The debrief had lasted much longer than they had expected, running far past the dinner hour. By the time Director Fury released them, Steve's stomach was growling loud enough to be heard by everyone.
“Easy there, fella,” Tony said with a smirk as he walked alongside Steve.
“Cute,” Steve muttered. Clint and Natasha had remained behind to speak to Fury, but at some point he must have lost Bruce and Thor. Only Tony stood beside him as he looked around at the halls, all painted that same government shade of gray, giving no hint as to a person’s actual location. "Isn’t there a kitchen around here somewhere?”
“Um, sure,” Tony said. He didn’t sound too sure, but he set off confidently enough, so Steve followed him after only a slight hesitation.
And sure enough, eventually they turned the corner and there was a small kitchen where people could store their lunch and sit down for a break. Three SHIELD agents sat at the little table placed there, sipping coffee and talking about a TV show that must have aired last night. They looked up with some surprise when Steve and Tony appeared, but they carried on with their conversation, barely missing a beat.
Tony headed straight for the coffee pot, but Steve only wanted some water, just enough to silence his hunger until he got back to the Tower and could have a real dinner. He filled a styrofoam cup from a cooler set behind the table, then went to the refrigerator to get some ice. Just as he opened the freezer door, one of the SHIELD agents said, “Oh, shit,” but by then Steve had already seen, and it was too late.
Someone, God only knew who, had taken a little Captain America figure and stuck it in one of the ice cube trays. The Cap figure was frozen solid in ice. One gloved hand clutched a toothpick, and some witty person had written a little sign, then attached it to the toothpick. Help me, I’m a Capsicle, the sign read.
Steve slammed the door shut.
Uncomfortable silence fell in the kitchen. Over at the coffee pot, Tony looked up, his eyes narrowing a little.
Steve took a deep breath. It was just a joke, he told himself. Just a harmless joke. Nothing more. He had no reason to be upset. No reason to be angry.
“Aaaand we’re done here,” Tony said. He set his coffee cup down on the counter and walked over to where Steve still stood in front of the fridge. He touched Steve’s arm just above his elbow. “Come on, Cap.”
Steve turned blindly toward that touch and let Tony lead him out of the kitchen. He was aware of the SHIELD agents staring at him, but only as an intense weight on his peripheral vision. He wasn’t seeing much of anything, in fact. There was only the blurred rush of wind and shadow, and a faint roaring in his ears.
“You okay?” Tony asked. “Need to sit down? A drink? Something to punch?”
“I’m fine,” he said. He was vaguely surprised by how far away his own voice sounded.
“You sure about that?” Tony said.
Steve blinked, and the world swam back into focus. He wasn't on that plane, the ice racing up to meet him. He was still at SHIELD, and he was standing in the hallway. The kitchen was down a ways on their right; he could hear the SHIELD agents talking, their voices low and anxious, the words unintelligible even to his enhanced senses. To his left the hallway led back toward the conference room where he had been sitting just ten minutes ago.
Tony stood in front of him, his tie loosened, a half-healed scratch down the side of his neck from when he hadn’t ducked fast enough when one of his bots had gotten a little too enthusiastic and thrown a screwdriver at him. He looked tired, but his eyes were sharp as ever, missing nothing. And when another agent walked past, only to slow down and give them a knowing smirk, Tony snapped, “Keep moving unless you want to find yourself working in Nome, Alaska.”
Steve let out a long, slow breath. His heart wasn’t racing anymore, so he supposed he really was feeling better. The worry on Tony’s face was starting to make him feel guilty, though, and more than anything that clued him in that it was time to get his shit together. It wasn’t like Tony Stark to act worried about anyone, especially not about someone who was just a friend - and sometimes not even a very close friend.
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I overreacted.”
“What was it?” Tony asked.
Steve lifted one shoulder in a shrug, trying to play it cool. “Just a joke,” he said. “Someone froze a Cap action figure in ice, and yeah, I get it. Ha ha.”
In the blink of an eye, Tony’s expression went cold and hard. He had probably looked like that in the cave, Steve thought, just before he killed his captors. “That is bullshit,” he said. “I’m going to find out who did it and--”
“Really, it’s okay,” Steve said, almost desperately. He held out one hand, thinking he would physically detain Tony if he had to. The last thing he wanted was to make a big deal out of this. The best thing to do now would be to forget it had even happened.
“No, it’s not,” Tony said fiercely, and not for the first time, Steve thought that anyone who made an enemy out of Tony Stark was either extremely brave or extremely stupid. More than ever, it made him appreciate the fact that Tony was on his side.
