Tony wandered upstairs from his workshop; it would take JARVIS at least an hour to finish the simulations for his planned upgrades to the Mark VIII, so he had plenty of time to go see what his new housemates were up to. It was odd, having all these other people around, but they did provide entertainment, and many of them kept unusual enough hours that Tony always had someone to bother. All in all, it wasn't a bad arrangement.
He found Clint sprawled on the sofa in the common room, watching The Bourne Interminability on the huge flatscreen TV, with a bowl of popcorn cradled in his lap. Tony plunked down on the one free cushion and snatched up the remote. "Boring," he declared, and started flipping channels.
"Hey!" Clint protested. "I was watching that!"
"For like the sixteenth time," Tony pointed out. "I'd be surprised if you couldn't recite the whole movie by now." He reached over and grabbed a handful of popcorn, then tossed one of the kernels in the air and caught it in his mouth. "I don't know why you're even into these super-spy movies; I would think you'd be more interested in stuff that was less like your real life. Like, I don't know, porn?"
"Ass," Clint accused, menacing him with a throw pillow.
"Play nice, kids," came Cap's voice from the doorway. Tony craned his neck around to see the Star-Spangled Man, sans spangly outfit, leaning against the wall and sipping a glass of orange juice that almost certainly didn't contain any vodka. Honestly, the guy was so wholesome he could be A Part Of This Complete Breakfast. Now there's a thought...
"Yes, Mom," Tony shot back. Then he settled back into the embrace of the sofa and glanced up to see where his channel-surfing had landed. He blinked. "Hey look, Cap – you're on TV."
"What?" Steve stepped further into the common room, gaze focused on the screen. Tony had landed on a newscast, and beside the pretty blonde anchorwoman's head, one of Captain America's old propaganda posters was displayed on the news monitor. Tony turned up the volume.
"–press release this morning, the American Family Association praised the return of Captain America, calling the national icon, quote, 'a much-needed role model of traditional masculinity and traditional Christian values, for children whose schools have become dominated by the homosexual agenda.'"
The image on the screen cut to a portly man in his late middle years, standing behind a podium full of microphones. "We live in a fallen world – a world that has been sliding faster and further into decadence in the last twenty years," the man bloviated. "In these dark times, traditional American values have been driven out of the public square, out of our schools, and replaced with a radical secular, homosexual agenda."
"Not this douchebag again," Clint snarled, pelting the screen with a piece of popcorn, pegging the image of the man dead in the center of the forehead.
The broadcast continued. "–of this war on traditional morality can be seen everywhere you look: violence in our schools, teenage pregnancy, and the homosexual indoctrination of our children in the name of 'tolerance.' But God has granted us a blessing in this era of sinfulness! Our nation's greatest hero, Captain America, has returned to this great land to set before our children a shining example of righteous, traditional Christian values. Captain America, who hails from a time when men were men and perversion was not lifted on a pedestal in the name of 'diversity,' will, by his example, help steer our great nation back onto God's path. When we turn away from the sin of –"
The sound of shattered glass snapped Tony's head around. Juice dripped from the shards of glass in Steve's fist onto the orange puddle spreading across the white carpet. His arms and shoulders were tight with tension, and Tony could see the muscles in Steve's jaw working. His breath came sharp and fast through his nose, and the darkness in those blue eyes actually gave Tony chills, of the not-fun variety.
"Who. Is. That." The Captain – because the shift from mild-mannered Steve Rogers to Captain America was evident in every line of the big man's body – forced the question out through clenched teeth.
"Some asshole from the AFA," Clint replied. "They're a conservative Christian group that hates gays, nonbelievers, sexually-active women, and... well, pretty much everybody, actually."
Tony was still staring at Cap. He'd never seen his teammate this angry before – never imagined him this angry. Right now, he looked like he could teach Bruce a thing or two about pure, unadulterated rage. Tony held up his hands in a placating gesture. "We can fix this, Cap. Trademark your name and likeness – I'll have Pepper draw up the paperwork – they'll never be able to pin their agenda on you like this again."
The Captain drew a single, deep breath and let it out slowly; it didn't seem to do much to balance his mood. "Do it. And arrange a press conference. I want these people to know exactly what their 'national icon' thinks about their traditional values." He stalked toward the screen, where the man was still yammering on about Jesus and gays and sin. "Tony, use my SHIELD stipend to pay for the cup and the carpet cleaning." He shook the remaining glass fragments from his hand and balled it into a fist again. "And the television."
The LCD monitor fountained sparks as it died, Captain America's fist smashing right through the center of the screen.
* * *
Steve stared out into a sea of video cameras, telephoto lenses, microphones, and voice recorders. The technology may have changed, but some things stayed the same across the decades: the press still followed Captain America like a pack of hungry puppies trailing a hot dog vendor's cart.
He had left the details of arranging the event to Tony – who, in turn, had probably left them to Ms. Potts. Steve had only made two requests: plenty of national press coverage, and that the American Family Association leaders who would be in attendance should not know what he was going to say until he got in front of the cameras. It was a shame they were standing on the stage behind him, because Steve would have given a great deal to watch their faces as he spoke. I'll have to catch it on the news later. I doubt the press will let go of what I'm about to say for quite a while.
He slipped on the confident smile he'd acquired during his months with the USO and glanced down at the index cards bearing his remarks. He'd already been introduced, allowing him to transition directly into the substance of his speech. "Good morning. I'm glad to have the opportunity to come here and speak with you all today." Damned if he was going to thank the people sharing a stage with him for their invitation. That's all right. In a few minutes, they won't exactly be thanking me for accepting it. "A lot of things have changed in this country since my childhood, in the '20s and '30s. Society has changed, values have changed, and in some ways, it seems like even Christianity has changed." He heard soft murmurs of assent behind him, and had to force his hands to relax, to keep from crumpling his note cards.
