Pretend it never happened. If only it were so easy.
True to his word, Tony hadn't mentioned anything at breakfast or dinner or movie night the day after they'd kissed. There had been no outward indication from him that anything improper had happened between them.
Of course, to Tony, it probably wasn't improper.
Steve sat on his motorcycle and watched as the sunlight gently touched down, beam by beam, on Central Park, gilding the autumn leaves and bushes. There hadn't been any point in even trying to sleep last night; the team had finished watching Tom Jones and he'd said good-night to everyone and then just taken the motorcycle out, weaving through the sparse night-time traffic, occasionally stopping at dark abandoned parks, passing time and waiting for dawn to come.
What had happened between him and Tony had been wrong, had gone against everything Steve had been taught, everything he had promised himself as a teenager and then promised himself again after the Serum. He hadn't signed up to be a moral symbol, he'd been telling Tony the truth about that. But he'd seen, after freeing Bucky and his comrades, what the uniform had done for them and for so many others. He'd seen how they looked up to him - not just him, the little guy from Brooklyn, but Captain America. And he'd vowed to never let them down. To never disgrace the uniform. No matter how much he wanted things he shouldn't want, no matter how much his new body confused him with urges that left him reeling, no matter how much that handsome lab tech from Howard Stark's lab distracted him. He'd never give in. It wasn't an option.
It had been easy then, in a way. Not only would giving in have been completely illegal, but, confusing as his new body was, he was often too busy to desire much other than food and a clean bed at the end of the day. He'd even been amused at the paranoia of those who felt men like him shouldn't be in the service where they'd be so close to so many fit young men, because living in close quarters with soldiers wasn't sexy. He'd often thought it would take a much bigger deviant than him to find their squalor, their unwashed feet, their dirty underwear - Dum-Dum's greasy muttonchops, Dernier's morning breath, Morita's relentless night-time flatulence - arousing. If anything, he'd thought once or twice, homosexuals who wanted to go straight should be encouraged to spend some time living among sweaty, stinking soldiers. Steve might be gay as the day was long, but a week in the field with the Commandos and even he could get it up for a dame. Peggy had been like a breath of fresh air - literally. Pure and sexy and almost enough to make his head spin.
She was gone, though.
And Tony was here.
And he refused to let himself think about what it had felt like to kiss him, how desperately good it felt to have someone touch him, to feel close to someone - to feel close to Tony - how insistently his body had clamoured for more...
And, even more unforgivable, how he'd turned on Tony, pushed him away, blamed Tony for Steve's own failure, and said hateful things that Tony in no way deserved. He'd tried, haltingly, to apologize to Tony the next day, but Tony had cut him off almost immediately. Steve didn't blame him.
He would've been able to resist temptation, had he only stayed in his own time. In this time, with everyone heedlessly pursuing their own pleasure, with images of sex and half-naked people of both genders pushed at him night and day, with Tony singing a siren song of Steve, you owe it to yourself...
Steve checked his watch, got off his bike and looked around.
Morning in New York. So similar, yet so different, from what he remembered. Many of the outlines of the buildings were familiar, but the windows, fronts, and signs were all machine-made, the pictures bigger and brighter and more garish, the words foreign - especially when they were technically English - and often ugly.
He found a familiar restaurant - still closed, but the outdoor tables were available for early-morning commuters and joggers to use if needed. He claimed one and took out his sketchbook, idly pencilling in another building front, trying to make himself see the beauty in it. See its clean lines and impossible architecture as fanciful, exuberant.
It was ugly.
One thing hadn't changed. The city really never slept. It just got slightly quieter at the darkest part of night, and then the rhythms of the morning were the same. Hot dog stands, newspaper vendors, and delivery trucks; it was too early yet for all the people who sold incomprehensible little gadgets that Tony had told him he could get far better from Stark Industries.
He started slightly as his favourite waitress from this restaurant, a young blond woman, appeared beside him.
"Don't usually see you here so early," she said, smiling her shy smile.
"Not usually here so early, no," he said. "I didn't know you worked the morning shift." Her eyes lit up, and he blushed a bit as he realized that could be taken to be a low-level come-on.
Ask for her number, you moron, an old man at the next table over had said to him once, one day that he'd been sketching the Stark Tower - before the Avengers - and she'd been working here and possibly flirting with him.
He hadn't really wanted to then, and he certainly didn't now. And it wasn't just because he was pretty sure she knew he was Captain America and that made things... awkward.
Why not, though? Why shouldn't he flirt with her? With any of the women he met on a daily basis, really? If he meant what he'd said to Tony, that eventually he wanted to get married and have a family like any normal person would, it sure as hell wouldn't happen if he never did anything about it.
