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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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1.

November 1

"You know, I was pretty enthused about Fury not letting you quit," said Tony worriedly, combing his hair as he walked into the movie room. "I'm not so sure any more." He dropped down onto the couch next to Steve, taking in Steve's pale-faced exhaustion and slow movements.

"I'm fine," said Steve, clumsily taping his right hand where the last two fingers had been crushed by a crate of medical supplies. How he'd managed to shave like that, Tony couldn't imagine.

"You're working too hard," Tony said, taking the tape from him.

"We're all working too hard, Tony," Steve pointed out tiredly. "Federal emergency? Don't know if you noticed?"

"Here, engineer," said Natasha, taking the tape from Tony, her own movements wearier and less graceful than usual. "I've been taping people up all day. One of the only nice things about not being super-powered in the middle of this mess."

Tony glanced out the window as Natasha started wrapping Steve's fingers. The rain still lashed the panes, though its fury was markedly lower than the last few days. The city was an unholy mess though, with water and damage everywhere, the subways barely functioning.

"Well, federal emergency or not, you're helping too much," said Tony. "You're on medication, don't know if you noticed?"

Steve made a face. "I noticed. I'm puking my guts out every two hours; it's hard to not notice."

"I thought the implant was supposed to compensate for your metabolism," said Bruce. "It's supposed to be dialed in steadily."

"It's a work in progress," said Steve, glancing at the spot where the tiny dispenser had gone into his left upper arm. He swallowed. "They're doing what they can."

Not for the first time, Tony wished he could pick Steve's brains about the implant - what they were giving him, how the hell they'd figured out how to overcome the Serum, just how experimental the whole thing was - but Steve's entire body language screamed Back Off so loudly whenever it was brought up that he squashed down his curiosity. "In any case you shouldn't be out there," he said instead. "You should be on Admin Leave. That's what you talked to Fury about, isn't it?"

Steve gave him a glare that would've been a lot more effective if it hadn't been accompanied by a jaw-cracking yawn. "Nobody's on leave right now," he said. "We're all helping."

"Well, not all of us, and can I say again Brucey, I totally stand behind you on that one," said Clint, wearily plodding into the movie room towelling his hair. He dropped down next to Bruce. "I still can't believe anyone called for the Other Guy's 'help'. Because what we need when Mother Nature is bearing down with her full fury is a big green guy yelling at her."

"The Other Guy shouting down Hurricane Sandy would've been a sight to see," said Tony. "I'd've paid good money for that."

"Tony, you're still busy paying for levees," Bruce pointed out.

"Call it entertainment."

"I'd rather watch a movie," said Clint, grabbing the remote.

"As would I," said Thor, setting down a huge plate of pastries that had been delivered to the Tower by a grateful Staten Island bakery. "Your people's idea of what is helpful is interesting. I am still unable to understand the logic behind asking me to call down for more thunder."

"They thought maybe you could move the storm from here to somewhere else."

"I have explained that it does not work that way."

"Skippy's Blog begs to differ," said Bruce.

"Who?" asked Steve.

"There's about a thousand different ways people think we could make this better. Most of them make no sense, but they still post them online."

"Yeah, well, a lot of people are grateful for what we're doing," said Clint, his mouth full of pastry.

"Well some of us are doing too much, Capsicle," said Tony. "You're exhausted."

"So's everybody, Tony," Steve said impatiently, and Tony backed off and started to deal with his own scrapes and bruises, as Bruce fiddled around with the sound system for the movie and Thor rearranged the couches to give everyone more room to sprawl out.

The problem was, Steve was right. They'd all been working frantically - Tony flying around, lifting heavy things and blasting stuff but also helping to coordinate supply materials, Bruce helping with computer models, Clint, Natasha, Thor and Steve providing muscle for the relief efforts. In Clint and Natasha's case it didn't amount to much more than extreme stamina, but Thor and Steve had had some pretty good photo-ops, with their vastly superior strength allowing them to carry people and materials much more easily than normal humans could. Not to mention rescuing people from a tall boat replica that had capsized.

It had been relatively simple to downplay the fact that Cap wasn't doing much more than heavy lifting, because it wasn't like anybody expected the Avengers to have any special talent for dealing with natural disasters. The fact that, had Steve been well, he probably would have been leading some of the rescue and supply teams, was easily glossed over. The fact that he would've been working without pause for the entire time, had he not been laid low by medication, was also simple to ignore. It wasn't like anyone expected him to be able to not take any breaks.

He did need a break, though. Tony had seen him get tired in the middle of a fight, but it always took him only a few minutes to catch his breath. Now, though... he was totally drained, pale with exhaustion, despite having been back in the Tower for an hour, with a chance to take a shower and sit and rest.

