The problem with people was, nobody read any more, Clint thought sourly. Oh, they spent all day reading texts and emails and IMs and glossy magazines and ad-filled websites before hunkering down in front of the boob tube, but thought required, no. Who would it kill to crack a book that hadn’t been on Oprah? Seriously?
“Problem, Clint?” Steve asked, looking over at him and Clint realized he’d said the last bit out loud.
“Yeah. If I hear one more bird joke, for real I’m going to lose my shit. I don’t perch, I don’t stoop, and I sure as hell don’t nest, I mean, what is this I don’t even, imprinting??”
Steve frowned. “Oh, Clint, you’re not Googling yourself again, are you? You never find out anything you want to know doing that.”
Clint sighed. “It’s just so stupid. I mean, I don’t CARE about the rumors, much. I don’t even care about the porn, some of it’s actually kinda hot. Like, there was this one with a pool table, and one in an empty office at SHIELD after I made a daring escape from a captured Skrull ship—”
Steve cringed. “Oversharing now, thanks.”
“Whatever, mister-critiques-anatomy-in-naked-fanart. Anyway, I don’t care about that or the ridiculous black-helicopter tinfoil hat crowd, but honestly, times like this I wish I’d picked a different callsign because I mean, I am not Alan Alda and I’m definitely not a raptor.”
“Hey, the artist asked for feedback, and it was anatomically impossible,” Steve said easily although his ears went a little pink. “And Leatherstocking Tales, right? James Fenimore Cooper?” Steve absently started to flip through the Times on his StarkPad as Clint blinked and a grin broke out over his face.
“Brohug. Thank fucking God SOMEBODY got it.” Clint leaned over and gave him a one-armed hug.
Steve’s eyes crinkled as he grinned back. “Score, another reference win for the old man.”
Clint sighed. “Yeah, I never got the in-jokes either when I was a kid. Always moving, always working, never had the time or the money to know what shit people were into, what was cool. But the library was free and safe and nobody rousted you as long as you were quiet.” He stared sightlessly at the screen of his laptop. “Something to do,” he said finally. “Something else to think about, somewhere else to be.”
“Someone else to be,” Steve said very quietly. “Someone who was worth something.”
“Who?” Clint didn’t look at him. Some things you just couldn’t say when someone was looking at you, in case what you saw in their eyes was pity and something told him he and Steve were on the same page there.
“John Carter,” Steve said, a sheepish smile in his tone. “Phileas Fogg. D’Artagnan. The Time Traveller. The Wart, in the Sword in the Stone. Bilbo Baggins, ‘cause let’s face it, by the time The Hobbit came out I had pretty much given up on being a knight or a swashbuckler but maybe a little guy could still be a hero. It was kind of a big idea to me, kid’s book or not. The space stories, like Rob Heinlein and Isaac Asimov—he went to the same high school I did, not when I was there, but. C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet. Anything I could get my hands on that was as far away as I could get from being nothing, no one.” Steve fell silent.
Clint took a breath. “I liked people who went out on their own to be badasses. So yeah, Natty. Kipling, I liked Mowgli, fuck humanity. Um, Lord of the Rings, yeah, although awesome shooting notwithstanding more Aragorn than Legolas. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, how do you not want to be Zaphod Beeblebrox? Hemingway, pretty much all I could get my hands on. Twain—once I got past the whole reading-it-for-school thing I kinda got into it. Hunter S. Thompson. Stephen King - not so much the horror stuff but The Dark Tower, hell yeah, immortal gunslinger out to save the world. Pretty much anything and everything?”
Steve grinned at him. “Wanna swap E-readers?”
“Yeah,” Clint said, smiled back and understood for the first time how Captain America had been willing to take a worthless broken sniper at his word when he said he could fly the plane.
Coulson stopped dead at the sight of Steve curled up in the corner of the couch with Clint’s copy of The Watchmen. Steve looked up and smiled a little guiltily, misinterpreting the look. ”I know, I know. It’s kinda…self-referential, right? But I just—” He colors a little. “I really liked them, comics. I thought maybe I might have been an illustrator. Don’t know that I would have been able to come up with the stories—I sure couldn’t have come up with this one at least, although it makes a little more sense to me than I’m all that comfortable with right now, honestly. But anyway, I could have drawn them, maybe, inked or colored.”
