"Okay. How are we going to do this?"
Iron Man cocked his head at Steve, the motion subtle yet unmistakable. Steve wondered if it was a conscious habit he'd developed, substituting body language for an expression that was lost behind the golden faceplate. "Your idea. You tell me."
No, on second thought, not deliberate. Stark was a fighter, not a soldier; by his own admission, there was no I in Tony Stark, but there goddamned ought to be. He couldn't know what it was to be so hyper-aware of your squad mates that you could identify footsteps at twenty yards in the pitch dark. He certainly couldn't be aware that a five minute firefight was more valuable for increasing Steve's comprehension of his fellow Avengers than an entire day spent together in leisure. Otherwise, Iron Man would keep tighter control of his mannerisms, never let Captain America pick up cues in the field that were also applicable to plain human Tony.
"You're the one with flying experience. I figured you'd done it before."
There, a little shoulder-twitch of irritation. Iron Man didn't like to be reminded that he was no better than a raw recruit when it came to cooperative tactics and teamwork. "I did pluck you out of the Hudson River that time."
As if he would let Steve forget. "Which I appreciated, but you still botched the landing and put me out of the rest of the fight with a cracked ankle."
"Not my fault you were flopping like a damned fish."
"Because you had me by the scruff of the neck and were choking me with the collar of my own uniform."
"Soaking wet hypothermic national icons can't be choosers." Iron Man's voice was modulated and dispassionate no matter the volume. It made it difficult to tell when they were bickering, and even more difficult to tell when they weren't. "And I'm pretty sure I didn't join the Avenger Initiative to play superhero air taxi."
"If the need arose once, it could happen again," Steve reasoned. "That's why we should practice, figure out what works and what doesn't, before we have to wing it in the field again."
"You need a handle," Iron Man decided. "I'll modify a safety harness, work it into your costume."
"I'm not luggage."
"Good heavens, you're right, you'd never fit in the overhead compartment."
Steve was torn between wise-ass and be serious, so he went with neither.
"I suppose for short distances I could get you under the arms, but that doesn't allow much speed or maneuverability. And I'm sure as hell not gonna cradle you."
Hello appalling mental image. "Don't you steer with your hands? What if you need them free?"
"Steer, stabilize, whatever. It's easier to drive stick with both hands, but I finesse it with one all the time."
That... couldn't have been just a reference to manual transmissions. Steve was relieved they were doing this on the mansion roof, away from prying eyes. Tony was worse when he had an audience. "I think... I could hold on by myself." He took a step forward, debating mechanics. The armor was even more formidable up close; it shouted sleek and lethal and do-not-touch. He didn't know where to begin.
Iron Man stood his ground, resolutely unhelpful. "Yeah, well I'm not playground equipment, and I don't do piggyback rides unless there's nudity and-or alcohol involved."
The guy wasn't going to stop until he'd pried a reaction out of Steve, while Steve wasn't about to give him the satisfaction. There was no end in sight to the standoff, the needling. "Maybe I could stand on your boots, and put an arm... here?" He aborted the gesture shy of actual contact.
"That's a negative, ghostrider. It's like the tabloids say, I spend more time horizontal than vertical."
Steve's cheeks were not heating. They weren't. "Then tell me how to do it! Or show me. I don't-" Don't have any idea what I'm doing here.
That particular head dip of Iron Man's was something like resignation. Tony had the same tell. "Okay, first? Lose the security blanket."
The shield, he meant. "It's my defense and my offense. I can't leave it behind if we're-"
"We'll get there. But in terms of air resistance, that thing is exactly the wrong shape. Depending on how it's angled during flight, it could create enough drag to knock you loose, or flip around and snap your arm in the process."
"I hadn't thought of that," Steve admitted, lowering the shield to the rooftop. He missed the familiar weight immediately. "Now what?"
Iron Man could be still and silent and working like mad all at once. Steve was getting better at recognizing the times when the action was taking place inside the suit, computer systems and Tony's brain running full steam.
