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Freezer Burn

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The thing of it was... Bruce wasn't wrong. They weren't a timebomb -- yet -- but they absolutely were not ready to be a team. At least not when the sky wasn't full of attacking aliens.

It was a slow realization for all of them. Flush from the success against Loki's army, bolstered by Fury's defense of them against the WSC, they thought that would be enough. They'd made war together, grieved together, lost and won together, surely that would bond them in lasting ways. But it didn't, or at least not in ways that allowed for daily civil interaction. The fact of it was that while they could fight together well, they couldn't really live or train together well. Or at all. So after a few weeks of trying to deny the obvious, they stopped.

Clint and Natasha returned to doing whatever it was that they did when they weren't fighting aliens, which everyone mentally translated into "killing people," but nobody said as much aloud. Not even Tony, although that might've been because he was largely not talking to anyone not Pepper and that was only because she had the override codes to the lab in which he'd barricaded himself.

Bruce lasted three weeks before he quietly told Maria Hill that he could use a ride someplace remote. One-way, please. This actually did get Tony to talk because apparently he and Bruce had been collaborating on a few things -- they had stopped using any more precise language after the first three days of blank looks and uninformed questions that provoked heartfelt sighs of despair in them both -- and the loss of "the only other person around here who doesn't need the Idiot's Guide to Really Basic Science to only miss 85% of what I'm talking about" was unacceptable.

(Steve had a really good deadpan and a great poker face; his ability to make Tony crazy with anachronistic questions had been a reliable balm during the team's early tensions. It was probably the only upside to the legacy of Captain America as a business-first-and-only hero, something that Steve really didn't like or understand how it had come to be -- hadn't anyone watched the USO footage? But Tony, who really had no excuse, kept falling for the doe-eyed earnestness. Bruce wised up after the first week.)

Tony wanted to set Bruce up in Stark Tower ("the part that's got electricity, no gaping holes, and doesn't smell like burned plastic") with his own lab, he could handpick his staff, would never have to talk to anyone but Tony or Pepper or Jarvis if he didn't want to, a budget bigger than the GNP of most of the EU, first crack at all of the new Stark toys...

"He wants you to be his science gigolo," was how Clint put it during one of his returns 'home.' "Tony Stark, sugardaddy."

"I never pay for it," was how Tony replied.

"Unless Pepper's running your company for free, you kind of do," was Clint's last word on the subject, since he immediately afterward fled from the room without looking at all like that was exactly what he was doing because Tony was wearing one of his Iron Man gauntlets, although he didn't seem to realize it.

But in the end, Bruce was unmoved -- and moving out. It wasn't the money or the toys or even the people per se, although he'd admitted that the intrateam squabbling was not helping. It wasn't anything about what he didn't have -- it was what he did have. "I have everything -- or close enough to it -- that I am starting to get annoyed by little things. Stupid things. My coffee isn't strong enough. The elevators are slow. I want this test run now but the techs have fifty other people making the same demands. These aren't things worth risking the Other Guy's arrival for. Piling more everything on top of the everything I already have isn't going to make it go away."

So, instead, he did. With various means of keeping in contact and some Stark toys (because Tony really was serious about not losing his favorite playmate) and the promise to return when needed.

Which left Steve alone. And so Steve left, too.

Not far, mind. To a SHIELD-provided loft in Brooklyn, one that was wired six ways to Sunday to keep tabs on him. (He'd allowed Tony to do a search for surveillance, but told him to only neutralize the invasive ones. He didn't ask what Tony had found, nor did Tony tell him anything beyond "don't do anything in the kitchen you wouldn't want on youtube.")

But it turns out that Steve wouldn't have a chance to spend too much time worrying that his culinary adventures were being watched by Fury and Hill and the others. (There was a farmer's market twice a week two blocks over; Steve came home from his run on Tuesdays and Saturdays with a backpack full of items he could only partially identify and had to Google to figure out how to prepare.) At least not if the Army had its way.

Ever since the battle in New York, the Pentagon started pushing for Captain America to make a tour of US bases. A chance for the men and women serving today to see and meet a legend, which was Steve's main objection because he might have a legend, but he wasn't one himself and that was just setting himself up for failure and everyone else for grave disappointment.

SHIELD ran interference for a while, but someone at the Pentagon eventually remembered that Steve was actually technically still under contract to the Army and tried to use that to force the issue. Maria Hill's response to that was to say that if they wanted to play that card, Captain Rogers was owed a lot of backpay, adjusted for inflation and with interest, and probably a promotion.

Steve ended up with a retroactive discharge coincidental with the original 'the duration plus six months' contract he'd enlisted under and a shockingly large bank account after some of SHIELD's forensic accountants figured out what had been in his account back then, what he'd have earned before his 'discharge,' and what that came out to today after inflation and interest rates were applied.

