When he'd been at war, Steve hadn't thought about after the war. He'd been a soldier, he followed orders - when they were good orders - and he defended the free world. After? What was after?
He hadn't thought about it. Not once. There'd been Peggy and their date, but that was all the after Steve had thought of.
And now that it was after, after was ashes. His friends dead, his fellow soldiers dead, the girls from the USO troupe dead, Bucky dead. And the future, so bright in their minds, had turned out to be full of war and full of monsters. Sure, some things were good. But most? There'd been wars fought in Vietnam, in Korea, in Irak and Afghanistan. A Cold War overshadowed by the terror of the atom and this was what Steve had fought for? This?
When S.H.I.E.L.D. gave him his first briefing, Steve had been quietly optimistic. A black man as President, sure, why not? Women with much more freedom, Steve was all for that. Technology that could send men to the moon and connect people all over the earth, what was not to like? A polio vaccine had been discovered and Steve had had tears in his eyes from joy.
The reality hadn't sunk in yet.
Peggy, the Howling Commandos, every human being Steve had known - dead. It had shaken him. Badly enough to not look at it for a moment. Instead he'd gone to the library to look up American History from 1943 to 2012.
He'd thought he might find Howard's flying car. Something to cheer him up.
He could not have been more wrong.
The gym Fury had found him invested in more bags. Steve demolished them as they arrived. It didn't help. But it filled the time until he could go to bed, muscles burning, too tired to lie awake thinking it would have been better if he had died.
Loki's attack was Godsent.
Tony Stark was not. At all.
Tony Stark was annoying, had too much money, bullying tendencies and would not take no for an answer. Tony Stark was a dick.
And he still dragged them all out for shawarma.
After the first few bites, Steve simply rested his head on his hand and vaguely wished he could fall asleep now. The others seemed to feel the same; save for Banner whose grin kept creeping back. Apparently the Hulk hadn't found Loki that impressive. Even Stark was mostly staring into space.
Steve remembered that look from Howard. Twenty hours without sleep, full of science and new ideas. And then, after you'd fed the man and given him something to look at that wasn't a lab, he'd zone out. Like father, like son. Including being a dick.
Steve supposed he should cut Tony some slack. He'd just carried a nuclear missile into space. That had to earn him some patience. Steve hadn't thought he would and now that he knew differently, well. It was a bit easier to deal with the dickishness.
"Penny for your thoughts." Tony.
Steve would blame exhaustion. Forever. "You did good. You're still a dick, though."
Barton coughed up shawarma, Banner laughed outright and Thor looked confused. Romanov simply nodded and went back to her bread.
Tony reared back in offense. "That's not nice! You're Captain America, you're supposed to be nice to people."
"People, yes..." Amidst Banner's laughter, Steve got up and stretched. "You're special. And you saved millions of lives. So you're forgiven for being a dick."
"Wow. No, really, wow. This is what I get? Really? Seriously, sit down and eat your shawarma, I can't listen to this."
"Glad to see you're enjoying yourselves."
Steve turned and came nose to nose with Fury. Who also looked tired.
"Did I invite you? Because this is a private party."
Steve closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again, Fury gave him a sympathetic nod.
"No, Stark, you didn't. And I didn't come here to eat. Romanov, Barton."
Apparently no more was necessary. Both of them put down their food, got up and followed Fury out before Tony could muster a complaint.
It seemed to be a signal that the party was breaking up. Amidst muttered good-byes, Steve left for the subway. It ran; most of the damage done was above ground. People stared at his dirty uniform and his shield, muttering, giggling, pointing. Steve let his head fall back against the window, too tired to care. His ribs ached, his muscles burned and the spicy aftertaste of the shawarma had settled in the back of his throat. Still, not as bad as burning bodies. Or mustard gas. All in all, he'd need about twelve hours of sleep. Then life could go on. If it really had to.
When he reached his building, Steve hit a snag. In that his building wasn't there.
One of the flying turtle things had apparently managed to swipe once across the first floor of Steve's apartment building. From the looks of things, it had been in its death throes and was still lying there, half where Steve's building should be, half on the street before it.
Steve stared at it, trying to make sense of the problem. His building was gone. So, it followed, was his bed. And his shower.
"Now if that don't suck," somebody said from next to him. A fireman, looking as if he'd spent a little too much time active. Steve could sympathize.
"Huh." The fireman scratched his neck where the elastic of the helmet rubbed over skin. "Are they gonna want us to take care of that today, ya think?"
"Hope not." Not really looking to do anything more today, thank you.
But what was he going to do? His building was gone. He did not have a phone, and even if he did, he didn't know anybody's number. Except for Coulson's. And Coulson was gone.
"Hey, you're Captain America!"
Two and a half minutes, about. The guy had to be really tired.
"It's an honor to meet you, sir."
Oh god. "Look, I'm kind of beat, and it's been a long day, for you and for me, I think, but can we not do the hero-worship thing? It gets old."
The fireman blinked, realizing in what seemed for the first time just how grimy Steve was. "Right. Sorry. I'm Scott. Still nice to meet you." He stuck out his hand. Steve shook it. "You think it's gonna come alive again?"
"What? No. No, I - that was my building."
Scott turned. "Man. Yeah. That's kind of busted. So, where are you going to go?"
"Do you have a phone?"
Scott did. Steve punched in Coulson's number, vaguely hoping that somebody at S.H.I.E.L.D. had picked it up and not left it with his body. It rang for a long time and just when Steve was about to give up hope, someone picked up.
"Hello?" A soft whisper, as if the person didn't want to wake somebody who was sleeping.
"This is Steve Rogers."
"Yeah, Cap. What do you need?"
"The one and only. Well, almost."
"Why do you have Coulson's phone?" Fury, Hill even, Steve could have understood. But why did Barton have Coulson's phone? Who would have given it to him?
"Cause he's asleep and since he's kind of injured I'm not letting him answer it. Wait, right, you don't know yet. Fury told you that he was dead. Right?"
"Right," Steve choked.
"Fury lied. I'd say it was a long story but it isn't. Fury lies when he needs to. But Ph- Coulson is alive and probably going to recover. And I'm in the same hospital room." The timbre changed. "And - if you still thought he was dead - why are you calling his phone?"
Steve felt his knees give in. Luckily there was enough debris to sit down on. "I - my building. My tenement building is gone."
A moment of silence. "I take it you don't mean mislaid."
"No. One of the flying turtle things fell down on it."
"That's rough, buddy."
"I was hoping to reach someone to give me a ride to the helicarrier. So I can maybe sleep in a bed? And get a shower?"
"Oh, man. Hang on." There were rustling sounds, some beeping and finally footsteps. A few moments of those, then voices. Finally a slammed door, then Barton came back on. "Hey. Wow, they are stressed here... okay, look, we haven't got any of the jets ready to fly, but I'll get someone to pick you up. Where exactly are you?"
"Henry, corner Clark. Thanks."
"Welcome. Gonna take a couple minutes."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Right." He hung up. Steve poked his finger at the red button and handed the phone back to Scott. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. You gonna be okay?"
Scott waved and went off. Steve saw him talking to a lady who was wildly gesticulating at the turtle thing. He wondered if she was a neighbor. Probably not. That voice would have penetrated anything.
Sitting down was good. He closed his eyes and let himself relax until his ride got there.
It was less the sound of the repulsors and more the sound of people whispering that announced his ride.
"I got a call from a dead man's phone who isn't dead after all."
"Funny thing, isn't it?"
"I'm feeling a strong desire to punch Fury in the face."
"You're not alone."
"Huh." Stark sighed. "Well, come on. Apparently the helicarrier is unsafe right now. My tower took a couple of hits but there's space to crash."
"Those are the most wonderful words you've ever said to me."
Stark laughed. "Aren't you a sweetheart. Come now, time's a-wastin'."
Stark was considerate enough not to go into the stratosphere. Again. And he had been right - there was space, a huge guest bedroom with a magnificent view and a shower that was bigger than Steve's entire apartment. Still, while the shower put up a good fight, it didn't win that day. The bed did.
Steve never even took off his boots.
Stark's hospitality extended into the next day. Steve stumbled out of the shower and found his uniform gone, civilian clothes in its stead, right down to underwear and shoes. They fit, even.
"Stark?" Steve looked around. No phone - but it probably worked like on the helicarrier.
"Ah, you're up, good. Clothes fit?"
Steve looked down at himself. "Yes. Thank you."
"No prob. Check the jacket pocket, can't have you running around without a phone, that's cruel and unusual punishment or something. Listen, Fury wants Loki and the Tesseract away from Earth as soon as possible. You want to come with? After breakfast?"
