"I can be on my own, Tony," Steve said, his voice muffled by his arms.
"Yeah, well, good for you," said Tony. "I can't, though, tough guy. So suck it up. I'm staying."
Steve nodded, taking in a shaking breath.
"Babe, just relax, OK?" said Tony, stroking Steve's hair and wincing slightly at the automatic endearment, but Steve just nodded and let Tony hold him, then, after a moment's hesitation, leaned closer to him. Tony shifted towards him, encircling him with his other arm, gently tugging on Steve's head until he rested it on Tony's shoulder.
Tony felt the tension in Steve flow out, felt it when Steve finally let go. Though 'letting go' for Steve apparently meant near-silence, trembling, occasional shuddering breaths, and dampness slowly seeping Tony's t-shirt. At this point, Tony would take what he could get.
Shit, what must it be like, he wondered, to always be so much in control, and then to lose control so completely? To be a leader, used to commanding others, and then to not even be able to command yourself?
And what must it be like to have one thing going for you, your superior health, and then to have to hand that over? Put yourself at the mercy of lab coats and let yourself be buffeted by confusing, disorienting sensations, physical and emotional weakness, all in the name of helping you in the long-term, when what you really needed was simple peace in the short-term?
He stroked Steve's hair absently, squeezed his shoulder, and wished he didn't feel so... helpless. Wished he had some way of telling Steve, you're not alone; I'm here, we're all here, in a way that Steve could hear and understand. To do anything but just sit, more useless than tits on a nun, while Steve wept silently in his arms, riding out the winds of his internal struggle.
A long time later, Steve scrubbed at his face and sat up. "I'm sorry," he said hoarsely, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "I... fuck, I'm sorry."
Tony made a sound in his throat and didn't let him pull away. "It's OK." He reached up to the counter and found a napkin, handed it to Steve.
Steve wiped his face, not meeting Tony's eyes, and looked around the kitchen. "Fuck. What a mess." He drew a deep, shaking breath, and sat up. "OK. I'm, I'm OK. Um, thanks. I'm... you can tell the rest of them it's OK to come in, I'm fine. I'll just... I'll clean this up."
"Steve, no, come on." Tony gazed at Steve, with his eyes and nose reddened, defeat in every feature, refusing to meet Tony's eyes.
"JARVIS, tell everyone it's OK to come in," Steve said, raising his voice slightly.
"JARVIS hold off on that," Tony said quickly. "Steve." He put a hand on Steve's shoulder, keeping him on the floor through force of will alone. "You need some time to--"
"I've had time. Everyone's got stuff they need to get done today, I'm just--"
"Fuck, Steve, they can wait to come get their damned briefing notes--" Tony stopped himself as Steve drew his shoulders up and gathered himself in again. OK, moment over. Tony sat back as Steve got up and started to pick up shattered glass. "Steve, you're gonna cut yourself--"
"I have to clean this up. It's my mess - oh. Shit." Steve paused, hand on a piece of broken cereal bowl, closed his eyes briefly, then let the bowl fall and hurried to the washroom. Tony heard retching. Great. He'd thought the current medication wasn't nauseating; apparently, he was wrong. Or maybe the emotional upheaval had affected Steve's stomach. Either way, everything Steve had forced himself to eat was now getting the heave-ho. He looked around the kitchen at the broken table, bowls, glasses, juice jug, shattered mugs, upended chairs, dented wall...
Steve came back, grey-faced and wiping his mouth.
"Seriously. Steve," said Tony, still leaning against the cabinet on the floor. "Let the kitchen bots deal with this."
"It'll make me feel better, Tony," said Steve wearily. "It's just about the only thing I can control right now. And JARVIS, tell the others they can come back in."
Tony pulled his knees up, arms going around them as he leaned back and watched Steve pick up the unbroken dishes. Natasha hesitantly came back into the room, nodding to Tony and then looking over at Steve.
"Can I help?" asked Natasha.
"No. Um, thanks," Steve added, not meeting her eyes, getting himself a broom and starting to sweep up the broken pieces.
God damn it. Back to this again. Back to Steve feeling like shit and keeping them at arm's length, and there didn't seem to be anything the rest of them could do to help.
Therapy was starting to bleed into itself too. Talking about his childhood, the loss of his parents, the Serum, the War, the Howling Commandos, his orientation. Bucky, losing Bucky, Peggy, losing Peggy, losing everyone and everything, the Avengers, the church, Tony...
And it was all so pointless. So much talking about stuff he didn't even want to think about, let alone talk about. Trying all sorts of different medicines, none of which could adequately handle his enhanced biology. Drawing. Playing checkers, cards, chess and video games with whoever was around, listening to music, wasting his time and plodding on until all he wanted was to scream and break things and go to sleep and never wake up again.
If he'd just kept his mouth shut that night, he could've avoided this.
Or he could've ended up dead. And would that be so bad?
No, he had not just thought that. That was counterproductive.
He finished his workout and headed for his apartment, stepping into the shower with relief, trying not to think about this morning's therapy session.
