“Hey, Cap, need a lift?”
The rays of the sunset intersect the horizon, unobstructed by the city skyline. When Steve turns, he finds himself squinting into the light.
“The police can handle it from here out,” Tony offers again. “We hang around, chance of someone or something upending half of the city increases by a hundredfold.” To seal the deal, he extends a hand. Steve can't think of any situation where he wouldn't take it.
“I don't like hearing that defeatist tone from a fellow Avenger,” Steve teases as he fits his arm around Tony's waist, hopping up on top of his boot and flipping to their private comm line.
“I'm just saying, there's a reason that Avengers who aren't on the roster high-tail it out of New York,” Tony says. “Ant-Man and Wasp even made it all the way across the Pacific.”
Steve aims a frown at the side of the Iron Man helmet as Tony sets off in a slow hover. There have been dozens of heroes who had called themselves Avengers throughout the team's history. But Tony had singled out the other founders, and part of Steve understands perfectly why.
Tony must be feeling similarly to himself about the new team, not quite fitting together like clockwork yet, coordination still a bit slipshod. It all boils down to being unused to working with each other. Steve dismisses the unease that dislodges in him with the thought. The Avengers are a force for good, always have been, and he can't see any reason to regret the decision to start anew. But a reason for hesitation, maybe. There are always the growing pains when transitioning into a new team, a new dynamic. But always with room to improve. He still remembers, with more nostalgia than anything else nowadays, the team that formed after his first anchors in the future had bowed out one after the other, leaving him to carry on their name while having to keep Quicksilver and Hawk – his mind stalls on the other names.
“Then I'm lucky you're still here,” Steve says. It's more than just luck, though. Steve doubts he would have mustered the initiative to start the Avengers up again if Tony hadn't shown up at the Raft.
“I just happen to accept that destruction follows me no matter where I end up.” There's an edge to Tony's voice. “Why not do some good and be with you when it does?”
Something catches in Steve's throat, and it has nothing to do with the Avengers anymore. He steels himself, waiting for the easy follow-up. Similar sentiments to his own, the Avengers are a force of good, or if he's fortunate enough, you always have my back after all, Cap. Anything to snuff out the fanciful hopes.
By the time Steve realizes nothing will come, he notices their surroundings. Somehow, they've ended up floating lazily above the Upper Bay.
“Taking the long way back?” he ventures tentatively.
“We haven't really had a moment to ourselves since we started up the new team,” Tony says. After a moment he continues, “we can go back now, if you like.”
“No!” Steve blurts, too quickly, judging from Tony's startled laugh. An armored gauntlet pats Steve's hand where it's wrapped around Tony's waist, and Steve sincerely hopes Tony is paying more attention to navigation than he is to him as he flushes deep.
It's true, though, what Tony said about not having much time to themselves. And that's fine, Steve tries to tell himself. The Avengers are doing good work. Not that working for S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't worthwhile, but there's no pride in it. With the Avengers, with Tony, Steve can turn his gaze to the future, rather than the ghosts of the past.
“Don't let the team hear how excited you are to keep away from them,” Tony says. “I think you'll break Spidey's heart.”
The red and gold sheen of the armor catches the sunlight, and suddenly Steve wants to retort something silly, like how Peter has Mary Jane so there's no way he would feel like – well, like anything Steve's feeling right now.
He doesn't say anything, though. Just being here, like this, with Tony is more than he had a week ago, more than he even had yesterday. Even if the more he gets the more the deep-seated longing flares up. He leans into Tony, their positioning too close for Steve to do anything more than brush his cheek swiftly across the armor, the chill jolting him upright.
Tony hums idly. “Hey, trust me?”
“Yes,” Steve replies automatically, a scant few seconds before realizing that Tony asked the question as they're a hundred feet over water that's just above freezing on a merciful day. “Tony, why did you – oi!”
His stomach drops out of his body. His ears flood with a rush of wind. Steve scrambles to cling on as Tony deepens the sharp-angled dive. Just before they break the surface of the bay, Tony levels out to skirt the edge of the waves. Water sprays up as the pressure of the repulsors carves a path through it, droplets sprinkling generously over them. But as soon as it's begun, it ends, Tony soaring back into the air.
It takes a few gasps before Steve can recollect himself. “Tony!” Steve tries to shout but it comes out as a weak huff. “If you wanted to take me out on a ride, Coney Island is over there!”
The indignation dissipates the moment Steve realizes that the short bursts of breath he's hearing is laughter, and said laughter is coming from Tony. “It's the best way to break you out of your spells,” Tony sing-songs. “Clint told me once, don't let Cap get stuck in those sulks of his, it's like we're failing our patriotic duty.”
“You – I'm not – he said what?”
“So?” Steve knows Tony's watching him from the other side of the faceplate; it's something he's picked up, after working alongside the other man for so long. “What did you think?”
It doesn't take that much thought, all said. His heart is racing, his limbs are tingling, and he feels more alive than he did fighting rogue sea monsters an hour ago. He has half a mind to disentangle himself and jump on his own.
“This is better than waiting in line for the roller coasters,” he admits sheepishly, to which Tony snorts.
“I'll give you a warning this go around, then,” Tony says lightly before Steve has to ask. The armor's grip tightens, squeezing Steve close to his side, and Steve's heart skips a beat. “3, 2, 1, and go!”
They dive down, but this time Tony spins around just before they hit the water, so they're left coasting face-up. Steve looks up at the sky, a mix of warm hues, orange and yellow and red. His fingers grasp for a nonexistent paintbrush.
When they pull up, Steve's laughing right along with Tony. The sound rings up into the sky as Steve finds the air to speak again.
