven Rogers firmly.
Once he had thawed out a little more, his fingers stiffly flexing and his toes wriggling in the sleeping bags, they fed him stew. Then more stew, washed down with more tea and flatbread. More stew. Vilyati, his fascination overcoming caution, broke out a vegetable goulash flavored with spices, and Steve ate three plates and looked up for more. Pepper broke out the chocolate, Tony poured himself a medicinal brandy and shared with Anwar, and Rogers filled out with every bite. At the end, he was yawning between every bite, too, and even though it was early Tony raided Thor's packing case for clothes that fitted and took Rogers across the ice to his own tent, Pepper and Vilyati trailing both of them with every spare blanket and sleeping bag the expedition owned. Steve rolled into his sleeping bag fully clothed with his eyes already closed, and Tony and Pepper looked at each other in delayed, absolute shock.
"I wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me," Pepper whispered.
"I can't leave him," said Tony. He remembered the unease of the night before, and imagined Steve waking lost and confused.
In his life, Tony had conceived and built many things which were wonderful. He was - was once, Tony thought, and winced - a futurist. But the simple living wonder of the man who was lying asleep on the other side of his tent was a miracle he could barely encompass. Captain Rogers, Steve grunted a little in his sleep. His hair was tangled on the pillowcase that was stuffed with Tony's spare sweaters, and one of his hands was flung out and rested, gently cupped, on the groundsheet between them. He was alive, and warm, and heart-breakingly real.
Tony smiled a little to himself, very wry, and tucked up the blanket so that Steve's hand would stay warm during the night.
Steve Rogers was a force of nature. He was endlessly curious, fascinated by every new piece of equipment the expedition owned, and ate like a man who had not eaten for years. He also brought Tony tea in the morning, thrusting the mug into Tony's hands before he'd even left his sleeping bag, and for that alone Tony could forgive the endless questions. "What does this do?" "How does it work?" "You invented this? Tony, that's amazing."
It was not until after lunch that Tony realized Steve had not said a word about glaciers. Or avalanches. He reached out - somehow, it seemed natural to touch Steve, he was so grateful for every moment of warmth - and laid his hand over Steve's on the carabiner, stilling it. "Steve," he said. "We haven't asked. But...when I pulled you out of the ice, you were dead."
The blinds came down so swiftly on Steve's face it was Tony who felt cold. "That's - I'm sorry. I guess that's - that's classified."
"Classified?" said Tony.
"Yes," said Steve.
"Twenty years classified," said Tony.
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Yes," he said.
"Okay," said Tony. Then he added, "I'll find out, you know."
Shrugging, Steve drew his hand back. "It's not my secret to tell," he said.
Tony, frowning, thinking things through, said, "Is this why Dad was so set on finding you?"
"Probably," said Steve.
"Well, that sucks," said Tony. "I thought he was looking for you because he felt guilty. You were the only thing he ever failed. I always thought if he'd hung onto that rope he might have-" Tony stopped. "Well," he said. "Dad kind of failed both of us, but you never got to see the aftermath."
"Howard?" said Steve, frowning. "But he didn't fail. There was nothing he could have done. The rope broke." He'd paled again.
"Did it?" said Tony. "Really? He always said it slipped out of his hands."
"It broke," said Steve. His mouth shut tight after the words, a straight line.
"And when you fell, where did you end up?" Tony pressed. "He ran every projection he could think of. I swear I learned parabolas looking for your body. Surveying, too. Algebra. Master class in mountain mathematics."
"You're a mathematician?" asked Steve.
"Inventor," said Tony. "Engineer."
"Howard would have liked that," said Steve.
"Uh," said Tony. "Perhaps not."
"But-" said Steve, and then, visibly, stopped himself. "Sorry," he said.
"It's no secret Dad and I didn't get on," said Tony. "No disrespect. I know you guys were buddies."
Steve's eyes dropped. Then he said, "But you looked for me all the same. I'm grateful." His smile was small, trusting.
"Er," said Tony uncomfortably, and then could have hugged Thor, because the confident thud of his footsteps in the deep snow was unmistakable.
A second later, Thor ducked through the mess tent door, his hood back and snow scattering his hair. "Tony, Vilyati said we have a guest!"
His eyes were on Steve. He stopped, utterly motionless. Steve was standing up, holding out his hand, the line of his back military straight.
Thor roared. He flung his arms wide, and took two giant steps forward. "Steve Rogers!" he shouted. "He has found you!" Then, disregarding Steve's hand, he flung himself around the man in a hug that lifted Steve's feet off the floor and left him pink-cheeked and uncomfortably smiling.
"You can put him down now," said Tony.
It was like living through a train wreck. Thor, clearly, had been holding out. He knew as much about Steve's early climbs as Tony did and was not shy about asking what it had been like to camp at meadows above Alpiglen in the 30s, or to make the first ascent of the Dubh Gully on Stob Coire nam Beith. "In winter," said Thor, deeply satisfied.
"On a diet of porridge and goat meat," muttered Tony.
"Unlike our esteemed Iron Man!" said Thor. "Who climbs rocks with ladders."
"Etrier," said Tony.
"And wears ballet shoes!"
"PAs," said Tony.
"But has the endurance of a lemming!" said Thor, triumphant.
"I'm sorry?" asked Steve. The lamplight glowed on his blond hair and pink cheeks. In front of him was a plate of dried fruit and nuts he was picking at, not bolting, and there were still the traces of a smile in his eyes and the curve of his mouth.
"I don't know," said Tony, although he was finding it hard to sulk when Pepper was sniggering and Thor was evidently delighted and Steve happily entertained.
"Small, but powerful," said Thor. "Stubborn. Enduring."
He'd heard worse. "Thanks," said Tony, who stood over six feet in his bare feet and looked it, when not surrounded by giants. "Just because I choose not to spend all my time freezing my nuts off on every north face in the known world."
"But you're here," said Steve blankly.
"Aberration," said Tony. "Really, I'm a sports climber. Indoor," he added, and then as Steve's face remained politely puzzled, "I race. On indoor climbing walls. Sometimes outside."
"He soloed El Cap," said Pepper loyally.
"In Yosemite?" said Steve. "The wall? That's - that's amazing."
"Using ladders," said Tony. "I took the bolts out, afterwards," he added, to Thor's wrinkled nose.
"You'll have to show me," said Steve firmly.
"Wait until we get back to Askole," said Tony. "There are some massive boulders in the river bed, perfect. I'll show you things you've never even dreamed about, Cap - climbing's advanced so far. You won't believe the boots. Sticky soles."
"I'm already impressed," said Steve. He wriggled his feet. He was wearing Thor's spare climbing boots, double-skinned, with two pairs of socks, and Thor's spare climbing suit as well, the one Tony had saved up for the inevitable moment when an apologetic Thor destroyed his first.
"Be careful," said Pepper. "He took me up a 5.4 on my first climb."
"You rocked," said Tony. "Mostly. There was that-"
"I was too scared to do anything else!" said Pepper.
"My lady," said Thor, "Merely say the word, and I shall smite him for you."
"Don't," said Tony.
"Let him get up the mountain first," said Pepper. "Then I might smite him myself."
He had not asked. He hadn't even asked what was happening up there on the mountain, and he'd been talking to Steve as if there was a future, as if there was a future worth planning for, when he had so little time and no promises left. "Thor," Tony said. "Thor, what's happening?"
"All is well," said Thor. "Natasha and Clint forge ahead. Bruce is faithful with the ropes, a noble companion. Tonight, camp four. Tomorrow, down. I came early. The storm comes."
"Said gave the weather forecast as middling," said Pepper. "There's a low over the Sind, he thinks it'll hold steady for another week, but it's not stable. And if it comes in, the weather will change." She was watching Thor's face. Of all of them, he was the most sensitive to the weather, looking up at a clear sky and predicting rain, setting off up a route in driving sleet, only to summit in sunshine.
Thor shrugged. "It will rise tonight," he said. "Tomorrow, not so good. The day after, very bad. If I can, I will make... easier." He frowned. "Quieter." He sounded almost certain.
"Will they get down?" asked Tony. Camp four. It was a long day from camp one. A very long day.
"They should do," said Thor. "Bruce knows. And Natasha. Clint will go down with her." He looked at the tent door, fastened down against the dark, and said, "I cannot stay, Tony. You will listen for the radio tomorrow?"
"Yes," said Tony, suddenly cold.
Tony nodded. He did not understand, although he trusted Thor. But that left only him to find out what had happened up on the mountain.
"Tony, don't be an idiot," said Pepper. "There's nothing you can do in the dark, you'll end up down a crevasse yourself and that's no use to any of us."
Pulling together his climbing gear at speed, Tony didn't bother to reply.
"And how much use are you going to be exhausted?" Pepper said. "We have a day. You can make it up to camp two tomorrow. You might even find them there already."
"She's right," said Steve.
Tony glanced up. "We don't know what the storm will be like tomorrow," he said. The wind was already ruffling the tent canvas and rattling the guy ropes. They'd banked the sides of the mess tent, the only tent without a built in groundsheet, with blocks of snow, but drifting flakes were already starting to scatter inside through the valances.
"Thor might not be right," said Pepper, but her voice was doubtful.
"Wait until tomorrow," Steve said, "And I'll go with you."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Tony, dragging on his over-trousers and pocketing spare batteries. "You've only just been rescued."
"I feel fine," said Steve. He looked fine, too. Ridiculously so.
"Tony," said Pepper. "Tony. Don't go. Please."
Slowly, Tony straightened his back. "Pep?"
"I don't want you to die alone," said Pepper, her chin up and her eyes steady.
Tony slammed upright, hand automatically covering his heart. Pepper didn't know. Pepper couldn't know. He'd been so very careful.
"I'm going to mind like hell if you die on the mountain," Pepper said. "But if you die doing something this stupid, I'll never forgive you."
"We need to plan," said Steve. "I don't know what route you're taking, I don't know what resources you've got at camp one. You're going to have to talk me through using one of those descenders. Show me now. We can be ready for first light." His face was determined, convinced. He had his hand on Tony's arm, not gripping, but still very much there. Persuading.
"Okay," said Tony, and let his rope drop onto the table. "Okay. Steve, get the maps. Pepper, what have we got in the first aid kit?"
They crawled into their sleeping bags early enough, ready for a dawn start, but Steve did not sleep quickly and neither did Tony. After only one night, Tony already knew the rhythm of the steady deep breaths, far apart even in the thin air, Steve took when asleep. He did his best not to fidget - Bruce slept so easily, but Steve might struggle - and cursed the rustle of the sleeping bag as his knee jerked and his fingers tapped.
Steve rolled over. "It'll be fine," he said. "Sleep, Tony."
They set off in the half-dark before dawn, Tony still mazed with sleep and a little clumsy with his footing, and it was two hours before he realized that Steve was carrying not only his share of the food and equipment but both coils of rope. The load must have topped forty pounds, but Steve was striding along as if he was on an afternoon hike, his hood down and the snow-smattered wind toying with his hair.
The sky was grey and heavy with snow-laden clouds, and the wind strong enough to tug at the weight of Tony's knapsack. They could only see the lower slopes of the mountain, greyed out and looming, and somewhere up there Bruce and Clint and Natasha were fighting the wind to get down. Or huddled in the tents, unable to move, pinned down by a wind that was strong on the glacier but would be gale force higher up the mountain.
Tony quickened his stride. The rest at low altitude had helped: his heart beat steadily. He'd been drinking the tea. There was a packet of it tucked into waterproof wrappings in his pocket.
It took them four hours to get to camp one. The porters there were apprehensive, but already well organized. The stove was on, there were pans of snow waiting to be melted, and all the tents were battened down against the storm, guy ropes tight and snow-banked. There was tea waiting, and Steve and Tony drank quickly, looking up at the silent slopes above them.
"Eat," said Steve.
"I can't," said Tony.
"You must," said Steve, pushing the sticky bar of granola and dried fruit into Tony's hand.
Tony did. He felt better for it afterwards, following Steve's footsteps up to the ridge, and by the time they roped up he felt as if the day was only just starting rather than five hours down.
"You lead," said Steve. "It's been a while since I went this way." The set of his mouth was a little twisted.
"Here," said Tony. "Let me check that knot. Yeah, you're good." He looked up, his hands still on the harness at Steve's waist, and Steve was looking down, his face so trusting that Tony - Tony very nearly patted him on the cheek, the way he would have done Bruce, years ago, when they were as close as brothers. He stepped back, dragged up a smile, and said, "Okay. We're going up to the right of the ridge, under the gendarme. There's a crack by the overhang, it's a little rough in places, but we'll be fine."