Damn stupid timing for Mother Nature. At least Sandy hadn't struck the first days after Steve had gone on leave, when he still looked like he'd been run over by a train and couldn't seem to meet any of their eyes - and was dealing with the implant SHIELD Medical had put in his arm, which had given him his first real solid sleep in months, but also made him violently ill.

So far, what with that and Sandy, Admin Leave didn't seem to be doing much for Steve.

Except for one thing: Sorensen was blessedly absent. Tony had no idea what Fury had done to make that happen, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. The man had been out of sight since the hurricane had hit and had only shown up at SHIELD for the first time an hour ago with plans for a television spot.

"You're going to do what? Watch a movie? Now?" he'd said, standing at the door of the Quinjet as the rest of them climbed in. "Are you insane?"

"Fuck off," said Tony, and closed the door on him. It had been a distinct pleasure to finally see a smile on Steve's tired face as they'd lifted off and left Sorensen waving and shouting on the ground.

"I need to speak to Captain Rogers," Sorensen had said a few minutes later, patching in to the screen on the Quinjet. Steve had wearily moved to take the call and started when Bruce had placed a firm hand on his shoulder and kept him in place.

"I'm sorry, Captain Rogers is unavailable at the moment," Tony had said pleasantly, moving into view.

"I've lined up a publicity spot with a local news--"

"I've lined up a round of showers for everyone," said Tony. "You have no idea what it smells like in this Quinjet. We've all been up for forty hours and we're taking a break until tomorrow."

"You could've showered at SHIELD."

"We could've agreed to do that striptease to raise funds for Staten Island. We're not going to do that either."

"I realize Captain Rogers is technically on leave, but I've told the reporters that--"

"You'll have to untell them," said Clint.

"I want to speak with Captain Rogers."

"Good for you. You can speak to me instead," said Tony.

"You can talk to me too," Clint had said, a shit-eating grin on his face. "It'll be fun. What do you wanna talk about?"

Steve had actually laughed as Sorensen sputtered to no avail, and settled against the back of the Quinjet's seat, closing his eyes. They'd landed back home at the Tower, stumbled out and gone to their respective apartments for much-needed de-griming before congregating at the movie room for the first time in days.

The movie began, and they watched for a little while in unusual silence, Natasha combing her hair, Clint fiddling with the bandaging on his cheek where he'd been hit by a falling beam during a rescue mission.

"Please, sir, may I have some more?" said the little boy on the screen, holding out his empty bowl for gruel.

"Boy, this is cheerful," muttered Clint. "There's nothing more heart-warming than child poverty and hunger, is there? Especially to people who've never been hungry kids."

Tony tilted his head, intrigued by his bitter tone. "Were you ever hungry as a kid?"

"All the time," said Clint. "Not so much in the circus, but then a lot of what I ate was leftovers from the audience."

Tony winced.

"Me too," Steve said quietly. "Used to drive me crazy during the Depression. All those cartoons of skinny little kids in the papers. Like we were just symbols."

Bruce blinked. "I knew you two grew up poor... I didn't realize how poor."

"My dad drank away most of his paycheck, when he had one," said Clint.

"My mom spent most of her pay on our doctor's bills," said Steve. "And then I was at an orphanage."

"A place such as that?" Thor gestured at the screen, appalled.

"Not hardly," Steve said. "New York in the twenties wasn't England in the 1800s. The nuns were mostly OK. We had more than gruel to eat. It still wasn't exactly luxury."

Steve had a Brooklyn accent, Tony realized. He'd never really noticed it in the first months that they'd worked and lived together, but when he was tired it came out.

"I find it disturbing that you would have hunger in your land at all," said Thor slowly. "Although your numbers are impressive, your resources are certainly enough to ensure adequate food for all."

"Yeah, they are," said Bruce. "It's not a priority, I guess."

They watched a little longer. Who decided this thing was worth an Oscar, Tony wanted to know, because for the life of him he could not see the blatant child cruelty as anything other than depressing, no matter how amusing the costumes and singing and dancing.

"Well, dunno about you all, but I think this movie sucks," said Clint finally. "And speaking of hungry, I'm gonna go get more snacks." Tony glanced at the table. Sure enough, hungry as they all were, they'd plowed right through all the baked goods.

Although he couldn't recall Steve eating any of it.

"Clint, you wouldn't know your way around the kitchen with an itemized map. I'll come and help." Natasha glanced at the screen. "Something about children being forced into a life of crime isn't as charming as I thought it would be."

"We could go on to the next one--" Bruce began.