Did he? Steve supposed he did. "Sure. Where's breakfast?"
"Come up the elevator, top floor. Bit windy, but nice view."
Stark wasn't wrong. The windows broken during the battle had not yet been repaired and there was a stiff breeze coming through. It seemed not to bother Stark or Banner, who simply waved at him and went back to his coffee.
Stark was glaring a plate of something yellow into submission. "Omelets, why is it always omelets?"
Suddenly, Steve was ravenous. "Any for me?"
"Sure." Stark pointed at the cooking bench. Steve grabbed a plate and the leftover omelet - bacon, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes. A feast, really. He tucked in. It tasted like so many other things did in the future - intense yet predictable. Especially the coffee. Unless you got something newfangled and weird, coffee was always the same. Steve tried not to feel homesick for Dum Dum's over-roasted beans and the slightly off milk they put in it. It had been disgusting at the time, but it had had character. This coffee was roasted to perfection, brewed with just that amount of water and lightened with fresh, sweet milk. And it had all the personality of a advertisement. A modern advertisement.
Before Steve could spent too much time wondering where exactly that had come from, Stark collected him and Banner for Loki's send-off.
Which turned out to be an anticlimax. Loki didn't try anything at the last minute, Thor did not make any great speeches. The only one who had anything to say was Romanov but the only one who heard was Barton who smiled. Steve considered that smile and thought that if it was a usual example, it was probably better if Barton never smiled again.
They scattered again. Stark took Banner, Romanov took Barton.
Steve took his bike, courtesy of Fury.
It would probably have been better if he hadn't gotten stopped for not wearing a helmet.
Steve's road trip found its end in Queens, trying to explain to a tired traffic cop that he really hadn't known about it. And to add insult to injury, he had to call Fury to confirm, leave his bike and go buy a helmet. He had just picked one (and nearly had a heart attack at the price) when his new phone rang. It showed Stark's picture.
In for a penny, in for a pound. "Hello?"
"Hey, Cap, how're they hanging?"
Steve suddenly missed Howard. "Slightly to the left. What can I do for you?"
"Did you just make a dirty joke? Really? Did Captain America just make a dirty joke?" Stark sounded delighted. Steve felt mostly tired.
"You do know that I'm a soldier, right? And that all soldiers' jokes are dirty?"
"Awesome, I have to admit. Seriously, different question. Where are you right now?"
"Great, great. Wait, why Queens? What's in Queens? Never mind. Listen, your building is gone, Fury says the helicarrier is unlivable for now and I can't imagine you at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. You want that guest room permanently?"
"Try to keep up, you want to move into the Tower? Even if it's ugly?"
Steve shook his head. "I - we don't even really get along and you want me to move in with you?"
A moment's pause. "You don't have to. I mean, it was just an idea, you've got no place to live, I have space, like, out the wazoo. Sorry, stupid idea, I don't know why I come up with this kind of thing-"
"Tony!" Silence. "Mr. Stark. I'm just - surprised. I mean, I was kind of-"
"Pissy? Yeah, you were. But, you know, not all wrong. And I - I just thought it was a good idea."
Steve stared at his helmet, head aching and heart sore with a loss so ludicrous that it shouldn't even register. But his eyes were burning and the damn helmet seemed to be everything that was wrong with this world. He'd fought for freedom. He'd have died for freedom, he'd desperately tried to get into the good fight. And in this new world, freedom was a ghost, a specter of the past. Freedom was dead, in the coffin there with Caesar and I must pause - he became aware that Stark was yelling into the phone.
"-please, please be all right, nobody will ever forgive me if I broke you, I'm sorry, it was a stupid idea, never mind, just answer the phone, please just answer the phone."
"Stark." He sounded choked.
"Oh thank you god. Are you okay?"
I just started crying over having to wear a helmet. "No. I don't think so."
"You want me to call someone?"
"No." Who was there, after all? With Bucky and Peggy and all his people dead. He was alone. "But. Can I come? Right now?"
"Sure. Sure. Just - just take the bike into the garage, I'll come down."
"Thanks." Steve wiped his face against his sleeve and put on the helmet. He rode his bike to Stark - former Stark Tower and as promised, Stark met him. Showed him his own parking space, gave him keys for the garage and his apartment. And with a show of tact Steve would never have expected of him, didn't mention his blotchy, reddened face at all.
The apartment was the guest suite Steve had slept in the night before. It had been cleaned; his uniform was in the closet, along with several more sets of clothes.
"I had it stocked with everything. If you need anything, ask JARVIS. JARVIS is a computer, programmed to act like a person. He can talk to you as if he were human. He'll tell you anything you want to know and if you need anything, he can order it for you."
Steve was overwhelmed and still clutching the helmet. "Mr. Stark, I don't know how to thank you for this."
"Don't mention it, I'm billing it all to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Really, what were they thinking? This whole mess wouldn't have happened if Fury hadn't been such a card-carrying bastard. So, S.H.I.E.L.D. gets the bill, you get a place to stay, I get to piss off Fury, we're all happy."
"Still. Thank you."
Stark nodded. Stood, for a moment, then sighed. "Okay, and one other thing. It's none of my goddamn business and I will never stick my nose in it again. But. If you need help talking about it or beating something up to feel better or if you want therapy - say the word."
Stark grimaced. "Talking to a shrink. Wait, I think you've missed this too - Sigmund Freud?"
"I know Freud."
"Yeah, well, the field has made advances since then. We can treat people now for depression - of the soul, not economically, or, uh, shell shock, or stuff like that. Didn't Fury offer?"
Steve still wasn't sure what Stark was talking about. "I don't think so. He just - gave me a crash course in how to survive crossing the street these days."
"In New York, not a given, that's a fact. Okay - at any rate, if you, you know, want to try treatment, let me know. Or JARVIS, if you don't want to talk about it to me." Stark's mouth twitched in a smile.
"Do you talk to - a shrink?" Why shrink? Did they shrink something or were they shrunken?
Stark shrugged. "Not anymore. Used to."
"Did it help?"
Stark looked him in the eyes and his face was, for lack of a better word, stark. "No. Never once helped. All it did was piss me off. And the last time something threw me badly, I just went crazy. And then I saved myself." He tapped his chest.
Steve nodded. That sounded about right.
"Still, might help you. I was crazy because I was dying. Not your situation, exactly."
"No," said Steve. "Not exactly."
Stark patted his shoulder. "Yeah, so. I'll let you get settled. If you want company, just ask JARVIS where I am and take the elevator there. No pressure."
It brought tears to Steve's eyes again. "Thanks."
Stark waved his arm in some kind of salute and left.
Steve might have to admit that it could maybe be possible that the man had redeeming qualities.
He spent an hour getting to know the layout of the apartment - bedroom, bath, guest bath, living room, kitchen. The furniture was modern and functional and it included a bookcase, stocked with paperbacks. Steve didn't dare touch the electronics, not without knowing what everything was. The kitchen was a different matter. There were displays with instructions on them and following them, he was able to cook. Food helped. Even if he didn't know the smooth orange fruit in the basket.
He slept. Cooked again, ate again. Food and sleep. Then a shower. The tattered feeling was beginning to wear off. Steve had usually felt something of the sort post-combat, after all the noise had died down and he could hear himself think. It had been the worst when he'd lost someone or they'd failed to make the objective. He supposed it made sense. He'd lost everyone and the battle against the Chitauri had involved the last thing he wanted to do as a commander. The order to leave someone behind.
Steve stared out at sleeping New York and wondered if Stark knew.
It took several rings of the doorbell until Steve identified the sound as such. When he opened the door, Stark was leaning against the doorjamb, shades over his eyes and smelling of whiskey.
"Hey Cap, how're you doing?"
Steve stepped aside. "Fine. Isn't it kind of late?"
Stark made a show of looking at his watch. "Two a.m. isn't late, it's early." He wasn't quite stumbling toward the couch. "Did I wake you?"
"No." Steve frowned. "Are you okay?"
"Sure," Stark slurred. "Got any booze?"
"Haven't you had enough?"
"No," Stark said seriously. "Nowhere near. But JARVIS threatened to cut me off if I kept drinking alone and so I found you to keep me company."
That - didn't look like recreational boozing. "Me? Why not Dr. Banner?"
"Bruce? Oh, Bruce," Stark sang. "Bruce is tired and wants to go to sleep and he should, too, he's been awake for hours and hours and hours, up in the lab. And also, he doesn't drink, says he was an angry drunk. Huh." He dragged off the shades. His eyes were red-rimmed. "So, Steve, you can drink, right? Come on, bit of bourbon never goes amiss."