"Understood," said Steve.
"Climbing," said Tony. He still hesitated for a moment. "Thanks," he said. He turned up to the ridge before he could see Steve's face.
The snow underfoot was fresh and wet, clinging to their boots and covering the holds on the rock, but Bruce and Thor had worked hard on the fixed lines and the anchoring pitons were marked with willow poles. Once they'd shaken the ropes free from snow, the first two thousand feet were surprisingly easy, although they were in wind shadow, and from the other side of the ridge Tony could hear the rising howl of the storm. As they neared the top of the ridge the snow changed too, no longer heavy and wet but freezing into hard, stinging pellets that cut across his face and scoured the glass of his goggles.
When they topped the ridge, the force of the wind snatched his breath away and nearly sent him reeling. Arms flung wide, Tony stumbled into it, almost blind, and knew a moment's sickening fear. Beyond his boots the face was a two thousand foot sheer drop to the glacier, and if he fell, there would be no stopping.
He steadied, anchored. Steve's arm was around his shoulders, holding him down.
"Hang on," Steve yelled into his ear.
Tony did. After a moment or two, he worked out the angle of the wind and leaned into it, found his footing and breathed.
"Okay," he said, and patted Steve's arm. "Okay."
Whatever Thor was doing with the weather, he hoped it worked.
Steve pointed up the slope. The scree was hidden under a thick blanket of fresh snow, and the footing would be treacherous, but somewhere up there Tony's team were in trouble. He nodded, and bent to move his sling from one fixed rope to the next.
Steve's gloved hand closed over his. There was another sling in his other hand, with the carabiners he had not known how to use a day ago, but Steve clipped Tony into the new rope as if he'd been doing it all his life. Only then did he unclip Tony from the first rope.
Shamed, Tony did the same for Steve. If he'd unclipped without that second sling, he would have been completely unprotected. It was a risk he was so used to taking the action had been instinctive, but if he failed, he put both of them in danger. And Bruce. And Clint, and Natasha.
Setting his crampons into the new snow, Tony set off up the scree.
He hadn't realized how much he was hoping to find the others at camp two until the tents were empty. The tents themselves were well secured and sheltered against the wind, the equipment inside neatly stacked and organized, a formidable stock of oxygen bottles roped down against the wind, but there were no footsteps in the snow, no voices, no sign that the others had been back.
"Shit," Tony said, struggling through the entrance of the bigger tent, reaching for the stove. Steve was already scooping snow into the pans. "Shit, shit."
His fingers were stiff, lighting the stove, and he had to shield his match against the wind, but the adjustments he'd made to the paraffin nozzle were still working and the flame flared strongly. Steve passed the first pan of snow inside, and then Tony held the stove steady while he clambered into the tent. The canvas thrummed and the guy ropes were singing, but they were sheltered from the full force of the wind, and Tony tugged off his goggles and pushed his hood back.
"Fine," said Steve. "It's getting worse. Whatever Thor's doing...I hope it happens soon."
Tony pulled a face. "Thor's..." He had no idea what Thor was doing. But there had been that moment on Denali, when Thor had turned into the wind and roared and, suddenly, everything had been still. He didn't believe in magic, but Thor - sometimes things happened around Thor that defied logical explanation, although Tony was still trying. "Here," he said. "Hold out your mug." The snow was half-melted, but there was enough for Steve, and Tony could wait.
They drank half each, and then the next mug, and the next. Here on the mountain, dehydration could kill them as surely as the cold.
"We going on?" Tony said, eventually. It was three o'clock. They'd made good time - amazing time - but the ice would be melting now under the snow and the rock fall would be starting. By rights, Tony should be aching in every limb and exhausted, but he felt energized, sure of himself as he had not been in the early days on the mountain.
"Yup," said Steve.
He had the best smile.
The mist had come down as they rested, and visibility was down to five or six yards. It hadn't been for the fixed ropes, they would never have found the couloir. But as Tony swopped from one rope to another at the top, he suddenly realized he could hear the snap of the metal. He wasn't leaning into the wind. He could hear Steve's breathing and his own, Steve's still deep and controlled, his own shallower, a familiar pant in the thin air.
The wind had dropped.
"We'll have to stop at camp three," Tony said.
"I know," said Steve.
There had been no trace of anyone else on the mountain.
Climbers and porters had done an outstanding job of equipping the camps. Camp three was bountifully equipped, stuffed with gear and food - "Chicken stew?" Tony said, holding up ration packs and squinting at the labels. "Or beef?"
Steve had the stove, carefully cradled in the tent entrance against carbon monoxide poisoning. "Either."
Beef it was. Delving into the pile of stores, Tony unpacked two sleeping bags - "Right or left?" laid out Steve's oversuit to dry - Thor's spare, brightly blue - and stuffed both pairs of wet boots into the bottom of the bags. By the time he was done, Steve had tea ready, and then stew. They ate in companionable silence, listening to the wind, a soft hum.
"Do you think-"
"I don't want to talk about it," said Tony quickly.
"Okay," said Steve, and leaned out of the tent to clean the pans.
They started up the mountain again just as the darkness eased. The wind was rising again, but the cloud had lifted, and the overnight cold had crisped the snow and iced the rock fall into momentary stability. Tony led the first section, but at House's Chimney, he faltered. This was where he'd failed, last time. He could see the section where he'd slipped. Above it, the others had set up his lifting apparatus, the sturdy triangle of poles and the pulleys that allowed them to haul supplies up the chimney ten times as fast as having to hump them up the chimney.
Tony's fingers itched to check it over, but he was still hesitating at the bottom.
Steve's shoulder bumped his. "You led that?" he said, head tilted back as he looked up.
"Yes," said Tony.
Steve turned around and nodded, a silent acknowledgement that made Tony forget that the last time he'd been warm was four thousand feet below at base camp.
"Not to the top," Tony added hastily. There was something about Steve's open face that made him want to be honest. "I came off. Then..." He did not want to mention his heart. "Then I went down. To base camp. That's why - well," he said. "It turned out to be one of my better ideas."
"Okay if I lead?" said Steve easily.
"Yeah," said Tony. He thought of that moment when he nearly came off the rock, the instinctive struggle to live, and wondered why he'd fought so hard. But it was worth it. If he hadn't, he wouldn't be here now, climbing as he had never climbed before, still strong after a push that should have been exhausting but was instead exhilarating.
Then the rope in his hands juddered, pulling, and he realized he'd been watching Steve swarm up the rock as if the man was soloing a boulder in Colorado sunshine. Frantic with haste, he checked his belay, clipping onto the fixed ropes twice over and testing every piton, because Steve was not going to die on his watch. It was only when he was very sure neither of them would be taking the fastest route off the mountain that he could concentrate on watching Steve's spectacular ass move up the rock. And his thighs. Steve had thighs like tree trunks, calf muscles so defined he could have modeled for an Olympic statue, fine ankles, big feet, big hands....
"Climb when you're ready!" Steve yelled. "Safe!"
"Wait!" Tony shouted back hastily, and had to take in the slack rope and unclip himself from the belay and onto the fixed ropes one sling at a time. His crampons poised and biting into the ice, he shouted, "Climbing!" and waited for Steve's okay before he set foot on the rock.
With every foot of height he gained up the ice-glazed rock, he could feel Steve's presence in the tension on the rope. Between them, the twisted nylon was a living thing, kept taut by Steve's careful hands, responsive to every move Tony made. He'd never been so aware of a partner, but then he'd never trusted any rope so much as he did this one, instantly responsive, utterly secure. His first struggle up the chimney had been a nightmare of overstretched muscles and insecure holds, pitons hammered into ice that was little more than verglas and stances that were no wider than the front points of his crampons. This time, he danced up the rock, every muscle of his body in tune with the pattern of the climb.
Steve hit him at the top with a wide, white grin that made Tony's heart miss a beat in the best way possible, and Tony felt then as if they could have scaled the mountain in a day, every move perfect. But when he'd freed off his rope, Steve was already tied onto the next fixed line, looking up the slope, and his grin had faded.
It would be an empty victory, without Thor's triumphant war cry or Bruce's small smile. Even Natasha's stubborn silence. Tony had a team up there above their heads, and they were hurting. The day was already half over.
"After you," Tony said, and set his crampons into the slope.
Camp four was empty. The tents were stocked, sleeping bags tidily rolled and stores battened down against the wind, but the guy ropes were loose and new snow compressed the canvas into distorted, strained tunnels. There were no tracks.
"Up?" said Steve, after a comprehensive survey of the scene.
"Yeah," said Tony.
The shadows were lengthening and the day was beginning to get colder. Climbing in Steve's footsteps across the snow field, Tony began to worry. He'd hoped so very much to come over the rise and see Bruce making tea in the tent entrance and Clint curled up on a sleeping bag, gently mocking the care with which Bruce steeped every teabag. Even Natasha's scowl would have been a welcome sight. But something must have happened up there at camp five to stop the others making the descent. Bruce had sounded shaken over the radio, but he'd said they were all okay. The ropes had been fixed. There were enough supplies high on the mountain for a three-day storm. Yet so much could have gone wrong - they could have been swept off the mountain by another avalanche, gassed themselves in the tent if they'd been careless with the stove, suffocated under the new snow - anything. He quickened his pace, barely aware that he was climbing at Steve's heels and that his breathing had fallen into a practiced heave and gasp, the respiration patterning he'd been training to use.
When Steve stopped in his tracks, Tony did too, so attuned to his leader's body the response was automatic.
"Do you hear that?"
"Someone's calling," said Steve decisively. He looked up at the slope ahead, the slippery mass of fragile ice and shale, and shouted, "Hey! Halloo there!"
The snow was silent, but for the uneven, already freezing drip of the afternoon melt water.
"Hey!" Steve yelled again.
From the lip of the scree above them, a couple of stones shook loose and tumbled down the slope. Another.
"Bruce!" shouted Tony. "Bruce, is that you?"
There was a small cascade of shale, slipping and shattering against the frozen rock, and then after them, slow as the arch of a cast fishing line, the fixed rope slid downwards. It unwound slowly from the mountainside, catching against loose rock and uneven ice, inevitable as a landslide. After a moment's awful pause Steve began to reel it in, coiling as he went.
Even before Steve held it in his hands, Tony knew the rope had been cut. The serration was as clean as a knife-blade, which meant a sharp-edged stone or a hammer-weight of ice in an avalanche, or a desperate climber. Steve was turning the rope end in his hands, frowning.
"Anyone up there?" Tony yelled again.
The rope had brought down a small clutter of pebbles as it fell, but the stone that came down next was the size of a baseball. "Watch out!" Tony bellowed, dodging. The whole slope seemed unstable, scattered with fresh, unbonded snow and balanced on melting ice.
He barely heard the cry, whipped away by the wind, but Steve's head was up, his eyes scanning the top of the rise.
"Bruce!" Tony yelled. "Bruce, we're here!" He was unclipping the cut rope, knotting it to his harness with clumsy fingers, stripping off a glove in impatient jerks. "Bruce!"
"Clint!" Steve shouted beside him. "Natasha!"
"I'm going up," said Tony. "I'm smaller and lighter. Belay me?"
There was a moment when he thought Steve was going to say no, his mouth a straight line and his shoulders braced, but then Steve nodded. "Yes," he said. "Be careful. Glove, Tony."
He'd forgotten. Clumsily, he tugged at the cuff, and Steve reached out to pull it back into place. Then Steve was running the cut rope through a sling, tying it off, reeling in the slack, until the tension of it between them was as alive as it had been in the chimney.
Tony said quietly, "That's me," and set off up the scree.
He was hurrying, but halfway up, he refixed the fixed rope, slamming a piton into the ice and forcing himself to double-check the knots. Then he was off again, aware as he climbed of Steve's steadying presence on the other end of his rope.
The curve of the slope eased. Tony climbed faster, dragging the thin air into his lungs: they were so high they should really be using oxygen, but he and Steve were both still climbing strongly and neither had wanted to wait. He was almost scrambling now, peering ahead, his heart racing. "Bruce?"
It was Natasha's voice, thin and strained.
"Where are you?"
He'd contoured too far right, following the line of the slope. They were huddled in the lee of an outcrop, all three of them, and although Natasha was waving the others were motionless. 'Oh God,' Tony thought. 'Please let me not be too late. Please.'
Then Clint coughed, the sound hoarse and ragged, and Tony knew at least two of his team were still alive. He said, "Never expected to find you here."
"Thank you," said Natasha. She was standing, one hand on Clint's shoulder. "Thank you."