"It kept FININT busy for weeks, which meant that they were out of my hair for weeks," is what Hill said when Steve brought it up, embarrassed because it seemed like an absurd amount of money to be paid for doing what every other young man was doing at the time. "Which means it totally paid for itself. And we needed to set up an account for you anyway; SHIELD only does direct deposit for paychecks. So don't worry about it -- Stark probably spends more than you're worth on new shoes -- and go buy yourself something nice."

Steve didn't have anything nice he wanted to buy. Tony provided him with more gadgets than he could want to figure out how to use, SHIELD had already bought him a wardrobe full of contemporary clothes, and while the farmer's market was much more expensive than C-Town, he didn't think Hill meant he should splurge on extra helpings of funny-colored carrots and squash.

What he did end up doing was booking a hotel in DC and spending a week touring the museums and the monuments and the memorials. SHIELD needed two days to find him because he'd made his reservations on the computer that Tony had given him and not his SHIELD-issued laptop ("Use this one to surf for porn unless you want SHIELD ordering up a customized-to-your-preferences hooker for you next time they think you oughta get laid.") and had ducked the agents assigned to tail him once he got on the subway.

Fury found him at Arlington, standing in the middle of a sea of simple white tombstones.

"Appreciate the note, Captain," he said dryly. Steve had left one on the kitchen counter, in full view of the camera he now knew was hidden in the light fixture. "If you'd said something, we could have organized a trip for you."

"With all due respect, sir, this was something I wanted to do on my own," Steve replied after taking a long deep breath. "I had hoped that you'd see the note, realize I was safe, and leave me be. I'm supposed to be learning how to make my own way in the world, right? I'm over eighty; I didn't think I still had a curfew."

Fury made a noise. "We've been encouraging you to adapt and engage, yes," he admitted. "But you'll understand if we get nervous the first time you decide to actually test our sincerity."

"And are you?" Steve asked, because Fury wasn't wrong. This had been a test as much as it had been about getting to see the Smithsonian. "You tell me I'm free to find a life here and now, to find things that interest me and meet people. But you keep me under surveillance around the clock and chase me down the first time I go somewhere without telling you first. Do you think I'm a threat, Director?"

"No, Captain."

"Then why are you treating me like one?" He looked over at Fury, who had the decency to meet his gaze. "You've been watching me since the moment I woke up. What have I done for you to have so little faith in me?"

Steve wasn't an idiot; he knew that between what Loki had done to Clint and what Bruce was capable of doing to himself, Fury had a reason to be mindful. But that didn't mean he didn't resent being considered as a potential threat instead of as what he was, which was innocent until proven guilty -- or at least until he'd actually committed a crime.

"We're standing here surrounded by men who had unquestioning faith in you," Fury said after a long silence. "You don't think of it like that. I'm not sure it ever even crossed your mind that this might be the case. But it's true. You meant something extraordinary to these men, something that passed out of our collective thoughts once you 'died,' something we still need but forgot how to look for and lost the ability to find.

"You never understood the true magnitude of the power you wielded. It had nothing to do with the serum, which I think you did understand, but you didn't appreciate where it did come from. How could you? And now, when everything else is so new to you, I don't know that you understand how much of that power you still have, how much more you could have. But I do. And I know that our enemies do and that they will do whatever it takes to destroy you because once you catch up -- and you will catch up -- they won't have a chance.

"To answer your question, Captain, I have all the faith in the world in you. I couldn't have otherwise. But you've been through a helluva shock and, since we're being frank with each other, you were very slow to adapt to your new surroundings. Having faith in your honor does not mean I can't worry about your state of mind."

It was Steve's turn to be silent; Fury's answer was not at all what he'd thought it would be and he wanted to parse it for meaning. Meanings, since he was not still so frozen between the ears that he wasn't aware that Fury could lie to anyone about anything and not be caught.

"If I tell you that I'm fine, will you at least take the camera out of my kitchen?"

"It's already been taken care of," Fury replied. "I worry a lot less about you when you lie about where you're going than when you lie about how happy you are."

Steve smiled. Fury might have smiled back.

"I'm buried here, right?" Steve asked after a much more companionable silence.

"Next to Sergeant Barnes," Fury confirmed. "Those of the Howling Commandos who chose to be buried here are there, too."

Steve nodded, not quite sure the words would come out levelly if he spoke. This part, the direct confrontation with the most intimate parts of his old life -- his comrades, his friends, his family -- still remained unhealed and the pain undiminished. The shrink said it would be the last part to do so, but Steve wondered if it ever would.

"There's been some talk about a ceremony to remove your headstone," Fury went on.

"I'd rather there not be one," Steve finally answered. "At least not a public one."

Fury nodded once. "That can be arranged," he said, then turned to go. "I'm going to get back to real problems, since you don't qualify as one. Do you need directions to where it is?"

Steve shook his head. He wasn't sure he was ready to go there today, but didn't want to admit as much.

"Then I'll see you next week at the Avengers meeting," Fury said. "Don't take your newfound independence to mean that it's optional."

"No, sir."