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Phil Coulson is Not the Avengers' Public Relations Manager

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Phil Coulson stood in the middle of the kitchen in Stark Tower, a faint headache pounding behind his temples and a pile of folders in his arms. He let the chaos wash over him for a few more seconds, gathering himself, and then set his paperwork down on the counter. “Thor, quit trying to use Allspeak on the toaster. Clint, don't encourage Thor to talk in mythical tongues to Stark's bots, it just confuses them.”

“Listen,” Clint said, his body an easy slouch against the cabinets, his arms folded over his chest, “how're they going to learn if Thor doesn't give them adequate chances to-”

“Shut up before I give in to the constant urge to taser you,” Coulson said, making Clint laugh, warm and husky low. Clint boosted himself up onto the counter next to Coulson's folders, making a not so subtle attempt at checking out the top one. He got his hand smacked for his trouble. “Natasha-”

Natasha glanced up from her seat at the kitchen table, every hair in place, a knife and a whetstone in her capable hands.

“Don't stab anyone.”

“I make no promises,” she said, going back to her work.

“Stark, just fix the heating element on the electric kettle so Bruce can have tea, it doesn't need to deliver the tea, or dispense the tea or chose the tea or explain the tea or order the tea, it needs to make the water hot so that leaves can be put into a cup and a brewed beverage can be created.”

“Well, if you insist upon being BORING about it,” Tony grumbled, and tucked his screwdriver behind his ear. “Can I-”

“No,” Phil said.

“But-”

“NO,” Phil said.

“I can use the microwave,” Bruce said, holding onto his cup and his smile. As always, he seemed amused by Tony's enthusiasm.

“Oooooh, I could-”

“No, Tony!” Coulson snapped. He paused. “Wait. That lacked force. Where's Steve? 'No,Tony-ing' is his job.”

Everyone paused. Looked around. “The good captain was not in the gym,” Thor said, frowning. He caught the toaster as it tried to escape and tucked it under his arm, like it was a metallic pug.

“Not in the rec room,” Clint said.

“Wasn't in my workshop,” Tony mused, tapping his multi-tool on the countertop. “His sketchbook and pastels were there, but not him.”

“I haven't seen him since breakfast,” Natasha said. “He was doing dishes when I left for my workout.”

Bruce was looking at the fridge. “The shopping list is missing,” he pointed out, always the most observant.

Everyone looked at the fridge. Coulson rubbed the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb. “All right,” he said at last. “Is this a problem, or not?”

“When's the last time anyone saw him?” Tony asked. “Breakfast? Then he's been gone for hours. It shouldn't have taken him that long to pick up eggs, milk, Jesus, why do we have a shopping list anyway, Jarvis can just place an online order and, boom, food appears!” He threw his hands in the air. “It's fucking MAGIC! FOOD! In the fridge!”

Everyone ignored him. They were getting good at that.

“He knew we had a meeting,” Natasha pointed out. “He does not miss meetings.”

“Ever,” Clint agreed. He was pulling his phone out. “I've got nothing from him.” This set off a flurry of cell phones being pulled out around the room, and as one, everyone shook their head.

“Ah!” Thor sounded pleased. All eyes turned to him. He grinned. “Loki accepted the request to be friends of Facebook!”

“What the hell, man?” Clint said, shaking his head. “Really?”

“Not really,” Tony said, his fingers dancing over his phone. “I had to set him up a bunch of dummy accounts. It lasts about a week and then he actually posts something and Loki figures it out and defriends him in a fit of pique. And then we all drink and throw coffee mugs.”

“Oh, is that why Tuesdays are now more fun than they have any right to be?”

“Please don't 'friend' your brother as long as he's determined to destroy the Earth,” Phil said to Thor, who gave him a half-hearted shrug.

“He is still my brother,” he said, and Phil sighed.

“What, exactly, does he post on Facebook?” Bruce asked, peering over Thor's shoulder.

“Many things of excellence!” Thor said, holding the phone out to Bruce. The other man took it, slightly wary as he looked down at the screen.

“Yeeeeeah, mostly pictures of hedgehogs, fanart of Thor he found on some mailing list, links to blogs making fun of us, links to videos of us failboating, and links to anti-Avengers groups, so mostly his entire online presence is dedicated to hating us, except for Thor,” Tony said. “Found Steve.”