Tony said, "What happened?" He was already kneeling by Bruce, terrified, but Bruce was warm under his suit, he was - his face tipped up and he was smiling, wry and still confident, although his hands were held stiffly in front of him and so thickly padded he must be wearing two spare pairs of over-gloves on top of his own.
"Avalanche," said Natasha. "Bruce held us. Both of us, Clint and me."
art by zephre
"His hands. He can't hold the rope. Roped him down."
Friction burns. If Bruce had held Clint and Natasha's weight on the rope, it was a miracle, and he'd be lucky to get away with second degree burns.
They were luckier still to survive.
"Tony?" said Bruce. "Knew you'd come."
"Yeah," said Tony, bending down. Bruce's hands were encased in at least three pairs of gloves, monstrous, shapeless wrappings. His face was drawn under the stubble of his beard.
They were far too high on the mountain with a helpless man. His father had been here, almost in this very spot, and Howard had -
Steve was there. He must have almost run up the slope. Checking the bindings on Bruce's hands, he was swift and efficient. "You roped him down from camp five?" he said. "Well done."
"I figure he should lose some weight for next time," muttered Clint. His face was battered and pale under his goggles, but he still mustered a smile. "Clint Barton," he said. "I don't think we've met."
Steve looked at Tony.
"Oh," said Tony. "Guys, this is Steve Rogers."
There was a moment's silence.
"Okay," said Clint.
"Bruce, baby, don't do this to me again," muttered Tony, checking the slings on Bruce's harness. "Heart can't take the strain."
"You fixed the rope?" said Natasha.
They were sitting at twenty thousand feet above sea level with three exhausted climbers and one with a heart defect. For the first time, Tony wondered if Howard had been grief-stricken or thankful, after the avalanche, when the rope snapped.
"Tony did," said Steve. "We can get him down."
The confidence in his voice was not reckless, but utterly sure.Tony, who had already been plotting the angles and edges of the chimney and the overhang, wondering how they could lower a helpless man all the way down the mountain, glanced up. Steve nodded back at him, as if they'd already made every decision that mattered, and all the rest was details.
"You get Bruce's harness sorted," he said. "I'll take the back rope. Can you guide his feet if we need to?"
"Yes," Tony said. Slow and warm, confidence returned. He could do this. They could do this.
"If you and Clint go first, ma'am," Steve said, "We'll take... Bruce?... we'll bring Bruce behind you. We'll give you enough time to be clear of the rock fall. Can you make it to camp four?"
"Yes," said Natasha. She had already clipped onto the fixed rope, was watching Clint with sharp eyes. Of the three of them, it was Natasha who looked the strongest, her movements still fluid against Clint's stiff gait, and as they made their way down the fixed rope Tony could hear her voice. "Clint, down. Hold on. Stop. Okay, go."
"What happened to Clint?" he asked Bruce softly.
"Knocked out," Bruce said. "Didn't know where he was when he woke up. Thought he was on Rainier, couldn't understand it when you weren't there." His voice was very dry.
"Must have been fun," said Tony, one ear cocked for the clink of metal that meant Clint and Natasha had cleared the first fixed route.
"Yup," said Bruce. He rolled his head, looking up. "Thanks," he said.
"Yeah, well," said Tony. "I'm not going to wipe your ass for you, so let's get on down to base. Hup."
It took hours. Steve anchored Bruce's weight on the short rope, clipped harness to harness, his hands steady on ice-axe and hold. Tony took point, guiding Bruce's feet into place where the route was difficult, and watching the unstable slope for rock fall and loose ice. There was a rhythm to it, step, pant, secure hold, pant, move Bruce's feet, pant, look up at Steve's resolute face, pant, do the same again. The slope worsened with the afternoon warmth, loose rocks tumbling past them and the unstable snow shearing into small falls that warned of avalanche, but they worked on, steady and determined.
Only once, Bruce said, "You should leave me."
"Not happening," said Tony shortly.
The wind was beginning to rise again.
They reached camp four just as the sun was beginning to set, the snow flushed gold and pink, clouds streaming across the vivid hue of the sunset. And Natasha had tea ready, pots of it, two stoves going, and the first aid kit was already open.
"I'm never climbing another mountain without you," Tony promised her, hands wrapped around the heartening warmth of his mug.
"She's never going to climb another mountain with you," muttered Clint. He looked pale and battered, there was a graze on his cheekbone and his hair was matted with dried blood, but his eyes were alive as they had not been when Tony found them.
Natasha's smile was sharp, but she said nothing.
"Hey, partner," Tony said. "Whadda'ya say, let these guys rest up? You do the cooking thing, and I'll do the tent thing?"
"Little busy, Tony," said Steve. "Looks like you're cooking." He was grinning to himself, but his hands were very gentle, unwrapping Bruce's gloves, and he had the first aid box open at his knee.
"Cook?" said Tony.
"Unless you're a field trained medic," said Steve. Then he sucked in a breath through his teeth, hissing. Bruce's inner gloves were shredded, and his hands were raw from fingertips to wrist, burnt and bleeding.
"He held both of us," said Natasha. "Never - I do not know of any other climber who could have done that."
"Strength of an ox," said Tony, dropping a hand on Bruce's shoulder, gripping a little. Bruce, who had known Tony for so long and knew how reluctant he was to offer casual affection, would understand. "Steve, where did you put the matches? You know this is a bad idea, yeah?"
"I thought you were good with chemicals," said Steve innocently.
Natasha said. "I can help."
"Uh, no," said Tony. "Don't think I don't know who got these guys down. And we're only halfway home. Just...drink your tea, I've got this."
It was just chemistry, right?
"First man in history to burn food at twenty-one thousand feet," muttered Clint.
"Shut up and eat," said Tony.
He woke up just after midnight, when Thor's voice sounded in his ear, strained and tired as he had never heard the man before. "Tony, wake up. I can't hold her much longer. You have to go."
Involuntarily, shocked, Tony sat up. The moon was full, and the pale light showed him Bruce and Steve's bodies wrapped in sleeping bags, the stacks of stores and the stove, left ready. Above the rustle of the canvas, he could hear the wind whipping through the guy ropes.
Steve rolled over, as awake as Tony. "You heard that?" he said.
"Yes," said Tony. He cocked his head to the rising whine of the wind. "What do you think, soldier?"
Steve said, "Let's go."
It was Steve who helped Clint and Natasha out of their tent, passing over headlights and checking gloves and crampon straps, while Tony manhandled Bruce into his oversuit and shoved his feet into boots that were still half-frozen. And it was Steve who last night had gone into his sleeping bag with bottles of water, so they could at least drink before they set off, and Steve who double-checked the fixed ropes and took up, uncomplaining, Bruce's solid weight on the short rope. Tony at least could spell with Natasha and Clint: Steve was there, utterly reliable, every step of the way.
They'd called him Captain America, in the war, although Tony had always thought the stories coming out of Europe were exaggerated and the newspapers desperate for a hero. Howard had always been tight-lipped on the subject of what the man had actually done, although happy to expand on Captain Rogers' lost valor and his friendship with Howard himself. But on the mountain...on the mountain, Steve Rogers was the climbing partner Tony had never known he'd wanted, solid as a rock, utterly trustworthy. The climbing leader. In ten years of life on a rope, Tony had always led, but he'd let Steve take point as if they'd been a partnership of years.
At House's Chimney, still in half-dark, Tony set up the casualty lowering system he'd practiced so often and hoped never to use. He had extra pulleys in his knapsack for the lifting apparatus, and the strains on the ropes unspooled themselves in his mind as clear as a blueprint. Leverage. Load. Angle. "Don't push off with your hands," he told Bruce. "Elbows." Natasha was stanced halfway down, where they'd need to heave him over that awkward bump. Steve had the belay at the top. Clint was already at the bottom, with the dangling safety rope that was their last chance of arresting a fall if the pitons failed.
"Okay," said Bruce.
The wind nearly ripped the words from his mouth. It was screaming over the rocks above their heads. Tony, hunkered down at the top of the chimney, could feel it tug and push at his body, a threat that felt almost actively malicious. Above him with the belay, Steve stood against the power of it with his hands locked on the rope and his jaw set.
"Okay," said Tony. "Lower away. Below!"
Bruce flashed him a tight grin, Natasha flung up a salute, and Steve let the rope roll through the pulleys.
They were lucky. It took three hours. Daylight broke halfway through, but brought with it snow and icy gusts that sent spindrift whirling down the gully in disorientating eddies. Tony stomped his feet and wrapped his arms around his body to keep warm, as unseen below, Clint and Natasha struggled to keep Bruce safe, and above him Steve stood as solid as the mountain bedrock and kept his hands steady on the rope.
When the rope went loose, neither of them could believe they'd succeeded. They stared at each other for a minute, utterly shocked.
"Did I - did that work?" Tony yelled into the wind.
Steve shook out his hands. "Looks like it," he said, the words almost lost. Then he looked down the gully. "You first." If Tony hadn't heard, his emphatic gesture would have made the same point.
"Together," said Tony, beckoning. "Safer. Less far for the rocks to fall."
"Okay," said Steve, nodding.
Three hours had stiffened Tony's joints and chilled his hands, but the chimney was sheltered and Steve a reassuring presence. They made it down in half an hour, and found the others, sensibly, gone ahead. The fixed ropes were lying free of the new snow, and someone had forged a fresh trail down the scree, carefully placed bucket-holds that Steve and Tony hurried down. The cloud was down again, whiting out sky and rock alike, and the wind was howling, but camp two was only minutes away.
There was a radio at camp two. Tony ducked into the tent to hear Clint's voice shouting into the receiver, "Pepper, we're all fine, we're at camp two. Louder! CAMP TWO."
He could barely hear Pepper's voice over the sound of the wind, but the tone of it, Pepper's careful, sensible voice, was achingly familiar and reassuring. She'd sounded like that when she'd talked him through the El Cap ascent, tireless. When they'd launched the StarkFax and the world had pointed and laughed.
"WE'RE OKAY!" yelled Clint. "OVER!"
Pepper said something about daughters?
"HEADING DOWN! OVER!" Clint tried to hand Tony the receiver. He shook his head, thinking of the battery, and ducked back out into the storm. Steve thrust a mug of tea into his hands, and jerked his thumb at the downslope.
The slabs and scree slopes of the last descent were easier than the rocks above, but they were all tired, and even Steve was dragging his feet. Bruce, face so worn Tony could hardly bear to look at him, moved like an automaton. Natasha and Clint took it in turns to check each other's belays, so slowly and carefully Tony could have cursed them, but he took the same amount of time himself to make sure Steve and Bruce were secured onto the fixed lines. Steve, checking Tony's, was utterly punctilious.
Just below the overhang, they were met by the camp one porters.
It was Steve who heard the shouts first. He stopped so suddenly Bruce nearly stumbled, and he snatched out a hand to Tony's shoulder. His grip was bruisingly tight.
"What?" said Tony uselessly, because the wind whipped the word away so quickly he couldn't even hear himself.
Steve shook his head and pointed down the rope.
Tony shrugged, both hands and his shoulders involved, as obvious as he could make the gesture.
Cupping one hand around his ear, Steve pointed again.
"I still don't know!" Tony yelled.
Steve unclipped. Steve unclipped his sling, with a thousand feet of mountain falling beneath his boots. He plunged past Bruce and Tony with one hand pushing Tony into place, and disappeared down the ropes.
Shocked, Tony watched his figure vanish. "Well," he said to Bruce. "Looks it's just you and me."
Bruce gave him a very small smile, and Tony picked up the short rope. "Come on then," he said, "We can do this." But already, his breath was coming so short that his lungs were heaving, and he could feel his heartbeat pick up speed.
They'd managed ten yards when the porters loomed out of the cloud, and Steve with them.
"I never, ever, want to do that again," said Clint, afterwards.
He was sitting on a pile of sleeping bags, his hairy legs bare, and his feet in a couple of buckets filled with warm water. Natasha was curled into a ball at his side, only the convulsive grip of her hand on the mug of hot cocoa showing that she was still awake.
"Agreed," said Bruce. His hands were cocoons of bandages, but once they'd managed to clean off the wounds, the damage was far less than they'd feared.
"Dude, you were amazing," said Clint. "I still can't believe it. You held both of us."
Bruce ducked his head. "It happened so quickly. I didn't even think."
"I don't know anyone else who could have done that," said Clint. "We owe you, man."
Steve said quietly, "I am grateful to Haji and Syed and Sadhar-" he smiled over to the three porters at the mess table, "For coming out into the gale. And to whoever was listening to the radio - Ghulam? You? Thank you. And to your Miss Potts," he said to Tony, "For thinking to radio in the first place."