"Um, how often do you work the early shift?" he asked the young woman - Beth, if he remembered correctly - as she gave the table next to him a quick wipe. She smiled at him, pleased but also obviously surprised. Right, because he never spoke to her first, though he was polite enough when she spoke to him.
"Not too often. I'm doing a favour for a friend." She finished with the table and moved to another one. "You, uh, up early a lot?"
"What do you do?"
"Um." Perhaps he should've thought this through before engaging. But he'd thought she knew. "Kinda hard to explain. I work for the government, I guess?"
"I'm in... security."
She nodded easily. "OK." Yeah, she knew. She smiled at him. "You like to draw a lot, don't you?"
"Yeah. Went to art school."
"Yeah? Me too!" She looked around at the empty tables and sat down, and he glimpsed her name tag. Beth; he'd been right. "I'm getting my Early Childhood Education licence."
"You like kids?"
Beth thought for a moment, her chin propped in her hand. "I do. I really do, I'm just not sure I want to work with them for the rest of my life, you know?" She grimaced. "Sometimes I think I'd rather just be a waitress. The pay's not that bad, and I get to spend time with my friends."
"My parents want me to do more, though."
He smiled, and they both turned as an elderly woman in a business suit approached and sat down. Beth stood up with an apologetic smile at Steve and went to serve her. Steve breathed a small sigh of relief as she flitted about and another customer showed up and the tables began to fill. He'd really had no idea what else he was going to talk to her about, though she seemed friendly enough that maybe it wouldn't have been a problem. Besides, he was too sleep-deprived for this, damn it.
This was what life was supposed to be like. Meet a nice girl, get to know her, fall in love, get married. He might only be sexually turned on by a deep voice, broad shoulders, strong arms and hands, might be rapidly becoming almost obsessively drawn to Tony, but the world was meant to go two by two, male and female. What could a pair of men possibly do together, once the sex was done? Yes, the world had changed and it was no longer expected that somebody like Natasha would be in charge of all the cooking and leave wage-earning to a man (in fact, he couldn't really imagine that Peggy would've taken to that kind of thing either) but the thought of two men - or two women - setting up housekeeping together seemed silly. Ridiculous. Wrong. Not to mention trying to have kids together. The idea of deliberately trying to bring up children with no mother, or no father...
This was why he had to do more than just read the literature he'd gotten from the church, or pray. What had happened with Tony, and how Steve still felt about him, had proven that he couldn't resist his feelings on his own, not in this world. He needed help. And yes, the reports of what went on in some of the organizations that offered help might be frightening, and many of the people involved narrow-minded and wrong, but surely there had to be something of worth to learn from some of them. Something of value if he was going to resist temptation and never, never again do what he'd done two days ago.
He checked his watch, stood up, gave Beth a small wave, and headed off.
He thought over his research as he made his way to the church, threading past commuters on their way to work. So much of what he'd read had been repellent. Electroshock, aversion therapy, all sorts of things that sounded barbaric and misguided and just plain wrong. Or ridiculous - at least for him - like telling homosexuals to be more 'manly' in order to cure their urges. Because if Steve's day job wasn't manly enough, he didn't know what was.
'Taming sexual addiction,' that was another one that caused him to simply shake his head and move on. How could you be addicted to something you'd never had before?
As for all of the places that frothed about hell and eternal damnation... the God he believed in bore no resemblance to anything those people ranted about. The God he believed in was compassionate, understanding, and infinitely forgiving. He didn't cast you into eternal hellfire just for being human. He understood your failures and let you try again.
The church he'd found sounded a lot saner. They just talked about unlearning desires, getting to know triggers, avoiding situations that would be detrimental to pursuing healthy heterosexual relationships. A lot of their work seemed geared at people who were already married to somebody of the opposite sex and wanted to stay that way. Which, OK, didn't exactly fit Steve, but he was willing to try it out. Even if a lot of their literature sounded like how to avoid real burgers so you could make a life-long commitment to veggie burgers.
...what a completely crass way to look at human sexuality. Maybe he was adapting to this century faster than he thought. The thought was really, truly depressing.
He paused at a street light, hit by a sudden sharp wave of homesickness. God, if only he was back in his own time. If only he could be back with Sister Barbara or Father Brauer, with their sympathy and patience, reassuring him that what he was feeling was perfectly normal, that lots of boys went through doubts but ended up just fine. They'd encouraged him to think ahead to when he was a grown man with a wife and children. They'd reassured him that, if he was willing to be patient and not give in, God would help him through this. Father Brauer had talked a lot about sin and hell too, but even at age fifteen Steve hadn't been particularly moved by that particular tack, and Father Brauer had let off pretty quickly.