Phil glanced at him as Tony tucked his phone in his pocket and headed for the door. “He sent you a message?”

“Nope. I've got him as a Google Alert,” Tony said, waving a hand back over his shoulder. “Give me half an hour, I've got to go collect the dope.”

He slipped through the door and was gone. Thor broke the silence. “What is this Google Alert he speaks of, and how does it know where the good Captain has gone?”

“I'll show you how to set one up for Loki,” Natasha said, rolling to her feet. “C'mon. Coulson, let us know when we're ready to start the meeting.” Hips swaying, she lead the way out of the kitchen, with Thor and Bruce trailing after her. Thor had the toaster. Bruce had Thor's phone, eyebrows arched as he read over Loki's Facebook page.

“Dr. Doom has a Facebook profile?” he asked.

“Aye, he and Loki have many fascinating discussions upon the Facebook.”

“About what, exactly?”

“Many things. Mostly their combined enjoyment of Marmaduke comics,” Thor said, just as the door shut behind them.

Coulson glanced at Clint, who grinned. “Am I going walking, sir?”

“You are.”

The sniper hopped down from the counter, his feet soundless on the floor. “Shoot to kill authorized?”

“Negative,” Coulson said, holding back a smile. “Surveillance only.”

“You take all the fucking fun out of being on a team, sir.”

“You have no idea the paperwork I have to fill out when one of you gets a papercut. If anyone has the right to take a headshot, it's me.”

“Hard to argue with that.”

*

Steve's life would be so much easier if Clint didn't have obscure tastes in Pringles and Thor stopped requesting PopTarts by the case and if Tony stopped making up products that didn't exist but sounded vaguely plausible enough for Steve to make an idiot out of himself asking some poor grocery clerk about it.

Really, how was he to know that there was no such thing as SnappyCrackerCrunches? Tony had sung him the damn jingle, and now that Steve thought about that, Tony put entirely too much effort into making up fake food products. Steve had been kind of disappointed that BotMunch, the breakfast cereal for the tech generation, wasn't real. It had sounded delicious.

Tony had made a fake empty box for that one, insisting that he'd just finished it that morning. Steve worried about Tony's sense of humor sometimes.

Of course, he was also a little worried that he might be lost.

It happened, the city had changed a lot in the last seventy years, and he'd ended up wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood looking for Bruce's herbal tea, but he was back in midtown, so he should know where he was. He didn't, but he should. It was annoying. Of course, things changed on him all the time. Today, on the street corner, a group of protestors was circling in front of the building, in a cordoned off area of the sidewalk, and there were a bunch of stretch limos going by, so something must be happening.

Steve shifted his bags to one arm, bobbling a box and leaning it between his hip and the wall as he tried to fish his phone out of his pocket. He liked running errands, it let him go out and wander around and see the city without a billion flashbulbs going off in his face or anything exploding in his vicinity. It was nice to see New York when it wasn't, you know, on fire.

He still winced when he walked past construction scenes. Steve used to apologize, but he just confused the crews. Without the uniform, he wasn't immediately recognizable. If people looked closely enough, sure, but that was New York for you. No one looked all that close, not unless they wanted to be mistaken for a tourist. So in a sea of billionaires and movie stars and celebrity chefs and politicians, Steve found himself as just another 'you seem familiar' face.

He loved that. So much.

In faded jeans and work boots and a battered leather jacket, he got more than a few second glances. A few narrowed eyes. A couple of cell phones pointed in his direction while he gave them a shy smile. Add a Dodgers cap, a case of Orange Cream pop tarts and a couple of shopping bags from the local market, and no one even glanced in his direction.

Because there was this idea that Captain America did not go shopping for Sour Dill Flavored Pringles.

Now, he just tried to figure out what the hell Tony had done to his new phone, because dang it, he could not get anything to pull up right now, and what the hell was this icon? He was too afraid to click on it in public. He squinted. What the heck was that icon supposed to be? A hat? A bell? Why did things need icons, anyway, just, why couldn't they just have words? That would be so much easier.

“New phone?”

Steve's head jerked up. One of the protesters had stopped next to him, a thin boy with bright, unnaturally bright, orange hair. He had a wide smile on his thin face, and he was leaning over the police barrier. His arms were folded on top of his upside down protest sign, and he was watching Steve, his hazel eyes warm and amused.

Steve gave a sigh. “That obvious?”