Panels sprang out all over the armor. "Take a good look," Iron Man said. "These are my flight control surfaces. See if you can find a way to hang on that doesn't interfere with any of them."
That ruled out the back of the legs and the shoulder blade area. Iron Man's waist seemed relatively safe. Tony was right handed, so Steve edged in on his left. "Will weight distribution be a problem?"
"I can compensate."
"Okay. Show me how you normally fly. Your... form. I don't want to interfere with your range of motion."
"I can compensate," Iron Man repeated, impatience visible. "I've worked out how; now I need a test run and sample data to determine practical limits. You're built to withstand greater gees than a base model human, but to be honest, I'm sort of estimating a comfortable altitude ceiling. Oh, and once we get up to speed, you're going to freeze your ass off unless you remembered your thermal underwear. Which... I can see you didn't. That outfit really does leave nothing to imagination."
Tony should know; he helped design it. "Yeah, well, it can't be worse than parachuting behind enemy lines while wearing tights."
There was an atypical pause, without a corresponding hint at its meaning. Then, "I'll get that story out of you eventually."
"Don't count on it. I already regret mentioning it." Real smart, giving ammunition to the guy who'd just been contemplating what skivvies Steve might or might not be wearing.
Iron Man's posture slid down the scale toward testy. "Are we doing this or not?"
The question of how Steve should hold on was answered when Iron Man tugged Steve's arm around his own waist. He wasn't as mindful of the armor's strength as he could have been. Then his arm came around Steve, cinching them together and locking tight; it actually pulled Steve up on his toes. He ended up almost straddling Iron Man's hip, becoming a bit too, ah, intimately acquainted with the round protruding -- joint? -- thing.
Squirming for a better angle might have made the situation worse.
"Switching to comms," came over the earpiece built into Steve's cowl. "Is this thing on?"
"Solid copy," Steve muttered. It was a good idea to be able to hear Iron Man over the noise of the wind. His fingers found purchase in the chink of an armor seam. Through his gloves (okay, and through other parts of his uniform as well), he could tell the metal was warmer than body temperature, and it's surface was somehow tacky, allowing more grip than he'd expected.
No, Steve thought. He should have snagged a pair of goggles. Too late now. "Just... don't drop me."
"Don't let go," Iron Man returned.
Steve wasn't prepared for the vibrations when the repulsors fired up. They were strong enough that extended exposure could make his anchor hand go numb. He clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering in his skull.
"The ride gets smoother."
"In approximately three seconds. Two. One."
Steve's toes lost contact with the ground, his weight settling against Iron Man. And yes, the vibrations dropped to an excited hum, impossible to ignore but not so uncomfortable.
Iron Man lifted them ten, twenty feet into the sky, listing to the left. "Wait. No, it's okay, I got this." He straightened with a wobble, and, gaining confidence, went higher.
They held at maybe a hundred feet, rotating in a gentle circle. "You good?" Steve couldn't tell if Iron Man was still adjusting or showing off the view.
"Yeah, this is fine. Told you I could compensate."
There was no warning when they tipped forward, leaning into a burst of speed. For a second, gravity yanked at Steve in a startling fashion, until momentum caught up and balanced out the sensation.
And wow. Wow.
Iron Man dodged a block of apartments to shoot out over the greenery of Central Park, where he began carving a deep, swooping serpentine. "Sure, it's okay, but you see the same thing out your bedroom window every day."
Steve must have said that aloud.
"Let me know if anything I do is too much."
Unlikely. Despite the wind burning his cheeks and stinging his eyes, Steve was already caught up in speed and freedom. It was the same pleasure he got from his motorcycle, intensified by so much sky.
"Cap? Too fast?"
"It's amazing," Steve shouted. A small, treacherous part of him said, You're amazing. "Keep going!"
Iron Man interpreted that as an order, turning south and streaking off toward Midtown. At the edge of the park, he pushed into a pure vertical climb, the stories of nearby high-rises slipping past in a blur.