And Bucky; Bucky had been fierce in his determination to not let him feel like a freak. He'd pushed girls at him and told him he just had to get laid and it would all go away. He'd been jubilant when he'd wormed out of Steve what had happened with the USO girls, and, despite his disgruntlement at Peggy's complete disinterest towards Bucky himself, had heartily approved of what she and Steve had together, tentative as it was.
He crossed the street. What he wouldn't give to have Bucky here with him now.
God's Peace, said the small plaque on the side of the church. Steve checked his watch one last time. 9AM.
He opened the door and headed inside.
Natasha crouched, waiting, behind the low wall on the roof, and watched Clint find his perch on the roof across the street.
"Guy calls himself the Delineator?" Clint said over the comm.
"Spare me," muttered Tony. "Why can't we get super-villains with cool names. Instead we get Verminator. Delineator."
"We get called in for a Deluminator and I'm outta here," Bruce's voice came in.
As far as Natasha could tell, the name didn't even make any sense for what the guy was supposedly using as his super-weapon: a spray that made anyone who came into contact with it extremely pliable, though, happily, it didn't quite leave them with as much of their knowledge and skills intact as Loki's spear did.
"You know, this could be a tempest in a teacup here," said Tony.
"He's got a spray that can make everyone do his bidding," Natasha protested. "How is that not a threat? If he figures out how to use it in non-aerolised form and gets it into the water supply - if SHIELD Intel is right, he could do anything with it."
"Or he could use it to get his enemies to make him cheeseburgers," said Tony. "People can be pretty petty. Maybe he just wants people to listen to him and do what he says."
"I have no idea what that would be like," said Sorensen. Nobody laughed.
"Maybe gangsta-talk annoys him and he just wants people around him to speak in a refined manner," Tony continued. "He could be Professor Higgins, except using a Loki-spear-in-a-can instead of creepy emotional abuse."
"Iron Man, what are you talking about?" Sorensen's irritated voice came over the comm.
"My Fair Lady," said Tony. "Linguistics professor takes a working-class girl and turns her into an upper-class lady, very Svengali-like, all sorts of connotations of building your own perfect mate and--"
"Sure, Iron Man," said Sorensen. "Maybe you can stop talking on the comms unless it's necessary."
"Hang on - somebody coming to the third window from the left, top story," Clint said, his voice muffled slightly by his gas mask. Natasha tensed. "Target... no, target not sighted. I think that's one of his minions. Large woman with a kinda weird hat. She's got some kind of - hey, she's got a spray bottle of some kind."
"Is she pointing it at anyone?" asked Cap.
"Can't see anyone else in the room. Coming to the window. She's opening it. Oh shit."
"We don't need the profanity on the comms, Hawkeye," said Sorensen. "Does she look like she's pointing it at our people? Are we blown?"
"Funny, when Cap tells me to watch my potty-mouth, I fucking well listen to him," Clint commented. "She's... ah, fuck me, she's just spraying the plants in the window box. Son of a bitch."
"Hawkeye," said Steve.
"I mean, son of a gun. Gosh darn, this is taking a long time. Is he ever gonna come outta there?"
"Maybe he's agoraphobic," said Tony. "Maybe this is all a plot to get other people to get his groceries for him." The woman kept spraying. "Or maybe he's just trying to get petunias to do his bidding."
"Wouldn't that be loverly?" Clint muttered.
The woman finished the plants and closed the window.
"So, Iron Man, does this mission meet with your approval?" asked Sorensen snidely.
"Thought we were keeping quiet on the comms," said Steve.
Natasha rolled her eyes and maintained her post, adjusting her mask. They'd determined that she and Clint would almost certainly not be directly involved in this fight; the spray, from SHIELD Intel, seemed to get past ordinary air filters and masks, and they weren't even sure Iron Man's suit and Captain America's enhanced biology could stand against it. They definitely did not need the merely human Avengers taken over - and Clint, especially, did not need to be controlled by an outside agency again. It would be disastrous for him, never mind the media fallout.
The damned media. Natasha blew out her breath. It was a good thing it was an election year, they all kept telling themselves, because the media was a pain in the ass. Somehow they'd gotten into the habit of pointing out that Iron Man wasn't really a very good role model, that he wasn't enough to protect America - and then in the same article sometimes would point out that Captain America, who belonged to everyone, sometimes took unnecessary risks and that it would be a national loss if he were seriously hurt. So Iron Man didn't do enough and Captain America did too much. In fact, the Avengers themselves weren't active enough - but they put themselves unnecessarily at risk. In her more paranoid moments, she was starting to suspect Sorensen of being a media mole.
"This is why we need procedures in place," Sorensen had said the last time there'd been a negative story.
"SHIELD procedures on what is and what isn't acceptable risk. It wouldn't make any difference to you trained personnel--" he said, nodding to Clint and Natasha.