"She's great in a crisis," said Tony, "You should tell her. She'd like that."
"I will," promised Steve.
"And you guys," said Clint. "Which reminds me. Tony, where did you find him?"
"In a glacier," said Tony.
Bruce laughed. "Yeah, right."
"Yeah, right," said Tony. "He's Steve Rogers."
"But Rogers is dead," said Clint.
Tony could feel Steve's wince. They were shoulder to shoulder on the pile of sleeping mats. "Uh. No," he said. "He says it's classified, so leave it there, will ya? But, yes. Captain Rogers."
"Captain America," breathed Clint.
"Steve," said Steve firmly.
Uncurling, Natasha produced, from somewhere under the sleeping bags, a full, intact, bottle of vodka. "So," she said. "Drink?"
Drinking alcohol at camp one on K2 was not to be recommended. There wasn't a prohibition against it in Dr. Houston's notes, but that was only, Tony thought, squinting into the teeth of a force seven gale, because the good doctor thought no one would be that stupid. He had a vague memory of losing an arm-wrestling match to Natasha. He had an even vaguer memory of Natasha laughing, which... no, that one must be a hallucination. But then, the feel of Steve's biceps under his hands, flexing into strain, perfectly warm, that might have been real, because he'd woken up drooling onto Captain Steven Rogers' shoulder and that was definitely true.
Also why he was standing outside in his long-johns staring at the sky.
Down here on the glacier, sheltered by the moraine and the bulk of K2 behind it, the wind was just about tolerable. Up on the mountain, it was screaming, the cloud banners of ice driven across the summit pyramid.
How drunk had he been?
Drunk. Everyone had been drunk. He had no idea there were so many obscene drinking songs in Balti; although Bruce had been translating and the glint in his eye was so untrustworthy even Clint had called foul. Ghulam, however, had sworn blind that the one about the monk and the goat was a true story. Tony could remember Steve's abashed grin, the flush of color in his cheeks, the way his eyes had crinkled at the corners. If it hadn't been for the equally obscene French ditty Steve had recited for them afterwards - he had an accent that was a little nasal, as if he'd learned in Brittany - Tony might have pushed a little further, given them all Harvard boathouse songs and the rudest version of the periodic table mnemonic he knew.
Come to think of it, he probably had.
He was also freezing his balls off, had a headache the size of the East Coast, and the storm over his head was going to cut into their time on the mountain so badly they might not make the summit before the monsoon fallout. If they were going to have any chance at all, Tony needed to plan all over again.
"Hey," said Steve. "Here."
There was a mug of coffee in his hands. It was a miracle.
"And you forgot your pants," said Steve.
His voice was absolutely level, but somewhere up on the mountain, Tony had learned to read that irritatingly handsome face. There was a wicked glint of humor behind Steve's blue eyes.
"Thanks," said Tony, and wandered into the mess tent in nothing but waterproof and long-johns. At least he'd done better than Natasha, who seemed to be wearing puttees, Clint's pin-striped pajamas and a fisherman's sweater that was probably Thor's. "'Tasha," Tony acknowledged, unthinking.
"We used six bottles of oxygen at camp five," said Natasha. "Left four. I have a note of the carries to three and four. Here, we have twenty-four bottles. More at base?"
"There should be thirty," said Tony. "The porters did really well. Okay. Let's get the maps out."
Steve was already spreading them out on the table.
That evening, Thor came back. They were sprawled out in the mess tent, Tony and Bruce and Haji and Sadhar playing cards, betting with toffees, a particularly pointless exercise because Tony was holding Bruce's hand for him. Clint and Steve were discussing television - "Color?" Steve had said doubtfully - while Natasha had her nose buried in a Russian novel the size of a small brick. At the stove, Ghulam and Syed were baking sweet flatbread with raisins and cinnamon: the smell was amazing. Outside, the wind was still howling and the snow had settled up to knee height, fragile and unstable, but inside the tent the air was warm and close and the laughter unfettered.
The cold, when Thor unlaced the tent door, slammed into the tent, and the gust of wind threw the cards from the table and flared the stove into a spluttering burst of blue flame. Wrapped in oversuit and waterproof and caked snow, Thor was almost unrecognizable.
"Jesus!" said Clint, standing. "Thor, man, I thought you were a yeti."
Even Thor's nose was blue, and his teeth were chattering. They unwrapped him and left the wet clothes to dry on the clothes line near the stove, made him cocoa and spiked it with Bruce's medicinal brandy, wrapped him in blankets and massaged his feet. It was ten minutes before he could talk, and his face was so bone-weary he looked as if he'd just come down from the summit.
"My friends," Thor said, his teeth chattering on the mug. "My friends, I am so glad to see you alive. I was not sure. I held out as long as I could."
He looked utterly exhausted. "Tell us later," said Bruce. "Clint, more hot water?"
"Truly," said Thor. "She was-" he paused. "A demon."
When he leaned forward with the mug, the blanket slipped, and there were bites on his neck which did not look like the marks of human teeth. Tony cocked an eyebrow, his mouth pursing, and when he looked away Steve's eyes met his.
"My endurance was great," Thor said, "But her appetites...were monstrous. I did not know."
"Rest," said Bruce firmly. "Ghulam, is there any stew left?"
The storm lasted three days. But on the fourth day, they woke early to a clear sky and a windless day, the fresh snow sparkling and the top of the mountain mist free. The porters at base camp were gearing up to bring the last few loads of supplies, and Pepper, by radio, promised five days of settled weather and maybe more.
They worked like Trojans, porters and climbers alike. Within days, the lower camps were fully stocked, Clint and Natasha forging ahead to camp four, camp five - on the fourth day after the storm, Clint radioed, triumphant, from camp seven. Poised beneath them, Bruce and Thor were at camp four. Tony and Steve, with the last of the oxygen bottles and the high altitude porters, at camp one.
It was Tony's decision. He held the receiver away from his mouth, and looked at Steve.
Steve smiled back, and said, "I trust you."
"Could you two make the summit, Clint?"
"Yes," said Clint.
"Then go for it," said Tony. "Don't wait."
Client said, immediately, "It's going to take you two a couple of days to get up here. We're good, but 'Tasha and I could do with going down for a night. Bruce and Thor too. We'll meet up at camp four, all of us. Yeah?"
"You don't have to give up your chance at the summit just to wait for us," said Tony. "Go for it, if you can." He was talking to Steve's eyes, wide and blue and steady.
"We've done everything as a team so far," said Clint. "And if it's okay with you, we'll climb this thing together, too. Out."
"Okay," said Tony, and then, "Out." He put the receiver down, still looking at Steve.
"Two days," Steve said. "We can do that."
The first day was fine and clear and the climbing easy. On the second, the wind was low, but the cloud was high and thin and fast-moving against the blue of the sky and Thor, climbing with them up from camp two, sniffed the air and frowned.
"Storm. First, small but strong. Then a clear day. Then, wind again."
"For how long?" asked Steve sharply.
Thor shrugged. "Two days? I cannot tell." He hesitated. "I cannot hold her off from the summit."
"It's a risk I'll take," said Tony.
At camp four, Clint and Natasha were waiting, both of them thinner, but looking fit. Clint still had the trace of a cough, but swore it was nothing. They'd laid ropes, they said, justifiably proud of themselves, up as far as the final step between the seracs, almost to the summit pyramid itself.
Another day, and they were all at camp six and on oxygen. Tony had been coaching Steve on the lower slopes; they'd carried up to camp five, but no higher. Clint and Natasha, pushing out ahead, had been using continually over twenty-two thousand feet.
Thor swore he would not use the contraption. And of them all, for all Bruce's exasperated arguments about oxygen deprivation and the death zone, it was Thor who was breathing deeply and easily no matter how meager the oxygen content of the air. He did agree, under pressure, to carry a mask and regulator and spare bottles, in case, higher up the mountain, he began to fail.
"But I will not," he said with dignity.
That night, when they turned into the two small camp six tents, the sky was clear and the stars so bright the snow glittered in the darkness. They needed to sleep - Tony's watch alarm would go off at two in the morning and it was already nine - but the stealthy thread of summit day excitement kept Tony tense in his sleeping bag, hands clenched. Thor was snoring, Steve's body the relaxed mass to which Tony had grown accustomed, over the last weeks.
It was Tony alone who heard the first gust of the breaking storm. The noise came from below, not above, the clatter and growl of wind streaming through the gullies and cracks of the lower face, tumbling rock and whipping snow from the ice. The tent held steady, the growl of the wind seemed safely far away, and Tony had nearly fallen asleep to sound of it when Thor rolled over.
"Steve," he said. "Steve, wake up."
"What?" Snapped awake, Steve's voice was sharply cognizant.
"Storm coming," said Thor. "Storm coming hard. Be ready."
"Tony?" said Steve.
"Here," said Tony.
They lay in silence and listen to the wind creep up the mountainside. The growl that had seemed safely far downslope crept towards them, stalking, and every shift of the canvas took on a sinister edge. But inside the tent, they lay in silence, waiting.
"My friends, it was in such a storm as this," said Thor quietly, "That my brother Loki cut the rope between us."
In the sudden silence, Tony could have sworn he heard the frost on the tent crackle.
"We were on Gasherbrum II," said Thor. "It was...we were in the springtime of our youth, and there was no one to touch us, Loki and I. He climbed like a young goat. I was always... he was the younger of us, but I was always the follower."
Steve turned over in his sleeping bag, blue eyes fixed on Thor's face.
"In those days the mountains were not hunted as they are today. Everywhere was virgin, untouched, and it was our own country. We taught ourselves on the ice. Our father had our tools forged, and our rope woven. Always, we were together. I trusted him as I have no other."
"I did not know Gasherbrum had been summited," said Tony softly.
"Indeed so," sighed Thor.
Tony believed him.
"We had made the usual sacrifices, but on the way down from the summit, the storm rode in. Five days and five nights it raged, and we were without shelter. On the sixth day, I said to Loki, we must go down. Our tracks had gone, and we had not marked our trail with willow and rope, as we do today. In the storm, we lost our way. And we were weak. When the ground fell away from under our feet, I fell. The ridge we descended was knife-edged - like this," Thor said, and steepled his fingers. "Loki held me for longer than any other man could have done. The rope had tangled my legs and arms, and I had fallen from an overhang. I could not ascend, and he could not descend."
"For three days I hung there," said Thor. "And on the fourth day, my brother cut the rope. I have not seen him since."
"You lived," said Steve.
Thor glanced up. "I lived," he agreed. "I cannot imagine Loki did not. But when I walked from the mountain, mine were the only footsteps in the snow."
The wind was picking up speed.
"Well," said Tony brightly. "That's cheering."
He could hear Steve catch his breath, eyes widening, but Thor let out his unexpected, booming laugh. "Ah, Iron Man," he said, "You do not know how you brighten my soul."
"Good," said Tony. "Happy to oblige. Because if we're confessing, I have to tell you guys that the President's a fool and cannot hit a drive off a two iron to save his life, the Moulin Rouge is not everything it's cracked up to be, and that I think free love's a total con. And...Steve. I didn't come here to find you. I wasn't even going to look. I came here to climb the mountain."
But Steve smiled. "I guessed that," he said.
"So," said Tony, dizzy with relief, because Steve had known and not been hurt, "Captain. How are you here?"
"Still classified. Ask the president," said Steve. "I hear you play golf with him."
"We are all friends, are we not?" asked Thor. "Steve?"
Steve rolled onto his back. "Okay," he said. "Okay."
"Steve, you don't have to say," said Tony quickly.
"I think maybe I do," said Steve, "If we are friends." He was still staring at the ridgepole. "My body - this body - is artificial," he said. "It was made. Not for me, but for the American people. For the war. There was a serum. The super-soldier serum. I volunteered. It made me what you see today."
"Irving's formula," said Tony, transfixed. "It worked."
"Yes," said Steve. He rolled his head and met Tony's eyes. "It worked on me," he said. "There were others, but I was the only one, then."
"He died, Irving," said Tony, filing through the dusty cabinets of his memories, but Steve looked unsurprised. "He died, in Europe, and my father kept his notes - they had been working together - and then after the war, after demob - that's when he came here. With you."
"Howard was hoping to replicate the experiment," said Steve carefully. "I was trying to talk him out of it."
"But why?" said Tony.
"Because the others went mad," said Steve.