"Sure," Steve said. "Why are we drinking?" He turned his back to Stark, facing the bar. There had to be something there he'd recognize.
"We're drinking. We're drinking because - because we haven't had a good day. We've had a sucky day. Sucked worse than a vacuum." Stark leaned back, the shades hanging from his fingers. "We're drinking because we tried to do something good and it was the wrong thing to do."
Steve put the bottle on the table between them and pushed a glass into Stark's direction. "Sounds like a rum job."
"No, no, you don't understand," Stark said. "It was a good thing, it will always be a good thing, but it can't co-, it can't co-, co-exist, that's it. She can't co-exist with it." He rubbed his face. "Is there more booze?"
"Here," Steve said, filling Stark's glass.
Stark held it for a moment. "JARVIS said I shouldn't drink anymore."
Steve shrugged. "It dulls the pain."
"Yes. Yes, supposed to do that. But it's not dull now. It's sharper." Stark set the glass down, spilling the drink to make dark puddles on the gleaming white surface of the table. "Be right back."
He stumbled off toward the bathroom. Steve hesitated but hearing nothing more than the water running, stayed where he was.
"Yes, Captain Rogers."
"What is happening here?"
"Mr. Stark is currently washing his face. However, if you are referring to the reason for the drinking, his partner has left him."
"His partner? A business partner?" Why would that cause a binge?
"No, Captain. His lover, Ms. Potts. Ms. Potts is CEO of Stark Industries. Prior to this, she was Mr. Stark's personal assistant and they have been in a relationship. Ms. Potts has ended the relationship today. Mr. Stark chose to cope by drinking heavily. I have requested he cease as I feared the beginning of alcohol poisoning."
"Oh." Steve winced. "Sorry. But he still seemed pretty steady."
Was it him or did the computer's voice soften? "I am aware, Captain. Mr. Stark's tolerance for alcohol is significant. He has drunk more than his behavior would suggest."
"Should I try to get him to bed?"
"He will not go, Captain," the computer voice said sadly, Steve thought. "In times of distress, Mr. Stark builds. He does not sleep."
"Right," said Steve. Stark chose that moment to come back out.
"Drink, right," he said and grasped for the glass. Steve pushed it away.
"How much have you had?"
Stark blinked at him owlishly. "How much what?"
"To drink. How much?"
"Don't know. Not enough. I need more."
"Okay. But you've got to earn this drink."
"What?" Stark stared at him. "Earn it?"
"Yeah," Steve said, refilling the glass. "You get to drink as much as you like, but you've got to earn each glass."
"You're kidding." Stark shook his head. "You're fucking kidding me. What the hell, Rogers?"
Steve smirked at him, as obnoxiously as he could. "You chicken, Stark? Afraid to play a game?"
"Fuck you, Capsicle," Stark snarled and plopped himself down on the couch. "You're on."
"Great. You get this glass after you've read me two pages of this." Steve tossed the book he'd fished out of the case into Stark's lap. "I'm on page 124. Bottom of the page."
"You want me to read to you?" Stark looked around. "We've got a hidden camera? JARVIS, is there a hidden camera?"
"Fuck me." Stark looked down at the book and at Steve. "Seriously?"
"I can't believe I'm doing this. Okay, here goes. "I was only Number Ten Ox, so I lifted my head to the Duke of Ch'in. "I hope I splatter blood all over you, you son of a sow!"" Huh. Some literature this is."
Steve grinned. "It's your own fault. You picked the books in here."
"Bought them in bulk. Got the store clerk to make the selection." He looked up. "You seriously want me to read this?"
"If you want that drink? Then yeah."
Stark read, interspersing the reading with comments on the characters and the bloodthirstiness. And when Steve pushed the glass toward him, he looked at it for a long while before drinking.
"That's better." He held out the glass.
Steve took it from him. "Okay. Ready for your next task?"
Stark rubbed at his eyes. "Really can't believe I'm doing this. Hit me."
"Sit still for five minutes. Eyes closed, no talking. Each time you open your eyes or say something, timer starts again."
"Or no drink."
"You'd better keep watch on that timer," Stark mumbled, closed his eyes and sat back.
Steve waited. Stark's breathing evened out, his face grew slack, and before the five minutes were over, he was snoring softly. Steve gave it another twenty minutes, then carefully got him horizontal and put a blanket over him. The bottle and glasses went back into the cupboard.
Steve smiled. "You're welcome."
His new phone woke him early. After too much fumbling, Steve managed to make it take the call. The picture showed nothing but a black screen. Bad enough that he was only half-awake, but Fury's request kind of threw Steve.
"A press conference?"
Stark appeared in the door, looking hung-over. He pointed at the phone. Steve mouthed Fury's name at him and shrugged.
"Yes, I understand but - Stark!" The phone was out of his hand before he even realized that Stark had come this close.
Stark held the phone to his ear. "A press conference? Really? Because we haven't broken enough of New York?"
Steve felt his mouth twitch. Whatever else, Stark had a turn of phrase.
"No, I - okay, look, I get it. You need good publicity. There's - yeah, of course I do. Listen, it's too early in the morning for this. We'll call you back. Yes, we, wanna make something of it? Bye now." He turned off the phone, and let himself fall back onto Steve's bed, narrowly missing falling onto Steve. "No good deed ever goes unpunished."
Steve laughed, pushing at him. "How bad can it be? We'll answer a few questions, give some advice and smile at some kids, then go home."
Stark turned over, blinking at him. "Your innocence astounds me."
Steve shrugged. "We had publicity stuff back in the forties, too. Can't have changed that much."
"I hope nothing makes you eat those words."
Stark's hope did not come true.
After the press conference was over and he was home, Steve locked the door and stared at New York below. That had been ghastly. Absolutely frightful.
These people had no shame. They hadn't asked about the battle or the enemy or their comrades in arms, the heroes on the streets. They had asked about Steve having a girlfriend, about his underwear. They'd kept coming up with terrible news about the battle, the last seventy years and they kept asking how Steve felt about it. They'd asked about how Steve was going to deal with getting sued for the damages, and did he think he should compensate people.
That had probably been the moment when Steve shut down in horror. Yes, the damage to New York was horrendous, but he'd been defending the people, they couldn't be expecting - could they?
Stark didn't fare much better. Steve had read his file, and all the instances that had to be sore points with Stark had come up in the press conference. Including Pepper Potts.
Steve had been the only one close enough to Stark to notice the man tense up and gear up to eviscerate the reporter; then Stark had breathed calmly and diffused the tension with a distraction.
Steve let his forehead fall gently against the window. Was decency as dead as freedom? He shuddered. This was - this was bad, this was going back to the depression he'd felt on his bike ride. There had to be something else he could do. Anything else.
"Yes, Captain Rogers?"
"Where's Mr. Stark?"
"Mr. Stark is currently in his workshop."
Building when distressed. "Is he okay?"
"If you are asking if Mr. Stark is drinking, the answer is yes. However, he is not overindulging." A moment's silence. "Experience has shown that he might welcome a distraction."
"Great." The workshop it was.
Stark wore jeans and a t-shirt, the arc reactor's light shimmering through the fabric. He was welding something, looking up when Steve knocked on the glass. A wave and the glass door opened.
"Evening, Cap. Want some ketchup with those words from this morning?"
"They're kinda stuck," Steve said, "but I don't want to revisit them. What are you building?"
Stark returned to the welding. "Slight change in angles for the armor. I'm trying out something new for motion. Pull up a girder or something, I'll be done in a couple."
Steve looked around. The workshop was filled with metal and technology, some of which was painted in light into thin air. He ran his finger along a line of blue light and the light seemed to stick to his finger, following it for a few seconds. It worked for a mere fingernail as well, like spun glass following him about. He'd thought Howard's flying car had been amazing, but this was not just amazing. It was beautiful. He wondered if you could actually paint with it. Currently, it showed blueprints of what seemed to be a detail of Stark's armor and it was all in blue.
"Can you make other colors, too?"
"Sure," Stark said distractedly. "Blue works best for technical specs, though."
"I thought for painting." He ran his whole hand along the lines and the entire image followed him this time, tilting and twisting as he moved his hand.
"Haven't tried it yet, but I'll rig something up. After this." There was a hiss and a shift of metal. Steve didn't pay much attention to it, captivated by the blue spec clinging to his hand. He moved it back and forth, light following.
"How do you even do this?"