"Nah, it's fine," said Clint. "It's probably a good movie, just not what I wanna be watching when I already feel like shit." He rotated his arm gingerly. "Besides, the next one's not much better. Midnight Cowboy. Adult poverty."

"Don't forget male prostitution," said Bruce. "And terminal illness."

"Sounds great," Steve mumbled, head resting against the back of the couch. "Can't wait."

"I think whatever they're giving you's too strong," said Clint. "You're not reacting to the shocking immorality of an X-rated movie getting an Oscar."

"I could," Steve muttered. "Jus' don't feel like it."

"You sound drunk," said Clint.

"Don't feel drunk," said Steve. "Just really tired." He blinked and started to sit up, and Natasha gently pushed him back down.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "Here, you can stretch out on my side of the couch, I'm going to be in the kitchen."

"No, I should go up to my place--"

"If you fall asleep, we'll wake you up when we come back with more food."

Steve frowned at her. "I can--"

"You're not eating enough," she said with finality. "Lie down." Steve frowned at her again but got into a slightly more comfortable position, not quite lying down but resting his head against the corner of the couch.

Tony turned back to the screen, his mind only half on the movie as the kids sang and danced their miserable lives around. This movie... kinda sucked. Clint was right. He supposed it was funny or possibly even inspiring in its own way, the music wasn't bad, but...

On the other hand it was slightly more cheerful than watching a super-storm barrelling down on them, helpless to stop it, knowing that real people were being hurt and real destruction was happening all around them and nobody was going to make any of it charming by singing and dancing their way through the chaos. Knowing that their city, which was still recovering from the Chitauri, was now going to be recovering from even more mindless random destruction, as the storm surge topped The Battery and flooded the subway and the Hugh Carey Tunnel. And that the destruction couldn't be contained in the city centre, like they'd been able to contain the Chitauri.

It did feel good to be able to help though. He should've known there would be no way to make Steve stay back and just watch the destruction on the screen. He glanced over at Steve, who hadn't said a word in a while.

Steve was deeply asleep. And while it wasn't unusual for most of them to nod off during one of these - the movies weren't always everybody's first choice of entertainment, and some of them hadn't aged well - Steve and Natasha had never relaxed enough in the presence of the others to actually fall asleep.

Tony watched Steve, his chest rising and falling softly, his eyes shadowed, hair falling onto his forehead. This wasn't relaxation, wasn't a healthy show of trust in his team. He was simply too exhausted to stay awake.

Tony rubbed his eyes wearily and tried to push away useless guilt. He was still kicking himself for not having seen the signs that Steve was falling, for the fact that it had been a total shock to him when Steve had shown up in his workshop, with haunted eyes and at the end of his strength, but that wouldn't help Steve. What they all had to do was take care of him now, not bemoan the fact that they'd helped him get where he was.

Because the signs had been there, had they cared to look. They'd all realized it that morning after Fury and Steve had left the kitchen. He and Natasha had seen him that night he'd had a bit of a panic attack. Clint and Natasha had known SHIELD was worried about him - hell, they'd all heard Fury say he had a death wish, and even fucking Tom Sorensen had known something was wrong. They'd all known he wasn't talking to his SHIELD therapist, they'd all seen that he cared about everyone's safety during missions except his own. Most of them had dealt with PTSD in some form or another, Bruce knew what suicidal depression felt like firsthand, Thor had apparently witnessed troubled self-destructiveness throughout his brother's youth... and yet all of them had missed the fact that their team-mate was falling apart right in their midst.

They all owed him, big time. They knew that.

And Tony owed him most of all. It was nice that Steve had trusted him enough to come to him that night; the problem was, he shouldn't have had to. Tony had known, better than anyone else, that Steve didn't sleep well, that he sometimes ended up on the deck late at night, that Steve was dealing with, on top of everything else, issues about his own sexuality. Issues that Tony had done absolutely nothing to help with.

And he didn't even know what he could have done to help. He didn't know if he should have pushed Steve harder to not go to that the church - because Christ, the guy was vulnerable enough already, he shuddered to imagine what the hell had they'd done to his psyche - or if he should've been better at backing the hell away. He almost certainly shouldn't have let his hormones gallop ahead of him and made any moves on a man he knew was trying as hard as hell to avoid facing his own desires. No matter how much Tony had wanted to, how much he'd loved it - before it ended so abruptly - no matter how much he wanted to do it again.

At least that was one thing he could do for Steve now. He could stay the hell away from him in that particular way. He could observe boundaries, the way Pepper said he was incapable of doing.