Outside, the wind whistled, high and sweet, a warning. Then the gust came, a towering force that thundered over the ridge and slammed into the tent with such force Thor grabbed for the end poles and Steve the ridge. Thor was shouting, but the sound of his voice was lost in the scream of the wind. The gust seemed endless, so strong Tony could not hold the tent door closed and saw Thor's knapsack snatched away, his wet socks - Tony slammed his body down on everything else and hung on, gritting his teeth. He could see the tent poles bend almost to breaking. They were tensile steel, he'd made them himself.
When the wind at last lessened, he could not unclench his hands from the canvas. Steve did it for him, easing open his grip and massaging his fingers. Outside, the wind was still gusting, but nothing like that one killing blow.
Thor was struggling into his boots. "The others," he said. "I shall return." The snow outside the tent entrance had been scoured down to the ice.
"Okay?" said Steve.
"Yeah," said Tony. "Thanks." Then he said, "I'm sorry. About the serum. Not the effects, just the - Dad." He didn't specify, and he seemed to have his hand on Steve's shoulder, but Steve didn't seem to mind, and neither did Tony.
There didn't seem to be anything else to say. They lay looking at each other, still poised to leap for the poles, waiting for Thor's return. It seemed as if it was an hour, but it must have been minutes before the tent door opened, and Thor's "All is well!" sounded like the best news Tony had heard in years.
"They were sheltered by the rockface," Thor reported. "The tent poles bent, but did not break. Tony, my friend, thank you."
"You designed these," said Steve instantly.
"Yeah," said Tony.
"Count me impressed."
"Our Tony is a man of many talents," said Thor fondly.
"Our Tony would like to get at least some sleep tonight," Tony said, but the grumbling edge he'd meant to have in his voice was soft, not irritated.
"Then come over here," said Steve, "And let Thor get into his sleeping bag." He hadn't just said the words; he'd reached out and rolled Tony over, sleeping bag and all. They were wrapped up in one warm bundle, Steve's arms around Tony's back and his head on Steve's shoulder, both sleeping bags pulled together over their heads.
"Mumph," Tony said, not displeased, and let himself relax.
He was very nearly asleep when he felt his heartbeat flutter.
Never before had he been so aware that his body lived on oxygen. The flow turned up to max, fresh and strong, he could feel new life breathing through his body.
"Okay?" asked Steve. His hand was on Tony's back, his face, in the reflected light from his head lamp, was frowning.
Tony nodded, but Steve still looked unsure. He patted Tony's back, zipped up his jacket, and adjusted Tony's hat to cover his ears, and if Tony hadn't pushed him away, he was pretty sure Steve would have been diving in the sleeping bag after his boots.
They'd slept in their down suits, knapsacks ready, but it still took a precious hour to make tea and pull on boots and crampons, adjust the oxygen packs and check they all had goggles and gloves, dextrose tablets and cameras. At this altitude, thought came slowly and muddled. Natasha forgot to tape down her gloves. Clint only remembered his camera at the last minute. Even Thor checked and double-checked the slings on his harness, the knife that he usually carried in his pocket strapped to his belt, easily within reach.
Tony carried food, Steve, rope. It was a division of labor so instinctive they hadn't even discussed it, and as Tony clipped onto the last of the fixed ropes behind Steve's tall figure, he could barely remember that they had only been climbing together for a couple of weeks. They were so in tune it felt like a lifetime.
Steve led that first pitch, slow and steady, although Tony was cursing the pace as he dragged his boots through the hard-packed snow. Every step was a battle against his weakening body, ten strides a small war, but he kept going. Behind him he could hear Natasha's small, panting breaths, and Clint was coughing as he climbed, and in front of him the rise of the mountain was implacably steep. But the night was clear, cold, and the wind had dropped, and when dawn came it found them at the end of the fixed ropes, below the last step. They'd walked up the couloir in the dark, and in the cold had avoided both rock fall and the risk of avalanche, but as dawn broke the mountain showed them its teeth.
They were standing beneath the highest glacier on earth. Above them, vast, crumbling seracs of ice overhung the couloir, as high as tower blocks, massively weighted. In front of them, the rocks closed in to form a narrow, vertical gully, thirty stories high, of cold, blue ice. Only one climber at a time could struggle up the bottleneck, a killing, stomach-churning risk that would have been dangerous at sea level and was a nightmare at twenty-seven thousand feet.
Steve had stopped at the end of the fixed rope. So grateful for the respite he could have wept, Tony leaned over his ice-axe and breathed. Behind him, Natasha was clinging to the rocks and Clint was bent over, coughing; Bruce nursing his hands. But Thor had unclipped from the rope and was climbing past them, as easily smooth on the ice as a mountain leopard, and he and Steve did not even consult. Steve belayed, Thor gripped his ice hammer, and then Thor was climbing. Between the rocks, even his giant frame was dwarfed, but Thor moved so cleanly and swiftly Tony was breathless just watching. As he climbed, he took with him not only his own rope, but the last of the fixed ropes, pausing to hammer pitons into the ice and secure it into place. For all of them, that would be their lifeline.
The sun rose on Thor's ascent. Slowly, the shadows faded from the seracs and the snow whitened; the color of the ice changed from black to a deep, translucent blue. There was little enough warmth to the sunlight, but even that little was a boon that kept the waiting climbers warm enough to survive the wait.
At the top, Thor howled, a wordless scream of triumph that echoed off the ice and made Tony bare his teeth at the challenge. When he looked up, mind utterly focused on the battle of the ascent, Steve was grinning down at him.
They set off together. If Steve fell, Tony would fall with him. If Tony fell, he would drag Steve down with him, tumbling over the shoulder below them to the glacier, twelve thousand feet below. But to Tony, climbing, Steve's fleeting warmth and the sound of his breath was a reassurance worth any price, and by Steve's occasional smile and grunted comments, Steve felt the same way.
Behind them, forty feet below, Natasha was cursing in breathless Russian.
It took them an hour and a half to climb the bottleneck. By the time they got to the top, the sun was burning their backs, and they were parched with thirst. Tony could manage no more than a grunt when Steve clapped his shoulder at the top, and did not dare slump down into the snow. He would never have moved again, he knew - the thought was brutally clear, a shudder that ran through him as ice-cold as if the Goddess had breathed down the back of his neck.
There was a bottle of water in his jacket, against his heart, that was still unfrozen. Tony drank, straightened his goggles, and set off across the traverse to the summit ridge. Steve and Thor, he knew, would wait for the team to clear the bottleneck, but Tony was only human. He knew his limits. He started walking.
It seemed hours until Steve caught him up. He'd made it over the snow dome at the head of the glacier, and in front of him the summit ridge stretched, broad and white, up into the sky. Every step hurt. Every breath he drew into his lungs burned. Ice had gathered in his beard, around his goggles, clogged his boots and weighed down every stride, but Tony was still walking upwards.
He had no spare breath for Steve, but he could manage a smile.
Then Thor. Thor went past at a pace so fast that he could have been running, and suddenly the trail was broken snow, easier and quicker to negotiate. The ridge was narrowing, the sun was high in the sky, and behind him Tony could hear the heartening clatter and rustle of his team. Natasha's breaths were so shortly irritated she had to be close behind him, and Tony could hear Clint cough.
He kept walking.
Just below the summit, Steve stopped him, hand to chest, and took off his goggles. They'd iced up, and he hadn't noticed, the world narrowing to nothing but snow and ice. But the rest gave him fresh strength, and he was suddenly, joyfully aware that everyone was there - Steve and Bruce and Thor, Natasha and Clint.
On top of the world, they stepped onto the summit together, holding hands.
Bruce and Tony hugged, careful of Bruce's hands, elated. Then Clint and Tony, then Clint and Bruce, and Steve and Tony, and then Clint ambushed Natasha and Thor woke up and hugged all of them.
It was Steve who said, "We should go down."
The shock was arresting. Tony hadn't even thought about the descent. The climb, he had planned in every last detail. Going down - he had not been expecting to descend. But his heart beat steadily in his chest, and he'd changed his oxygen bottle - they all had, except Thor - and Steve was waiting expectantly by their confused footprints, leading down the ridge.
'Huh,' Tony thought, and looked around. Natasha's flag had vanished into her knapsack and Clint had put away his camera. The last few feet of the summit remained unsullied. The view was jaw-dropping. He couldn't have climbed with a better team.
Unfeasibly, he was happy. He nodded at Steve, thumped Bruce on the back, and started walking.
He glanced back, once, just as they turned onto the traverse above the glacier. The view in front of them was crystal clear, the shadows lengthening over the peaks and valleys of the mountain ranges. But, a thousand feet above them, K2's summit was hidden in cloud.
And when they stopped at the top of the bottleneck, there was fresh blood on the snow.
Dragging his oxygen mask down, Tony said quietly, "Steve?"
"Clint," said Steve, equally quietly.
Clint was coughing as Steve spoke, his glove over his mouth.
It took them three hours, though, to get Bruce down the bottleneck. The fever of ascent must have taken him up - his hands were still painful, although he'd been carrying loads further down the mountain and swore blind he was fine - but when he tried and failed to fumble his descenders onto the fixed rope three times, it was clear he wasn't going down without help. It was Thor who held him on the descent, setting new pitons into the ice every few feet, while Steve wrangled Bruce's stance and tried to protect his flailing hands. Although Tony had set up and explained the double-rope lowering technique to both of them, he was utterly helpless to help, beginning to feel the effects of the long day himself in his shaking knees and failing grip.
He had three hours of oxygen left in his oxygen bottle, and camp six was a thousand feet and two hour's climbing below him. Natasha and Clint were in the same position, and already Clint was starting to stumble, stopping every couple of minutes to stifle the cough that sounded harsher with every racking hack. "Steve," Tony said, "I'm going to send Clint and Natasha on."
Steve nodded. Tony could only see his back, his hood pulled up against the afternoon chill in the bottleneck and his gloved hands on Bruce's boots. Tony had waited fifteen minutes for them to descend ten feet.
"But I'll wait at the bottom."
Steve did turn his head for that, frowning.
"I've got a stove," Tony explained. He did, one of his new lightweight aluminum high altitude stoves, ruinously expensive and a quarter the weight of the paraffin stoves they used in the lower camps.
Letting go of one of Bruce's boots, Steve gestured emphatically at the shoulder below them, where the camp six tents sat, miniature colored dots, on the snow.
"If anything goes wrong," Tony said, "You're going to need help."
Steve's shoulders were hunched, but Tony stopped at the bottom anyway. His knees were shaking, and his hands were aching from the descenders, but the outcrop at the bottom of the bottleneck sheltered him from the rising wind, while the sun was still warm on the rocks. He remembered to tether his knapsack to the fixed rope before pulling out the stove, and found a flat stance for it between his feet. There was fresh snow compacted between the rocks, but melting it took almost an hour, the flame was so starved of oxygen. It kept Tony's hands warm, though, and he stomped his feet and hugged himself against the cold, watching Natasha and Clint make their way slowly down the fixed ropes. They'd almost reached camp six by the time the rattle of pitons announced the last of the team.
The descent had hit all of them hard. Steve's mouth was a tight line under his mask, and he flexed his hands as if they were achingly sore. Thor was panting. But it was Bruce's face, drawn and white, eyes closed, that truly scared Tony.
"You should have gone down, Tony," said Steve tightly.
Tony had to take Bruce's oxygen mask off for him "Bruce?"
"Never going to play by the rules," Tony's friend whispered, eyes still closed.
Steve was holding the mug for Bruce. When he drank, tea dripped down the icicles around his mouth and froze instantly. He couldn't take much, pushing Steve's hand away, coughing. "Tony. Good run. No regrets. Make sure...good guys."
"Bullshit," said Tony, fiercely angry. "Fucking bullshit, kid. You're not giving up on me now." There was little enough air in his own lungs, mask in one hand, but he took a deep breath anyway. Then he slapped Bruce in the face, hard as he could.
Steve was a second too late, nearly spilling the tea. Thor, hair matted with frozen sweat, merely glanced up. But Bruce - Tony could see the spurt of anger bring color into his skin.
Bruce had always had a ferocious temper.
"Want me to do that again?" he said, gasping. Steve's hand was steady on his shoulder. "Gonna have to catch me." His voice was sharp, as taunting as he could make it.
Eyes open, Bruce was struggling to his feet. "You little shit," he managed.
Then Thor clapped the oxygen mask neatly over Bruce's mouth. Tony side-stepped and felt Steve move with him, a solid anchor against the slope, and Bruce lunged after him down the fixed rope, flushed with rage.
Tony ran for it. As fast as he could walk, when every step was an effort and he could hear Bruce panting behind him, when every hundred steps he had to turn around and take his mask off and impugn Bruce's lab technique and his master's thesis, his first girlfriend and his inedible cooking and his inability to sing a single note.
