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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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1.

September 3

"What possessed you to go to that particular club?" asked Fury, rubbing a spot between his eyes and staring at a Starkpad with the morning's news stories on it.

"It... seemed like a good idea at the time?" said Clint, catching a glimpse of Steve's face on the screen.

"Try again."

"Stark, sir," said Natasha.

Fury sighed. "Of course."

"Is it bad?" asked Natasha.

"It's not good," said Fury. "Some of the papers had fun with Captain America appearing at a pick-up joint."

"It wasn't a pick-up joint," Clint protested. "It was actually kinda classy, considering it was Stark's choice. Well, except for the blow job under the bar."

"Blow job under the--"

"It wasn't any of us, sir," said Natasha, and Fury relaxed slightly. "Sir, really, how important--"

"Luckily it's an election year so it wasn't anywhere near front page news," Fury said. "And luckily the Council's not used to caring much about the media." He paused. "The Council's always been more about results than anything else," he said quietly, staring down at his Starkpad.

"So what's changed?" asked Natasha.

Fury looked up. "What do you mean?"

"What's the difficulty now?"

"What makes you think there's difficulty?"

"You, sir," said Clint bluntly.

Fury gazed at them thoughtfully. "Things are more public. More dangerous. The stakes are higher."

"Sir..."

Fury ran a finger over the pad, making Cap's face disappear. "Well, he did all right last night. A few soundbites, nothing major. I was worried he'd stop to have a long chat with the reporters."

"It's a good thing he didn't," muttered Clint.

"Why?"

"He's got his own opinions, sir," said Natasha. "Not all of them will make him too popular."

"Captain America doesn't need to have opinions in public. He needs to protect us from the bad guys." Fury paused. "Out of curiosity, what kind of ideas?"

"He's not too thrilled with some of our more modern morals."

"No kidding. Neither am I."

"Yeah, but you don't care who fucks who, sir," said Clint glumly.

"Homophobic, then?" said Fury. "Bad?"

"Not bad," said Clint. "Not advocating the death penalty for perverted sodomites or anything. But not exactly puking up rainbow flags, either."

"PR disaster-level?"

"No, not really," said Natasha. "He believes marriage should be for straights only and he doesn't agree with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"So not that far off about half of the voting public of America, then," said Fury. "Is he obnoxious about it?"

"No."

"And he knows Stark plays both teams," said Clint. "Doesn't seem too freaked out."

"Do I want to know how he knows about Stark?" asked Fury, rubbing that spot between his eyebrows again. "Stark hasn't tried to grab his ass, has he?"

"Weirdly enough, no," said Clint. "And Cap's not gonna go off on a rant in public or anything, he's just not real comfortable with the modern world."

"Well, can't say I blame him. It's a different world than he went to sleep in." Fury sighed. "Keep him away from the press. Half of them will jump all over him for being politically incorrect, and the other half will have kittens because he's a public figure standing up for morality. And the last thing I need is the Council asking me what the fuck Captain America is doing on Fox News."

 

2.

September 4

It wasn't until Steve and Tony were clearing up the detritus from the next movie that Steve finally spoke up.

"If I've insulted you in the last few days without meaning to, I'm sorry," Steve said honestly. "It wasn't my intent."

Tony looked up from his stack of glasses, puzzled. Then he felt the penny drop. "You mean about me being bi." Steve nodded. "So you finally do believe me?"

"Yes."

"And you hate the sin, but love - or at least partially tolerate - the sinner? Gee, thanks."

Steve shook his head. "That's not what I mean."

"No, you're pretty clear on what you mean," said Tony, following Steve into the kitchen, both of them loaded down with dishes and leftovers.

"Why don't you let me in on it, then."

"You think a lot of what goes on around you is immoral."

"Yes, I do."

"And not just same-sex stuff; materialist culture. People hooking up in bars." Tony set down his dishes. "The movie we just watched."

"The whole idea of having an apartment just to make it easy for people to have affairs; you don't think that's immoral?"

"It's not illegal."

"It's lying. Breaking vows. Hurting families, spouses. You don't have a problem with that?"

Tony shook his head as he dumped leftovers into the trash, ignoring Steve's pained look at the waste. No way was he storing a half-eaten turkey sandwich. "It's between consenting adults."

"The one who's cheated on doesn't consent."

"I'm not gonna debate it." Tony picked up a half-empty beer bottle and drained it. "I happen to agree with you on that one."

"Really?"

Tony hesitated. "I've been on both sides. The cheater and the cheatee. Well - all three sides, technically, because I've also slept with married women, though in my defense I didn't know it at the time. Don't look at me like that, the cheating was in my... misspent youth, and it's actually one of the things I regret."

"You regret things?"

"More than you'd think," said Tony ruefully. "I've got entire years and product lines and wardrobe colour schemes I wish had never happened." He regarded another half-empty, decided against draining that one too and poured it down the sink instead. "That said, it doesn't make the movie less funny. It was supposed to be a comedy, not a behavioural how-to."

Steve smiled. "Fair enough."

They finished bringing in the cutlery and popcorn bowls, and Tony reflected that once upon a time he would've simply made the robots do it. There was something comforting about doing this with another person, though.