In fact, he'd been careful around him ever since the night Steve had come to see him. That night he'd touched Steve unselfconsciously, more for his own shattered nerves than for Steve's benefit if he was honest with himself, and Steve had seemed to respond pretty well - just about melted into him at one point. But Tony didn't need his Inner Pepper to tell him that Steve would probably want to keep his own space unless he was in extreme distress. So Tony was keeping his distance physically, or trying to at least, and hoping Steve appreciated it.

He looked up as Natasha and Clint came back with chips, cold cuts, and a fruit platter, the movie utterly ignored as they all turned to look at Steve.

Steve hadn't been eating much, they'd all noticed. The medication was messing with his appetite and ability to keep food down, but he'd also been working way too hard, and often throwing up what he ate - though every two hours was an exaggeration - and he still had that enhanced metabolism that required enormous amounts of fuel.

Unfortunately, he also desperately needed sleep. Natasha put the food down and knelt down next to Steve, pulling a blanket over him.

"Should we wake him up?" asked Clint quietly.

"We said we would," said Natasha.

"He needs to sleep, though."

"He needs to eat more."

"Nat, he'll just puke it up."

"He also probably isn't going to sleep very well on the couch," Bruce pointed out. "No offense, Tony, your couches are very comfortable, but we all need bedrest right now."

"No, Thor, I don't think he'll appreciate you carrying him to his room," said Natasha as Thor started forward.

There was a long pause.

"Well? What do you think?" asked Clint.

"I think maybe we shouldn't be talking about him like he's not here," said Natasha. "I think he's a grown man who doesn't need us to hover over him like this."

Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. "He didn't do so good taking care of himself."

"I'm assuming the movie's a wash?" Clint said, and turned it off at the communal shrug of indifference.

Natasha smoothed the blanket over Steve. "Maybe he could sleep a few hours, and then we can wake him up and make sure he gets something to eat."

Tony picked up a pad and moved closer to Steve on the couch. "I'll do that. You all go to bed, I've got my pad, I can do some work here for a couple of hours."

"Man of Iron, you also require rest," said Thor.

"I will, I will," said Tony. He shrugged. "I'm a little too wired to crash right now anyway," he lied, suppressing a yawn.

"Are you certain?" Thor asked.

"Sure, yeah. I'll be fine."

The team exchanged glances, then started to move off, Clint picking up some cold cuts and pieces of fruit before leaving. Tony waved goodnight to the team and settled down with his Starkpad, pushing away his own weariness.

It was pathetically inadequate, but it was just about all he could do for Steve.

Steve suddenly shifted, his breath catching and a frown passing over his features, and Tony automatically reached out to him, hesitating before tentatively placing a hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve's features smoothed out and he sighed, sinking into a deeper sleep.

2.

November 6

"No movie tonight?" asked Natasha, surprised. The large screen was filled with color-coded maps of the states. She stepped into the warm kitchen, where Bruce was making veggies and dip, with Steve's help.

"It's election night," said Bruce, passing Steve a bowl of leafy vegetables to chop.

"This is arugula?" asked Steve.

"Yeah."

"I thought you'd grown it in your lab. We never had this." He chopped a few, then put the knife down, shook his hand out briefly, and took a quick breath before continuing. "What's wrong with plain lettuce?"

"Nothing. Except it has almost no nutritional benefits whatsoever. Arugula has more antioxidants and Vitamin C and K, and a bunch of other stuff I don't remember off the top of my head. Here. Can you scrub the mushrooms instead? I'll do the chopping."

"I can do it," Steve said quietly.

"I know, but so can I," said Bruce, taking the knife. Steve was kind of jittery, Natasha noticed. He'd been tense this morning too, at breakfast. Probably not conducive to working with sharp things, all amazing healing properties aside.

"No movie tonight?" said Clint, coming into the kitchen. "Christ it's hot in here."

"It's election night," Bruce repeated, as he and Natasha put together a tray of veggies and dips and Steve finished cleaning the mushrooms.

"So?"

"So we're watching the results."

"Why? Everybody did their civic duty, everybody voted, why do we have to watch it all in excruciating detail?" asked Clint, swiping some carrot sticks as Bruce walked past into the movie room.

"Because," said Bruce.

"Don't you care who wins?" asked Steve.

"That's what Starkpads are for," said Clint, puzzled. "You can refresh whenever you want while the results come in."

"It's Cap's first election in the twenty-first century," said Bruce.

"And first on TV," said Tony, coming into the kitchen.

"Mine as well," said Thor. "We do not have these events in my realm."

"So who'd you vote for, Steve?" asked Clint. There was a small silence. He glanced around. "What?"

"Wow, and I thought I was the most socially inept," said Tony.

"Clint, you don't ever ask that question," said Natasha patiently.