"Oh yeah, because Hawkeye always follows procedure," said Tony.
"All it would take would be some practical training--"
"You don't want me to do some of those obstacle courses," said Bruce.
"And I don't work or play well with others, training or no," said Tony. "It's on my file."
"I appreciate the opportunity to train and learn," said Steve. "I won't speak for my team, though."
"Nobody's asking you to," Sorensen had snapped. "You're their leader on the field. Other than that, you're nothing."
Tony's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?"
"He's more of a field commander than a leader. The actual authority--"
"Is sure as hell not SHIELD, and it's sure as hell not you!" Tony had said, his usual bratty nonchalance replaced by surprisingly fierce anger.
"I see something," Clint's voice broke into Natasha's thoughts. "Movement inside the building. People moving down the stairs."
"Coming out?" asked Natasha.
"Possibly. Hard to tell how many; I'm estimating maybe eight or ten?"
"We don't know how many are in the building, though," Natasha worried. "Or how much independent thinking they can manage."
"Remember, Hawkeye," said Steve. "SHIELD Intel says they're all wearing some sort of mesh that protects them from small projectiles. You can't stun-dart them."
"Yeah, I'm gonna try anyway, in case Intel's wrong. I got nothing else."
"That would be a waste of SHIELD resources, Hawkeye," said Sorensen.
"Here they come - hey, target sighted," said Clint, satisfaction in his voice. "It's definitely him - oh and he's nicely color-coded, too, yellow shirt and green pants."
"All right, Iron Man and I are going in," said Steve. "I'll distract him by engaging his people; Iron Man, you provide air cover in case he's got that vehicle Intel warned us about, and take out his spray bottle as soon as you can do it without hurting his human shields. Thor, we don't know if this will affect you, so stay away unless you're needed. If I'm taken over, do your best to take me down. JARVIS'll shut down Iron Man's suit."
"Good luck, Captain, Man of Iron," said Thor.
"I don't want Captain Rogers in there," said Sorensen.
"Sorensen, we went over this," snapped Tony. "Cap and I are going in first."
"It should be you and Thor. The newspapers will go crazy if Captain America is taken over by this controlling substance."
"I'm less likely to be taken over than most of the others," said Steve. "Drugs don't work on me, remember? I metabolize them too quickly."
"I fell to the influence of that substance called 'Margarita' that the Man of Iron provided last movie night," said Thor. "Whereas our Captain remained upright with ease. I agree with his request to hold back unless I am needed."
"You think too much about the media, Sorensen," said Tony.
"And you people don't think about it enough. You are not to engage, Captain Rogers," said Sorensen.
"You are not to keep interrupting with your stupid-ass opinions," said Tony.
The door opened, and a tightly arranged group of people came out. The large woman with the interesting hat was in front, followed by three burly-looking construction-worker-types and five businessmen. On either side of the Delineator were two very good-looking young women, neither of whom looked more than twenty years old.
A criminal mastermind or military genius this man was not; he seemed to have been recruiting from a Sears catalog. Not one of the minions surrounding him looked capable of hand-to-hand. Though looks could be deceiving...
Clint tsk'd in annoyance. "I don't have a shot. He's too surrounded. He's a little guy, the others are all tall or wearing hats, all moving around him."
"Iron Man, I'm going in," said Steve.
"No, you're not," said Sorensen.
"Agent Sorensen, go off comm," said Steve.
"Oh, thank fuck," said Clint.
Sorensen's shock was palpable even over the comm. "Excuse me? Captain, what are you--"
"Get off the comms," Cap repeated.
"JARVIS, block Sorensen from my comm," said Clint.
"Mine too," said Natasha, with deep satisfaction.
"Mine too," said Bruce.
"And mine," said Thor.
"You heard them, JARVIS," said Tony. "Think you've just been kicked out of the audial playground, dude."
"OK, Hawkeye, take a shot," said Steve. "Close as you can to the Delineator."
There was a twang, and Clint swore. "Nope. Bounced right off. Intel was right."
The Delineator's crowd was alert now, and staring all around for the source of the dart.
"I'm going in," said Steve. Natasha watched as Steve ran into the street. Within moments, the door of the building had opened and over a dozen more people came rushing out, swarming Steve.
"Guess he's not as stupid as we thought," Steve's voice came over the comm, slightly out of breath. He was fighting steadily, his shield holding off attackers while his kicks and punches slowly brought him closer to the Delineator, but Natasha could tell the effort of not being able to hurt the civilians was making it difficult, and there wasn't much Tony could do to help. Other than occasionally blast something near the attackers to prevent them from swarming Steve too much, and even that wasn't all that effective when he was blasting only to startle and frighten, not to harm.