Phil was honestly just taking a moment to absorb Captain America reading graphic novels—GOOD graphic novels—much less saying ‘self-referential.’ But then, the man DID have post-high-school education in an era where half the country stopped going to school after eighth grade—and yeah, Phil, he’s starting to look mildly anxious again, stop mancrushing and SAY something, preferably not something creepy. “Alan Moore’s a very good storyteller, and it’s hard to go wrong with him, really, but if you’re looking for something that’s not superheroes…has anyone shown you Sandman?”
Steve shook his head, eyes curious, and Phil nodded briskly. “Right, then. Come with me. It’s a different sort of story, and I think you’ll enjoy the art, some of it’s really quite extraordinary.”
“Hey, Phil, wait a minute!” Steve called out a few days later after a briefing, eyes shining. They talked about Sandman, and Mike Carey and Dave McKean’s solo work and whether Thor would like American Gods; Phil wondered in a happy daze just how fast Steve read. What surprised him out of it was when Steve pressed a trade paperback of a title that Phil hadn’t read, Top Ten, into his hands. “This Cannon kid, I really like him. I thought you might too, since you like Watchmen and the old stuff. You tell me what you think, yeah?” He looked a little anxious as Phil studied it, then beamed as he nodded.
“Yeah, Steve. Probably not for a few days, reports, but I’ve been looking for a new title.”
It was pretty good—but that wasn’t the point; it was that Captain America liked something that he liked, something that wasn’t the Initiative, and it was…friendly. Something friends did, not coworkers or awkward fanboys and heroes, and it joined his beloved Sandman trade copies on the work shelf for fuck-it-today-sucked comfort. He didn’t tell Nick he was over the cards, because guilty Nick wasn’t an advantage he was willing to give up any time soon. But the hand-drawn Steve Rogers original of Phil as Nite Owl that was tucked inside the front flyleaf was worth every hour he spent collecting the set and then some.
(He wasn’t too worried about whether he’d ever reconstruct it. He had better things to do. Like talking to Steve about the latest issue of The Walking Dead.)
“Tasha, what’s so funny?”
“Oh my god, Steve, this is the saddest thing - I can’t believe this is supposed to be sexy. I’m pretty sure the fraternization regs in the SHIELD handbook are more provocative than this.” Natasha held up the book she was reading, and Steve wrinkled his nose at the cover; he may have only had a year of art school, but the tie and the typeface still seemed a lot more generic than erotic to him.
“Sure doesn’t LOOK sexy, no.”
“I don’t even - it’s like, a runaway bestseller, people talk about it reinvigorating their sex lives and I cannot imagine how bad they would have had to be for this to be an improvement. I mean, listen to this drivel. ‘I found some baby oil. Let me rub it on your behind. Christian squirts baby oil onto his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness — from makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid.’”
Steve choked, then started laughing, cheeks pink. “Oh, um. Yeah. Yeah, no. Not exactly D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller, is it?”
“That’s so…classic of you,” Natasha observed dryly.
“Hey, that was racy back when.” Steve made a face at her. “But sex isn’t—it doesn’t make sense, it’s not supposed to make sense. I mean, think about kissing just from a purely mechanical point of view, it’s not that easy to describe the action and make it sound anything like it makes you feel. Poetry’s better than prose, for sex. Doesn’t have to follow straight lines and make sense, it just gives you feelings and pictures. That’s more like sex to me.”
Natasha cocked her head. “Examples?”
He cast his mind back, closed his eyes and murmured, “I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning; you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, and parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart, and reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.” He licked over his lips uneasily, remembering the weight of the words, somehow, the glorious disturbing images they called up. Remembered imagining Bucky, or Peggy. “Or, how about this: I trusted not, when in my fingers drooped your shining body, when my heart sang between your perfect breasts, darkness and beauty of stars was on my mouth, petals danced against my eyes and down…”
A slow, feline, considering smile spread across Natasha’s face as he spoke. “And here I could never see the point of poetry. You may have convinced me, Steve. Recommendations?”
He found copies of the Whitman and e. e. cummings later on Google Books, kept looking for a long time after that because it had been a long time since he’d had the leisure, the access for discovery. Warren and Neruda and Sexton, Ginsberg and Bukowski and so many other beautiful things found that molten core of want in him, and the only thing that would have made it better was if it were for things he could have.
A few days later, Natasha gave him a tattered copy of Delta of Venus. “If you’re going to think about sex in literary terms, consider women writers.”