But he had Steve, amused blue eyes behind the glass of his goggles, Steve taking the lead, taking charge of Tony's sling on the fixed rope, checking his oxygen levels and nodding at him with every particularly successful sally. Steve, taking point at a steady pace that Tony could relax into following.
They made camp six just as the sun set. And Natasha, who must have had heroism written into her bones, had all three stoves going already.
They were all absolutely played out, almost too tired to spoon the reconstituted soup into their mouths. At that altitude, food was almost tasteless, but their bodies were burning through calories and if they were to have any chance of making it down, they had to eat. Even Thor's face was drawn and aged, a worn mask in the light of Steve's headlamp. Clambering into his sleeping bag was an effort Tony only just managed, and when Steve curled up beside him Tony could hear the way the man was sucking oxygen through the mask, exhausted by effort. He'd have liked to have rolled over, wrapped himself in Steve's strength as he had done the night before, but sleep dragged him into restless, vividly surreal dreams.
If Tony's alarm went off, he was too tired to wake. It was the final hiss of his empty oxygen bottle that finally clawed him out of a nightmare of a post-apocalyptic New York, and he opened his eyes and blinked up at tent canvas already pale in the first light of dawn. Frost had spun icy webs of exhaled condensation across the fabric overnight, and when Tony looked across at Steve's sleeping face, the light through the canvas patterned his face in icy blue, crystalline shadows.
He could have been under the ice again.
"Steve!" Tony said, urgently, sitting up and reaching out to shake Steve awake. "Steve!"
It was then that the avalanche hit.
They were lucky. So very, very lucky.
The camp was on flat ground, pitched deliberately away from the terrifying chute of the bottleneck and the couloir below it, and the snow was old and densely packed, unwilling to lose its icy grip on the rock. And the full force of the avalanche slammed into the shoulder below the glacier, spilling harmlessly down the East Face. Only the hungry overspill reached the vulnerable tents.
But there, it slammed down with such force it ripped every tent peg from the ice. It tumbled the tents into a roller-coaster free fall, suffocating, crushing, rending canvas and snapping poles. Only the thundering growl of the ice, a second before it hit, warned Tony: he thrust his arms wide, hands fisted, and tensed every muscle. If they survived the first fall, it was the snow that would kill them, compressing every space and suffocating them into a gasping, helpless death. He had to make and keep enough air space for them to live, fight the snow and the terrible disorientation, and hurt - oh, Christ, it hurt. He was screaming with the pain of it, but Steve and Thor were both trapped in their sleeping bags and their only hope was Tony's failing strength. His chest muscles were burning, his fisted hands grating against the canvas, he'd lost his oxygen mask and there was no air, nothing, his lungs were burning, and they were tumbling end over end, they must be little more than a prayer short of free-fall down nine thousand feet of the West face.
He could hear his own voice, screaming.
He could hear, and they had stopped moving. The weight on his arms was immense, but he'd held the space open, there was air, and he could just see the tangle of sleeping bags that must be Steve and Thor. "Steve," Tony called, not daring to move. "Steve!"
Briefly, the sleeping bags moved, and then convulsed, tangling. Something gleamed in the pale, snow-rendered light. Thor's knife, cutting his way out, and Thor with it, scrambling free, and Steve - "Stay," Thor said urgently, taking in Tony's desperate pose.
Clear of the sleeping bag, Steve froze in place, his eyes on Tony even as Thor ran his fingers over the strained, bulging canvas of the tent. Already what little air they had was thinning. Tony was gasping for breath, spots in front of his eyes, and he could see the vivid flush of oxygen deprivation on Steve's cheeks.
Thor said urgently, "I will cut here. The snow will fall. Tony, you must leap towards me. I will push you up. Steve, grab my belt. Do not let go."
"Boots," said Steve.
Tony's were still on. He was wearing his oversuit, and his harness: his ice-axe was cutting into his knee: he looked down, measured the angle, and knew he could grab it as he lunged. Steve, too, was fully dressed.
Thor was in socks. Absurdly, a moment of tragic comedy they'd laugh about later if they survived, they were the ones with the reindeer knitted into the cuffs.
"Lend me that knife," said Steve, his voice shallow, using as little oxygen as possible.
Thor did. Twisting, compressed, Steve cut his way into the sleeping bag, and closed his fist around Thor's boots. Then he passed the knife back, and Thor cut the canvas.
The tent folded as simply as a house of cards, the air was gone, and Tony flung himself at Thor as if he was heading over Niagara in a barrel. He was climbing through a waterfall of snow, a death race, an impossible thrust - and then his head broke free, and there was air. He kicked out, felt himself hit something, and rolled free on the tumble of ice that was the bones of a fury so fierce he could barely encompass what had happened.
He was not alone. Gasping, aching in every limb, Tony pushed himself to his knees and reached back down into the compacted snow. A hand caught his. Thor's hand. He pulled. He pulled with every muscle tearing and his lungs burning, against the drag of the killing ice and the knifing cold, and he tore Thor free. Thor, scrabbling down into the snow, pulled Steve out behind him.
And Steve still held Thor's boots in his hand. Strapped to his chest - how, in God's name, he'd found time and strength - he had two oxygen bottles and two respirators. He was tearing them free, standing up, pausing to set two fingers against Tony's pulse and give him the faintest of nods, and then setting off across the tumbled ruin of what had been smooth snow two minutes before.
Clint and Natasha and Bruce had been in the other tent.
Tony snatched his next breath and ran. Climbers lived minutes, in avalanches. Less. If they had the wit to form an airspace, twenty minutes. Perhaps. And he had been the only one awake in their tent.
Thor and Steve were already quartering the ground. Tony, aching in every limb, joined them.
But it was Natasha who rescued Clint and Bruce. They'd fallen away from the main thrust of the avalanche, almost as far as the West face, but the snow above them was shallow and loosely compacted. And Natasha, like Thor, carried a knife. She cut them all free, dragged Clint and Bruce from the collapsed tent, and by the time Thor and Steve reached her she was already rescuing their knapsacks, the ration packs, and the precious oxygen bottles.
Natasha wasn't a woman for hugs, but Thor managed anyway.
There on the tumbled mass of the avalanche, they counted the cost in lost equipment, improvised, planned, and tended their wounds. They could have been so very, very worse hit. Tony shuddered, looking up at the threating seracs of the glacier, and silently thanked a god he seldom acknowledged.
Beside him, Thor said quietly, "We summited. And now she is angry."
Steve's head whipped around. "Then let's show her," he said, "Exactly what we're made of."
They had two rope-lengths and a single stove, three ration packs and five ice-axes between them. Miraculously, Thor's ice hammer had been thrown free of the ice and came to his hand undamaged. "This is all I need," he said. Enough oxygen, just, to make camp five. Thor had a bruise on his cheekbone where Tony's flailing feet had caught against bone, one of Bruce's crampon straps had snapped and had to be fixed with a spare sling, and Clint had lost every single one of the willow poles they'd been using to mark the route. Bruce's hands were still almost useless. Tony had strained every muscle into aching complaint, and his heart - Tony pressed his hand against his heart, bent over to hide the pain, and fiercely willed it into a constant rhythm.
But they were alive. Alive, racing to pack everything up, heading down as fast as they possibly could. The mountain was a brooding presence, the cloud over K2's summit was dark and laden with snow, and the wind that was picking up as they left the ruins of the campsite was viciously cold.
By the time they got to camp five, it was freezing, and late in the afternoon. But none of them even suggested stopping. Instead, they plundered supplies and oxygen, refueled with soup that was barely warm, and sped on down. Haste dogged their heels, and Tony felt, all the way down, as if there were eyes on the back of his neck, waiting for him to fall. He hurt so badly the temptation to curl up in the snow and give up was almost overwhelming, but Bruce was still walking, his hands clumsy but so much better than they had been on the bottleneck, and Clint was coughing up bright blood spatters beside the fixed ropes and still moving, and every time Tony stood still for more than a moment he felt Steve's gloved hand on his back, a steady pressure.
He kept going.
They hit the top of House's Chimney in the half dark.
"Okay," said Steve. "Okay. We have two choices. We go down in the dark. Or we bivouac."
They had half a chance in hell of surviving a bivouac at twenty-one thousand feet. Tony said slowly, because he was so cold his mouth was dry and his tongue swollen, "Down."
"Everyone else?" said Steve.
"Down," said Natasha, her face almost hidden by her hood.
Clint only managed a nod.
"Right," said Steve. "Then this is the way it's going to be."
They abseiled it. Abseiled the old-fashioned way, with slipknots and figure-of-eights, with Steve belaying the rope and Thor on the safety line. Bruce, Steve and Thor downright lowered, every muscle strained, Steve's jaw set and his eyes shut with the effort. It was risky, crazy, and effective, and Tony could almost see the strength drain from Steve's arms as he held Bruce on the rope. He couldn't bear to watch, studied the ice at his feet, the verglas over the rocks, and then the skeletal structure of his lifting apparatus. When Bruce was finally down, almost unconsciously, he began to unscrew the pulleys. He couldn't take the poles, but he could at least take those.
It was almost full dark now.
"Tell me you'll get down," Tony said, fiercely, to Steve and Thor.
Steve said, "We'll be right behind you."
They weren't. Neither of them trusted the belays and pitons enough to abseil with only one anchor. They down-climbed instead, fastening in to the fixed rope and finding every handhold and foothold in the meager light of failing headlamps. From below, where Tony watched from the doorway of a camp three tent, they looked like fireflies in the dark, although no firefly could have lived in the freezing cold of a K2 night.
It was ten o'clock before they made it to the tents, and Steve's face was white with fatigue. Even Thor stumbled into camp. They were nearly too tired to eat. "You must," said Natasha fiercely, as Tony unstrapped two sets of crampons and unzipped two sleeping bags, his hands shaking.
That night was bad, and the morning was worse. Not wind, but cloud. A suffocating, heavy mass of cloud that was as white as the snow, disorientating and impenetrable. There was no horizon. They could barely see from tent to tent.
"Never," said Thor, "Never. This, I did not predict." He was huddled, still in his sleeping bag, at the front of the tent. Wisps of cloud tangled in his beard and faded the blue of his eyes.
"Natural?" said Tony. Even his voice was cracked. Everything hurt.
Thor snorted. "No."
Rolling over, Steve groaned. "Fair enough." His eyes met Tony's. There were lines around them that had not been there three days before, although Steve had somehow escaped the chapped lips and ice-scoured faces the rest of the climbers wore.
Tony dragged up a smile, and reached for his boots.
The fixed rope was fifty feet away, lost in the cloud. It might as well have been on the moon. They were utterly isolated, unable to see the precipice of the West face that tumbled away below the tents, and the compass in Tony's pocket spun uselessly when consulted. Step beyond the tents, and they were lost.
"Clint," said Natasha, her voice hollow and thick even though she sat five feet away. "Clint, did you mark the rope?"
"Yes?" said Clint. He coughed. He'd been coughing all night.
"So," said Natasha. "You will take our rope, and belay me here, where the snow is deep enough for the axe, and I will find the fixed rope."
"'Tasha-" said Steve.
"I will not fall," said Natasha fiercely.
When Natasha clambered away from the tents, her small, upright figure was lost to the white in seconds, but behind her the red nylon rope crept out across the snow, slow and hesitating, a vital lifeline. There were minutes when it did not move at all. Moments when it dragged into the snow as Natasha turned downslope. A terrifying second when it snapped taut, and Clint's hissed breath as he held the belay echoed between the tents. Then, it was still.
Nothing happened, and Steve said, sharply, "We should-"
"I have it," said Natasha simply, walking into the gap between the tents as if she'd gone for an afternoon stroll.
"My lady!" Thor exclaimed.
Natasha looked away. But, faint through the drifting cloud, Clint was looking at her face, and he was smiling.
They felt their way down Natasha's line, and then down the fixed ropes. In the insulation of the cloud, the overnight frost had failed, and rock fall followed them every step of the way. The scree underfoot felt alive, a shifting, angry beast Tony flinched from disturbing, and the couloirs were nightmares of rocks that did not slide but shot down the slope, ricocheting from the ice and setting off miniature avalanches with every crash against ice. All of them were wounded, that day. Natasha had to keep wiping the blood from her goggles from the gash on her forehead, and Thor was limping, holding one arm awkwardly at his side, although he refused Steve's offered sling. They needed their hands.
But, that afternoon, they brewed tea in ruins of a flattened camp two, and by the time they'd climbed down past the overhang the cloud was clearing.
"I do not trust her," Thor muttered.