They had come far from that first inauspicious day aboard the helicarrier, although in truth Steve sometimes wondered how exactly to define their relationship. Some days Tony was relaxed and carefree around him, as though they were fast friends. Other days he felt the sting of Tony’s mocking sarcasm, and he responded in kind, each of them slinging words like weapons. It was enough to make him wonder if they would ever really put aside the memory of how they had met and settle down into a steady friendship.
“It’s okay,” he said again. “Just let it go. I do have a sense of humor, you know. Everyone always seems to forget that.”
“No one forgets that,” Tony said, perfectly deadpan. Lying through his teeth, of course.
“Yes, they do,” Steve said. “And that’s fine. I don’t really care. Let people think what they want.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ in there somewhere,” Tony said.
“But…” Steve stopped, waited for another SHIELD agent to pass them in the hall. When the woman was out of earshot, he said, “I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t expecting something like that.”
“No one would,” Tony said. He gave Steve a long, considering look. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m sure,” Steve said firmly.
Tony stared at him. Steve returned the stare and tried to act cool, like he didn’t know he was being measured and analyzed, like Tony wasn’t putting together a file on him in his head right this very second. He had seen that look on Tony’s face before, and he never quite knew how to respond. Sometimes he had the distinct impression that Tony was searching for something from him, something intangible that he never found, but never stopped looking for. And every time that happened, Steve told himself that he would figure it out, that he would figure Tony out - but he never did.
“Screw this,” Tony said. “Let’s just go get something to eat.” He whipped out his phone and tapped the screen a couple times. “All right, we’ve got incoming in three minutes.”
Steve looked down. The sight of that stupid little sign – Help me – had ruined his appetite. “Tony, no. It’s okay. Honest.”
“Hey,” Tony said sharply, making him look up again. “It is not okay. Don’t tell me it’s okay when it’s not okay. I practically invented it’s not okay. Okay?”
Somewhat amused now in spite of himself, Steve said, “Okay.”
“Okay then,” Tony said. He stopped, apparently realized what he had just said, and rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Let’s just head topside.”
They passed several SHIELD agents on their way to the roof, but none of them said anything other than a few words of greeting. Steve looked at each one, wondering if he or she was the culprit behind the ice cube prank. He would probably never know who had done it, he told himself. It was a bad idea to obsess about it. He had to let it go.
It was almost dark out; only a thin strip of orange light still colored the October sky. Standing with Tony beneath the stars, Steve fought the urge to shiver.
Right on schedule, a thin trail of light split the sky. Steve watched as the armor flew in, then landed with surprisingly delicate grace on the rooftop. It slid open and Tony stepped inside. One by one the pieces wrapped themselves around him, assembling into the familiar form of Iron Man.
Last, as always, was the faceplate. Tony looked at him and extended one arm in offering. “Ready?”
Steve stepped into that cool metal embrace. No matter how many times he did this, he never stopped feeling a thrill at the anticipation of flight. As the golden mask covered Tony’s face, Steve slid his arm around Iron Man’s waist and held on tight. “Ready.”
Tony did not hesitate. They took off, arrowing through the night sky.
Cold wind washed over Steve’s face, stinging his eyes and whipping his hair back. The lights of the city blurred into a smeary canvas of white, orange and yellow punctuated with areas of shadowy black. He had tried to paint the city like this before, but no matter how hard he tried, he could never recreate the lighting or the colors or the exhilaration of flight.
Up here, Tony holding him close and the world spread out below him, he scarcely even felt the cold. It had ceased to matter. There was only this moment, this now. He wished it could never end, that he could fly like this all the time, forging his way through a starry sky.
Too soon they were slowing, descending through the night. They landed lightly on the sidewalk in front of one of Steve’s favorite restaurants. People pointed and exclaimed to see them, and some of them even cheered when the Iron Man armor opened up and Tony stepped out.
“Show off,” Steve murmured. He reached up with both hands to pat his windswept hair back into place.
Tony held out his arms, nodding and grinning, accepting the adoration as his due. The armor sealed itself again and took off, headed for the Tower.
“Well?” Tony touched his arm lightly, echoing the way he had touched Steve in the kitchen at SHIELD. Even through his leather jacket, Steve felt the heat of his fingertips, and he felt an answering warmth in the rest of his body. He couldn’t explain why he should suddenly react this way to an innocent touch, but he had to admit - even if only to himself - that it was rather pleasant.
Thankfully Tony remained oblivious to his thoughts. They were given a booth in one corner, away from the inquiring stares of the other diners. Tony ordered an expensive bottle of wine, and before long, Steve felt his appetite returning.