The Delineator knew that, too, damn him. He kept ordering his people forward.
"Shit!" Tony blurted. "Cap, he just sprayed you!"
"Is that what that turpentine smell is?" Steve bit out, dodging a kick. "No effect, far as I can tell."
"Not all of them are being controlled, I don't think," said Clint. "I'm pretty sure at least some of the ones who came out in the second bunch are with him willingly. If they are, he must have an antidote to this stuff."
"I agree," said Natasha. "It's hard to tell who's who though."
"Some of them have training, too - ow, damn," Steve grunted as one of them connected a kick to his ribs.
"Cap, you know I can do hand-to-hand in the suit too, right?" said Tony, sounding frustrated.
"They're civilians," said Steve. "Don't wanna risk it."
"The one in green track pants is a pro," said Natasha.
"And the one with the blue tie and the big redhead," said Clint. "I'm pretty sure they're free-thinking, too. Get 'em, Cap."
"You sure?" asked Steve.
"I'm sure," said Clint. "Get 'em."
Steve quickly ducked under a fist and flung his shield, which hit Blue Tie in the shoulder and ricocheted to smack Green Track Pants in the face, and Tony dipped down to grab the redhead and toss him down the block. They all went down, groaning and swearing, but the others pressed in.
"Captain, this is taking too long, and you are being injured," said Thor a few minutes later. "It is unlikely that I will succumb to this strange substance."
"All right, come on in," said Steve breathlessly. "Target the ones Hawkeye and Widow have been pointing out."
"I'll just keep floating up here," said Tony. "Admiring the puppy pile this guy's got around him and feeling... fucking useless."
"Join the club," said Bruce.
Thor appeared on the street, carefully leaving his hammer far enough away that it would take a few moments to pick it up if he were taken over, and Natasha tensed as he approached the melee. He waded in, easily fighting hand-to-hand but constrained as Steve was by the need to not hurt the civilians.
"The Delineator just aimed some of that spray at you, Thor," said Clint. "Feel anything?"
"No," Thor panted. "Not yet." He stopped a kick with his hand and pushed back the kicker. "Although there is a scent of Pop-Tarts in the air. Is this what turpentine smells like?"
"Don't think so. Don't worry, dude, you've got no meshy thing on you. You start to turn, I got your personal stun dart ready, and Iron Man'll blast you."
"That is comforting."
"Might even make me feel like I'm earning my keep here," said Tony.
"I hope to keep you feeling useless," said Thor.
"The one in the purple's definitely under the influence," said Natasha. "But she's got good moves so--"
"Oh crap," said Clint. "I think our boy just got tired of fighting."
The side of the building crumbled and a brightly gleaming silver and flaming orange vehicle with some sort of spinning rotors came speeding out, hovering ominously over the crowd. Natasha whistled. It was huge. It could probably carry the Delineator and all of his minions, though its size and the flashy thunderbolts on the side didn't exactly make it the stealthiest of getaway vessels. Impressive, though.
"Iron Man!" Steve called out.
"Finally!" Tony was already in place, blasting the thing, and it crumpled unceremoniously half a block away from the Delineator's group. Suddenly the tight crowd around the Delineator parted, and Natasha heard a sharp twang.
"Got him!" Clint crowed. "Grab him while he's pissed off, Tony--"
Tony swooped down and grabbed the Delineator, lifting him up. There was a startled grunt over the comm.
"That was your containment arrow?" asked Natasha, pleased.
"Yeah, that was it. Got the spray bottle covered now - thanks, Iron Man," Clint said as Tony manoeuvred the Delineator so that he was hanging by one hand, and Clint fired an arrow that enmeshed him completely.
"What happened there?" asked Natasha. "Why was Iron Man able to grab him?"
"He got mad when his Hot Wheels got smashed," said Clint. "He raised himself over the puppy pile for a moment, so I took a stun shot."
"I thought they all had mesh barriers over them," said Tony.
"It didn't affect him, just pissed him off. Like throwing a spit-ball." He paused and chuckled. "You gonna tell Sorensen on me for wasting ammo?"
"We'll think of something," said Steve, panting. "Good shot, Hawkeye."
"Three good shots," said Tony. "Spit-ball the bad guy, contain his Spray Bottle of Doom without smashing it, and wrap up said bad guy with a nice little bow. Nice work."
It was just clean-up at this point, Natasha realized. About two-thirds of the Delineator's force were looking around in confusion, clearly uninterested in fighting anybody. The rest were easy enough for Steve and Thor to finish off, especially as they didn't need to hold themselves back any more. Their opponents weren't fighting very hard, what with their leader trussed up like a turkey and still dangling pathetically below Iron Man.