He thought upon reading that she had a point.
Bruce found himself gravitating toward the smell of food: chili he thought. In the kitchen, he smiled at the sight of Steve and Clint goodnaturedly squabbling about comic books, something that had become increasingly familiar over the last few weeks especially when Phil was around. “Hey, big man,” Clint greeted him. “Wanna weigh in? I say if Green Arrow hadn’t lost his fortune, he would have been able to take on Batman. Batman’s only the man because he has better toys.”
“Was Green Arrow the one they made the movie with Ryan Reynolds?”
Clint made a disgusted face. “Oh Banner, no. That was the Green Lantern and they totally ruined it.”
Bruce laughed. “Clearly, I don’t know enough about comic books to have an opinion. We could talk about Bruce Wayne versus Tony, battle of the techno-toy heroes, if you want, I’ve seen some Batman movies….”
Steve and Clint looked at each other, nodded, and Clint says, “Yeah, that’s over in 2 minutes. Tony, by headshot.”
Bruce made a face. “Well, that’s…direct.”
“Come on, Bruce, we KNOW they’re comics. Which, by the way, totally why I think Ollie takes out Wayne. Headshot, for the win.”
“Ollie doesn’t have any protective headgear either,” Steve observed mildly.
“Yeah, but Batman doesn’t like shooting things.”
“Point,” Steve allowed. “But hand to hand, Bruce Wayne would hand Ollie Queen his ass. So agree if Bruce can sneak up on him, Ollie’s toast, but if Ollie can get the drop on him, point goes to the Arrow?”
“Sounds fair,” Clint sighed, went to go get cornmeal and flour out of the cupboard to start stirring up cornbread.
“Here, taste,” Steve said, handing Bruce a spoon. “Hot enough? Too hot? You could stand to eat more. Your metabolism’s got to be close to mine especially when you’ve had to let the other guy out.”
Bruce smiled wryly and accepted it. “Heat’s good, could use more cumin. You know, for a 94-year-old actually-26-year-old supersoldier comic book geek you’re kind of a Jewish mother.”
“Catholic,” Steve replied, smiling. “But there were a bunch of nice Jewish grandmas in the building where Ma and I lived who were always trying to feed me up. So since you weren’t into comics, what kinda things did you read as a kid, Bruce?”
Bruce’s shoulders hunched. “Didn’t really care for storybooks. Mostly nonfiction. Books about plants and animals, stars and planets.” Things that hadn’t reminded him of his mother reading to him in bed, that hadn’t had heroes that hadn’t been there when she needed them, that stirred up emotions he hadn’t been able to stand.
“Been meaning to ask, since it comes up,” Steve said easily, as if he hadn’t noticed Bruce’s increasing unease, “if you had any suggestions for books about science for guys like me who don’t have any college background. I mean, I’ll never catch up with you and Tony, but I really think I need to be able to follow a little bit more what you’re talking about when it’s relevant to missions, and I was hoping you could suggest a place to start that’s not quite so high-school-textbook as the stuff I’ve found.”
Bruce thought about that for a minute, grateful for the graceful change of subject. “For physical sciences, Carl Sagan’s probably the classic making-hard-science accessible author, but for a little more meat try Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman. Tyson and Feynman are more New Yorkers for you,” he said, smiling wryly, “although the Bronx and Queens, not Brooklyn. Feynman was born the same year you were, he and Howard Stark were long-time friendly enemies, worked on a lot of the same projects for DoD. Tony kind of inherited both the love and the competitive streak, so get ready to be quizzed and mocked if he sees you with Feynman’s books. For natural sciences, maybe Lynn Margulis, Stephen Jay Gould, David Goodsell, Dennis Bray—oh, and Roald Hoffman for chemistry—”
Steve laughed. “Okay, okay, sounds like more than enough to sink my teeth into for starters. I’ll ask Jarvis to download them for me, and if I need more, I’ll come tell you.”
A week later, as Bruce was muzzily regaining consciousness, his first thought was gratitude that apparently Tony’s latest polymer had held up to the Other Guy. He was still shirtless and barefoot, but at least he wasn’t bare-assed naked for any idiot with a telephoto lens and lack of self-preservation instincts to capture. His second thought was bemusement at leather under his cheek, looked up to realize his head was resting on Cap’s leg. Steve smiled down at him, soot-and-dust streaked and tired but calm. “Welcome back. You know, I think we’re really starting to get the hang of this, it’s the least unplanned damage the Hulk’s done yet.”