"How come?"

Natasha smiled. Funny how often she and Clint had to explain to each other the finer points of North American etiquette. "It's private. It's like asking what positions people prefer when they're having sex."

"...and you're not supposed to do that either?" said Clint slowly. Natasha threw a mushroom at him and he laughed, catching it. "Hey, how was I supposed to know? Nobody I grew up with ever voted for anything. Except the Tattooed Lady and Snake Guy, and they were weird. And I've almost always been out of the country whenever there's been an election." He grabbed another carrot stick. "Besides, did you know there's a whole website about how we're voting? If strangers can talk about it, why can't I ask?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "I saw that one." He grabbed the remote and fiddled with it for a moment, calling up a website onto the large screen. There was a breakdown of each member of the Avengers, with their supposed political leanings. Interesting.

"I am not a subject of your realm," said Thor, highly puzzled. "Why would I choose your leader?"

"It's the internet," said Steve, frowning at the screen and rubbing his arms. "I don't think any of it has to make sense."

"Here, put that back onto the election reporting," said Natasha. She glanced at Steve. "Sit. You're making me nervous."

"Yeah, Cap, relax," said Bruce, a hand on his arm as he tugged him down. Steve startled slightly and sat down next to him.

"You're not nervous about the election, are you?" asked Clint. "I know Sitwell's kinda squirrelly over--"

"No," said Steve sharply. "No. The election's fine. It's interesting."

They watched for a few moments, then Steve got up.

"Dude. Sit down." Clint glanced up, taking in his tense expression. "Or don't. What's the matter?"

"Feel like I'm gonna shake apart," he said tightly. He rubbed his arms again.

"And you're still cold?" said Bruce.

"Why didn't you say so?" said Clint. "JARVIS, turn up the heat in here."

"You were just complaining about it in the kitchen," said Steve.

"So? I can go down to undershirt if it gets uncomfortable. Is it the meds?"

Steve clenched his jaw slightly and gave a brief nod, and Natasha wished, not for the first time, that Clint wasn't so oblivious to privacy concerns. Steve very obviously didn't want to talk about this.

"Are they trying to find an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety thing?"

Steve nodded again. "That and pain relief."

"They're testing that on you at the same time as anti-anxiety and anti-depressants?" asked Bruce.

Steve shrugged. "I told them I don't really need it, but they said they might as well."

"What do you mean you don't need it?" asked Tony.

"I heal. Quickly. Super Serum, remember?"

"Yeah, but you get hurt pretty damn often. Just since we've known you, you've had chemical burns, broken bones, road rash, bullet wounds--"

"And they all healed."

"But it took hours," said Tony. "The chemical burns took two days. And you didn't have any pain relief in the meantime?"

"I didn't have any back in the War either, Tony."

"That was the nineteen-forties! Better living through chemistry, remember? Is it possible we've found better alternatives now? Why didn't they bother to try anything when you first started getting hurt?" Tony got up, looking pissed, and grabbed Natasha's blanket from the loveseat, shoving it at Steve.

"I told them I didn't need it," said Steve, wrapping the blanket around himself. "I told them I did fine in the forties."

"OK," said Bruce, placing a calming hand on Tony. "How did you cope, in the War?"

Steve shrugged, irritated. "I don't know. I... I spent time with the men. I talked to Bucky. Peggy."

"And none of them are here now."

"You're all here," Steve pointed out.

"We're not the same as your best friend or your girlfriend," said Bruce.

Steve's eyes darkened. "She wasn't my girlfriend."

"You had a picture of her on your compass," said Clint, puzzled. "What?" he said as the rest of the team looked at him curiously. "You couldn't hang out with Coulson for long without getting a little Captain America-stalkery. You mean you guys really weren't sleeping together?"

Steve shook his head and pulled the blanket tighter around himself, still shivering.

"Christ, and you wonder why you have trouble sleeping," said Tony. "You put yourself into the line of fire over and over, knowing you're going to end up suffering, with no pain relief. If that's not enough to trigger PTSD, I don't know what is."

"I get better," Steve said stubbornly.

"Yeah? Labor gets better too. I still don't know a lot of women who'd want to do it more than two or three times in their lives. You do it all the time. It's like you're giving birth every couple of weeks."

Steve grimaced. "Nice image, Tony."

Tony blinked, then chuckled. "Sorry."

"Lack of pain relief isn't a tragedy," said Steve stubbornly. "Most people around the world don't have the kind of access to the drugs you take for granted. They're fine. And soldiers have done it through all of human history."