“Nah, everyone gets the same WTF face for the first week.” The boy laughed, leaning forward. He was wearing a pair of corduroys and a sweater vest with a pattern that made Steve's head hurt. The boy scrunched up his face, nose wrinkling and lips twisting to the side, eyes squinting. Steve burst out laughing. “Yeah, I call it the New Phone Face.” The kid grinned back at Steve. “Want me to take a look? I'm a phone whore.”

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” Steve said, setting down his bags and wiping off the screen with his cuff before handing it over. “I'm just trying to pull up my messages...”

“Holy FUCK, what is this thing?” the kid shrieked, making Steve jump.

“Jesus, Drew, really?” one of the other protesters said, his sign over his shoulder. A couple of the people behind him rolled their eyes, looking amused, but a few others looked less than happy with the boy's outburst. A woman with a clipboard glanced over, giving Steve a narrow eyed look. He nodded at her. “Sorry, sir,” the second boy said to Steve, teeth white against warm brown skin. His eyes narrowed behind thin wire rims, he leaned over the redhead's shoulder.

“What is this?” Drew asked, one hand flashing out to grab Steve by the front of the jacket. “Who are you, and what is this magical piece of-” He made a moan that was almost embarrassing to hear in public. “Is this the new StarkPhone? Holy God, it is, it is, it iiiiiiiiiiis, I love you, I wish to have your babies and I love you.”

Steve was laughing, cheeks red. “Okay,” he said, easy going as always as the boy went through the phone with one hand. His friend reached over and pried his hand off of Steve's jacket, but his eyes were on the phone as well.

“Wow,” he said, heavy black eyebrows arching. “How'd you get the new one, it's not supposed to be out for, like, two months.”

“I'm a test dummy,” Steve said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Literally. I get it because if I can break it, they need to try again. I, uh, I break a lot of things.” Mostly programming, but it always ended up with Tony sitting down, cradling his tech in his hands and making confused noises about how Steve could've done this, no, really, this was not actually possible, how had he made the phone DO this?

Maybe it was petty, but Steve rather enjoyed the whimpering noises. He would never, ever admit it, but sometimes he did see if he could break the damn things on purpose. He wasn't stupid, but he'd crashed a plane when phones were still a relative rarity and woken up to the entire world carrying super computers in their pockets, and complaining about how they were too slow or only held 900 songs or couldn't do full video recording.

Steve was not sympathetic to Tony's complaints, let's put it that way.

“I want to have sex with this phone,” Drew said.

“This is why he's usually not allowed out in public,” the dark haired boy said. “Sorry about that.”

“It's fine, I've heard worse.” Steve stuck out a hand. “Hi, I'm Steve.”

“Hi, I'm Shawn. This is Drew.”

“Seriously, Shawn, distract him, I'm making a break for it with this thing, this is worth jail time. I would do jail time for this-” Drew made a whining noise as the phone was plucked from his hand and passed back to Steve, Shawn holding it up far above the shorter boy's head. Drew pawed at the air. “Nooooooooo my preeeeeecious...” he whimpered.

“Sorry,” Shawn said again, rolling his eyes.

“It's okay,” Steve said, grinning down at the boy. “Thanks for your help, Drew.”

“Anytime, my brother.” Drew leaned back into Shawn's body, and grinned back. “Feel free to stop by and let me rub your tech all over my nubile young body and-” Shawn put his hand over Drew's mouth, which only muffled the continued, increasingly dirty sounding words.

“He's going to be going on like this for a while,” Shawn explained.

Steve was laughing, about to reply, and out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something move.

There were times, in battle, when he didn't really THINK about what he was doing. It was a combination of the Super Soldier serum, the enhanced senses and muscle memory, it was experience and instinct and his natural proclivity towards action that often outstripped his brain, and he was faster and stronger and tougher than he should've been, and smarter than he had any right to expect.

His hand flashed out, so fast that it was a blur even to himself, and caught the bottle about six inches away from Drew's face.

Everything went still. Steve looked down at the bottle, and beyond it, Drew's wide, confused eyes, and Shawn, who had figured it out, had seen it, his eyes resigned and angry and fearful as he pulled the smaller boy back, away from the barrier, away from how unfair the world was.

Steve set the bottle down on the barrier. “Excuse me,” he bit out, and his brain was already tracing the trajectory of the thrown bottle, the speed and the weight and the force and his memory was going through the crowd, eyes sliding over faces, some still and shocked, others confused, and one, he could see the one he was looking for with the clarity of a photograph.