They had to be approaching two thousand feet when the climb opened into a spiral. At the same time, their ascent slowed until they hit a zenith of breath-stealing weightlessness. Then Iron Man cut repulsor power even more, and they were dropping. "Both arms, c'mon. You're gonna like this."
Steve didn't have a choice. He was shifted around until Iron Man had him in a full, constricting hug. He locked his own arms around the armor -- carrying his shield would never allow a stunt like this -- and let out an unmanly shriek when Iron Man jackknifed them into a dive.
He must be crazy. It should have been terrifying to race at the ground well in excess of terminal velocity. There should have been at least the illusion that he could slip free and plummet to his death. But right then, Steve was more certain than he'd been of anything in his life that Tony wouldn't let that happen.
The dive bottomed out in the valley between skyscrapers, until they were skimming high above the street, the glitter of their reflection chasing them from window pane to window pane. Iron Man whooped in Steve's ear. Then he did the unthinkable, rolling on his back so that Steve was spread on top of him. White star to arc reactor. "Go on, let go. I got ya."
Steve obeyed. He pushed his cowl down, letting the wind prickle his scalp -- stretched out his arms and shut his eyes. "You have this all the time." Soaring. "I couldn't imagine..."
"What do you think?"
Words weren't sufficient.
"Know what I think?"
"What?" Steve asked.
"That this wasn't a bad idea after all. Next time we should get you the right gear, pay a visit to Lady Liberty. It's too far for today."
It was disconcerting to find Iron Man's impassive mask so near when Steve opened his eyes. "If you say." For that matter, how was he so comfortable flying inverted?
"Aren't you cold?"
He had to give it thought. "Freezing."
"Told you. I've got the data I need; and by the power vested in me, I do so hereby declare this trial a success. You may slip the bride some tongue."
Just when Steve imagined he was growing accustomed to Tony's... idiosyncrasies. "Then I guess we should think about heading back."
There was no graceful way to rearrange their hold on each other midair. Iron Man pulled up into a hover, and Steve tried to balance on the left boot while he squirmed back into his initial position. His weight pushed the repulsor out of alignment. Iron Man overcompensated, tipping them too far back before leveling them out and halting their drift. "Scratch that. Now I've got all the data. Of course it's specific to your big, muscly... mass. I'll have to recalculate for other passengers -- which will take me all of thirty seconds. In my sleep."
Tony was never going to let Steve forget the genius part, either.
The return trip was less exhilarating but no less enjoyable. An easier pace let Steve appreciate the cityscape unrolling beneath them. Iron Man glided the last few yards to the mansion's roof, lowering Steve with such precision that it felt like stepping down a curb. He must have taken the botched landing comment personally.
It made Steve maybe a little guilty for maybe sort of rubbing it in. He collected his shield while Iron Man touched down; it afforded him a moment to clear his head, dizzy as it was from the flight.
When Iron Man killed his repulsors, the resulting quiet had an odd strength, almost resistant to intrusion. Tony had to clear his robotic throat twice. "Well. If you want to do this again, your best bet is to make an appointment through Pepper. I mean, for all I know, right now I'm supposed to be christening a ship or having tea with-"
Iron Man didn't track objects with his eyes the way a person did -- something to do with cameras and sensors, an artificially expanded field of vision. It had irritated the piss out of Steve until he'd realized that Iron Man wasn't ignoring you just because he wasn't facing you.
The corollary followed: When Iron Man did bother to stare you down, you had his complete attention. "No big. That was just a warm up. We should try some kinky acrobatic stuff. You could leap off a building and I could try to catch you before your face makes friendly with the sidewalk..."
"Tony, hush. I mean it."
The gold faceplate retracted. If Iron Man's scrutiny was unsettling, Tony Stark's was electric. "I am going to get that story about parachuting in tights out of you one day."
Steve said, "You can try," and failed at bravado entirely. In fact, it sounded like an invitation.