"First off, soldiers had at least booze," Tony shot back. "Second, we're not talking about boo-boos in your case; we're talking about serious eleven-on-a-scale-of-ten pain. And third, yeah, people go through a lot of pain without painkillers all the time, but not all of them are fine. A lot of them are traumatized for life. We're trying to avoid that, here. I mean - fuck, even going through that once, can seriously--" he abruptly snapped his mouth shut and clenched his jaw, and Natasha winced. Afghanistan. She'd read his file: chest ripped open and connected to a car battery, some alcohol poured down his throat to keep him from thrashing around too much, but mostly just held down screaming until he passed out from the pain. Whether Tony's 'booze, therapy and all the best drugs' had really gotten him over it or not, apparently this topic was hitting a little too close to home.

Bruce gave Tony a worried glance. "All right, in any case, you're cold now," he said, turning back to Steve. He paused. And jumpy as hell, Natasha could hear him deciding not to say. "I'm gonna make a pot of herbal tea. Peppermint all right?"

Steve nodded reluctantly and sat back down, huddled in the blanket and giving Tony a curious look. The cold wasn't all that was wrong, Natasha realized as they listened to a rambling prediction of which way Florida would fall. Steve was still vibrating with tension, and the pointless blither on the screen wasn't doing much to help.

"You know..." Bruce said slowly as he came back with the tea and handed out cups. "I hate to say this because we'd be up a creek without you, but... the pain problem wouldn't be an issue if you had another job."

"Dude, don't go there," Clint said. "We're trying to keep him, OK?"

"Yeah, bad words, Brucey," said Tony, scowling.

"Besides, what else would I do?" Steve asked.

Tony turned to him, eyebrows going up. "Wait, what? You're good at other things too," he said. "You were in art school, right?"

"What, I should become an artist? Even if I could make a living at it, I'd be disappointing a lot of people. You said so yourself, I'm a chemistry experiment. An expensive one."

Tony's scowl returned and deepened. "And you think you owe it to... who, exactly, to keep being that chemistry experiment? Everyone who ever worked on that croaked years ago."

Steve turned to say something sharp to Tony, then swallowed and looked away, and Natasha was reminded that Tony's own father had been one of the people he'd just callously dismissed. "SHIELD rescued me," Steve said after a moment.

"You never asked them to. In any case, you can't live your life feeling like you owe a bunch of dead people. If you decide to stay doing what you're doing, it's gotta be because you want to do it."

"Oh so you want me to quit, now?"

"Hell no," said Tony vehemently. "I want you to do what you want to do."

"It's so simple for you, isn't it?"

"It doesn't have to be complicated for you either. What do you want to do?"

"I... don't know."

"You were going to quit a few days ago. What did you think you were going to do?"

Steve shrugged. "To be honest, I wasn't thinking that far ahead." He paused, looked down. "Just... just wanted out." He shivered.

Natasha frowned. No. He didn't want to talk about this. And he was doing enough talking these days. Better to just let him be.

"How are you liking your first twenty-first century election so far?" asked Natasha.

Steve blinked at the abrupt change in topic. "What? Oh. Uh, well, it's not as tense as the last one I saw."

"Which was that?" asked Clint.

"Roosevelt-Dewey, '44."

"How was that?"

"Um. Interesting, I guess. People were pretty upset about Pearl Harbor and the War, so it was pretty intense."

"Who'd you vote for?"

"Clint!" Natasha elbowed him.

"What? Come on! It was seventy years ago!"

"Roosevelt," said Steve. "His third term, too." He gazed down at his teacup, swirled his tea.

"Didn't they make an amendment after him to make sure nobody could run more than twice?"

"Yeah, I read about that," said Steve.

"It's funny, though, 'cause it wasn't 'cause everyone hated him," said Clint. "I mean, even I've heard of Roosevelt. Did everyone love him back then too?"

Steve shook his head. "Not hardly. A lot of people hated him." He glanced up at the screen and put his tea down on the nearest coffee table, almost knocking it into Thor's mug of ale, and swore under his breath.

Jittery and clumsy. And still shivering, unable to keep his attention on the election, uninterested in conversation, and Natasha had enough. She gave Clint a look and he nodded.

"OK, you know what?" he said, standing up. "This is boring the crap out of me. Cap. Let's go down to the range. You said you wanted to learn about archery."

Steve gave him a level stare. "You want to give me sharp objects, right now, and trust my aim?"

"OK, bad idea. How about the punching bag? Or, hang on, no. Let's spar. Two on one: Super-soldier versus scary ninja assassins."

Steve hesitated, looking at the screen.

"We'll get Tony to call down whenever a state's called," said Natasha.

Steve finally nodded and stood, following Natasha and Clint down to the gym.