He took off running.

The man clearly hadn't expected pursuit. He barely got a couple of stumbling, fumbling yards, shoving at the crowds and nearly crashing into the side of a parked car before Steve overtook him.

In less than five minutes, Steve was back, the cursing, spitting man held by the back of his jacket. The protesters were staring at them as Steve stalked forward, not even winded, not even straining, holding the idiot like a naughty kitten, scruffed neatly by the nape of his neck.

Steve held him up in front of Drew, who was staring at them like he'd lost his mind. “Thank you for attempting to keep New York clean by properly disposing of your bottle,” Steve said to the struggling idiot, who kicked and thrashed and threatened legal action with equal fervor. “However, your aim is lousy. Instead of hitting the trash can-” He turned the man so he faced the nearby trash container, “you nearly hit this nice young man. You should apologize for that.”

And Steve let the man's feet crash to the ground.

He jerked back, taking a wild swing at Steve, who was expecting it. Steve swayed back, letting the fist pass ineffectually in front of his face, and ducked under the second attempt, blocking with his elbow as the guy swung wildly, face getting redder and redder.

Steve caught his fist in one hand and stilled it without effort. “Apologize,” he said, his voice almost gentle, but there was steel in the word, in the back of it.

“Fucking faggot!” the man spit out, and Steve sighed.

“You're just embarrassing yourself,” he said, but he looked at Drew. “You want to press charges?”

“Uh, what? I... Guess so?” Drew said, still half hiding behind Shawn. Shawn, who's eyes were narrowing now, sharp and bright as he stared at Steve.

“You're Captain America,” he said, and it was a breath of sound, light and strained. “Oh, my God, you're Captain America.”

“Yeah, hi.” Steve gave him a faint smile. “Has someone called the police?”

“Yes, but there's not much of a chance they'll respond any time soon,” an older woman in a suit said with a tight smile. “We've had problems before.”

“That's okay. I'm actually authorized to make arrests,” Steve said, cheerful about it. “It was an agreement between SHIELD and the NYPD. I'm pretty sure they intended it as a symbolic gesture, but it's still legal.”

“You're Captain America,” Shawn repeated, and he seemed stunned.

“Sometimes,” Steve said. “The rest of the time, I'm just Steve, a guy who can't work his phone.” Taking care, he flipped the man around and put him on his stomach, securing his arms behind his back, ignoring the steady stream of curses that were just pouring out of him. “Let's see now...” He pulled out his phone, staring at it with pursed lips. “Code, code, code...” He pressed a thumb against the screen and typed in the code with his tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth.

The phone transitioned from a tech toy to a SHIELD issued communicator without so much as changing his wallpaper. Chuckling, Steve looked at the new range of options. It took him a second, but he managed to locate the 'summon police' icon, and yes, he was going to have words with Tony about the fact that there was a 'summon police' icon that looked like the police box from Doctor Who.

“Shouldn't be long now,” he said, bracing one knee and smiling up at the gathered protesters. They were milling around, looking at him with worried eyes and confusion and no small amount of trepidation.

Drew ducked under the barrier. “Do you want to, you know, move him away from here?” he asked, crouching down next to Steve.

“Why?” Steve said.

“People are taking pictures,” Drew said. “Uh, you do realize what we're doing here, right?”

Steve arched his eyebrows. “I can read. Looks to me like you're protesting for federal recognition, as opposed to state recognition, for the right to marry.”

“Gay marriage,” Drew said, calm about it.

“I like weddings,” Steve said. “All for 'em.”

“You maybe shouldn't be photographed here-” Drew started, and Steve lost his temper.

“Thanks for the consideration, and I'm trying not to take offense here, I really am, but if I had an issue with where I currently was standing, I'm old enough to move. I don't have any problem with being photographed here, in fact, give me a dang sign, and I'll be photographed holding that, and it's kind of insulting you think that I would have a problem with being photographed here,” he said, shoulders tight. “I think that denying any American citizen a basic right of any kind is just an EMBARRASSMENT for everything that this country stands for, and the sooner we get over this sort of exclusionary political nonsense, the better.”

Drew stared at him. “I want to hug you. You are the most adorable human being in the entire world,” he said, at last.