Stark laughed. "Projectors, cameras, and motion sensors in every square inch on the walls, ceiling, and floor, networked together with a rendering software. There's a cheap version, but I like this for the larger visual effect. Used to do it just with a table and ceiling setup, upgraded a while back when I really started on the armor."
"It's amazing," Steve said.
There was a moment of silence. Then Stark set down his welder. "You wanna see something really cool?"
"Get a load of this." Stark took the spec from Steve's hands and tossed it into a corner where it wobbled and lay still. "JARVIS, run program dance two." A figure took shape before Steve and it took him a moment to recognize himself, his own body painted in blue light. Stark stepped up behind him and put his hands on Steve's shoulders. A moment later, a second figure appeared, this one easily recognizable as Stark. "Lift your arm." Steve did and saw his motion mirrored in the figure. Stark shifted, stretching out his arms and the light-painted Stark did as well.
Steve laughed and mimed a punch. His alter ego did as well, right down to the shift of his legs. Stark shifted around, grinning, and lifted his hand for a high five. Steve gave it to him, and the two figures matched them motion for motion.
Stark shifted again. "That's not all yet. JARVIS, run program lady six." His mirrored body began to shift and twist. At first Steve wasn't sure what he was looking at. Then he realized. A woman.
A woman still recognizable as Tony Stark, cock of the hips, tilt of the chin, sans beard, rising slightly on high heels, oh god, and then turning and looking over her shoulder at Steve. Her stance shifted from Stark's loose posture to a straight back, chin up, chest out.
Steve tore his eyes away and stared at Stark who had altered his stance to precisely that. He felt it right down to his spine, warmth pooling below his stomach. The Stark-as-woman took a few steps, one foot before the other like a dancer. Steve shuddered. Stark came closer, almost brushing against him.
"I've got to go." He was out of the workshop before Stark managed more than a hey, taking the stairs, running them down two at a time. It didn't do much for the excitement or the sight of Stark's eyes burning into his. He thought of the USO girls, who'd been on tour with him and who'd loved his innocence so much, taking him to bed, taking him behind the curtains, sharing him amongst themselves. But that had been bodies only, and Steve was a guy, a guy who never got much, or any, sex, standing next to Bucky. He'd been delighted, once the shock wore off. The novelty of being sought after, the sly touches of their clever hands, the ease with which they shared themselves, it had been amazing, and it had been empty. He'd wanted something real, something lasting. He'd wanted Peggy, because Peggy had seen something in him before he got a body you had to be dead not to like. But Peggy had held back and so Steve hadn't thought to deny any of the girls, the better to please Peggy when she no longer wanted to hold back.
Tony had looked the way those girls did. Hungry, pleased, offer in his eyes and promise in the way he'd been standing.
It was so very wrong.
His USO girls - Sally, Sarah, Mags, Maureen, Liz, the others - he'd known he wasn't doing the honorable thing sleeping with them, he could hardly have missed it. But not one of them had been a virgin, some for love and some for money, and if he had made one of them pregnant, he'd have had to do the honorable thing. And he would have.
Steve fetched up before his apartment door, pushing the key in with force and slamming the door shut behind him. He'd have married the girl, he'd have brought up his son or daughter and he'd have done his best to make her a good husband.
They'd known he was looking, of course. And their invitations had been sweet, but they'd never have been made if Steve hadn't been looking.
But he hadn't looked at Stark, he knew he hadn't. Why would he? Stark was a man. Not a sissy, either, scientist or no, and Steve had no reason to look at him as a man looks at a woman. Why had Stark thought it was okay to do that to him? Why had Stark put them both in danger?
And the danger was real. Prison, court martial, at the very least. A social outcast forever. He could try to blame it on the serum, he thought wildly, after Red Skull, anyone would believe insanity. It still wouldn't save him. Them.
Steve couldn't help the sick feeling rising in his throat. Why did Stark have to do that to him? And why did his body think Stark was a USO girl?
A shower. A shower, something to eat and then sleep. That had helped before. The shower could be cold now.
It was. And it didn't help. When Steve closed his eyes to soap his face and hair, he saw Tony's eyes, his stance, the movement of his hands, the muscular neck streaked with oil.
His prick wouldn't go down. Not even the cold shower helped, not when Steve couldn't stop thinking. He gripped his prick roughly, yanking it hard and squeezing his balls. Not even the rough treatment helped, instead reminding him of Liz who hadn't ever been gentle, but had wrung him dry, laughing with him, and he came, he came, Liz and Tony's faces over each other, and Steve couldn't tell them apart.
He slumped, hands on his knees, icy water beating on his neck.
This was a disaster.
He was woken by his phone. This time the screen showed a black man with sunglasses, holding a huge gun. The name just said "Agent".
"Agent Coulson. How are you?"
"I'm recovering well, thank you. How have you been? I've heard you moved in with Stark."
Steve rubbed his eyes. "He gave me a place to crash, yes. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Actually, I was wondering if you have some time free this afternoon to give a statement." Coulson sounded diffident, as if he thought Steve would say no.
"Another press conference?"
"No. A statement regarding the actions of Agent Barton during the battle. His inquest is being prepared."
Steve slid out of bed. "Because he was controlled by Loki?"
"Exactly," Coulson said. There was soft beeping in the background. "Director Fury assures us that it is only a formality, but I'm sure that Barton would be more confident if you would speak in his favor."
The thing of it was, Steve could understand the need for the inquest. But he didn't much want to imagine Barton's feelings on being mind-controlled by an alien spear, attacking his own allies, and then having to defend himself for something he couldn't control. He supposed it was a good thing that Barton had a superior officer like Coulson.
"Of course. When should I be there?"
"We'll send a car at fourteen hundred hours, if that suits you."
"Thank you, Captain," Coulson said, voice oddly warm.
Steve put the phone aside when the beeping began and went for the shower. Still in the towel, he called out. "JARVIS?"
"Where's Mr. Stark?"
"Supervising the rebuilding of the top floor."
Steve took the elevator up and was greeted by rather less wind. The glass was in the process of being replaced by some workmen, Stark standing at his table and prodding floor plans. He looked up, surprised.
"Morning, Cap. All good?"
"Yes, thank you. Are you busy this afternoon?"
Stark blinked. "Nothing I can't delay. Why?"
Steve looked him in the eyes, resolutely not thinking about the last evening. "Coulson called me and asked me to give a statement for Barton's inquest."
Stark choked. "Barton's what? What are they, nuts? That was the spear, not him!"
"I know and this is mainly to get it out in the open, clear his name and prevent rumors," Steve said, extrapolating a little. "I'll go down there at two to give the statement - do you want to volunteer yours?"
"Hell yeah," Stark snarled. "Fuck this shit, I think the man has enough problems without that."
"They have to make sure," Steve told him. "So let's be really clear about him being on our side."
"You got it."
Stark was as good as his word. When the S.H.I.E.L.D. car arrived, he was ready, wearing a suit, a serious expression and carrying a briefcase. They made the drive in silence and were greeted by Commander Hill at the temporary S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
"Thank you for coming, Captain. Mr. Stark, I didn't expect you."
"Commander Hill," Stark said, shaking her hand. "Consider me a volunteer."
She nodded. "We'll take your statements then, so you can get back. Please follow me."
She led them through long hallways to a meeting room. "Take your seat please, Captain. I'm afraid I'll have to take your statements separately."
"Tainted evidenced, got it," Stark said, wandering around the table. "Do you want me to wait somewhere?"
Hill led him off to another room while Steve went over what he wanted to say.
The interview went much the way he expected it to. Hill asked for details on several issues, not all of which Steve had thought were key. The fact that Barton had volunteered to fight was important, so was the fact that via comms he'd been giving advice and information. The children he'd rescued from the bus were also mentioned. Finally Hill asked Steve about the attack on the helicarrier itself.
"How to you evaluate the assault on the helicarrier from a strategic point of view?"
Steve looked at his hands. "It was strategically sound, intended to do exactly the necessary amount of damage to the vessel itself. There was not, however, an intention to cause loss of life in particular. The object seemed to be, rather, to force personnel to take measures to not come down above a populated area and keep them busy that way, allowing Loki to escape."
Hill stared at him for a moment. "I see. Captain, would you be surprised to hear that Barton informed us that it was his plan?"
He met her stare for stare. "Not at all. Agent Barton's plan allowed for perfect confusion and a quiet extraction of Loki and the staff, as well as the release of the Hulk. If it had been Loki's plan, not a single soul on board would have survived."
"Thank you, Captain. Statement ends."
Steve waited for Stark to be finished with his own statement, which seemed to take rather longer than his. When Hill returned with Stark and took them back out to the car, Stark was quietly pensive, for him. He remained quiet in the car until about halfway, then knocked at the screen separating them from the driver. It was brought down.