"I think it's safe to come in," said Steve, taking off his cowl and wiping his nose, which was bleeding slightly. "The bottle didn't burst, and the people affected by the spray don't seem to be under any more. Widow?"
"I'll come down and make sure," said Natasha, taking off her mask and hurrying down to street level.
"Maybe the Delineator's will has to be focussed on them for the spray to work," mused Bruce. "It'll be interesting seeing what it's made of."
A pretty rousing success, all in all, thought Natasha as SHIELD gathered the Delineator's dazed former allies and took them off to be taken care of. And all with a minimum of civilian casualties or property destruction. A few blast holes in the pavement, smashed side of a building - the Delineator's building, and caused by the Delineator himself - and some broken windows.
"That was completely unacceptable!" Sorensen's voice could be heard from miles away, and Natasha realized she hadn't missed it at all.
"What the fuck," said Clint, coming down the ladder of his building. He and Natasha approached the SHIELD car that had just stopped next to Steve and Tony.
"Well done, people," said Fury, getting out. He glanced at the civilians being helped into waiting ambulances, the Delineator's vehicle sitting in a dejected heap of flashy scrap.
"Well done?! They turned off their comms in the middle of the op!"
"You have got to be kidding me," said Bruce.
"He was a distraction, sir," said Natasha.
"They all did it! They were unprofessional in the extreme," said Sorensen.
"What's more professional than a complete win, asshole?!" said Tony.
"The SHIELD liaison is there to provide backup and ideas," said Hill. "He can't do that if you freeze him out."
"He provided his back-up and ideas," said Steve, speaking around the SHIELD medic checking his already-fading bruises. "And then he stopped. We were still in communication with each other. And we got the job done."
"This was not according to procedure," said Hill. "And that will have to be taken up."
"For fuck's sake," said Clint. "Are you serious?"
"Save your breath, Hawkeye," said Tony. "And let's go home."
"We're still debriefing!" said Sorensen.
"We have more important things to do," Tony shot back. "We're starting The Sound of Music, and Hawkeye and I are going to teach the others how to sing four-part harmony to 'My Favorite Things.'"
"Why don't we quit SHIELD?" said Tony, still vibrating with frustration. They'd finally finished the clusterfuck of meetings over the fallout for the mission that had gone right, god damn it, but had turned to shit because Sorensen and Hill got their panties in a twist about fucking comms, for fuck's sake. And nothing seemed to simmer down Tony's anger over it; not the media's approval, not designing a new set of pants to preserve Bruce's post-green modesty, not The Sound of Fucking Music that they'd just finished watching - not even Clint teaching them all the dirty version of 'Climb Every Mountain.'
No chance of sleeping when he was this riled up; Tony had already given it a good shot. He'd come down to the common floor, intending to maybe tweak the kitchen appliances, only to find their resident neat freak, wearing an old shirt with what looked like oil paint stains on it, finishing off cleaning inside of the fridge.
"Seriously, why don't we quit?" he repeated. "Tell them to go to hell. Pepper would kill me but Stark Industries could probably fund--"
"Because it's not that simple," said Steve, putting away the eggs. "Breaking from SHIELD would be a logistical nightmare. Besides, why would we?"
"Because I don't think they're dealing straight with us! I don't want to be anybody's puppet, and it feels like that's what we are." He paused. "Because we deserve better than this, damn it!"
"So we have an ass for a supervisor," Steve snapped. "It happens."
"He is not our supervisor," said Tony, too wired to even tease Steve about his language. "We are not in the army. Don't you feel it? Something's off about the guy. Even Clint and Natasha feel it, and they're SHIELD!"
"Tony, don't," said Steve impatiently. "Stop being paranoid." He started to put the jams back in - wow, he'd cleaned the jars off too. Captain America, the Avengers Maid Service.
"How do you stand it?"
"I have to."
Damn it, it wasn't fair. Tony felt like blowing something up, and Steve, the one really getting pummelled by Sorensen, the one who had to deal with that asshole picking apart every single thing he did, was dealing with it was so much more grace...
"Damn you." Tony looked away. "Half the time you make me want to be a better person--"
Steve huffed an incredulous laugh as he lined up the jars. "Do I?"
"--and half the time you make me want to poke you with something electrical, just to get you to react."
Steve shook his head, half-amused, half-irritated, finished the jars and put away the milk.
"You're playing at being such a good little soldier, you keep a lid on everything. Even when things are going your way, you don't let go. Fuck, even the other night, watching the Presidential debate - your candidate was wiping the floor with--"
Steve scowled at him. "Stop calling him my candidate! You think I - you know what? You don't know a damn thing about me!" Tony felt a pang of alarm. Steve set the butter dish on the counter with a thump. "You want a reaction from me? Let me correct a few things for you, then. First off, I don't know who I'm going to vote for! And when I say that, I'm not being coy about my political opinions; I really don't know!" He glared at Tony. "Wanna hear a few others? I'm not Catholic, even though I was raised in a Catholic orphanage. And I am not a 'good little soldier' - I sure as hell didn't intend to be in the army for the rest of my life! And for the record, I don't like working for Sorensen any more than you do!!"