“The terrifying thing is that he's completely sincere,” Tony said, making everyone jump, because he had appeared out of the gathering crowd without his usual chaos. Probably because everyone was busy watching Steve make an idiot out of himself. He had a hot dog in one hand and large flat case slung over his shoulder. He tipped his head forward, eyes dancing behind the lenses of his glasses. “C'mon, Cap, you have to tell the rest of us when you're going to go out to fight for social justice, it's only fair. We're bored, too.”

“It was a spur of the moment thing,” Steve explained. “Sometimes social injustice just HAPPENS.”

“Well, fuck that noise,” Tony agreed. He swung the bag off of his shoulder. “Trade you.”

Steve took the bag with his free hand, knowing it was his shield, knowing he didn't need it and desperately grateful to Tony for having brought it, anyways. “The police-”

“Are right behind me,” Tony said, “but I like field testing things.” He finished up his hot dog and crumbled up the wrapper, tossing it towards the nearby trash can with a flick of his arm. Tony crouched down, reaching into his suit coat pocket with his free hand and pulling out something that looked like a length of thick coiled wire. As Steve held the man steady, Tony wove the ends around his wrists and gave it a twist. The wire snapped into place. “I wouldn't struggle,” Tony explained to the man. “These are made to hold guys in a slightly different weight class than you.”

Standing, he shook his head at Steve. “Always causing trouble,” he said.

Steve shrugged. “I do what I can.”

“Yeah, but-” Tony froze. “There's something on my leg.” He glanced down, and yes, Drew was hugging his knee, his body leaning against Tony's leg.

“I love you,” Drew said, and Tony started laughing.

“He tried to have sexual relations with my phone,” Steve explained as Shawn, bright red and stammering, tried to pry Drew loose without doing irreparable damage to Tony or his pants..

“That is the correct response to my tech,” Tony said, stabbing a finger in Steve's direction. “You spend all your time looking sad and displeased when I upgrade your phone.”

“You sneak into my room and replace my phone while I'm not looking, and when I go to use it, and my phone is different, you pretend that it has always been my phone and treat me like I'm going crazy,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest. “That is not nice, Tony.”

“Yeah, but it is fun,” Tony explained. He gave Drew a light pat on the head. “Give me your address, kid, I'll find something for you to use.”

“Please don't encourage him, sir,” Shawn said. Drew let go at last, and Tony shook his head, lips quirked up.

“Will you sign my phone, please?” Drew said, pulling out a StarkPhone and holding it out to Tony.

“Sure.” Tony fumbled in an inner pocket for a retractable Sharpie just as the NYPD pushed through the gathering crowd. “Steve, you got that, and I'll distract the masses?” he asked, bending over Drew's phone.

“Thanks.” Steve paused. “How'd you find me?”

“Someone took a picture of you in that weird little tea shop, and it wasn't hard to figure out from there. Then I just followed the chaos. Did you find Bruce's tea?”

“Crimson green tea blossom,” Steve said. “And some horrifically expensive coffee beans, I cannot imagine who thinks it's appropriate to spend forty-five dollars for a bag of coffee beans.” He'd nearly had a heart attack at that, but he bought it anyway. Tony was a spoiled little brat.

“Ooooooh,” Tony said, his head coming up.

“Not for you,” Steve said, trying to sound like he meant it.

“Fine,” Tony huffed, but he was grinning. “Fine, see if I upgrade your phone again.”

“Is... Is that supposed to be an inducement? Because I hate it when you upgrade my phone.”

“I see how it is. Okay, I demand coffee or I will upgrade your phone.”

The police were standing there, clearly confused, and Steve gave them a reassuring smile. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” he started, and went over the situation was Tony shook hands and posed for pictures and generally made sure that all eyes were on him.

By the time the officers had gotten the contact info from Shawn and Drew, and taken Steve's brief statement, the crowd had grown. Tony was holding court, not the least bit bothered, but Steve was glad when the man was hauled away without further incident. He settled back, a faint smile on his face, to watch Tony play the crowd. It never ceased to be amusing.

“Excuse me? Sir?”

He glanced over. Drew was hovering there, looking nervous. Steve gave him a smile. “Sorry I snapped at you,” he said to the kid, shifting the case that held his shield from one hand to the other.

“No, I'm sorry. Really. I didn't mean to insult you. I just-” The young man smiled. “This isn't your fight.”