"When I was a boy, my mother would take me to church every Sunday, when she was well enough. I learned so many important things there, about right and wrong, and what God wants from us." He paused for a moment, to strengthen the impact of his next words. "I was taught that our savior left us with just one commandment: to love God above all, and to love one another as we love ourselves. Compassion and kindness, generosity and love – those were the things he asked of us. But when I look around me today, at the churches, the preachers, and the 'Christian values' of the twenty-first century, I don't see nearly as much of those things as I'd expect."
He could feel the tense silence spread across the stage behind him as a palpable force, though it was quickly supplanted by anxious whispers. "I listen to the largest and loudest Christian groups today, and I hear so much hate and condemnation, that it makes me think that Christianity has transformed in the years that I've been gone. Despite the fact that women now hold some of America's highest political and business offices, I hear Christian leaders talk about young girls as though their only value lies in their sexuality, and whether they've 'given it away' or not. I see children beaten and harassed at schools, abused or abandoned by their families, and made to feel so wrong and broken and miserable that they kill themselves – and then I hear Christian leaders blame those children for failing to 'turn away from sin.' As though loving someone of the 'wrong' gender, or not being 'manly enough' or 'feminine enough,' were a crime, worse than bullying a child until he doesn't want to live anymore."
The crowd behind him was furious; he felt their glares against his back as hot as Iron Man's lasers. But they weren't about to try to kick Captain America off their stage – not in front of a mob of reporters who had just been offered the story of the year. Despite his own very real anger, he had to fight to keep his expression free of the vicious satisfaction he felt at their impotent rage. He pressed on. "I know that the Christianity that I grew up with, and the American values that I fought to protect, are still alive in this country. But they've been shouted down and drowned out by these new values, the values of hate. It took me a long time to understand how that happened, but I've figured it out: it was us. Every time we stay silent, we give hate the chance to speak. Every time we stand back and don't get involved, we give hate the chance to act. Every time we hear hatred and cruelty being given the name of our faith and we don't step forward to reject it, we allow that hate to speak for us."
There was silence behind him again. Steve wondered if, by the time he was finished talking, there would be anyone still standing on the stage behind him, or whether they would all quietly slink off and try to escape the press. He stared directly into the bank of television cameras. "I know it can be hard to speak up. Sometimes you're dealing with your own problems; sometimes you don't want to be the only one making waves; sometimes you just don't feel like it affects you. But if every one of us who believes in a God of love would stand up to the people who preach hate and say, 'You don't speak for me,' it would make all the difference to those children who don't have anybody to stand up for them." He'd reached the end of his last index card. He set down the stack and looked out at the horde of reporters. "I'll take your questions now."
Steve had fought against alien invasions that had resulted in smaller explosions than the eruption of activity that surged through the throng of reporters in response to that announcement. Two dozen people shouted questions at him at once, and he held up his hand to forestall them. "I'm gonna need you to take turns, though," he told them.
The hand of a dark-haired woman in the front row shot up, and Steve nodded at her. "Captain Rogers," she began, "your statements today give the impression that you are strongly invested in gay rights issues. Is that accurate, and if so, what motivates that investment?"
Steve smiled at her, and then up at the cameras. "I hate bullies," he said simply. "I always have. And I can't stand to see something important to me being used as a weapon to bully people, especially children. It's wrong to hurt people that way, when they haven't hurt anyone themselves."
A tall young man in a tie raised his hand next. "Captain Rogers, do you identify in any way with the LGBT movement or community?"
Get your pencils ready, folks, Steve thought, you're not gonna want to miss this. "You know, for a long time – growing up, and during the war – I never really had to think about that. For a lot of people back then, you were either one thing, or the other. You liked dames, or you didn't. I liked dames, so I figured that was the end of it." Another pause for effect. "It wasn't until more recently, as I started to learn more about this century, that I saw that it's not always so clear-cut. Liking women doesn't mean you can't also like men."
"A follow-up," the tall reporter added. "Was there a particular person that led you to this realization?"
Steve's eyebrows quirked upward at the young journalist's boldness. "If there was a person," he told the reporter in a tone not without humor, "I think it would be appropriate for that person to find out before the New York Times." He moved on to the next question.
* * *
Captain America barely made it into the limo before shrugging off his suit jacket and tossing it on the seat beside him. "How'd it go?" Tony asked as Cap stretched against the seat, letting his head fall back into the cushioned headrest.
Steve grinned at him. "You expect me to believe you weren't watching? You orchestrated this whole circus."
"At your insistence. And technically, Pepper did most of the orchestrating. But I, you know, supervised." Tony picked up a stack of bumper stickers and handed them to Steve. "These came back from the printer this morning. How do they look?"
The bumper stickers had a fairly simple design: on the left, the word "Hate" sat inside a red circle with a slash through it. The lowercase "t" in "Hate" was an ornate cross obviously intended to invoke the religious symbol. Beside the red circle was written the phrase, "They don't speak for me."
"They're perfect," Steve told him, flipping through the stack of identical stickers. "Exactly what we discussed."
Tony nodded. "The t-shirts and coffee mugs will be ready by Tuesday. And will cost me a hefty chunk of change, I feel the need to point out."
"Didn't you mention something about being a philanthropist when we first met?" And there it was, the Steve Rogers smile. I should get my clean energy department to take a look at that smile, Tony thought; it could light up an entire city block.
Tony gestured an acknowledgment of defeat. "Got me there. Hey, you wanna grab some coffee on the way home? I've only had three cups this morning, and I think I've got a little too much blood in my caffeine system."
"Sure, Tony," Steve said, setting the bumper stickers aside. "But on the way, there's something I've been wanting to tell you..."