“Yeah?” Bruce sat up, wincing. “How’d that work?”
“Well, it’s the darnedest thing. He seems to really like Mr. Sagan.” Steve handed him the copy of Cosmos in his lap, got up with a sigh. “Come on, let’s head out.”
Thor sighed, shut the book he was trying to read with a thump of frustration and Steve looked up. “Everything okay over there?”
Thor nodded, then sighed. “It is simply—I wish to better my understanding of your culture, and it grows wearying to ask all I wish to know. I had thought this might be accomplished by consulting your books, but Midgardian writing is so confusing. The shapes are all so different from Asgard’s runes that I do not always remember the differences in your letters. When I CAN read the words, it is still difficult sometimes to grasp their sense without the help of face and voice when the phrases are not as I would expect them.”
Steve bit his lip, thoughtful. “Do you think it would help you pick it up faster if someone read to you? Then you could see the words on the page and hear them at the same time. Maybe it’d help make the connections faster.”
Thor looked at him uncertainly. “Possibly. But this would not – I do not wish you to be inconvenienced by my…lacking.”
It didn’t take a genius to see what the problem was here. “Thor, if I were on Asgard, I wouldn’t have the first idea how to catch up. Would you be ashamed of me if I needed you to help read things to me until I learned how to figure them out for myself?”
Thor scowled. “Of course not, Steven.”
“Then don’t shame me here by thinking I wouldn’t be happy to help YOU, because I am,” Steve said firmly. “So let’s have it, and we’ll get started.”
Thor handed him Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. “The fair Darcy tells me this is a great epic of heroism known throughout Midgard.”
Steve nodded and suppressed a sigh of relief; he’d been afraid it would be that tacky book Natasha had been reading. Tony and Clint had gotten hold of it the other night and had spent most of the evening snickering and reading their ‘favorite’ passages aloud. Steve wasn’t sure if it had been more awfully hilarious or hilariously awful, but either way, he didn’t want to know any more about man-flavored popsicles or inner goddesses. At all. Ever. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of Number Four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much…”
When he looked up at the end of the chapter, he was a little bemused to see that Natasha and Clint had taken over the coffee table to clean guns, Bruce was curled into the other corner of the couch with knitting needles and what looked like a black and red watch cap taking shape, and Tony was sitting with a tablet in the chair across from him. “If your voice is getting tired,” Tony informed him, “I’ll read, but the kids want to know what happens next.” He flipped the tablet to show the workroom and the audio arrays of three eager bots pointing at him.
“Probably got one more in me,” Steve said. “Thor?”
“Please, continue.” Thor smiled.
It became a thing, the nightly chapter or two. Clint was first, finding the book the next night and reading, then Phil, Natasha and Bruce, and finally Tony with Jarvis providing sound effects (Steve suspected that Tony had delayed his turn until he’d worked out with Jarvis how that was going to work).
Tony flopped down next to Steve on the couch and looked over his shoulder. Steve turned, a little temper in the lowered brows, the way his lips thinned. “You know, you could ask every once in a while, Tony.”
“What fun is that? What are we reading?” There was a subtle tension in Steve’s shoulders, something uncharacteristically raw and sharp in his response the way there hadn’t been since they first met and Tony didn’t like it.
Steve shrugged. “Something Phil gave me that he thought I should read.”
Tony read a little of the page, enough to realize that what he was looking at was a description of an attack of PTSD, and thought, oh. He should probably ask Steve if he wanted to be alone – and he would probably say yes. However, what Tony didn’t think Steve realized was that if that was what he really wanted, he would have hid in his room, or at the little coffee and tea shop across from his favorite art supply store, or the Bryant Park Reading Room, or somewhere else that wasn’t in Avengers common space. Not somewhere where someone could just plunk right down beside him and stick his nosy face in because as Steve himself just pointed out, Tony had a well-established pattern of cheerfully ignoring boundaries (case in point, knowing all the places Steve went when he wanted to think alone, but Tony stood behind that being useful intel in case of teammate emergency and not stalking. At all. Really).