"Lots of jobs you have."
The driver - Natasha Romanov, to Steve's surprise - didn't turn her head. "We're a little shorthanded at the moment. Did you want something?"
"Yeah. Stop for coffee somewhere, will you?" He shot Steve a glance.
The coffee was, as usual, without personality, but Steve held the paper cup without protest. Stark drank and sighed. "Barton."
Romanov raised her eyebrows. "Yes?"
"Is this just jumping through hoops or does someone want to hang him?"
Steve had been wondering the same thing. Romanov shrugged. "Someone usually wants to hang him. This time he is innocent, though. Why do you ask?"
Stark looked at them over his sunglasses. "Hill was asking me leading questions, the kind that would have sent Barton away forever, if I'd been so inclined. So I'm wondering if she's out for him or if someone else is. I can't help but wonder if it hadn't been better if Coulson had asked the questions."
Romanov shook her head, a quirky smile on her lips. "Trust me, wouldn't help."
"Oh?" Stark asked in tones of delighted amazement. Steve frowned. Coulson was still in hospital, and he hadn't really sounded good on the phone. Of course it wouldn't help to drag him out of bed for something like this. Trust Stark to make a big deal out of it.
"Yes," Romanov said. "The court martial is day after tomorrow and not expected to last longer than a day. I can let you know how it goes."
"Please," said Steve. "I'd appreciate it."
She nodded. Stark didn't seem satisfied. "And if they find him guilty? What happens then? You just let this go?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Should Fury invite you for a personal statement? I do not think you would help Barton's case by calling this panel a bunch of assclowns."
Steve inhaled coffee, Stark slapped his back and Romanov looked as satisfied as a well-petted cat. "You what?"
"They deserved it. Also, not the point. Seriously, what happens if Fury finds Barton guilty?"
"Then Fury will face the wrath of Coulson," Romanov smiled, "and of course the wrath of me. But even if the conclusion is foregone, it cannot look as if it is. Do you understand?"
"Someone has to play the bad guy," Steve said.
Romanov simply smiled and sipped her coffee. Stark was tapping his cup and then shrugged. "Let us know how it plays out?"
Stark had picked the right side again, but Steve was still hesitant to talk to him with the thing between them. Nothing had happened, he'd left before anything could, Steve kept telling himself that. It would be fine. Stark must have realized from his reaction that Steve wasn't like that. Steve still wasn't sure that Stark was. He'd had a female lover. More than one if S.H.I.E.L.D.'s briefing was to be believed. Just like Howard, really.
Maybe that was it. Maybe it had been a reaction to Miss Potts leaving. A stupid, dangerous reaction, but well, that was Tony Stark all over, from what Steve had seen. Yes, that was probably it. Harmless.
Now if Steve could just forget about it. Stop dreaming about it. Stop seeing his face when he touched himself. Stop wanting.
He visited the old gym again, beating himself into exhaustion, running back to the tower, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, until his serum-strong body ached and his muscles burned. It didn't help. Nothing helped. Tony Stark's face was in his mind and his dreams and he didn't know how to make him go away.
When Steve came out of his evening shower - the future wasn't all bad, water, hot water, as much as he wanted whenever he wanted! - JARVIS spoke to him.
"Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark has requested your presence in the communal kitchen."
Steve dropped his towel and reached for his trousers. "Did he say what it's about?"
"Agent Barton's inquest."
This Steve had to hear, tired or not. He let the elevator take him all the way up to Stark's own floor, the kitchen of which he'd declared communal, God knew why. Stark was already there, drink in his hand. Dr. Banner sat at the table, tea and the paper before him, as usual.
What was not usual was Romanov who greeted him with a nod.
"Ah, you're here, great. Can we hear about it now?"
Romanov's mouth twitched and Steve tried to imagine what it would be like to kiss her for a moment. The image wouldn't form and he concentrated on her words.
"The inquest was today, Director Fury and Commander Hill presiding. Barton was found to have been coerced, mainly I think because mind control isn't a possible verdict. He has been put on indefinite leave. I take this to mean that most agents cannot work with him right now." She looked as if she didn't understand why that was. Dr. Banner looked at his paper sheepishly.
"So he's home free?" Stark asked.
"As much as he can be," Romanov told him. "If he stays with S.H.I.E.L.D. after all this, he will have to be reinstated."
Steve frowned. "If he stays with S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"He blames himself," she said, face even. "There were over twenty casualties on the helicarrier alone, including Coulson. Apart from that, the eighty-three killed in Germany and the death toll during the battle."
"But his career-" Steve started.
"That's gone," Dr. Banner said, still looking at the paper. "However much you turn it, the people who were at the wrong end of his weapons will have a hard time trusting him again. Then the twenty people on the helicarrier." He pushed his glasses back. "No matter how much it wasn't his fault, it'll be hard for people to look at his face again."
Steve tried to picture it and drew back. Stark drank, face still. Dr. Banner sighed. "I know a bit about messing up and having to mop up the - the human mess."
"They will have to get over it," Romanov said.
"And if they won't?" Stark asked. "What if they can't work with the guy who put an arrow into Johnny's head? God." He drank, his throat moving, collar shifting. "I don't think that can be fixed."
"Not with tools," Steve said sadly. "He fought by our side, though."
Romanov shrugged. "That's why he's not in the stockade."
There was silence of the kind that made people do something stupid. Steve looked at each of them in turn and wondered who would start the stupid. He bet on himself.
And would have lost that bet.
"Okay. This is not on. Natasha, you got his number?" Romanov nodded. Stark went on. "Gimme."
She handed him her phone instead, and they watched him dial. "Hey Legolas, what's cooking? How's Agent? Great, great. Listen, Natasha's here and told us how it went." A pause. "So you're free to go? Okay, I've got a suggestion for you, hear me out before you say yes. Yeah, right. Here goes. Since you're on vacation anyway, how about you spend it in an amazing locale, great view of NY, same building as a war hero, a scientist with Irish influence and a billionaire playboy? All expenses paid, all you have to do is show up." Stark listened. "No catch. Consider it a bit of payback for the fight. No. No, this isn't that at all." His face went serious. "Barton. There were six of us against an alien army. You could have run screaming into the night. If I didn't have the suit, I would have. You didn't. You killed Chitauri, you blasted Loki, you rescued kids from a bus, you were a hero and I was honored to have you at my back, privatized world peace or not. You deserve a little more than a inquestwith a second class acquittal. Spend your leave here, I have space, there's space like nobody's business, whatever you want to eat, just ask Cap, he's been here for a week. Yeah, okay, no problem. Say hi for me." He hung up. "He'll talk it over and get back to us."
Steve's face felt warm and he knew that no matter how long he lived, he'd never forget the look on Tony Stark's face when he did something good.
Barton moved in two hours later. He didn't have much; Steve had gone downstairs with Stark to help him carry, but there was nothing but a sports bag.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. property," Barton said, leaning against the elevator wall. His face was tired. "Make people nervous if I'd gotten it out."
"Huh," Stark said. "So, did you have quarters on the helicarrier? Or at the HQ?"
"HQ. Didn't see the need to get a place off base."
It sounded like Barton's whole life had been with S.H.I.E.L.D.. Didn't he have a girl? Possibly Romanov was his girl, they'd seemed close.
Stark let Barton into his suite, which was built and furnished along similar lines as Steve's. Steve's offer to help if Barton needed anything was received with thanks. Back in the elevator, Stark broke the ice.
"Can we talk?"
Steve swallowed. His body was roaring. But they had to get this over with, so he could stop thinking about it.
Stark followed him into his suite, hands busy. "Okay, look, I think we got off on the wrong foot there somehow. I mean, something obviously freaked you out, and I'm sorry, okay?" He turned, and he was standing far too close for Steve's comfort because Steve could smell him, oil and sweat and aftershave and metal, always metal. But he was still talking. "I mean, you're a - you're hot, you know, and I really wouldn't mind and by wouldn't mind I mean love to, but if you're not into this, just tell me, I can take it, rejection's a bosom buddy, but I just want to know where I stand and-"
Steve kissed him.
He hadn't known he would do it before he actually did it but the rambling drove him mad and if he said anything, Stark would keep talking, and this was better, this was sweet, tongue and teeth and what was he doing, the door wasn't even locked. He made to pull away and was held by Stark's hands on his arms, he could feel the calluses on Stark's hands through his shirt and Stark was drawing Steve's tongue into his mouth, sucking on it, and Steve's prick decided it wasn't going down, no sir, it knew what it wanted and it wanted Stark. It wanted Stark more than it had wanted any USO girl and Steve was. Going. To. Hell.