"Half the shit you say about me is just assumptions! I know Sorensen is an ass, Tony! And Fury either doesn't care, or dumped him on us deliberately, I don't know why. I don't know what's going on at SHIELD, or why Fury's almost never there and Hill is. I don't know a damn thing, and no, I'm not just fine with it, any more than I was when we were first called in to work together!"
Tony blinked at him, realizing his mouth was hanging open. "OK. Um, never heard Captain America actually swear before. I'm, wow, having a moment here. This does bother you, then."
Steve looked away from him. "A lotta stuff bothers me, Tony," he said, his fists clenched. He picked up the butter dish again, carefully placed it in the fridge and closed the door.
"Why hold it in, then?" Tony paused. "Why not go after Sorensen? You could take him any day with your eyes closed!"
"Yeah? What would be the point of that?" Steve started to wipe the counter that had held all of their fridge food.
"Hey, don't act like you don't know how to let go and be pissed off. You wanted to go a few rounds with me in my suit when we first met."
"That was Loki's spear talking," Steve snapped. "Not me."
"And without something like that, you just go along with everything? Yes sir, no sir, how high, sir?"
Steve glared at him. "Go to hell, Tony." He finished wiping the counter and washed the dishcloth, his movements angry and tense.
Tony shook his head and stepped closer to Steve, put a hand on his arm. "Why hold yourself back so much, all the time? Why is what you want to do always the wrong thing to do?"
"Sometimes it just is. Can't you see that?"
"Sometimes it isn't." Tony shook his shoulder gently. "Steve. Fuck. You keep everything inside. You... Bruce needs to let go of his anger. You need to let go of... everything."
"No, I don't." Steve dried his hands and took a deep breath, obviously trying for patience and not reaching it. "Look, I know what you're trying to do. I appreciate it. But please don't."
"Because I'm not you! I don't feel like letting go."
"Seriously, dude, maybe if you did you'd sleep better. Not be so tense all the time."
Steve shook his head and Tony realized he was still touching him, but Steve didn't seem to mind. In fact, he was leaning towards him very slightly, and Tony suddenly wondered if he was even aware of it.
"Why do you push so much?" Steve asked, exasperated.
"It's... what I do?" Tony hazarded. "How I show affection? Possibly emotionally maladaptive?"
Steve chuckled unexpectedly. "Possibly." He turned slightly, closed his eyes and rubbed them.
"Don't you ever wonder what it would feel like if you did what you want?"
Tony felt Steve shiver under his hand. "Sometimes." Steve paused. "All the time."
"So why don't you? For once, just..." Tony trailed off as Steve opened his eyes and gazed at him for a long moment, then leaned closer, slowly raising a hand to Tony's cheek.
Oh shit, this was not what he'd intended at all - or, oh shit, had he? - and if this was anybody else, especially anybody else Tony was this attracted to, he'd be on them so fast... but this was Steve, and Steve's eyes were dark and hungry, his cheeks flushed, his expression determined but nervous. And nobody had been this important to him since Pepper, and after what had happened the last time Tony had let his stupid impulses do his thinking for him - if he pushed him at all Steve just might--
Steve's hand moved to the back of Tony's head and he tugged him closer, and Tony went, sighing in relief as Steve's lips touched his and they kissed, Steve's mouth parting under his, a small soft sound at the base of Steve's throat as their tongues touched and Steve immediately deepened their kiss.
God, this was so different from the first time. Then, Tony had been hesitant and half-convinced Steve was going to push him away - which he had, moments into their kiss. This time, Steve was pulling him close and their kisses quickly turned hard and bruising, exhilarating. Steve's hands ran down to Tony's waist, pressing them together chest to waist, and whoa, Steve was hard and so was Tony, and he wanted to touch every part of Steve, have him moaning under him, on the floor or against the counter, but who knew what the hell Steve wanted from this...
"Tony... I don't know what to do next," he panted, breaking their kiss, resting their foreheads together.
"Whatever feels good," Tony said breathlessly. "Seriously. Whatever feels good. I'm up for it." He took Steve's mouth in another kiss.
Oh my God. He hadn't meant for this to happen. He'd told himself to respect Steve's boundaries, told himself that what had happened between them once had been an anomaly and that he was going to be a responsible, mature adult just to see what that was like. Rise above the ugly (and mostly true) things Steve had said about him. He'd told himself that maybe Steve was just curious, not really into Tony at all, it was just that Tony was the only queer guy he knew, and that was why he'd been so angry at them both: because it didn't mean anything, and Steve Rogers did not do meaningless...