3.

November 9

Christ, this was getting difficult, thought Clint at the breakfast table a few days later. Steve had been jumpy the last couple of days, speaking tersely, overly sensitive to light and sound, setting everyone's teeth on edge. An air of barely restrained violence hung about him, and everyone was trying to not get sucked in but it was bloody difficult not to. Thankfully he didn't seem to be freezing cold any more, so the common areas were back to normal temperatures, but frankly at this point Clint would happily take the sweltering heat. Whatever SHIELD Medical were giving Steve right now... just couldn't be healthy.

"Bruce, did you finish that Geggen experiment?" asked Tony, breaking the strained silence.

"No, still watching the Caltrek values."

"I didn't think those were still changing,"

Go Geek Talk, thought Clint as they devolved into scientific babble that somehow missed its usual level of enthusiasm. Still incomprehensible. "Steve, were you still awake for the ending of Midnight Cowboy?" asked Clint.

"No," said Steve.

"Did you want to know how it ended?"

"Bruce told me while you were out yesterday," said Steve. "The guy died."

It might not be the new medication, Clint mused. Steve was probably still feeling pretty raw about yesterday, the first time the team had been called in without him. That had been a conversation Clint wished he could forget, as they'd waited for the Quinjet to pick them up on the deck and glanced over the SHIELD report, and Steve had immediately noted that SHIELD was grossly underestimating the danger level they were facing.

"Thor won't get here in time," he'd said. "And you're going to need somebody on the ground--"

"That won't be you," Tony had said immediately, his suit snapping into place.

"You'd still be in charge--" Steve began.

"You'd be a distraction, Cap."

"You're not cleared for the field," Clint had pointed out, doing a quick check of his arrows and replacing a few of the explosives with acid-tips.

"We'd be worried about you," Natasha had said. "You know we want you back," she'd added gently, reading the dismay in Steve's eyes. "But only after Medical's cleared you."

"And you're totally welcome to let me know just how much of a hypocrite I'm being when I'm being bitchy next time I'm benched," Clint had added. "But right now, get out of the way."

"It's all right," Clint had heard Bruce say as the 'jet landed and the rest of them started to climb in. "You'll be back with them soon."

"Yeah? Would you clear me any time soon?" Steve asked. "I wouldn't clear me."

"Come to the lab with me," said Bruce. "It's too populated for them to call me in either, so let's go monitor how they're doing, and you can help me put the medical supplies together."

"I can also make sandwiches for when they come back," Steve had said bitterly.

Now Clint stirred his coffee and cast about for something else to say, to break the terse discomfort.

"Did you hear they lost the Mean Teen?" he asked Natasha.

Natasha nodded, taking a spoonful of her weird yoghurt breakfast concoction. "From the Joneville facility, I heard. Hill's sent a team to figure out what happened."

Clint blinked. Hill had sent the team; not Fury. Fury had not been seen or heard from in a while, and rumor had it he was at a disciplinary hearing. For what, nobody knew. And for an institution that lived and breathed scuttlebutt as much as SHIELD did, the fact that nobody knew was frightening.

He traded a glance with Natasha. Probably not a good idea to discuss what that might mean in front of Steve; he certainly didn't need anything else to worry about.

Clint glanced at Steve, who was determinedly making himself plow through a stack of toast - apparently the appetite wasn't back yet, not that his body let him slack off on feeding it - and reflected it was a good thing Thor was visiting his girlfriend right now instead of the other way around. She'd probably get into it with Bruce and Tony over some geeky thing and then Thor would boom in delight at his lady's mental prowess and Steve looked like the slightest thing was going to make him jump out of his skin right now. They were all walking on eggshells; Thor didn't do eggshells real well.

"Nat, did you--" Clint reached for the juice jug, encountered Steve reaching for the bacon, and the jug tipped over.

"Christ! Sorry!" Steve grabbed at the juice as it spilled over his bowl and Clint's, and the jug shattered on the floor.

"Hey it's OK--" Clint began.

"Shit!" Steve stared at the mess on the floor, shaking with nerves. Bruce quickly got up and reached for him, freezing as Steve jerked his chair back.

"Steve, hey--"

"Don't touch me!" Steve knocked away Bruce's hand.

"Steve," said Tony, his voice soothing. "It's OK, it was just an accident--"

"Don't fucking tell me it was just an accident! Take your goddamned gentle tone and go fuck yourself! And back off!" He tipped his chair back and stood, chest heaving, fists clenched.

"Steve, dude, calm down!" Clint said, standing, and immediately regretted it as Steve snapped around to face him and he took in the look of panic and distress. Steve had mentioned feeling hypersensitive to sights and sounds recently; this must be like a million light bulbs going off in his face at once, and he plainly could not handle it.