He shuddered, feeling his prick strain against his trousers and Stark had to be feeling that too, because he gave this little hitching breath which Steve had to hear again before he died, and angled his hips so that Steve's prick was rubbing right against his hip, and Stark did this dip and upwards shimmy and Steve was gone, was gone, couldn't have held back to save his life. Tony held him through the shivering, hand on the back of Steve's neck, stroking gently, calming.
Steve was so going to hell.
Tony had put him to bed and left, seeing that Steve was wrung out beyond all reason after the gym and now this. He'd brushed a kiss against Steve's neck and wished him sweet dreams, then gone quietly, leaving Steve to lie in the darkness fighting tears. He shouldn't have let this happen. He shouldn't have kissed Tony. But he had and he had liked it. Loved it.
Worse, he'd do almost anything to get to kiss him again.
Steve stared into the empty air and forced himself to admit it. He was one of them, a homosexual.
Prison. Attempts at a cure. Hard labor. The loss of his commission, the loss of his shield. The loss of respect of everyone he knew. Aside from Tony.
If they got caught. This time they hadn't. And they wouldn't. But there was only one way to make completely sure. And that was to not do it again.
He'd have to do his best. It would be hard, now that he knew. But he'd have to endure. He would.
Decision made, Steve turned over and slept.
He broke his promise to himself the very next day.
Tony had come by in the morning, bearing coffee and fresh bagels, and Steve tried to explain that it couldn't happen again, that it was too risky, that it had been nice, had been great, really, but it couldn't - yeah. Tony ran over all that, fed him bagels with fresh cream cheese and lettuce and tiny little tomatoes that burst under his teeth, all tasting so very good and not off or old at all, and Steve didn't get anywhere with his explanation. Instead he was treated to Tony discussing the state of the bagel in New York and how there were only like two places one could go to get them and finally Steve had to kiss him again just to shut him up.
This time Tony sucked him off, and he was good at it, really good at it, much better than both Sally and Maureen, but not as good as Sarah, but Steve figured nobody could ever be as good as Sarah, because Sarah had never let anyone touch her ladyparts, but she'd sucked with pleasure and laughed at Steve when he'd tried to do something for her as well, and kissed him, with his seed still in her mouth. Steve had sort of freaked out the first time she did it but that was just how Sarah was.
So yeah, Tony wasn't as good as Sarah, but Steve still wanted to cry when he put his mouth on Steve's dick, because it was Tony and his body was howling for it, howling for Tony, and yeah, that proved that Steve was a faggot, but it was Tony, it was Tony, and he couldn't stop wanting, couldn't stop aching for it. And when he'd come and Tony was shifting on his knees, Steve hauled him up and kissed him, because if Sarah had taught him anything, it was that if someone sucked you off, you were grateful, and you didn't try to avoid kissing them and you showed some appreciation.
Tony appreciated it, once he got over the surprise, too. He also appreciated Steve's hand down his pants, rubbing and stroking, and Steve was watching his face and sort of wished he was a woman.
It was going to be all right, though, Steve thought. He'd explain after Tony had recovered.
Then the phone rang and Tony kissed him again and had to go and Steve-
- Steve was alone again and again promised himself that he had to stop doing this. Immediately.
Since Tony was busy, Steve checked in on Dr. Banner and Barton. Dr. Banner was in his lab, happy to chat for a while but keeping an eye on his work. Barton wasn't home. JARVIS, when questioned, told him that he'd left around eight and expected to be back at noon.
Steve wandered back down and finally sat down at the computer. He knew how to use it, in theory. It had been part of Fury's modern age course. Only, well. He'd refused to have or use one in his old apartment. But in this place of Tony Stark's, an apartment without a computer probably couldn't happen at all.
He got it turned on and wished it had a sensible knob to turn instead of a button to be depressed. It wasn't an elevator, for heaven's sake, but some kind of new radio. It should behave like one.
The image on the screen welcomed him by name and offered JARVIS' services in case something didn't go right, as well as hints on what to do. A short poking things with the mouse game later, Steve had a page open and a register named google on it. He'd learned in Fury's course that google was an index page for all kinds of things and that instead of running down things alphabetically, he'd have to enter words.
He'd have to find out at some point. Other laws had changed, maybe it wasn't as bad as it was in the forties.
His entry of "america homosexuality history" yielded so many results Steve swallowed. While it hadn't been a secret that it existed, nobody had ever talked about it. And now this register had so many things written about it? It boggled the mind.
He clicked on the first result and found it badly spelled, with wrong punctuation. It informed him that Germany had had a thriving homosexual culture prior to takeover by the Nazis. Who had sent the homosexuals to concentration camps.
Concentration camps? What were those? Steve entered the words into the google register, clicked on the first result and found pictures.
When he came back from vomiting, he made a fresh start on homosexuality with the second result on his register. It was the same page as the one where he had read about concentration camps, some kind of encyclopedia, and the information for 1945 nailed Steve to his chair.
"1945 – Upon the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces, those interned for homosexuality are not freed, but required to serve out the full term of their sentences under Paragraph 175."
They'd lost more that he'd thought.
He didn't have the heart for more research that day and closed the computer down. JARVIS told him that Tony was out at a meeting. No distraction there; Dr. Banner was engrossed in his lab, with no sign of when he would leave it. Happily, Barton chose that moment to come back. Steve caught him before his door, making enough noise not to startle him.
Barton looked tired and smelled of hospital. "Cap?"
"Hi. Look, were you doing anything?"
Barton blinked. Looked at the key he'd been about to use. "That a trick question?"
"Sorry," Steve said. "It's just, I, I kind of need to distract myself. Thinking too much. You want to get lunch? Something?" The words felt pathetic, and he stood up straight, trying not to make too much of a fool of himself.
Barton looked at him for a long moment, then seemed to decide he wasn't being mocked. "Lunch sounds good. You wanna go somewhere?"
Steve hadn't thought that far. "I don't know. I could cook something?"
Barton shrugged and followed him over to his suite, looking around it curiously. He helped cutting vegetables and set the table, and generally was good enough company that Steve was beginning to lose the tension his research had gotten him.
After lunch, Barton showed him what all the different electronic devices were - a TV, a stereo system, three different systems for games. By the time they stopped playing, it was getting dark and Barton had become Clint. It felt better, somehow. Different from Bucky and the Commandos, but also brotherly.
Steve supposed it helped that he was not actually that attracted to Clint.
Sure, the man was handsome, and he had a nice smile and very nice arms, for that matter, but that spark that had crossed from Stark to him, that wasn't there. Thank God; Steve didn't think he could cope with yet another such attraction. Particularly as Clint didn't look interested, or rather, was more interested in beating Steve's ass at electronic games than grabbing it.
Which reminded him of Tony's hands on his ass while he blew him and that made him have to excuse himself to the bathroom for a few moments and a bit of cold water.
Clint had shut down the game and was contemplating the long shelves of movies Stark had stocked the suite with.
"Hey, you wanna watch something? He's got like everything here."
Steve joined him. The titles told him nothing, hardly anything was from his time and most of them were even in color. "I haven't really seen much yet."
"Huh." Clint looked through them. "In the mood for anything specific?"
Steve shrugged. "Maybe something in a foreign country? With good pictures?"
Clint grinned at him. "No war movies?"
"No," Steve said. "War wasn't actually fun the first time around and right now I've had more than I can stand."
"I hear you." He drew out a disc. "This has war in it but it's mainly beautiful pictures."
It was. The movie was made in China - China! - and the pictures it showed were really amazing. It dressed its characters in bright colors, differing with their stories and Steve occasionally forgot to read the subtitles for fear of missing a single second of a battle on a still lake or two women fighting in a sea of red and gold leaves.
When it was over, Clint left and Steve slept, at rest for now.
That didn't last for even a day. Fury called him, demanding yet another press conference. The first one still vivid in his mind, Steve told him no and hung up before he could think about it. Less than five minutes later, Tony called.
"So, I hear you told Fury to shove it where the sun don't shine. Gotta hand it to you, that took guts."
Steve was smiling and didn't want to be. "He call you about it?"
"Yeah, asked if I could talk some sense into you. Sense, right... Listen, you up for some fresh air?"
"Hell yeah. Meet you downstairs?"
"Be there in ten."