"It's funny," mused Tony. "You didn't even blink at the thought of a black President, girls in the military, interracial marriage, all sorts of things. What makes gays different?"

"I accept them. I just don't think it's necessary to shove acceptance at everybody."

"Like in Boy Scouts? You really think they're going to diddle little boys?"

Steve shook his head. "No more than male school teachers are going to molest little girls. Maybe even less. That's not my objection at all." He opened the dishwasher and started to load it. "I just don't think that the Scouts should be forced to accept homosexuals when they're trying to teach a certain set of values."

"What about atheists?" Tony asked, reflecting that it was funny how Steve, who'd never seen a dishwasher before last year, was now far more adept at loading it than Tony was.

"What about atheists?"

"Should they be let into the Boy Scouts?"

"I don't know," Steve said after a moment, fitting a bowl into the bottom tray of the dishwasher. "I can see why the Boy Scouts don't think so. I'm not sure I agree, but I don't think the Scouts should be forced to accept them. I'm not saying I have anything against atheism. Or homosexuality. I just don't think either has to be forced in everywhere."

"Why not?"

"Because parents have a right to try to teach their children their own idea of what's right and wrong."

"And those kids who are being taught those ideas, if they grow up hating who they are because of that... no harm, no foul?"

"Tony..." Steve looked up from the dishes.

"No, I'm speaking from experience here. Thank God, not a lot of it, since by the time I realized I liked boys too I was already stunningly familiar with being a disappointment to my dad, so really, one more thing was like water off a duck's back for me. But other kids aren't as... lucky."

Steve looked pained, as he had been the few times Howard had been brought up. And uncertain.

"And what about the kids who are fed other bullshit by their parents?" Tony continue. "The abstinence-only, wait until marriage crap?"

"Why is that crap?"

"You do know what abstinence-only is, right? Teaching kids the way to prevent pregnancy and disease is by praying to keep the impure thoughts away? Check out some stats on how that works out for them. Also, spoiler alert: it doesn't."

"I know that. I still don't think it's stupid. Don't put the forks in with the spoons."

Tony scowled. "Condoms are the devil's rubber gloves? Really?"

"No, not that part. But I don't think it's stupid to tell kids to wait until marriage."

"Who the hell actually believes that?"

"I do."

Tony rolled his eyes. "God, your ideas... they're so rigid. So inflexible. It's like you don't accept people can be human."

"It's not rigid and inflexible to know what's right, and to want to live up to that knowledge."

"And you always do. You're perfect."

"I never said that." He moved a glass from where Tony had put it to the other side of the top tray.

"It's how you act."

Steve frowned. "No it's not. I'm as human as anybody else. I make mistakes too. I just think we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and not wallow in our mistakes."

"Oh so now I wallow?" Tony smirked and leaned back against the counter, watching Steve finish loading; no point in trying to help, when Steve was just going to redo all his efforts anyway.

Steve sighed. "Why is this about you?"

"You're telling me you think being queer is immoral, and people should be able to shield their children from it. That having sex before marriage is immoral. Well guess what; as someone who's had more than their fair share of horribly illicit premarital sex and would be celibate for life if I waited for marriage, I can't help feeling a little judged, here. Can't help feeling like you've got this... disapproving vibe. And it pisses me off."

Steve sighed again, and he looked tired. "I'm not a saint. You should know that by now."

"Oh, really. What have you ever done that wasn't saint-like? Other than be kind of anal about housework?"

"Plenty." He closed the dishwasher and set it.

"All right, I showed you mine, why don't you show me yours." Tony paused. "Let's start with this. You've never been married. By your standards, you should be a virgin. Are you?"

Steve picked up a dishcloth and started to wipe down the counter. "That's not..."

"Ooh, has the good Captain sullied himself with the pleasures of the flesh before that pleasure was sanctified by the Church?"

"You can believe in waiting until marriage without having been able to do it yourself."

Tony was caught between gleeful amusement and a sort of... pause. "OK. Have you?"

"Have I what?"

"Done the Deed? And was it a one-time, heartily regretted thing that you went to Confession about for the next ten years, or was it a regular occurrence?"

There was a long silence as Steve scrubbed the counter.

"Come on, Spangles, we're sharing here."

Steve stopped scrubbing. "Five times, all right?"

"What?"

"Five times. I've had sex five times."

Tony blinked, and abruptly wished he'd made some sort of bet with somebody about Steve's V-status. Clint, probably. Maybe Bruce. "Captain. You're not married."

"No."

"Isn't that sort of hypocritical?" And he would've thought he'd be jumping all over Steve's evidence of human fallibility with cheerful abandon, but somehow it just didn't feel appropriate.

"Yes." Steve pressed his lips together.

"How old were you?"

Steve paused for a long moment. "I was... I was sick, a lot, when I was a kid," he said quietly, carefully hanging the dishcloth to dry. "I was usually in bed trying not to die of asthma, or boredom. And I was surrounded by nuns a lot of the time. Even when I was healthy, it's not like there was a long line of girls wanting to... tempt me."