Tony was the only one close enough to hear.
Then as the cloud lifted, the snow came down. It started lightly, tiny white flakes floating on the gentlest of breezes, dancing on the bare rock and swirling in the updraft, but as they neared the glacier the flakes grew heavier. Heavy and thick and crowding, so substantial they settled on hats and gloves and knapsacks, weighed down every stride and clumped under their crampons until every footstep was an iced-up nightmare. The fixed rope saved their lives time and again as they slid down the last feet of the mountainside, clinging to handholds that were almost hidden, stumbling with every step. Even when the slope eased, the sticky thickness of the snow was exhausting, clinging and dragging at their aching feet.
They hadn't bothered to fix a rope on the glacier. But they had marked the route with willow poles, and through the whirling snowflakes the line of them showed clear to the tents beyond the moraine.
Tony was almost too tired to appreciate the lifeline. Somewhere on the ridge after camp two, his heart had begun to flutter. They'd dropped in altitude, but his breath was still coming so short he was dizzy with the lack of it, and the black spots in front of his eyes danced with the snow and made every footstep an exhausting, estimated risk. The oxygen had run out at camp three, but he would have begged for more if he'd had breath.
When they reached the glacier, he fell to his knees, and stayed there. He could hear the wheeze of fluid in Clint's lungs. Natasha had been silent for the last two hours, not even enough energy left for the vicious Russian curses she inflicted on rope and snow alike.
Above Tony's head, Steve was talking, but even his voice was thick with fatigue.
"Thor. Porters. Hot drinks."
"Captain," said Thor. Then quieter, "Take care. She is not yet spent."
He was gone, steadily, still limping a little, following the line of poles.
"Natasha?" said Steve.
She said nothing, but Tony, incurious, watched her start walking. Then he saw her stop and turn around, and the crack of her voice was an order. "Prishe!"
Tony nearly stood up himself. Clint did. Then he pulled Bruce up with him, and Natasha waited for them both.
"Well," said Tony, surprised he could still form the words. "Looks like it's you and me, old man."
Steve laughed. After the nightmare of the descent, and the cold, and the fear, Steve laughed, his eyes as softly affectionate as if he really liked Tony, not just for the money and the toys and the bluster, the reasons most people liked Tony, but for Tony himself. As if they'd been together on the rope in more ways than one.
"Come on, then," Steve said, and pulled Tony to his feet.
They walked. The snow was a muffling, wet eiderdown. The poles faded in and out of the falling flakes. The footsteps in front of them were hollow, filling already.
The figures in front of them had stopped. Natasha was doing something with her harness. Then Bruce's. Then Clint. They were so close to the tents Tony could not understand why she'd stopped, until - he peered through the snow - they started walking again, spaced out, and he realized Natasha had roped them together.
Looking at Steve, Tony raised his eyebrows, questioning, and Steve vanished.
He fell quietly, between one footstep and the next, the snow bridge he was walking on plunging silently into the depth of the crevasse it covered. The moment before he fell, he flung his arms wide, wide as a bird in flight, but the crevasse must have been wider. He fell, and did not call out.
Tony could have sworn his heart stopped. The snow, the wind, the beat of his heart, all silent. Steve had vanished as simply as if he had never existed.
Then Tony screamed.
He had no rope. He had no rope, and Steve had fallen into the ice, but Tony still scrambled forward, flinging himself down, careless of the crumbling snow, to peer down into the pale depths of the crevasse. Cold struck his face as he leaned over, beating tears from his eyes: he had to blink and shake his head and look again. The ice was green-shaded, striated, snowfall after snowfall compacted and petrified, the walls of the crevasse sheer and smooth. He blinked fiercely, swiped the freezing tears from his eyes with a clumsy gloved hand, and then far, far below, he could see the blue of Steve's down suit.
He had no rope. He had pulleys. He had his own hands. He had his ice-axe, and if he had rope he could have belayed himself, gone down into the ice and - he could not imagine Steve dead. But Steve's body on the ledge did not move, although Tony's voice echoed back to him from the ice abyss hoarse and desperate.
Natasha had to turn his face in her hands to make him look up. Her hood was back, and he could see the blue-black bruises of exhaustion under her eyes, but she was talking to him.
"...rope," said Natasha. "Belay. Sent...for Thor."
"Oh, thank Christ," said Tony, and slammed - he still, amazingly, had the strap around his wrist - turned and slammed his ice-axe into the snow.
The rope lay ready coiled. As he pulled it through his harness in the pattern Steve had taught them, back on the House's Chimney, Natasha was whipping it around the shaft of the axe, sitting down and bracing her feet. She wrapped two loops around her hands, a dead-man's hold that would send the rope burning through her gloves and her skin underneath if Tony fell, and nodded.
Tony went over the edge.
He nearly lost everything on that first step. The cold was so much harder than he had expected, a furious wall of ice-cold air that struck up from the depths of the glacier and robbed his lungs of every ounce of air he had left. His face was burning with the cold, his hands cramping with it, his feet numb, and the shock nearly broke his grip on the rope. Nearly. He hung there for precious seconds, gasping, and then he looked up at the darkening sky and slid the abseil knots down the rope.
Slowly, steadily, he went down, balancing his crampon points against the ice walls and feeding the rope through his stiffening hands. Below him, in the killing cold, Steve's body did not move.
When Tony finally landed on the ledge, Steve was still motionless. He lay on his stomach, one hand flung out and hanging over the abyss, his right leg twisted underneath him at a sickeningly wrong angle, and there was blood frozen into the ice-matted strands of his hair. His head was on one side, facing the wall, and if he was breathing, the motion was so slight it was undetectable.
Tony eased himself down to his knees on the ledge, let the rope slacken, and crept forward. He had to balance on the edge to reach Steve's face, boots hanging over the drop, and the ice walls were pitilessly smooth. If he'd had an ice-axe to hammer it in with, there was no weakness there to hold a piton and anchor his rope. If he fell, Tony knew, he'd take Natasha with him.
Steve's skin was so cold Tony could feel the chill of it through his gloves. His own hands were dangerously numb, but he pulled off his over-glove anyway, and felt for Steve's carotid pulse. He could feel nothing.
But Steve had lived through worse. With stiffened fingers, slowly, carefully, Tony began to build a harness from the slings at his waist. It had to be perfect: agonizingly, time slipping through his fingers, he double-checked every knot. As he worked, he could feel the cold creep into every crevice and nook in his clothing, slide down the back of his neck and coil against his shoulder blades. The touch of it on his face was a freezing kiss. His hands moved slower. He was finding it difficult to think. Sling. Knot. Sling. Shoulders. Not neck. Thighs. Steve was so very heavy, stone heavy, utterly inflexible.
When the second rope hit him on the shoulder, Tony was so startled he nearly fell, teetering on the edge of the ledge. It was his snatched clutch at the rope itself which saved him. For a moment, he stared at his own hand clenched fast, not understanding the warm, red line of that rope against his palm, his wrist, the curl of it that fell down below his boots into the ice.
The he realized what it meant, and looked up. The rope led, taut, over the lip of the glacier, and that meant someone was on the other end. Someone who could pull Steve up.
Tony tied his teammate into that rope so very, very carefully, crying with cold. When he'd done, he pulled the rope twice, two sharp tugs, and let go.
It went taut. The fibers stretched, tensioned against Steve's weight: the strain on the twisted nylon threads must have been horrendous, but somewhere on the surface, someone kept pulling. Steve's body, reluctantly, bent into the harness Tony had forged. Then, he came off the ice. An inch. Six. A foot. Another, and Tony had to duck under Steve's trailing arm or be knocked off the ledge.
Slowly, jerkily, Steve's body rose through the ice to the mouth of the crevasse. Tony watched it go. He was huddled against the back wall of the ledge now, too cold to move, almost too cold to think, beyond shivering, but he still watched as Steve's body, finally, made it to the surface. There he hung for endless minutes. And, at last, was rolled up into the snow outside.
The breath Tony took then nearly killed him. He must have ice in his lungs, blades of ice, because the pain was so bad he would have thrown up if his stomach and his throat were not equally cold. His hands... idly, Tony fumbled his over-glove on. Almost certainly, he had frostbite. He'd lose his toes one by one, watch them blacken and suppurate and fall. His fingers. His nose. He'd seen a man once who'd lost his tongue to frostbite.
The second rope fell back into his lap. Beyond surprise, he looked at it, wondering why it was there.
Then he remembered Toni Kurtz, dying on the North Wall of the Eiger, his hands too frozen to tie the knots that would have saved him. Toni Kurtz, pitied and mourned.
No one was going to pity Tony Stark. Ever.
He picked up the rope, and tied it into his harness. He could do no more.
When the pull came, he leaned into it, and closed his eyes. There was nothing he could do to fend his body off the ice. His elbows scraped, his knees, his boots: his legs were hanging at a curious angle. There was a calculation for that. One for weight, one for stress: he tried to remember the names, and could not. The light seemed to be failing. The green of the ice was darkening as he rose, which was strange, because it had been daylight when he fell.
No, it was Steve that fell.
'He was the best of us,' Tony thought, and opened his eyes. The sky was black, pitted with stars. It had stopped snowing.
Natasha said, "Moj dorogoj."
He wanted to say something, but he thought his heart might have stopped. The sky was falling. Everything was...nothing.
Almost naked. He seemed to be in bed with an equally almost naked Steve Rogers. Well. That was a turn up for the books. But, yes, that was Steve's blond head on the oddly lumpy pillow, his chin, clean shaven, and that meant it was his arm under Tony's shoulder's and his notably heavy thigh, thrown over Tony's hips. Tony hadn't realized they were that well acquainted, he and the Captain, but he wasn't going to complain.
Although, come to think of it, he knew that pillowcase. It was stuffed with his own spare sweaters. And the mattress felt suspiciously anaemic. Which meant...maybe he had made it out of the crevasse alive.
He wriggled. Steve's hand tightened. His eyes opened.
"No sex on the mountain," Tony muttered on reflex, and then watched, fascinated, as Steve blushed.
Then Steve said, very dry, "I wasn't aware it was an option." But his eyes, brilliantly blue, were crinkling at the corners, and he wasn't looking away.
Tony was trying and failing to summon a rejoinder when Bruce's face loomed over the pair of them. Tony yelped, Steve laughed at him, and Bruce said, "Back with us? Good. I have a battery of tests."
He wasn't going to lose his toes. Possibly, the ends of two fingers, but Bruce was cautiously hopeful. The tips of Tony's ears and his nose were frost-nipped, but that was okay, and Steve didn't seem to mind. Nobody let him get out of bed - they'd put him in the mess tent, by the stove. Everyone had seen him naked, although that wasn't unusual, and Pepper yelled at him, also situation normal. Although Bruce insisted on endless drafts of tea, and Clint offered to hold his dick while he peed, at which Steve's head came up sharply and his eyes narrowed.
And that, that might have been truly interesting, if Tony wasn't so exhausted he didn't think his body could summon the energy if Captain America himself rolled naked into the same pile of sleeping bags. Which he did, give or take a pair of bright blue briefs. Two nights in a row. And then, once Tony summoned the energy to stumble to his own tent while the rest of the team packed up base camp, he seemed to be sharing that mattress, too.
By the fourth day, Tony was praying for a helicopter. The glint in Thor's eyes was almost unspeakable, Bruce was sniggering into his Argyll sweater, Pepper had gone soft around the eyes and even Anwar clapped him on the back and shook his hand. Steve seemed sunnily oblivious, and Tony was dying of frustration. But they were at base camp. Even if Tony was sure Steve and he were still on the same page - and he wasn't - he was still so tired he didn't think he could get it up for Steve in lingerie. Even if he could, after the battle of their descent, no one was going to be in favor of Tony breaking any sexual taboos on the mountain. And even when they'd struck base camp and were on their way down the glacier, everyone was showing the scars of the climb. Porters and climbers alike moved slowly, stiff and careful, stopped often for tea, woke late and set out later. Tony slept in the crook of Steve's arm, curled under the same sleeping bags, and counted the days until they were off the ice.
Slowly, they passed Concordia, and then the end of the glacier, and at Askole they saw, for the first time in sixty-two days, grass.
Tony could have got down on his knees. Clint did.
In Askole, there was a woman who made jewelry, and Tony bargained fourteen cooking pots for two spools of copper wire, and spent an afternoon taking his satellite phone apart and putting it back together. He got through to Rawalpindi on the second try, and spoke to Mazood. And Tony was a very rich man indeed.