“Even if it wasn't my fight-” And Steve wasn't so sure about that sometimes, because, well, Tony did things to him. “I have friends. People whom I trust with my life. And it bothers me that they don't get this choice. Their fight is my fight.”

Tony glanced over, his teeth flashing in a grin. “Those two,” he said, his tone very stern, “cannot get married. Even if it was mandatory. No. Not allowed. That ceremony would be horrific.” He paused, pulled his buzzing phone from his pocket and checked it. “Well, screw you, too!” he said, his voice loud enough to carry, and held it out to Steve.

“Screw you,” the text message said. “My wedding would be fucking magical, Stark!”

“Where-” Steve started

“In a tree or something, God only knows, do not encourage him.” Tony seemed about to say something else, and then his shoulders stiffened. “Oh, wonderful,” he said, his voice tinged with ice.

“What?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.”

Steve scrunched his eyes shut. “What.”

“Reporters.” Tony pushed away from them, over to where the protest's organizers were speaking to a group of people. As Steve watched, a couple of them peeled off, heading right for them. The crowd shifted as a smartly dressed woman locked eyes with Tony, her lips curling up in a not-very-pleasant smile. “Steve, you need to not get involved in this.”

Steve glanced at her, at Tony, and back. “Tell me you didn't sleep with her,” he said under his breath.

Tony gave him an insulted look. “Why is that your first thought? Really, I don't sleep with everyone, you know.”

“Did you sleep with her?”

“No.”

Steve managed not to say, 'Thank God,' but it was a close thing.

“Mr. Stark,” the reporter said, with a wide, sharp toothed smile. “Captain.”

“Ms. Oleson,” Tony said, relaxed and comfortable. “What brings you out here today?”

As if sensing blood in the water, most of the crowd turned in their direction. “May I ask you some questions, Mr. Stark?”

“Feel free, but I didn't set this up, and I'm just here to pick up a lost friend, so I can't speak to actual efforts of these dedicated people, you'd be better off asking-”

“Does StarkIndustries recognize gay couples?” she asked, interrupting him.

“Only the ones that StarkIndustries knows personally,” Tony shot back. “But StarkIndustries is open to meeting other gay couples so that they, too, can be recognized.”

Her lips only got tighter. “From a benefits perspective.”

“All Stark subsidiaries has provided full benefits for domestic partners, no matter the gender of the participants, since the early nineties,” Tony said, arching an eyebrow. “So I'm not really sure I understand the intent of your question. Do I provide benefits across the board to all of my employees? Uh, yes. Because doing otherwise is a really lousy way to keep qualified people.”

“You don't make a differentiation between a marriage and a temporary living arrangement?” the reporter asked.

“That's not my job. I don't really think it's the government's job, either, but according to my CEO, I continue to not be in charge of everything, which is, let me tell you, a daily disappointment. I don't get to chose who can be married or not, and that's a damn shame, because, let me tell you, some people I know would not be making that cut. Me, for one. All I can do is provide equal benefits to all of my employees, which seems fair, rational, and a good way to keep myself from being sued.” He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet as the crowd laughed. “I hate being sued, lawyers give me hives, and that includes my lawyers.”

“Don't you think that marriage to be expanded to non-conventional couples lessens the institution of marriage?”

Tony's head tipped to the side. “Really, are we doing this here? Really? Fine. No. I don't care. Let me be flat honest with you, I don't care. I don't understand why you care. You know what I think when my AI tells me I have six wedding invitations in the day's mail? Let me tell you, it's not, 'I wonder what gender and sexual orientation the participants are,' it's 'son of a bitch, I hope these registries are not as nauseating as the last batch, I refuse to buy any more fucking chafing dishes, I do not need that nonsense on my credit card bill, it is ruining my dastardly name.'”

The gathering crowd was laughing out loud now, and Tony barely seemed to notice.

“If my employees decide that the person that they are sharing their life with is important enough to list them with the HR department as their life insurance beneficiary, as their medical proxy, as covered by their company dental plan, then I trust that my employees are smart enough to make that goddamned decision. Do you know why? Because my employees have access to things that can blow you up. They have access to jet engines and arc reactor tech and giant turbines and explosives and things that can rain fire down upon you. I trust them with chemicals and explosives and all of my piles of money, but you think I should draw the line at who they want to MARRY?”