"What happened?"

"The Serum."

"It cured you, and you got a normal, healthy young man's libido?"

Steve leaned against the counter too. "It increased my metabolism by four, Tony."

"You mean..." Tony's eyebrows went up and he whistled. "Wow. Some men would kill for that." He paused. "I'm seriously thinking about it right now."

"It's not that great. It's a distraction. Especially as a single, inexperienced man surrounded by showgirls during the USO tours."

Tony laughed, and Steve finally gave him a small smile. "If you're trying to make me feel sorry for you, I'm here to tell you you are failing epically. Young, healthy, good-looking, raging sex drive, and the only guy surrounded by girls. Beautiful girls. Must have been awful."

"It wasn't all bad," Steve admitted, blushing. He got himself a clean glass and filled it with water from the tap, and Tony suppressed the urge to remind him that he had perfectly drinkable filtered water in the fridge.

"So, five of the USO girls went all the way with you? Or was it one girl five times?"

"I..."

"Come on, spill."

Steve hesitated. "There were a couple of girls I sorta... dated. Or, well, we, um, fooled around a bit. I was still... still in love with Peggy, but I didn't know if she... I hadn't seen her in a long time, and I spent some time with the girls, and when we fooled around, I kind of didn't stop myself a couple of times."

"How many USO girls did you fool around with?"

"Four."

Tony whistled. "I guess just because you wore the uniform didn't make you a Boy Scout. And you didn't stop yourself with a couple of them?"

"Yeah."

"So that's two of the five times."

"Well, twice with Shellie, once with Marla." Steve swirled his glass, staring down at it.

"And the other two times?"

"I was with the Commandos." He took a drink.

Tony's mouth fell open. "As in, with the Commandos? One of them?!"

Steve nearly spat out his water. "Are you insane?!"

"Hey, you said--"

"That would've been completely illegal! They were my men--"

Tony leered. "Oh I bet they were."

"No, I mean they were under my command--"

"Under your command? Is that what the kids called it back then?"

"Tony!" Steve glared at him. "No. I didn't... no, of course not."

Tony snickered. "You know it's not unheard of for soldiers in wartime to fool around together, queer or not."

"I know that, thanks. But I never did."

"So, who then?"

"French girls."

"Really? When did you find time for romance?"

"It... wasn't romance."

"What was it?"

Steve looked away. "It's not a proud moment, all right?"

"What?"

"Look, there were... there weren't a lot of girls around."

"And?"

"And I was... distracted."

"You mean horny as hell."

"All right, yeah." Steve ran a hand through his hair. "And there were French girls around in towns, but I didn't speak French and we weren't there long enough to get to know any of them--"

"What did you do? Hire hookers?"

Steve flushed deeply and drained his glass.

"Holy shit," Tony said, somewhat stunned. "Captain America purchased French booty."

"I'm not perfect," said Steve bitterly. "I told you."

Tony paused. "So what makes you so inflexible about this kind of thing?"

"What's wrong is wrong," said Steve simply. "People are fallible, and we make mistakes, but we shouldn't just turn around and tell ourselves it was so great that it must be okay and we should do it all over again."

"Maybe there's also such a thing as having standards that don't make sense," said Tony. "And feeling guilty over things we don't need to feel guilty about. Like being human, and needing sex."

"Nobody needs sex," said Steve. "And maybe we have to agree to disagree." He brought the glass to the sink and rinsed it, dried it, and put it away.

Damn, it was like living with a maid. Tony idly wondered if he'd been a neat freak as a child, or if it had been drilled into him at the orphanage where he'd gone after his mother died, or by the army.

"Why haven't you dated again?" Tony asked curiously, breaking the silence. "In this century, I mean."

Steve's shoulders stiffened slightly. "Who would I date?"

"And the whole raging libido thing?"

"I can handle it a lot better now."

Tony sniggered. "I bet you can."

"What? No, not like that," Steve said, flustered.

"Oh really? Please don't tell me you also bought into the whole 'if you touch yourself you'll go blind' crap, because I gotta say my eyesight is 20/20 and Hawkeye's--"

"No, of course not. I just meant it's not as distracting any more."

"Well, let me know if you want any help in that department." Tony caught himself and laughed. "The dating other people part of it, not the handling it. Not that I know a lot of girls who are willing to wait until marriage, but for Captain America, they just might be."

Steve's mouth quirked up slightly.

"What?"

"Sorry, I'm trying to picture who you might set me up with, and..."

"And? JARVIS can call up my little black book in a jiffy."

"It's a little terrifying."

Tony smiled. "What do you know? Captain Tightass has a sense of humour."

"What was it Natasha said? Your idea of cultural catch-up would do me in faster than any Doombot?"

"Probably. So would Katie. And Eileen, and Mara, Mara's very... creative. But very gentle. I could--"

Steve shook his head, looking amused, and pushed off the counter where he'd been leaning. "Good night, Tony. I'll see you tomorrow."

"You sure you don't want me to--"

"Good night, Tony," Steve said firmly, and headed off to his floor.

Huh. That had gone surprisingly well.