But this didn't feel meaningless at all. This felt incredibly meaningful, and hot as hell, as they pressed together and Steve practically inhaled Tony, hands caressing him everywhere, down his back, into his hair, and it was ridiculous but Tony was gonna get hard every time he smelled oil paints and kitchen cleaners from now on. Steve's lips, his entire body, felt hungry and desperate, one hand slipping in under Tony's shirt, sliding up his back, the other cupping his ass, and Tony instinctively thrust against Steve, a groan escaping him as Steve copied the motion and shuddered against him - and holy shit, if this was what Steve was like when he let go, it was--
"No. No, I can't. Fuck, I can't." Steve pushed himself away from Tony, and Tony felt a moment of complete disorientation at the sudden absence of all contact before Steve reached out and grabbed his arm, holding him in place, his chest heaving, his eyes closed tight. "Fuck, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I can't, I can't."
Tony's entire body was on fire. No, fuck no, not again. "Why not? Is this - why did you--"
"I - I can't." He opened his eyes and met Tony's, his eyes haunted. "I don't, this isn't on you, I shouldn't have - it wasn't your fault last time either, what I said back then was wrong, but I just--"
"Why not?" said Tony, and winced at how close to a whine that came out.
"Because this is wrong."
Tony wiped his mouth with his hand, panting. "'This'? What's wrong? Going for a guy, or going for me? What is it?"
"It's not that it's you, it's - Tony, I can't," Steve said, his voice anguished.
Tony licked his lips, still reeling. "So - so what are you going to do? Make sure you never make out with a guy? Seriously try to date women instead?" He paused. "Going to stick with soyburgers for the rest of your life?"
"Tony." Steve gave him a pained look.
"You know, that would be fine if you actually liked them, like Bruce does. But you don't. You said you don't."
Steve ran an agitated hand through his hair and hung his head.
"Seriously, what are you gonna do? Go to one of those ex-gay places?"
Silence. Steve bit his lip.
Tony's breath caught. "Oh my God. You wouldn't seriously..."
Steve's lips pressed together and he took a deep breath.
"Are you - you were raised by nuns, and you're still listening to their outdated morality? Even most Catholics don't believe in that shit!"
Steve was silent for a long time, the only sound in the kitchen their labored breathing as they both brought themselves back.
"First off, I told you, I'm not even Catholic," said Steve, finally letting go of Tony and starting to straighten his shirt with unsteady hands. "Second, I'm not a sheep; I don't follow my religion just because that's what I've always done. I follow it because I believe in it. And I just want to live my life without giving in to this."
"So you're going to... what? Pray the Gay Away? Do you honestly think it'll work?"
"I don't know."
"I can show you all sorts of research on these places--"
"I can read, Tony," said Steve quietly. "I know there's been a lot of controversy, and I know a lot of people say they're 'cured' but aren't really. I know there are a lot of hacks out there. But that doesn't mean they're all hacks. And it's my life, and my choice."
"There's nothing wrong with you, god damnit! You just need to relax a little, and be who you are. Don't make yourself into something you're not!"
"Don't you try to make me into something I'm not. I'm not your Eliza Doolittle, and you'd make a piss-poor Professor Higgins."
"Let me have this, for God's sake!"
"For God's sake?"
"For my sake, damn it!"
Tony stopped. Steve was on an edge here, and much as everything in Tony told him to push him off of it, he... couldn't.
"Look, I can't go back home," said Steve, his voice shaking. "I can't have any of my people back. I can't... I can't have any of my own world back. Let me have the dignity of at least trying to do what I feel is right."
Tony gestured helplessly. "You do what's right every day, Steve. You're one of the best human beings I know."
"So respect me enough to not interfere in my life."
Tony blew out his breath.
"All right." He stepped back, his body protesting at the distance between them. "Fine. You go climb every mountain, ford every stream, all that bullshit." He paused. "Just one thing. Going to one of those ex-gay places... listen, go ahead, I can't stop you. But don't tell anyone else about it. If it works for you, it works for you; but those places are poison. You'd do a lot of harm if you publicized going there."
"Trust me, I'm not publicizing anything," said Steve, his voice low.
Tony's blood was still pounding, and his body was screaming at him to push back, to make Steve see that he was being an idiot and completely irrational and - and Steve's body language was radiating tension, and regret, and dejection, and Christ all they'd done was a bit of grab-ass and the guy looked like he'd just committed an axe-murder.
Tony took a deep breath. "Fine. Fine, what do I care, it's your life. I'm going to bed."