Taking a walk outside precluded them from talking about the thing, too dangerous to bring it up. But Tony was chattering a mile a minute anyway and Steve enjoyed it too much to ruin it. They ate hotdogs, drank coffee, and wandered up and down the island. By the time Tony started flagging, he'd covered subjects from all over the human condition, discussed whether dancing really was sex standing up, what they'd do if pigeons suddenly rose up in revolution, if Sherlock Holmes was smarter than Steven Hawking, and if Steve could take Thor in a fair fight, a fair fight being one without hammer or shield. Steve let it wash over him, laughed at the right places, frowned at others and occasionally told Tony he knew he was being made fun of, there was no such thing as an anti-hero - heroes were heroes because they did heroic things, not bad things.
Tony laughed at him.
Steve found it adorable to be laughed at.
He was so going to hell.
He did. Hell was a press conference.
Steve was better prepared at least. It didn't help much.
"There are rumors that the war criminal Loki will return - what is your opinion?"
"He will be tried and sentenced on his homeworld. If he does come back, we're ready for him." What rumors?
"The six heroes are being called the Avengers. How do you feel about being part of this?"
"It was an honor to fight side by side with them against the invaders." That at least was an easy one.
"Is it true that the super-soldier serum turned you super-human?"
"It made me stronger, certainly, but I'm as human as you." Unlike Red Skull.
"What should be done with the rubble in the city?"
Steve forced himself not to roll his eyes. "Build a mountain; it worked for Stuttgart."
"Have you read the Captain America comics?"
"I didn't have time to read during the war and now I've been catching up with other things." And he wouldn't be reading seventy years worth of comics. It had been bad enough with the trading cards.
"Would you do some modeling?"
At this question, Tony told him, very quietly, that this particular reporter meant modeling naked. Steve wondered what made people think it was okay to ask this kind of thing and told her no. It still sparked a flood of questions about movies he might make. He let them down gently and even made a few jokes about leaving that to people who could actually act. They liked that, and they also liked that Steve laughed at someone's joke that if an actor could become president or governor, Steve could become an actor.
He was beginning to think he might be getting out of this with his skin intact.
Until someone asked about his relationship with Tony Stark.
Steve took his longest shower yet, scalding water beating on his shoulders, forehead leaning against the tile. There had been nothing else he could have said. Nothing else. Nobody could ever know. The crassness of the question had shocked him, even more that anyone might have expected him to answer truthfully. No. He'd had to deny him. There had been no other way.
Tony understood, Steve was sure of that. He had to know that what they were doing was dangerous and while they'd been outside, he'd hardly ever touched Steve or stood too close to him. Tony understood that it couldn't be any other way. And really, they had to stop. Soon.
Steve turned off the water and toweled himself dry. It was the only thing he could have said. Why, then, did he feel like like a traitor?
"Hey Steve, how's it going? Listen, I'm gonna be busy in the workshop for a while. Like, a couple of days. That a problem?"
Steve blinked. Tony was practically vibrating on his feet, manic and excited. He had dust and some kind of oil in his hair, and small scraps of paper clinging to his sleeve.
"What are you doing?"
"Ah!" Tony grinned widely. "I've transferred the main workshop from Malibu to here. Or rather, I've had everything delivered and now I need to set it up, but that's gonna take some time, I mean, the bots are helping, but they're helping like cats if you know what I mean, it's exciting for them, they've never been anywhere else. And there's the whole new interface system, you wanted color, right, and color will be achieved and -"
Tony shut up, raising his hands. Steve shook his head.
"Can I come see?"
"You want to?"
The workshop had been amazing before. Now it was - intense. Tony had taken out two walls - non load bearing, he assured Steve - and put up more work stations, material storage and charging stations for the robots.
Which were kind of how Steve had imagined the future to be.
Butterfingers, You and Dummy were rolling around the workshop, carrying things back and forth, mainly where Tony didn't want them to go. Watching the show, Steve wondered if this was some kind of vaudeville put on for his benefit. The bots would wait till Tony was distracted, take whatever he'd been trying to tidy away and roll off with it. But not too fast, giving Tony plenty of time to catch on to what they were doing, come after them and take the thing away to put on a shelf. And while he was doing that, the next thing would be taken. Steve settled on the couch and wished he had some popcorn.
As Tony chased after You for some gizmo, vaulting over a low bench, Steve felt a tap on his shoulder. One of the other bots - this one had to be Dummy - was tilting its camera at him. Its claw rested on Steve's shoulder.
"Hey, little guy. Tired of playing?"
Dummy angled its camera down and gently scratched the claw along Steve's arm towards the tablet on the couch next to him.
"Or do you want me to play as well?"
The angle turned hopeful. Steve grinned and lifted the tablet, just out of reach of Dummy's claw. The claw slowly moved towards it. He pulled it further away. The claw followed, then struck fast. Steve let him catch it and figured if a robot camera could smirk, this one did.
"You playing with my bot, Steve?"
He grinned up at Tony. "More like he plays with me."
Tony laughed and dropped next to Steve on the couch. "They're supposed to assist me when I need a third hand or something. And somehow they do this."
"I think it's funny. They're kind of like kids, aren't they?"
"Low-level AIs," Tony explained. "I made them smart enough to understand commands and instructions, but somehow they developed initiative as well. And I am always too busy to break down their code and fix them."
"I don't think they need fixing," said Steve.
A metal arm reached into his field of vision, still holding the tablet. Dummy's camera pushed against the side of Steve's face, his claw setting the tablet carefully into his lap. Steve looked at Tony who shrugged and ran a hand over the camera housing.
"Easy there, Dummy, you'll make him believe you won't spray him with fire extinguishing foam at the first opportunity."
The camera tried to look innocent. Steve laughed. "Not really, right?"
"Oh, the stories I could tell you." Tony's smile dimmed a little, turning into a low smolder. "Bed, boys."
The bots rolled away, toward their charging stations. Steve opened his mouth to ask but then didn't have to because Tony had his hand on Steve's neck, strong fingers massaging gently.
"I get it, you know. Privacy. Didn't have much of it, ever, Dad was always in the papers. Don't really miss it. But I figure you do. So. It's okay."
He had to tell him to stop. Steve had to make himself tell Tony to stop. It was better if they ended this here. It was way too dangerous, and he had to tell him no.
Instead he opened his lips under Tony's and ran his tongue over Tony's teeth and ran his hands under Tony's shirt and let Tony touch him and hold him and finally bank that fire pooling in his loins. Instead he touched Tony, learned that not even the motor oil in his hair mattered to his attraction or to him and let Tony lay him down on the couch, covering every inch of his body with his, kissing him everywhere, rubbing his prick against his hip and it was good, it was too good, it couldn't last.
But afterwards, Tony didn't move off him, didn't even ask if he was getting heavy (he wasn't). He simply dragged a blanket over them and held Steve as if there was nowhere else they had to go.
Steve put his arms around him and gave up all hope of stopping.
Thor came back on a Thursday, in the midst of thunder. Clint had just returned from his usual eight to noon absence with Natasha and the five of them were just eating when he landed on the balcony.
"Good day, my friends!"
Things got loud and chaotic for a while. By the time they settled Thor and put more steaks on, Steve's ears were ringing and his arm was aching from Thor's greeting, but he couldn't stop the smile. They watched Thor put away more food than could be sensibly believed and filled him in on the news.
"The Son of Coul lives? That is great news indeed! What else has been happening?"
Natasha leaned back. "Steve and Bruce and Clint have moved into the Tower, Stark hasn't gotten around to fixing the letters yet-"
"I resent that, those are hard to come by! It'll take time, that's all."
Clint laughed. "How much time?"
Tony looked shifty. "Couple years? Maybe?"
Thor laughed and slapped him on the back hard, nearly sending him into his plate. "You have collected your own band of warriors then! I congratulate you! Living together is the best way to grow into a fearsome band!"
"It's also more convenient for Steve and Tony to get some alone time," Bruce said, smiling into his salad.
There was silence. Steve felt his blood drain out of his face. No. God no. He - this couldn't be happening. It couldn't be out in the open like that. He - he had to -
"I have no idea what you're talking about." He pushed off his chair and went out, past Tony's still face, Bruce's confused one. His face burned, his hands shook. Behind him the table exploded into speech.
"What did you have to go and say that for?"
"He can't have been seriously thinking we didn't know! Everybody knows!"
"Obviously he didn't-"
"Are you and the Captain then become shield-brothers? A joyous occasion! Not grounds for flight!"
"Will all of you shut up for a moment and let me-"
Steve didn't hear. The elevator doors closed. He took it all the way down. They knew. They all knew.
There was only one thing he could do now.
Steve took his bike to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. He walked in steadily, head held high, and if anyone asked, he would blame his red face on the ride. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door to Fury's office.