Damn, though. Steve Rogers, twenty-five year old virgin, horny, confused, surrounded by pretty girls, trying so hard to live up to his own morals - which were probably outdated even then. Probably jerking off every chance he got, and then guiltily hiring French hookers when that wasn't enough.

That... wasn't an entirely unattractive image.

Tony groaned. Oh, shit, no, not going there. Absolutely not going there.

 

3.

September 8

Avengers still refuse to pay for damage to downtown New York

Avengers Tower blocking cell phone signals?

Avengers: present at the Boston Lizard Incident, but not at the Albuquerque Acid-Fire Anomaly?

Clint scanned down that story as he read Natasha's Starkpad over her shoulder, seeing a summary of places they'd been, pointing out how many of them were Northern, Eastern, West coast - and otherwise blue-state - and how few Southern and Midwest.

He gathered his arrows and sat down next to Natasha, angling the Starkpad towards him so that they could both keep reading as he carefully inspected each one before putting it back in the quiver and Natasha meticulously oiled every part of her guns.

"Tasha? What the hell is this?"

"From SHIELD. Haven't you accessed your mail today?"

"Wanted to get to the range as soon as Tony said it was open. Who sent this?"

"Our new liaison."

"What? Why?"

"I guess they want us to get to know what's going on."

"Why? What do we care?"

"I think it's to make us feel bad. At least if you go by the headlines."

Iron Man: Not enough to protect us, but still unwilling to share his technology for the common good.

Iron Man: His Troubled Past Comes Back?

Clint scanned it quickly, seeing a picture of them leaving that club, Tony looking in good spirits and Steve looking... well, slightly confused, plucky, and stalwart.

...and there was a nice little mention on how the club was known for its rather wild times, and for same-sex couples who danced and made out openly on the floor. Small blip about how Stark, famous for his wild women, has also admitted to involvement with men in his youth...

"Oh, fuck me," Clint muttered.

"Probably not a good idea, team-dynamics- and publicity-wise," said Natasha, putting away her guns and snapping her case closed. "And if you're going to get yourself taken care of outside, please make sure it doesn't end up on a front page. I don't think Fury's ulcer will appreciate it."

"Screw Fury."

Natasha made a face. "Also not a good idea."

How will the Avengers vote? asked another article as they read on. Tony was pegged as an Obama supporter despite belonging to the 1%, Bruce probably pro-Obama due to his scientific background (what?), Natasha and Clint complete unknowns (excellent!), Thor, being a monarchist, probably going for Romney, and Steve also an unknown, probably going for Romney except for possible concerns over Romney's Mormonism. The article noted that he had worked comfortably with blacks during the War, but that he came from a time of stricter values and would be more sympathetic to Romney's conservatism than--

Christ, what a load of crap.

"So what are we supposed to do about this?" he asked Natasha.

"I don't think we're supposed to do anything. As I said, I think it's just to make us feel bad."

Clint carefully finished maintenance on his bow and put it over his shoulder as they left the range and went up to the common floor.

"We'll have to let Tony know it's an awesome weapons range, Tash," he commented as the elevator went up.

"I know. The targets move so quickly. Nice terrain simulations, too." She glanced at him sideways. "So what's wrong?"

"Nothing wrong. Just... it's not the same as the range at SHIELD."

"It's not. It's better."

"And it's not at SHIELD," said Clint.

The ceiling was high, the targets were shiny, the arrows were cool. One of them gave off purple sparks - useless except as a distraction, but very cool.

And it wasn't SHIELD. With this on hand, why would he and Tasha ever want to leave?

"Did you hear there was a cinnamon-smelling pink entity spotted in downtown Manhattan yesterday?" asked Natasha.

"What? How come we weren't we called in?"

"Not sure. Maybe it wasn't that important? SHIELD operatives herded it towards the water and it dissolved, anyway. It wasn't that big. Only about the size of a bus."

"Still. We should have been called in. And why are we getting this news shit sent to us, instead of info on the pink slime?"

"They probably sent samples of it to Bruce and thought that was enough."

The elevator doors opened and they entered the common area. Bruce and Steve were already there, Bruce frying something over the indoor grill and Steve watching curiously. A range of hamburger patties and all the fixings sat waiting on the counter next to them.

"Do those really taste like meat?" Steve was saying, and Clint glanced at the grill. Ugh. Tofu burgers.

"Yeah, kinda."

"Don't fool yourself," said Clint. "They taste just like regular burgers, until you actually have a real burger. Then you realize you've been eating rubber."

"No you don't," said Bruce.

"How long since you had a real burger?" asked Clint, putting together a platter for himself.

"About twelve years, I think."

"So how would you know? Here, have a real one." He waved his plate at Bruce.

Bruce grimaced. "Ugh. No thanks."

"Can I try one of yours?" asked Steve.

"Go ahead," said Bruce, waving at one of the veggie patties on the platter next to him.

Steve started to assemble his meal. "Have you heard we have a new liaison?" he asked Clint and Natasha.

"Yeah. Who is it?" Clint asked, taking a large bite.

"Agent Tom Sorensen."

"Sorensen?!" said Clint, the burger nearly going down wrong. "Fuck me."