The military helicopters arrived the next afternoon, perfectly timed. Pepper and Anwar had paid off the Hunza porters with a generosity that reflected their courage, heading up alone onto the mountain as they had, donated almost all the left-over gear, and taken the last of the food to the hospital. Tony had given the school his generator and promised to send fuel. They were leaving the mountain with a single crate of personal equipment, a satellite phone, Anwar's rock samples, and Captain Steven Rogers, just a little battered, but still smiling.
The British Ambassador's wife blanched, and Anwar's eyebrows twitched, although his poker face was magnificent.
Pepper said, "Climbing terminology can be so confusing. Would you like some more wine?"
"I wouldn't," said Tony, who had abandoned his glass under the umbrella stand an hour ago and was denuding their host's cherished imported malt.
"The Iranian Attaché was looking for you," said Pepper firmly.
"George?" said Tony. "I didn't think we were speaking after Monte Carlo. Maybe he did get his Alfa back."
"Tony," said Pepper.
"What?" said Tony. "And please, Tony."
"There are two gentlemen at the door wishing to speak to you," said Sirdar Singh, the Ambassador's Major Domo. He was Sikh, quietly dignified, and even the unexpected arrival of six bedraggled, triumphant climbers and a liaison officer with only a bag of rocks and a single packing case of spare clothing between them had failed to raise a single eyebrow.
"Well, invite them in!" said Tony.
"In the circumstances, I would rather not," said Sirdar Singh. "Mr Stark."
"What are you not telling me, Mr Singh?" asked Tony.
"I would prefer you see for yourself," said Sirdar Singh, pointedly omitting any form of designation.
The two gentlemen outside the door were wearing the worst-fitting suits Tony had seen since Wroclau in '64. An unfortunate dye had rendered the fabric to a greenish black, strongly reminiscent of mildew, and the shoes... the least said about the shoes the better.
But it was the briefcases that were the dead giveaway. Tony eased out of the door, and let it close behind him. "Gentlemen," he said.
That was a Kiev accent, and ill-educated, to boot.
"Yes," said Tony.
"Of the Stark International 1968 K2 Expedition?"
"Of the successful Stark International 1968 K2 Expedition," said Tony. "You might have noticed. We're having a party."
"We have reason to believe that a Soviet national may have climbed on your permit."
And that was a Moscow accent. "First I've heard of it," said Tony. He took a meditative sip of the Ambassador's Macallan, and posed. Tony Stark, international playboy.
The image wasn't quite as sharp around the edges as it used to be.
"Natasha Romanoff," said the Kiev gentleman. "A dangerous woman, Mr. Stark. For your own safety-"
"I really should introduce you to my tailor," said Tony. "Did I hear right? Did you say your missing citizen - oh, did I mean disenfranchised Soviet national? - was female? Have you any idea what we went through up there? Ice storms," he said. "Avalanches. Rock falls. Temperatures so low your balls would have frozen solid. You think I would have taken a chick up K2? Think again."
"She is a mistress of disguise," said Moscow, attempting to loom.
Amused, Tony scoffed.
"Mr. Stark," said Kiev. "We know perfectly well you did take a woman to K2. Miss Potts. And where there is one, there will be others."
"Pepper?" said Tony. Behind him, he could hear the sound of high-heeled shoes on the Islamabad tiles of the hallway. He raised his voice. "Pepper was just there to do the cooking."
Kiev's eyes slid past his left shoulder. Moscow took a step back. And when Tony turned around, Pepper was standing in the doorway.
"Who manages your company while you play in your workshop, Tony?" she hissed. "Who arranged your permits and booked your flights and ordered your Icelandic sleeping bags and tested your rations and packed your goddam socks? Who sat by that radio for two months while you fiddled around on a lump of rock in the middle of a glacier? Who had to open your post and find out-" her voice was rising "-find out exactly what was wrong with you from a stinking-"
Steve was there, frowning as politely as only Steve could manage. He had a hand on Pepper's shoulder, but he was looking at the briefcases.
Nice bow-tie, too. A little old-fashioned, but it suited Steve.
"Pep?" said Tony.
"Only there to cook? Screw you," said Pepper, and threw her glass of wine all over Tony's suit.
"Oops," Tony said.
Carefully, he undid his tie, and shook it out. Wine dripped onto the doorstep. "Uh, not really," he began.
Steve coughed. "Gentlemen?" he said, all six feet two inches of him blocking the doorway. "Perhaps not the moment for social calls. Please do come back tomorrow." Gently but firmly, he was ushering Tony inside. "Most people are leaving anyway," he added.
The British Ambassador was shaking Tony's hand. "Jolly good show, old boy," he said. "Although..." He leaned forward. "Best tell the tall one to be more discreet. No one actually minds, just not in polite company."
Tony glanced at Steve, because they were definitely sharing a guest bungalow and possibly if he was very good and very lucky - and he was usually both - a real bed, but it was Thor the Ambassador nodded towards. And there was a wicked glint of amused acknowledgement in Steve's eyes. Tony swallowed. Hard.
"Public school," the Ambassador muttered. "Makes heathens of us all, what!"
Then he was gone, saluting the Ghurkhas as he went. The French Ambassador nodded goodbye, avoiding Tony's eyes. His wife was almost running. The Lunghi Aeronautics people were bowing farewells. The Iranians were practically beating down the door. Elbowed off the steps, pushed to the house gate, escorted outside by the hastily borrowed, solicitous Ghurkas of the British Embassy Guard, Moscow and Kiev were in temporary defeat.
"Told them the whisky had run out," Steve hissed, clearly a man of outstanding strategic genius because the wine was undrinkable. "The Sirdar helped. Were those Russians after Natasha?"
"Marry me," said Tony, and then hastily, "Maybe not." He didn't think the world was quite ready for that one. Him neither, although the prospect didn't seem quite so precipitous, these days.
Steve didn't even blink.
"'Tasha?" said Tony. She was lurking behind the armoire, although the scarlet frock that belonged to the Ambassador's daughter was less than useful camouflage. "The plane leaves tomorrow. Early. Hotel Stark. Malibu or New York, your pick. Clint practically lives there already, the moocher, and I'm building Bruce his own lab. Political asylum absolutely catered for. You in?"
"You mean that?" said Natasha.
"Yes," said Tony. "I'm working on Thor. Capice?"
"Yes," said Natasha, and clicked the safety pin back on the ancient Luger she'd had trained on the door.
"I'm working on you, too, Captain," Tony said to Steve.
"Apologize to Pepper first," said Steve. "She was going to scream, but you gave her too good an opening."
Tony held his hand out. His tie was still dripping.
Raising an eyebrow,
Steve looked back.
He could get used to that. For Steve, he could be a better man.
"Pepper?" Tony asked, knocking on the dressing room door. "Pep?"
"Cooking," said Pepper, still looking indignant, snatching the door open. "When you know I can burn a boiled egg."
"It was for 'Tasha," said Tony.
"When we get back to Malibu," said Pepper, "You can build me a climbing wall. And put me on the team. Next time, I'm coming to the top."
"Okay," said Tony, re-evaluating. "Cerre Torre, next summer?" He paused. "I haven't asked Steve yet."
"Of course he'll come," said Pepper. "Idiot. So, Anthony Stark, you're planning on sticking around?"
"You knew about my heart," said Tony.
"Of course I knew," said Pepper. "I was just waiting for you to tell me."
"The surgery's in three weeks," said Tony. "That gives me a month to get back on my feet and another couple to get fit. We're going to need visas for Thor and 'Tasha. New equipment. There's a guy I know flying out of Lima that might help. I'll give you some names."
"Tony," said Pepper, "We'll discuss it tomorrow. Go ask Steve." The smile she gave him was one she'd been wearing a lot, these past few days, softer around the edges than he was used to, disconcerting, but Pepper was already pulling the door closed. "You're still wet!" she added, muffled.
He went in search of a towel and his missing partner, but Steve was not in the bungalow, any more than he was in the deserted rooms of the Embassy. Finally tracked down, he was in the garden, sitting on an exquisitely carved bench and watching the stars.
"Hey," said Tony, sitting down, Steve's shoulder warm and heavy against his. "Ever been to South America? I'm thinking about Cerre Torre."
"I'm not sure-" said Steve, and stopped.
He knew it was too good to be true. Steve had a whole new life in front of him, and he'd be a fool if it included Tony. "Good enough for me and Bobby McGee," Tony muttered.
"I'm sorry?" said Steve. He had produced a handkerchief from somewhere, exquisitely laundered and beautifully starched, and was trying to blot the wine from Tony's suit.
"Pop reference," said Tony. "All the teenagers are saying it. Here, give me that." He mopped, ineffectually. "You do what you want," he said. After all, there was a chance he wouldn't come through the surgery. The whole thing was guesswork. He wasn't sure himself if the pace maker design would work, if he'd be alive next summer, all systems go. "Not that - I mean, I get the time dichotomy, you'll need, Pepper will, we can - hell, Steve, whatever you want."
"Cerre Torre," said Steve. "You're planning for next summer."
"Yeah?" said Tony. "You in? Offer's open." He gave up on his suit and crumpled the handkerchief into his pocket, not daring to look around in case Steve was already shaking his head. The stars were very bright, the same stars that shone over K2. By now, even their footprints would have vanished under the fresh snow of the monsoon winds. Steve might have still been there, asleep in the ice.
"Good to know you're planning on being around," said Steve.
"Never thought otherwise," said Tony brightly.
"About that," said Steve. The bench was broad, but Steve was sitting so close Tony could feel the rumble of the words. Boundaries were always thin on the ice, and Steve had more to adjust to off the mountain than the rest of the team. There was going to be a shit storm when the press found out, but Tony had people on it already. They'd be okay. Steve would be okay.
Steve was holding out a scrap of paper, torn from a notebook.
Tony squinted. He recognized that design, even in the low light from the Embassy windows. Damn it, he'd been hoping to have this conversation afterwards.
"Pace maker," he said. "Goes in your heart. Makes sure it-" he tapped his own, faulty, imperfect. "Makes sure it keeps beating."
"That's what Bruce said it was," said Steve. "They didn't have them in my day."
"1958," said Tony. The stars were still twinkling, and the air smelled of something sweet. Jasmine? Pepper would know. "But that one...it's new. Experimental." It'd be useless to lie, his handwriting was all over the page. "It's for me." He chanced a glance sideways, but Steve was still staring at the piece of paper. It must have been in Tony's pocket when they undressed him at camp one: he couldn't stop tinkering with the design, running calculations.
"Would you lie to me on the mountain?" said Steve. He refolded the paper and pressed it into Tony's hand so very carefully, as if Tony didn't know every line of it, every risk and every option. "Tell me a belay was safe when it wasn't?"
"No!" said Tony.
Steve turned to look at him. The line of his jaw - Tony, fully aware that he could and had taken almost everyone he'd ever wanted to bed, nearly flinched. He wanted Steve so badly in that moment, the warmth and strength of him, his kindness.
"Then don't lie to me about this," said Steve. "You went up the mountain knowing you could die."
"I thought it was worth the risk," said Tony. Eventually.
"To all of us?"
There was a bird singing in the tree, an ironic, ill-timed nightingale.
Steve sighed, and looked down. "Tony. I've never been in a helicopter before. I've never heard of half the things in that New York Times. Everything's changed, and I need - I need something I can trust."
"I'm sorry," said Tony, miserably aware of how inadequate the words were. They'd been partners on the mountain. He'd had plans.
Steve's hand seemed to be cupping his face. Turning his cheek into the palm of it, Tony closed his eyes. Steve's hands were broad, warm, and his fingers were long and powerful. Climber's hands.
"Don't lie to me again," said Steve.
Tony shook his head. His own hands seemed to be gripping the lapels of Steve's borrowed tuxedo. They were very close, and his heart, his damaged, unsteady heart, was beating faster, the rhythm of the pulse in Steve's fingers.
This could be fatal. But Tony reached up and pulled Steve's mouth down to his anyway. He kissed Steve in apology, open and soft and needy, and Steve kissed him back.
"I'm a poor bet, you know," muttered Tony, eventually. "Dicky heart."
"I know that," said Steve. He had one arm settled around Tony's shoulders, he was holding Tony's hand, and his touch was as firm and confident as his hands on the rope.
"Arrogant. Self-obsessed. Pushy."
"I know that too," said Steve.
"But rich," Tony said, and glanced up.
Steve was still smiling. He squeezed Tony's fingers, very gently. "You think I'm any better?"
"Okay," Tony said. "Okay. I can live with that."
While I've been careful not to mirror here any other real accident involving climbers, I have amalgamated experiences from other accounts of expeditions to K2 and to other mountains and glaciers.