They didn't talk about what had happened at SHIELD. They didn’t even talk about the debriefing, or any Avengers business. Tony shared a seemingly endless series of funny stories, going all the way back to his MIT days with Colonel Rhodes. Steve couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed so much, and even though he knew Tony was making the effort for his sake, he didn’t begrudge it one bit. If anything, he was rather touched by how hard Tony was trying to make him feel better.
Dinner concluded with a fantastic dessert that left Tony groaning and complaining that he was getting fat. Steve just set his fork down and smiled. He knew perfectly well that in spite of his indulgences in fine food and alcohol, Tony worked hard to keep up physically with the other Avengers. Some time tomorrow, probably in the early afternoon if past precedent held up, Tony would send Steve a text asking him to meet down in the gym for a sparring session.
Steve found himself looking forward to that prospect. As they flew back through the city, heading for the Tower, he realized that in fact he had a lot of things to look forward to.
He saw now how silly he had been to get upset over the frozen Cap figure. That little toy wasn't him any more than the stylized images of Captain America that graced greeting cards and comic books. He wasn't just a costume or a shield. He was far more than a man who had spent seventy years asleep in the ice.
He was Captain America, he was an Avenger, he was a soldier and a fighter and a hero. He was Steve Rogers, a man who had been given a second chance unlike any other. He meant to make the most of it, too. He was not like that toy, trapped in the past.
He was here now, alive, the wind on his face, stars spread out above him. This was what mattered. Not some silly prank.
Avengers Tower drew near, the lone A glowing on the side of the building. They alit on the roof, and Tony stepped out of the armor. Together they walked toward the glass doors that led inside, but without a word, they came to a halt well before reaching them.
“Thank you,” Steve said. He fumbled a little for the right words, wanting Tony to know how much he appreciated everything he had done for him tonight. “I had a good evening. And after what happened at SHIELD, I never would have expected to say that.”
Tony smiled at him. “Well, that’s me,” he said. “Always defying expectation.”
Steve nodded. He suspected that Tony had no idea just how accurate that statement was. “That’s very true.”
Tony seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he took a quick breath and said, “And since I seem to be on a roll…” He leaned in and kissed Steve.
Steve was too shocked to react right away. His mind went utterly blank. There was only the warmth of Tony’s lips on his, the scratch of Tony’s beard, the cool night air on his face.
Then he was kissing Tony back, and he had never expected this, never even let himself dream of it, but it was everything he had wanted without even knowing he wanted it. When he reached up to put his arms around Tony, though, Tony suddenly stepped back, away from him.
Steve let his arms drop. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. Without Tony standing in front of him anymore, touching him, he felt cold all over again.
“Wait.” Tony looked at him anxiously. “Are we… Is this okay?”
Relief made Steve’s shoulders slump. It was all right. Tony was not rejecting him. It was almost funny seeing Tony's usual arrogance erased by such sincere concern over something as simple as a kiss. Or it would have been funny, if Steve hadn't just recovered from thinking he was being dumped mere seconds after one of the greatest kisses of his life. “It’s more than okay,” he said. “In fact, I think it's safe to say that this evening just went from good to great.”
Tony stared at him for a moment longer. Then he was suddenly smiling, his eyes shining with a simple happiness that Steve didn’t think he had ever seen on him before. “Yeah?”
It humbled him to think that he could be responsible for Tony’s happiness. “Yeah,” he said. He closed the space between them. “Now where were we?”
“I don’t know,” Tony murmured. “You might need to remind me.”
Steve smiled. “I can do that,” he said.
Tony tipped his head to one side, a sly smile on his face. “So do I still get to call you Capsicle?”
Steve sighed, pretending to be more put-upon than he really felt. “If you must.”
“Are you sure?” Tony asked, surprisingly serious given the rather light-hearted question he had just asked. “If it really bothers you, I can--”
“It’s fine,” Steve said, cutting off what was sure to be one of Tony’s long-winded rambling asides. And truthfully he didn’t care. He knew now that Tony called him that with affection, not any malicious intent.
It was cool. For Tony he could be a Capsicle.
“Still,” he said with a smile, “I think I preferred it when you were kissing me.”
“You got it,” Tony said. “Capsicle.” Then he was there in Steve’s arms, one hand on the back of Steve’s head, his mouth on Steve’s.
Steve forgot about everything else then, silly nicknames and tasteless pranks and all of it. There was only Tony and the heat of his body and the taste of his lips and the heady knowledge that this was only the beginning. He really did have so much to look forward to now.
And the best part was, the night was just getting started.