Fury looked up from his computer and frowned, pushing down the screen.
"Something wrong, Captain?"
No choice. None. Steve stood at attention. "Director Fury, I hereby resign my commission."
Fury stilled, then leaned back in his chair. "That's - unexpected, Captain. May I ask why you are quitting?"
"Because I'm a homosexual, sir." He stared into the space above Fury's head.
Fury said nothing. Then nothing again. Steve kept his gaze into the distance and his muscles locked.
"I don't care what you'd rather, sit down before you pass out."
Steve sat. Fury leaned forward again.
"All right, Captain. You're a homosexual. This came to be - how?"
"I. I'd rather not say. But it's true. And I can't-"
"Serve. Like this."
Fury looked at him for a moment and sighed, then pulled out a gin bottle from his desk. "Drink." Steve shook his head. "Son, you look as if you are going to collapse on my floor and people would ask me questions I don't care to answer if you do. Drink."
Steve fumbled the cap but got it open and drank, tasting nothing. Finally he gave Fury back the bottle. Fury nodded at him.
"Captain Rogers, I have to admit that this was not a conversation I ever imagined I'd have to have. But you're here, so I'm just gonna have to deal with it. For one thing, I'm not accepting your resignation, due to the fact that it is not necessary."
"Not necessary. Homosexuality is not a crime anymore. You can be a member of the armed forces and be gay, lesbian or whatever else. Do you know how many homosexual personnel there are in S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"Neither do I. Because I don't care. Do your job, do it well, don't do anything illegal, and I don't care who you fuck."
His head was swimming. "That can't be true."
"It is," Fury said. "You once told me that we hadn't told you what we'd lost. You're right. But we haven't told you all that we've won, either. There's too much of it, I suppose. No, Captain, if you want to resign, do it because you've found something better to do. Not because you're afraid."
"I can stay?"
"Yes," Fury said. "And while I usually would not appreciate having to have a coming out talk with any member of S.H.I.E.L.D., I'll make an exception for you. Now, if you have any questions about homosexuality, homosexuals in S.H.I.E.L.D. or God forbid, homosexual sex, speak to Agent Coulson. He can help you find your answers." His voice gentled. "Dismissed, Captain."
Clint was waiting for him, sitting on the stairs next to his apartment door.
"Hi. Can we - not do this?"
"No can do. We're kinda worried."
Steve sat down next to him. He wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten back and all he wanted was to lie down and die. But he guessed if he had to see anyone, Clint would bother him the least.
"Nobody's mad. We figured out you really didn't realize that we knew."
"Did Tony say anything?"
"Stark? Nah." Clint bumped shoulders with him. "It was more the way you looked at each other. Like the sun rose and sank with the other."
Steve put his head in his hands. "Three months ago, I was in Germany, fighting in a war and in love with Peggy. And being - being homosexual was a crime with prison for twenty years and that was if your own side didn't just make you quietly go away. And now everything is different and I'm so confused."
"I get that. But, you know, don't you think it's better now?"
"It was unnatural! A crime! And now it's suddenly all right?"
Clint sighed. "Not so sudden. Been a long road. But I'll say this for Fury: he never gave a fuck."
"That's what he said."
Clint laughed. "Sounds like him."
"He also said that if I had questions, I should go to Coulson."
Clint breathed in the wrong way, coughing. Steve slapped him on the back until he'd got it under control and was waving Steve off.
"Coulson, right. Thanks, Fury..."
Clint sighed. "Never mind, stupid joke. Look, will you come up for movie night? Fury got wind of Thor being here and wants us to do a press conference with all of us there, which I do not get because jeez. So we're going to watch something mindless with explosions and without social problems. Coulson's also coming, so if you do have questions, you can corner him."
"Steve. Watch a movie with us. Okay?"
"I - yeah. Okay."
At least they didn't make something of it. In fact, nobody mentioned the problem at lunch, even if Bruce looked a bit shame-faced. But Steve nodded at him and got a relieved smile. Nobody edged away, nobody treated him differently. Clint was bothering Coulson about something, Natasha was sharing something highly alcoholic with Thor. He was slowly beginning to believe that it was going to be all right.
Of course the only place on the couch was next to Tony who was looking at the TV instead of Steve. Steve sat down next to him, unable to avoid him and not wanting to. But this was hard, it was too hard in some ways. Tony relaxed a bit when he sat down, though. He didn't try to touch Steve, which made Steve both grateful and sad.
The movie was, as promised, mindless. A lot of car chases, a shallow love story, something to pass the time. Tony relaxed more and more and Steve noticed the others being easier as well. He wasn't looking forward to the press conference at all, but they'd get through that, too.
By the time the end credits rolled, Steve stretched and turned around to ask Clint to get the light and the words died unspoken. Because Clint was holding Coulson in his arms, cheek against his hair, fingers tangled together.
Steve stared. Clint noticed and gave him some kind of half-smile and a shrug.
Steve got up to get the light himself. But when he went down to sleep, it eluded him.
The next day wasn't any better. Again, the reporters had questions that didn't even pretend to skirt decency. Still, Steve hoped to get out of this intact.
"Captain, there are entire websites dedicated to your relationship with Iron Man. The people deserve to hear the truth!"
"The truth is." He stopped. Microphones held towards him, faces greedy for a scoop and a headline, dozens of men and women with no focus other than him. He'd never wanted to hide as much as in this moment.
A touch at his back. Tony was looking straight ahead at the reporter mob, but had shifted enough so Steve's shield hid the touch. I support you. Even if you deny me.
Steve's eyes stung behind the cowl. Tony had been trying so hard to be a good boyfriend and he'd pushed him away again and again. Even now he didn't expect Steve to acknowledge their - relationship.
He'd fought Nazis, he'd had the guts to keep trying to enlist, he'd never backed down from a fight, no matter how outmatched he was. He'd gone through air raids, mortar fire, into Hell itself, it sometimes seemed. He wasn't going to back away from this.
"The truth is." Steve breathed. His team was shifting around him, Clint on his other side moving as if to cover his flank. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Coulson looking as if he had no idea what Steve was going to say next but he probably wouldn't like it and Steve couldn't blame him. It didn't matter. He'd taken and taken from Tony, it was time he gave something back.
"The truth is: I do love Iron Man."
A heartbeat, then the noise deafened him. But that heartbeat had been enough, just enough to catch Tony's indrawn breath, happy and full of joy. He let the shouting, the questions wash over him, feeling invincible, feeling bulletproof. If Fury fired him, if America repudiated him, it would happen and Steve would care, but he'd still do it all over again. He'd been ashamed too long.
Coulson was finally succeeding in restoring order, enough of it for them to leave anyhow. Thor was the first to pass by them all and he stopped to clasp Steve's arm.
"A good declaration, Steve. Tonight we will feast and celebrate your union."
Steve smiled a little insecurely, by now wary of what Thor considered celebration. He'd find out and if the jokes were too much, well, he could probably distract Thor with something.
Bruce was next, having waited for Thor to stop speaking. He offered his hand and Steve shook it. "Good job."
Natasha's mouth had that twitch to it that said she would be lying down laughing if she didn't have a reputation to keep. "Don't let him break you." Steve was instantly grateful for the cowl; his face must be burning.
Clint boxed him lightly on the arm, but what he said was "Thank you." At Steve's confused look, he shrugged and went.
Steve was next and he turned to pass Tony, embarrassed and uncertain what to do. The reporters were still taking pictures, still talking amongst themselves and throwing questions at Coulson. Steve didn't dare look at Tony, a little afraid of what he'd see. Maybe - maybe Tony would - he wasn't sure. Of anything.
A hand closed on his, holding him as he was about to go offstage. He looked up; Tony's face was open, happy without the sardonic tilt to his features, and he was smiling. Not the smile that said I am Tony fucking Stark, but the one he sometimes had when he thought nobody was looking. That smile, and it was for Steve and to Hell with all the reporters. Tony tugged him closer, towards that smile, and pulled him in for a kiss.
When it ended, Steve had actual tears in his eyes, and felt as if the whole world wouldn't fit in his chest. Tony grinned at him, flashed the reporters a V sign and slung an arm around Steve's waist.
"You ready to blow this taco stand?"
"Ready," Steve said. "Tony-"
"Yes," Tony said, before Steve had even finished saying his name.
"You don't even know what I was going to ask," Steve pointed out, exasperated.
"Whatever it is, answer's yes." Tony walked aside him offstage, arm still around Steve's waist. "Don't you know that?"
Steve knew that. And thought that he had to be the luckiest man on Earth.