Tony leaned forward. “With all due respect, are you brain damaged? Or do you just have incredibly fucked up priorities?”

The reporter thrust the MP3 recorder in Tony's face. “Do you want to repeat that?”

Tony grinned. He hooked his index finger under the MP3, raising it up in front of him like a microphone. His eyes at a sultry half-mast, he purred, “This is Tony Stark, with the following question to those who oppose the right for gay couples to marry: Are you brain damaged, or do you just have incredibly fucked up priorities?” He paused, gave the reporter a look from beneath the sweep of long dark lashes. “That was good,” he said, considering. “But I don't know, I think I can do better, what do you think, Steve, another take?”

“No,” Steve said, and he was trying not to laugh, and that was more than could be said of the crowd. “I think you nailed it.”

The reporter turned on him, her face pinched, unhappy. “As a symbol of America, do you really think it's acceptable to be pushing a liberal agenda that is counter what the American people support?”

Tony opened his mouth, but Steve beat him. “What American people?” he asked, his voice quiet. “I'm an American citizen. I have the right to speak out for what I support, the same as you. I'm proud to serve my country, but I'm not the only one who's done so. I've known a good many patriotic men and women who are denied a basic human right, and I consider it my duty to speak for the oppressed and the marginalized.”

“You're going to use the mantle of Captain America to stump for gay rights? Is that really appropriate?”

“I'm off the clock,” Steve said, grinning. “Just me and the grocery shopping.”

“Orange Cream Pop Tarts for everyone, I guess,” Tony said, grinning at the pile of groceries. “Not that anyone wants those.”

“Are you really comfortable being made a symbol for a sexually charged movement?” Ms. Oleson asked Steve, ignoring Tony entirely now.

“Have you looked at him?” Tony asked, innocence personified. “If he starts championing a cause, it's damn well going to end up being sexually charged.”

“You know, people did have sex in the 1940's, in all its incarnations, it's not like this is a modern invention, and the country is doing just fine,” Steve burst out, and he knew, the instant that it came out of his mouth, that it was the exact wrong thing to say.

*

“I don't know,” Tony said, rubbing his chin and trying not to pretend that he was struggling against laughing. “I think they picked just the right line for the headline. It's fully true. Captain America DID say that people were having sex in the 1940's. I mean, it was kind of unfortunate that the rest of the article is trash, but that quote is 100% accurate.”

Steve buried his face in his hands and made a whimpering noise.

“It's a good picture of you, Stark,” Clint said, grinning. “Nice choice of signs.”

“I had that sign custom made. If I'm going in the papers, it's going to be pure Stark Class.” Tony gave him a bright white grin and saluted the team with his coffee mug. “Steve vetoed my first choice.”

“What was that?” Natasha asked. She was pretending to be disinterested, but her eyes were dancing.

Tony spread his hands over his head like he was laying out a marquee. “'EVERYONE'S Gay For Captain America!' In red, white and blue lettering, of course.”

Steve groaned.

Thor patted him lightly on the back. “It is a statement with much truth,” he said, trying to be comforting.

“This one is more subtle,” Bruce said, his lips twitching.

The photo was a good one, with Steve standing, looking noble and resolute as he held a simply printed sign that stated 'Equal Rights for All Americans.” Behind him, Tony was seated on the edge of the police barrier, a martini glass in one hand, his sunglasses low on his nose, and a sign that proclaimed, 'Futurists of America for Social Equality' on one shoulder. He was grinning at the camera with a 'try me, fucker' expression on his face.

“Where, exactly, did you get a martini?” Coulson asked, rubbing his forehead with one hand.

“Bar, I guess. I don't know, to be honest,” Tony said, not really concerned. “When you're a Stark, martinis are, just, a naturally occurring substance. Like air. Or grass. You just look around and boom, martini.” He looked around. “Case in point!” Humming under his breath, he headed for his personal bar.

“I'm really sorry, Phil,” Steve said, into his hands. “I just... Lost my temper.”

“You know what's cute?” Clint said, from where he was seated, booted feet propped on the table, spinning an arrow on the tip of one finger. “That when Steve loses his temper, he acquires protest signs.”

“Yeah, I got a report about a bunch of right leaning news vehicles with holes in their tires,” Phil said, giving him a narrow eyed look.

Clint did his best to look innocent. He was not good at it. “Gee, wonder how that happened.”