"What's wrong with him?" asked Steve.

Clint's mouth suddenly tasted like ash. "They were going to put Phil as our liaison. Phil, not this douchebag."

"There's nothing wrong with Sorensen," said Natasha.

"He's a weasel," Clint said angrily. "And Fury doesn't trust him. Why would he assign him to us?"

"Maybe it's not Fury's choice. Hill doesn't mind him. Relax. He might not be so bad." Natasha got herself a platter full of veggies, placing a veggie patty without a bun on her plate. "Bruce, did he send you samples of the pink slime?"

"Samples?" Bruce asked, adding mustard to his bun. "Yeah. I don't know why, though. I already had some. Though these were a little different."

"They didn't tell you why you were getting these?"

"No, I just got them in the SHIELD mail."

"Sorensen, you fucking incompetent," Clint muttered, feeling a slow burn of anger. "Bruce, they're not from the Mean Teen. She's still in custody, as far as we know. These are from an incident yesterday."

Bruce swallowed hastily. "Damn. Really?"

"Yes. He probably wanted you to compare them--"

Bruce grabbed his veggieburger and headed off.

"Hey! Aren't you going to watch the movie?" said Clint. "It's West Side Story!"

"I've seen Romeo and Juliet," said Bruce. "Pretty sure I know how this one ends."

"Still feeling good about Sorensen?" asked Clint as the door closed behind him.

Natasha shook her head doubtfully. "He's new. Give him time."

 

4.

September 14

Steve looked tired, thought Tony as he looked away from the stars to watch him enter the deck. And no wonder; it was three in the morning. Normal people slept around this time of night. Or so Tony had been informed by Pepper. Repeatedly. Usually around three in the morning.

Steve also looked a little disgruntled to see Tony up here. "Tony. What are you doing up?" he asked, joining him at the railing.

"Relaxing. Looking out at the stars." He paused. "Having trouble sleeping. You?"

Steve hesitated, the light breeze on the deck rustling his hair. "A bit. I was thinking of drawing. Do you mind?"

"Be my guest," said Tony. Steve nodded and went to set himself up near one of the deck lights, and Tony reflected that it was handy how Steve's favourite medium was pencil drawing and not oil painting or sculpting. A sketchbook, box of pencils, hard surface, and he was ready to go.

And it was a nice enough atmosphere up here, if you were going to be up late anyway. It was still warm, the late-night traffic sounds muted from far below, the sky almost cloud- and smog-free. He drew away from the railing and sat down next to Steve, glancing at the picture Steve was drawing. It looked like a set of dancers in skirts, and Tony leaned in to get a closer look. "West Side Story?"

"It had good visuals," said Steve.

"Better than Lawrence of Arabia," said Tony, though it had been a pleasant surprise to realize that he could look at all that sand and not get nervous or flash-backy. "What did you think about it?"

"Which one? West Side Story?" Steve said. Tony nodded. "I was surprised Maria lived. Wasn't she supposed to be Juliet?"

"Maybe they thought the traditional ending was too much of a bummer."

"Maybe. Though it was depressing enough, I suppose."

"Hey, it beats watching the news."

"No kidding."

"Are you? Watching the news, that is?"

"Of course," said Steve, frowning slightly.

"Right. Civic duty and all? Election year?" Steve nodded. "You feeling informed enough to vote?"

"Yeah. Don't ask me who I'm going to vote for, though."

"I can probably guess."

"I doubt that," said Steve.

"Why's that?"

"Because I don't know myself."

"Really? I thought you'd be... traditional."

"There are all sorts of traditions, Tony." His eyes were slightly bloodshot, Tony realized, watching him colour in a fuchsia skirt. "Not all of them are conservative."

"You don't like the Republicans of today?"

"I don't like the tone of either side," said Steve slowly. "But especially the Republicans. Some of them are decent people, and I agree with a lot of what they're saying, but some of them... the loudest ones..."

"Gibbering assholes," Tony nodded. "Though I don't hear most of what they say. My PA filters that kind of thing for me."

"Some of it's pretty vile. And has been for a while."

"I think both sides are guilty of that."

"The Democrats wouldn't have booed a soldier, even if they disagreed with him." Steve finished shading in the skirt, then moved to another sketch, shading in the arching line of a male dancer's leg.

"I keep forgetting you missed Vietnam," Tony commented. "And when did the Republicans boo a soldier?"

"Last year, at their candidate's debate. Some gay soldier asked about the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the audience booed him. Mind you, Romney didn't say he agreed with them doing that. It's still disgusting."

Tony shrugged. "People are idiots."

"It doesn't bother you?"

"I'm not a soldier. I have a lot of friends who are, but it's not my fight." He paused. "Happened last year? Weren't you still on ice?"

"They had a clip of it on the news yesterday. Among other things." Steve sighed. "I'm better off watching old movies."

"Aren't we all. You probably shouldn't take any of it so seriously. People are always gonna be idiots, on both sides of the aisle."

Steve glanced at him. "You were taking it seriously a few days ago."