Steve made an inarticulate sound and shoved the table away from himself and it crashed against the wall, and the stunning array of shattered pottery, glass and food brought them all to their feet. Clint met Natasha's eyes and nodded towards Bruce as they silently tried to figure out how to take Steve down before he set off the Other Guy and Steve shoved his chair away, sending it against the wall and nearly cracking it in half - and then Tony stepped in.

"Hey hey hey hey--" Steve spun around and Tony stepped forward, hands outstretched, and Clint swore under his breath because what the hell was Tony thinking, the least equipped to deal with super-soldier strength on a 'roid rage--

"Steve!" Tony said firmly, and Steve, miraculously, checked himself and punched the wall next to Tony instead of Tony himself.

Tony didn't so much as blink, stepping forward again and putting a hand near but not on Steve. "Dude, come on," he said. "Cap, look you know I'm a huge fan of rage-based redecorating, and normally I'd just be tickled pink seeing you try to outdo our Jolly Green Giant here, but Pepper's gonna shoot me if you wreck any of this shit she calls art, besides Paolozzi never did anything to you, come on, let's go to the atrium, I've been dying to knock the whole damn thing down ever since the Chitauri missed it..."

Steve heaved a deep breath, limbs still vibrating but the violence temporarily held at bay by Tony's chatter. Tony cautiously reached out for his shoulder, blowing out his breath as Steve allowed the touch and relaxed slightly.

"OK, what, no come on that's not fair - I'm telling you, don't get it under control at least until you've trashed the paneled doors in there, those things are an insult to glaziers everywhere..."

Steve closed his eyes, chest still heaving, and put a hand over Tony's.

"Hey, hey what's this," Tony murmured, putting his arm around Steve, and Steve swallowed hard, taking deep breaths as he tried to bring himself back under control.

"Capsicle, hey, it's OK," Tony said softly. Steve shook his head. The silence in the room was absolute.

"It's not OK," Steve whispered, bowing his head, obviously ashamed of his outburst. The trembling in his limbs died down and he looked lost and vaguely nauseated. He swayed.

"Here, Steve, you better sit down," Tony started to guide him back to the chairs, but Steve put a hand behind to steady himself on the counter, then sank down to the floor of the kitchen, too shaky to make it to a chair. Tony sat down beside him as Steve drew up his knees and put his head down on his arms.

"Steve, it's fine. It was crappy furniture--"

"It's not fine," Steve said, his voice muffled. "What the hell is wrong with me..."

"Um, off the top of my head I'm guessing it's that you're suffering from depression and PTSD and the effects of being pressed into service as a science project for overexcited chemists."

Steve huffed a startled laugh, catching his breath and drawing further in on himself. "Oh, hell," he said hopelessly, as his breath caught in a sob.

Tony put an arm around him again. "Steve, it's OK," he murmured. He glanced at the others, who were still standing and gaping.

"What can we do?" Bruce asked quietly, and Steve shook his head, body tense, breath held in.

Tony shook his head too. "We're OK," he said. "Steve, let it go, nobody's gonna judge you." Steve was still silent, shoulders hitching slightly, and Tony ran a gentle hand over his hair. "You want them to go or stay?"

Steve took a deep, shaking breath, and whispered, "Go, I'll be fine, Tony." He started to pull away and Tony tightened his arm around him.

"Yeah no, that part's not gonna fly," he said. "The rest of 'em are gonna scoot for now but you're stuck with me."

Clint nodded, picking up his cup of coffee from the floor and looking around at the broken furniture. They all filed out, Bruce stopping briefly to pat Steve's shoulder, and left Tony and Steve still on the kitchen floor, Tony murmuring quietly into Steve's hair.

Fuck. What a mess. Maybe Steve would be better off where Clint had checked in to spend his post-Loki downtime after all. SHIELD Medical wasn't the cheeriest place in the world, but they'd probably be better equipped to handle Steve than his team were. It was pretty obvious that, as far as taking care of their leader went, they weren't doing much better than when they'd all let him get depressed on them in the first place. Other than Tony - and seriously, who would've guessed he could ever drop the cocky asshole act and be the only one Steve would let near him like this? - they were useless. Maybe it was time to stick to being Avengers, and leave being competent medical professionals to the professionals.

Clint scrubbed a hand over his forehead and cursed under his breath, heading for his apartment. He couldn't escape the feeling that if Phil could possibly manage it, he'd come back from beyond the grave and smack them all to hell and back for being such fuck-ups. And at this point, Clint wouldn't even bother to put up a fight.