“I wonder,” Coulson said, arms folded over his chest. “I believe your instructions were, surveillance only, weren't they?”

“Sir, I took the initiative to protect the team. The first thing you do when retreat is a possibility is to disable potential pursuit.”

“From Fox News?”

“For Fox News, sir, you're lucky I just shot the tires.”

Steve gave him a look. “Free press is-”

“No,” Bruce said.

“But-”

“Not a chance,” Natasha said.

“This is-”

Clint shook his head. “No, Cap. No.” His face set, he slumped low in his chair.

Steve, confused now, glanced at Thor, who crossed his arms and scowled, shaking his head with intent. Steve glanced at his team. “What do the rest of you know that I don't?”

“No one is going to shoot the press, Cap, it's fine,” Coulson said. “They get to print and say whatever they want, and Clint, pull that nonsense again, and I'm writing you up.”

“Totally worth it,” Clint muttered, slumping lower in his seat.

“What is-”

“They implied StarkIndustries had ties to a terrorist cell,” Tony said from the doorway. He leaned one shoulder against the the frame, one eye brow arched. “Well, actually, they said I was FUNDING a terrorist cell. I think the implication was that during my three months vacation in the desert, while this was being installed-” He tapped a finger against the arc reactor, “I had gone from 'crazy and capitalistic' to 'crazy and determined to overthrow the American government.'” He took a sip of his drink. “It didn't get much traction, but they bring it up every so often when I completely fuck up. The old, 'hey, maybe he is a terrorist, hide your women and children!'” He waved his hands in the air. “Don't worry about it. People have said worse.”

Steve was staring at him, horrified. “People have said worse than saying you're a terrorist?” he said, his voice rising to an unfortunate pitch.

Tony gave him a look that part pity, part amusement. “Do me a favor, Jarvis, enable safe search for Captain Rogers. All safe search, all the time, he-” Tony winced as Steve got up. “No, no, no, let's remain calm about this, Rogers, everyone stay calm-”

“How do you-” Steve's hands were fists at his side. “How do you stay so calm about this?”

“Mostly I prank call Rupert Murdoch and Photoshop his face onto adorable kittens,” Tony said, considering. “Oh, and drinking. Drinking really helps.”

“Yeah, well, I can't get drunk.” Lips tight, Steve stood. “What else has everyone been hiding?”

“Thor's an illegal alien out to kill us all,” Clint said, on a yawn, “Natasha's a Russian spy-” Natasha snorted with disdain at that. “Or a token female who's only on the team to keep the feminists happy.”

“That's more likely.” she said.

“What?” Steve asked, horrified.

She gave him a faint smile. “Or that you're all my harem of boyfriends.”

“Wait, I didn't know about this one, are you sleeping with everyone other than me?” Tony asked her, pretending to be shocked. “That is just unfair. That is going to be damaging to team morale.”

She rolled her head in his direction, eyes huge and liquid. “And here I thought you'd say no, so I was too afraid to ask.”

“Of course I'd say no, you're terrifying, but I appreciate the offer. Thank you. That's-”

“This isn't funny,” Steve said, and everyone looked at him. “How can you-” He stared at them. “All of you?”

“Uh, yeah,” Bruce said, with a faint smile. “The other guy really isn't popular, Cap, and Coulson's got more conspiracy sites dedicated to him than JFK.”

“Those are hysterical,” Coulson said, crossing his arms. “I'm a ghost, I'm an android, I'm an alien, I'm secretly the president...”

“That's a new one,” Clint said. “I haven't seen that one. Does this mean I have to hum Hail To the Chief in bed?”

“I'll send you the link, and no. Do not.”

“I appreciate that, I've got to keep up on what you're doing,” Clint pointed out. “As for me, it's pretty much just a matter of time before I go evil again.” He shrugged, smile flat and empty.

Coulson put his hand on Clint's shoulder, and Natasha put her foot up on the edge of his chair from the other sid, her foot resting against his thigh. He patted it with a smile. “It's okay.”

“No,” Steve said, his voice flat. “It's not. Let's go.”

“Go where?” Tony asked, arching an eyebrow.

“I met some guys who know how to make a scene.”

*
To: Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD
From: Phil Coulson, Agent of SHIELD

Re: Avengers Initiative
Attached file: Classified, Level 7: The Avengers/Fox News Incident (108 KB)

Sorry, sir.

-Phil