“So – ”
“This time,” Steve blurts before Tony can continue, “let's try a loop – ”
There's a smile being aimed at him, even if he can't see it, Steve's sure of it. “Whatever you want, Steve.”
It continues as such, in answer to every one of Steve's whims.
“How about a figure-8?”
“You could take my hands and – yes, like a hang glider.”
“Do you think we can go around the statue? Yes, that statue, unless there's another one lying around.”
Tony does draw the line at diving into the bay. “Can't have you getting hypothermic on me, Steve.”
Twenty minutes later, Steve has missed the moment dusk blinked into night. There aren't any stars; this is New York, after all, and Tony unceremoniously calls an end to the proceedings when he begins drifting back in the direction of Manhattan unprompted.
“That was – no offense, Steve, but tomorrow I think I'm going to try that on my own.” There's something like awe in Tony's voice. Steve tilts his head toward him, grin plastered wide on his face.
“You're saying that after a decade on the job, you've never taken a joyride?” he teases. Well, that's utter bollocks. Steve's seen Tony go at it himself before.
“Well, it's different now!” Tony retorts. “It's the first time doing this after . . .” he trails off abruptly.
The unsaid words click into place. Tony had attempted to explain the changes to Steve earlier, with words like cyberpathy and direct cranial cybernetic interface and other things that had done the exact opposite of reassuring Steve.
“I couldn't even imagine it'd feel like this.” There's a smile in Tony's voice that pushes aside Steve's temporary worry. “I don't even know how to explain it.”
Steve's curiosity gets the better of him. “Try, then.” Tony's always been good with his words, at painting visions of the future with promises rather than color but making them just as vibrant, making you want to reach out for them and grasp it alongside him.
“It's like – ” Tony pauses and readjusts his grip on Steve. “I've said before, sometimes I feel more alive in the armor than out of it. But now, there's no distinction. It's become a part of me. Before, I loved the armor when I could make anything happen with a command, like the entire world was at my fingertips just because I could use my brain to compensate where I fell short. But, but now, I don't even have to think. It's more like feeling and doing instead of thinking.” Tony takes a breath. “It's like I've never really flown before today. It's like I'm finally free.”
The buzz of the bustling city settles over them after Tony stops speaking. Steve has no words to compensate. There's something welling up in him, hearing the sheer wonderin Tony's voice. Some of the doubt over Extremis eases away, bit by bit. Anything that could make Tony sound so happy can't be so bad.
Then it hits Steve. This is Tony's first flight post-Extremis not burdened with Avengers business, taken for pleasure than for duty. From the way Tony describes it, this is Tony's maiden voyage, and he wanted to share it with Steve.
Warmth floods Steve's body then, making his nerves sing. He reaches up, hand trembling, and switches off the comm next to his ear, unable to hold it in any longer.
“I love you.” The confession is lost to the wind and to the clouds. Steve licks his lips. If the words can't go to the person he loves, then it's best for it to go to the sky he loves in turn.
“I love you,” Steve says again. Whatever choked him is now gone, and he's left trembling in its wake.
The rest of the trip is taken in silence. The splashes of water that managed to cling to Steve's skin dry with licks of wind, sending sparks running up and down his body. They wake him, sharpen his senses more than he wants.
They set down on the launch pad atop the tower roof with little fanfare, Tony taking his familiar little hop to settle them. Steve peels himself off Tony, torn between dashing away and lingering hopelessly. Tony makes the decision for him, tugging the helmet off, the golden cap of the undersuit seeping away. His hair is askew, and Steve steps back, the urge to run his hands through it like a punch, hitting in a way he hasn't quite retrained himself well enough to not give into.
“Hey.” Tony's eyes are wide, wild. “What you said – ”
Steve takes another step back. There's no way that Tony could have heard, there's no way Tony could have heard and then look at him with those kind of eyes.
But there was. Extremis. It's not just the armor, or the remote technological access. It's enhanced Tony's capabilities to super-human. Even if they weren't on the comm, Tony could have heard him, or read his lips, or – It feels like the air's been squeezed out of him, a awful, dreadful cold taking hold.
“It's – ” The dream-likeness of the flight crumbles away. This is what happens when you don't keep yourself in check, Rogers. You're supposed to have it all together. Captain America doesn't give into flights of fancy.
It takes, altogether, too long for Steve to notice he's warm again. And that's because Tony's mouth is on his. His mind blanks. Tony's kissing him, that's his mustache and goatee tickling Steve's face, those slightly rough lips are Tony's. It's enough for Steve to surge back into the kiss, deepening the contact.
When they break apart, Steve's hands catch on the metal of the armored shoulders. He squeezes them, hard enough to make his fingers tremble, his regular restraint unneeded when the armor keeps him in check.
“Tony?” Steve tries, voice hoarse. Tony's staring at him, expression blank.
“Hey,” Tony finally says, and his smile, when it comes, is dazzling. “Please tell me you weren't kidding.” Steve's thumb catches the corner of Tony's mouth, turning it upward, just to check. When he removes it, Tony remains smiling, and Steve's heart stutters out of place.
“I wouldn't. Because...I love you,” Steve says, almost like a question.
“Steve.” The same awe as before, when Tony had admitted to Steve he'd felt free, is there again, in that single utterance.
“I love you,” Steve says again, savoring the catch of his tongue against his teeth as he repeats it, freely. “I love you.” The brightness and, Steve realizes, the affection in Tony's expression doesn't waver as he reaches up to take Steve's face between his hands.
Steve leans his forehead against Tony's, smiles back, and feels the sky and future opening up before them.