Tony shrugged, conceding the point. "I probably shouldn't. It's not really my fight, any of it. I mean, like you pointed out, it's not like I'm in any hurry to become a soldier. Or a Scout leader. And I'm not the marrying type. It's all theoretical for me." He watched the pencil adding a shadow under the dancer. "Just be glad it's theoretical for you too."

Steve's pencil paused. "It's not theoretical to me, Tony."

"What?"

"It's personal." Steve took a deep breath, and met Tony's gaze evenly. "I served in the army. I still think of myself as a soldier."

"Yeah, OK, but you're not--"

"Yes I am." He leaned forward, putting down his pencil. "All of this? Serving openly, being able to get married? It's not theoretical, and I'm not being a hypocrite. I know exactly what I'm talking about. Personally."

"You're..."

"Gay."

Tony's mouth dropped open.

"Are you serious?" he said after a stunned moment.

"Couldn't be more serious. Five on the Kinsey scale. And that's mostly due to previous experience."

"Holy shit." Tony blew out his breath. "Jesus. So when I teased you at that club, about - shit."

"I knew exactly what you were talking about," said Steve grimly. "About the guy, not the girl."

Tony shook his head, his mind spinning. "So... Jesus, Steve, what's with the backwards attitude, then? You're a smart guy. You can read, and you can think. You don't need to be like those poor losers who hate themselves because of some damned Dark Age--"

"I don't hate myself."

"Yeah, but - if you don't, then--"

"You know, I worked out, way back during the War, that if the Serum cured my asthma but not my homosexuality, maybe homosexuality wasn't an illness. I did that all by myself, without your genius or your enlightened modern age."

Tony frowned, bewildered. "So why stop there, big guy? Why not embrace your non-illness?"

"I'm not ashamed of it," he said quietly. "Not any more. I wasn't particularly ashamed of it at the time; I'm definitely not now. I believe what I've read, that it's innate and I could no more choose it than I could choose to be deaf or blind." He held Tony's gaze. "But I'm not proud of it, any more than I would be proud of being deaf or blind. And if I could, I would absolutely change it. Same as if I was deaf or blind. And I don't see what's wrong with that."

"As a matter of fact, there are plenty of deaf people who are proud of being deaf, and who don't want surgery to improve their hearing. But never mind that; you're still talking like it's a disability."

"It is."

"How?"

"For starters, one of the things everyone wants is to get married and have children--"

"Speak for yourself."

Steve ignored him. "And if you're gay, you can't. If you could find some way of correcting that? Why wouldn't you?"

"You need to Google some more, my friend. A lot more. Because, newsflash: you can in fact do both."

"Not without going against the teachings of most of the major religions in the world. Not to mention simple biology."

Tony blinked. "You actually believe that crap? You wanna 'fix' something about yourself because some outdated piece of desert morality?"

"It's not outdated to me. I may not be a regular, but I still go to church." He gave Tony a low-level glare. "And if we're gonna do the respect thing, try to remember that when you insult Christians, you're insulting me."

"Well plenty of other Christians have no problem with gays. Maybe you should read what they have to say."

"I have. I just disagree with them."

Tony paused. "Where did you... OK, how did I not know you were looking into all of this? I mean... pro-gay Christians? Kinsey scale?"

"Libraries existed before your server."

"Why would--"

"I live with you and two spies, and work for SHIELD. Not one of you has any sense of privacy. I Googled the bare basics from here, but beyond that, I didn't want anybody else to pry into what I was doing. And I still don't."

Tony fell silent, and watched Steve colour in the background of his drawing, his pencils making idle lines. It didn't look like he was paying particular attention to it any more; just fiddling around with it, at this point.

"You know, this is more of a mind-trip for me than it should be," he finally admitted. "And I gotta say, part of me's picturing Fox News if they got a hold of this. Can you imagine, Captain America, gay?"

Steve shuddered. "I'd rather not."

Damn, thought Tony, he had that world-wise grandpa/lost little boy thing going again.

And damn, Tony thought he'd outgrown thinking of the man in terms of what his father had always said; gotten past the Captain America surface and come to know Steve Rogers, at least a bit. Steve sure didn't look much like the man Tony's dad obsessed about right now. He was tired, withdrawn, up at three in the morning and wearing a rumpled t-shirt and sweat pants as he supported his sketchbook up against one knee and selected another pencil, and Tony wondered if he'd tried to sleep or had gone down to the gym before coming up here.

And yet he was still Captain America. Still representing Mom and apple pie and good old American values and...

"Hang on, Spangles," said Tony. "You were in the army before Don't Ask, Don't Tell. How could you expect to be a role model for Americans if you were breaking the law? You had to lie just to get in."

Steve's lips quirked into a humourless smile. "You already knew I lied to get into the army. I lied about where I was from, because they kept rejecting me but I felt it was my duty as an American to fight."

"This is different. The army was actively trying to keep people like you out. How'd you justify it to yourself?"

"For one thing, I didn't join the army to become a role model. I joined to go to war. Even the SSR wasn't supposed to be about symbolic leadership; there were supposed to be a lot of us. I wasn't supposed to be unique."

"So you didn't think it mattered that you'd lied to get in?"