Unconscious invitation? still invitation and if Steve needed help, he was going to get it whether he wanted it or not. Because if anybody was an expert on how necessary a kick in the ass from your friends was sometimes, it was Tony, and damn, was it nice to be on the giving end for a change. “Probably something all of us should be reading,” Tony said matter-of-factly. “Being as I’m sure you know exactly how screwed up everyone here is about something, and also how much everybody here cares for the experience of an actual person trying to get into our heads.”
“I just—I don’t have time for this,” Steve said, hands white on the book and it was another oh moment for Tony there – Steve did most of his reading on his StarkBook but there were some things he read in dead tree. He’d thought it was some kind of nostalgia deal, but now he’d bet the Mark IX it was because paper books could absorb those hands whiteknuckling, yield and not crack the way his patented nonglare matrix couldn’t. Yet. He filed that idea away, hand resting on the pages before Steve could close the book.
“Don’t have time for what, Steve?”
“Shell shock, combat fatigue, whatever they’re calling it now. I can’t be afraid of the inside of my own head and they’re talking about drugs and therapists and I can’t TALK to people about this, Tony, and I can’t take something, and I can’t—I just, I don’t.” Steve dropped the book, would have scrambled to his feet but Tony had already wrapped around him to keep him there. As Steve froze, chest heaving, eyes wild, he hoped that wasn’t a mistake but whatever response he was tapping into didn’t seem violent and he ruthlessly exploited it.
“Listen, Steve. The serum didn’t give you a pass from humanity.” Steve jolted as if he’d been struck and Tony wondered at the strength of that response even as he went on. “Just because your body heals from being beaten up with ridiculous speed doesn’t mean your mind does. Give yourself a little of the care I’ve seen you give everybody else on the team, accept that you need it. It doesn’t make you less valuable or somehow a liability. It makes you understand when someone’s not okay and want to help.”
Steve swallowed, tension slowly, slowly ebbing and Tony let his grip loosen although he kept his arm around Steve’s shoulders. “I wasn’t kidding, you know, about everybody reading but I don’t think you’re quite ready for group therapy yet, that might be a bit touchy-feely for you. Hell, I don’t like it and I grew up with that shit. Of course that’s probably why, one too many child psychologists trying to figure out why I couldn’t play nice with the other kids. Maybe because building engines and reading Starship Troopers when they were eating paste and playing doctor made ME the one that needed to be fixed.” He huffed a little and Steve smiled weakly. “But how about we read, you and me, and maybe we can talk about it later when we’ve had time to think about it.”
Steve picked up the book, turned and looked at him with those painfully earnest and luminous blue eyes, pulse beating in his throat. “Do you, Tony? Know what this is like?” His hand smoothed restlessly over the rumpled page, eyes flickering down then back up to his. There was no challenge there, no questioning, just naked vulnerability.
Time to ante up, Stark, he thought, bit his lip. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. Before we broke Midtown, before I built the suit. You asked me on the Helicarrier if Coulson was the first time I’d lost a soldier. I still, I’m not a soldier. But soldiers were lost, because someone wanted me to help with their war. And I lost someone else, someone who wasn’t a soldier, just a man caught up in that same craziness. A good man, a friend who saved my life, who threw himself on that wire you were talking about for me because he thought I could make a difference. I wasn’t going to let that happen to anybody again, ever. So it kind of messed me up when it did. And it kind of still does.”
Steve looked down, sucked in a shuddering breath, his arm slipping around Tony’s shoulders and he spread the book out across both their laps. Tony hoped that his arm around Steve brought him a little of the comfort, the grounding that Steve’s arm around his shoulder and warmth against his side gave Tony. He thought as Steve’s fingers occasionally flexed against his shoulder that maybe it did.
“Starship Troopers, Tony? I guess that actually explains a lot,” Steve said finally, and Tony poked him in the side.
“Bite me, Capsicle, Heinlein is awesome.”
“Heinlein is not even close to as good as Asimov. Not even in the same zip code.”
“You take that back.” Tony poked him in the side again and incredibly, Steve yelped, squirmed away from him. Or maybe squeaked was more the word, which blew Tony’s mind a little. “Wait, are you kidding me? Captain America is ticklish?”
Steve’s eyes widened in panic. “Tony, don’t even,” he barked in the Assemble-voice, and Tony lunged, the coffee table and the remote casualties of the ensuing fracas. It was so, so worth it for the pictures, mental and blackmail snapped with his phone of Captain America – of Steve – tomato-red and breathless from helpless laughter.