"Not as much as getting in mattered."

Yeah, Tony maybe should've guessed that part. "Greater good and all that?"

"Something like that."

"Weren't you afraid of being found out?"

"Why would I be? You were kicked out as an undesirable if you were a homosexual but didn't commit homosexual acts while in the service, and dishonourably discharged or imprisoned if you did. I never did. I felt my preferences were none of the army's business, and I intended to conduct myself honorably while I was in the army. And I did." He grimaced. "Except for the thing with the French girls, which the army actually encouraged."

"Go army."

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a pipe dream back then. Not even."

"Nice."

"I thought, when I first read about repealing it, that it was terrible that they were going to get rid of this enlightened thing and bring back witch hunts and courts martial."

"Thought you agreed that it was a bad thing to have people serving openly."

"I did. I do." Steve paused. "I just never thought witch hunts served any purpose. I never felt it hurt the army to have gays serving if they were discreet."

"So what were you going to do? Just... be in the closet forever?"

"Why not?"

"Jesus, Steve." Tony shook his head, appalled. "Doesn't it worry you now? The media? They're pretty nosy these days. Aren't you worried they'll find out?"

"How would they? Unless you tell them, how would they ever find out?"

"Steve. Buddy, at some point, you're gonna wanna get some action. You're gonna get... you know, unfrozen."

"Not that way, I won't."

"Are you serious?" Tony sat back. "OK, I get that you might not want to head up a Pride Parade or have a church wedding and adopt Corgis with your sweetie, but you're gonna wanna date. Especially if you've got the whole four-times-as-horny thing going on."

"I'm not."

"You've got to be shitting me. Vow of celibacy? You know those don't work out too well, right? I can share all sorts of literature on that if you'd like."

"Why would I take a vow of celibacy? I might want to get married some day."

"To a woman."

Steve nodded.

What the... "Can you even get it up for them? I mean, I know you said five times, very impressive... but seriously? You'd marry a woman even though what you really want is a man with a slow hand?"

Steve grimaced. "You can't always have everything you want. That's life."

Tony stared at him. "OK, see, I don't believe in sin, but if I did? What you're talking about? That's a sin. Lying to a woman when--"

"Well, I can't believe you. You are attracted to women, aren't you?"

"The proof is on the Youtube."

"You - to you, being with men, it's just a thing you decide to do. If I could be like you, if I could be attracted to women, don't you think I would? And never even think about doing anything with a man?" His jaw clenched for a moment. "I loved Peggy. I would've spent my life with her if I could have, even though I was almost totally disinterested in her that way."

"And you don't think that would've been unfair to her?" Tony challenged. "To be with a man who didn't actually want her?"

Steve looked away. "I wanted her. Marriage isn't just about sex. Just because you don't want to have sex with somebody doesn't mean you don't love them. And just because you want to have sex with someone doesn't mean they're good for you, or you for them."

Tony opened his mouth, then closed it. Damn. What a time for his normal eloquence to utterly desert him.

Steve stared down at his drawing for a long moment, idly putting a little more colour onto the page before putting his pencil down and picking up his pencil case and scanning through it. "Damn. Left the pencil sharpener in my room," he said. "Think I'll go to bed." He started to gather up his pencils, neatly tucking them into their box. Tony watched him, glancing at the page he'd just finished, the skirts, the dancers' legs, arms, bending together, the bright colours such a contrast to Steve's subdued movements and mood.

"Good night, Tony," he said, and headed downstairs.

Tony stayed on the deck, still faintly stunned.

And it suddenly struck him, just how young Steve was. Only in his twenties, so inexperienced in so many ways, and he wondered if Steve had ever told anyone what he'd just told Tony.

He was so damn young. So vulnerable. Tony felt a bizarre urge to protect him, to shield him from himself, from his own wrong-headed ideals.

Which was ridiculous. Captain America didn't need protecting; he was the one who protected others. Right?

 

5.

Steve turned over in bed, replaying his conversation with Tony over and over again. Wishing he hadn't decided to come back downstairs and try to sleep again. Unable to decide whether he wished he hadn't said anything, or felt relieved that he had.

Didn't he want to date, Tony had asked. Didn't he want to be unfrozen.

God, yes.

God, yes. His accelerated libido was a lot more manageable now - mostly because there was plenty of other stuff to distract him these days - but desire still lay there, and a need to touch, to feel, to get close to someone. Mostly women, because that's what he was used to, how it was supposed to be. Screwed-up as he was, he wasn't blind and he'd noticed several of the women he met at SHIELD. Thought about getting to know them, been curious about them, as he had been about girls in his own time. They were so different from the girls he'd grown up with; just as foreign, just as otherworldly, but doubly incomprehensible to him because of cultural differences.

As for the men...

No, he didn't want to go there. The men he lived and worked with were distracting in their own ways. Bruce didn't do much for him, but Thor and Clint were the kind of guys he'd have had wet dreams about as a kid, whenever he was healthy enough to have wet dreams. As for Tony...

He'd noticed Tony's attractiveness right away, of course, but been put off by the abrasive personality. Now... ever since Tony had told him he was bisexual, he'd started to see him, more and more, to notice him. He was getting along with him. Felt closer to him, both drawn to and repelled by his unapologetic acceptance of who he was.

He rolled over in bed once more and buried his head in his pillow, angry at himself. God, Tony Stark. Of all the men he could pick to have inappropriate feelings for, Tony Stark had to be at the top of any list. Damn the Serum, and damn his hyperactive sex drive.

He sighed. This wasn't just his annoying libido, though. He knew that. It was loneliness. Not just romantic loneliness; he'd lived with that his entire life. This was general, all-over loneliness.

He was just so damn lonely. It made everything so much harder to deal with.

The fear and the pain he lived with now had been there with the Commandos, and the grief when he lost men, but they were his men, it was his time, and he had Bucky. When the pain from his injuries got bad, he could spend time with the Commandos, listening to them trying to pick up French girls, telling each other dirty jokes. He could find comfort in Bucky, remind himself that he'd finally been able to save Bucky, as Bucky had saved him so many times, remind himself that they were protecting the world from Hitler. From evil. It was worth it.

He still was. Saving the world, that is. Loki and the Chitauri and Doombots weren't Hitler; they were worse.

But what world was he saving?

It got so strong, sometimes, the desire to just not deal with this any more. To not have to feel that fear, to not feel so tense all the time, to not experience something perfectly innocent and abruptly feel like he was going to lose it, to not fear that some day he would lose it and someone would notice. To not feel like it just wasn't worth it any more, that he didn't know how to keep going. Sometimes he felt like screaming, like telling everyone to fuck off and just let him be. Sometimes it felt like all he wanted was to cry himself to sleep - and sometimes he did. But then he woke up, and couldn't go back to sleep, and there was nothing to do but go to the gym and let the memories, the loss, sweep over him, until he broke another punching bag. And then, too jittery to get on his motorbike, go up to the deck and try and fail to lose himself in a drawing, and then watch the sun break over the rooftops of Manhattan and know he was going to have to do it all again.

And there had been those two nights when he'd seriously considered just giving in to the fear, to the pain and loss. When he'd seriously considered not being there the next day, not living through yet another night.

When he'd seriously thought of just ending it.

Which was ridiculous, because his job would do that for him soon enough.

If he couldn't sleep through the night, if he couldn't adapt to this strange, loud, ugly world, if he couldn't deal with the loss of Bucky, Peggy, his entire life, it didn't really matter, since in all likelihood, he was destined to go down in a blaze of glory anyway. There was no need to kill himself like a coward; surely a Doombot or an alien or a blob of slime or random high-tech projectile he couldn't quite dodge would be obliging. There was no need to fear a long life of endless nights of no sleep, of loneliness and pain.

So he kept flinging himself into the path of danger, mostly just doing his job and saving his team, but - if he was being honest with himself - not exactly avoiding an untimely end, and ending up with nothing but sore bones or broken skin that healed quickly but hurt like hell.

If SHIELD knew, they'd stop him. They'd take him off-duty, and then where would he be? No chance to even be useful. No chance to make his life worth something.

He sat up, rubbed his face, and tried to focus on the breathing exercises the SHIELD therapists had told him about in those first sessions, when he was still thinking adaptation would take a few weeks and he'd be fine. Tried to focus on positive accomplishments.

He was feeling more familiar with the world around him. That was positive. The movie nights were useful, as he spent time watching things that felt familiar and slowly moved out of his comfort zone, while getting to know his team-mates better and occasionally being able to share knowledge that he had and they didn't.

He was an effective leader in combat. That was good.

He was getting better at finding beauty in this modern world despite its hard lines and overly smooth surfaces. Getting better at understanding modern technology, modern society.

He felt closer to his team.

Feeling closer to Tony... not such a good thing. That, he'd have to work on.

Well, he couldn't do much about the sleepless nights. Or the nightmares, or the sick feeling of fear when he saw something hurtling at him and knew it was going to hurt, or the crawling horror of the thought of losing yet another comrade. The sense of loss and anxiety and God please, I don't want to be here, please make this better, please fix this for me.

But God helped those who helped themselves. And at least maybe he could deal with his sexuality. There'd never been time or reason, before. It had always just been something that he'd resigned himself to. First too sickly to care about it, knowing that it was unlikely he'd ever need to feel desire for a girl because no girl would want him. Then too busy with the war, and knowing it didn't make a difference how he felt about some of the men he noticed; he may have been horny as a dog sometimes but if all else failed, he could go to a hooker and feel a bit better for a while. And there was Peggy. He knew, once it was all over, he'd be with Peggy, if she'd have him. And he'd figured either his unwelcome feelings for men would go away, or he'd find some way to exorcise them, for Peggy's sake if not his own.

Peggy was lost to him now. But maybe there was something he could do to deal with his feelings anyway. And maybe if he could make that right, maybe he could find someone else to live for - and not be distracted by men any more, especially Tony. And then maybe he could adapt to this bizarre world. And then maybe, if he could adapt, he might not have to stay up nights wishing he was back in his own time. He might even be able to sleep.