"What I don't understand is... you keep saying mental illness is just illness, right?" he'd asked his therapist this morning. "You keep harping on that, saying you need me to understand it's not moral failing or... whatever it is you think I believe."
"The Serum was supposed to make it so I couldn't get sick."
"We don't understand all of it either," said Dr. Sanjay. "Maybe Dr. Erskine's knowledge of mental health wasn't as thorough as his knowledge of physical health. Besides, you can probably still become physically sick, you know; you just haven't come across any virus that'll take you out yet. We know that your physical ailments were cured, and you were blessed with higher mental capacity than you had before, and got what looks like a perfect immune system. But just as it is possible for you to become injured, it may still be possible for you to become physically ill, and it appears this is also true of mental illness."
Steve wasn't terribly convinced. "Mental illness? Caused by a virus?"
Sanjay smiled and shook his head. "Maybe our own knowledge of mental health isn't as thorough as we'd like it to be either," he said. "You're in good company regardless, though. Not only are you aware that many of your own team members have dealt with PTSD, but I can rattle off the names of dozens of famous high-functioning, high-achieving people who battled depression and anxiety disorders and other forms of mental illness all of their lives. Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln..."
"Absolutely. It's no shame to be ill, Captain Rogers."
The pain of it was, he wasn't that ill. If he'd had a regular office job he would've been cleared for light work within a week or two, said his therapist. Unfortunately, his job required him to be in top-notch mental condition and be trusted to not commit passive suicide by Doombot. So SHIELD refused to clear him. And he didn't blame them in the least.
So here he was, still off work, almost three weeks later. Still feeling like shit, not in control of damn near anything any more, and not liking the irritated and puzzled frowns on Dr. Sanjay's face over his bloodwork or the tests that Medical had him going through.
There was not much good to grasp at any more, either. No positive self-talk about being useful, because he wasn't, or being a member of a team, because his team were treating him like he was made of glass - and he couldn't blame them after the other morning - or being able to adapt to this time, because he clearly couldn't. Culture Shock was the other label they'd put on him.
He couldn't even think about any progress with medical stuff. Nothing was working. Whether they were trying out established drugs at high dosages or new concoctions made just for him, everything made him sick in some way and didn't do all that much to brighten his mood or calm his anxiety or make him feel less pain. About the only thing any of it did was let him sleep - and even that was fractured and uneasy, unless he was sleeping during a movie.
The latest try wasn't the worst by far, just one of the more inconvenient. The nausea wasn't so bad - thank God, because he was getting really sick of feeling like he was starving to death but repulsed by food - but it was resulting in hyper-sensitivity. Because it wasn't enough that he'd felt nauseated and freezing and jittery and exhausted; now he felt every touch on his skin, good, bad and indifferent, intruding on his consciousness. Which, among other things, tended to made him horny as hell.
He'd had an appointment at the church this afternoon, but God, that was just another form of therapy, and combined with the side effects of the current round of meds he'd lasted about half an hour before he felt like putting his fist through the stained glass windows and left, apologizing and claiming a headache.
A headache. He hadn't had a headache in years, until this medical nightmare had re-introduced him to the experience. That wasn't the problem today, but he sure as hell wasn't going to explain that to the nice folks at the church.
He'd also left with the promise that he would attend a social event being given at the church, other people seeking to go against their preferences. He'd been waffling on that for a while. He just couldn't help thinking of what Tony had said: that it was unfair to date a woman when he felt nothing for her. Granted, any woman he dated through the church would probably be feeling next to nothing for him too, but...
No, it would probably be good for him. Really. If he could just work up some enthusiasm between now and then. It would get him around other people, for one thing, which couldn't help but be a good thing. Especially if those other people weren't Tony.
He leaned back in the shower, thinking of Tony. He'd seen Tony in the gym this morning, and though they'd spoken briefly, Tony had claimed business and left fairly quickly.
In fact, Tony hadn't been alone with him for weeks, except for the other morning. He should be grateful - scratch that, he was grateful. Unfortunately, he was also horny and not thinking straight, and couldn't help feeling a longing for Tony that seemed to permeate him down to his bones.
He shouldn't feel that way. He didn't want to feel that way. Tony was being helpful by being distant. Maybe he'd gotten the message that Steve really didn't want anything to happen between them. Maybe he'd been turned off by Steve being so incredibly fucked up. Whatever the reason, it was a good thing, it was moving them from whatever dangerous thing had been sparking between them to becoming simple friends and colleagues again.
Never mind that that wasn't what Steve wanted at all.
He rested his head against the shower tile, warm water washing over him, indulging in it despite the waste. Normally he was in and out in moments, but right now he was tired, and tired of ignoring his body, ignoring things that felt too hot or too cold or too good, trying to work past the distraction of senses bombarding his consciousness. It felt like when he'd first been getting used to the Serum's changes, and kept getting startled by how good air felt when it rushed into his lungs unimpeded by asthma; how satisfying it felt to aim a kick or a punch at a training target and hear a solid thwack as it hit dead-on; how quickly he could go from zero to hard as a rock when an attractive man went by.
He groaned and ducked his head under the water again, automatically reaching down to palm himself as his body reacted to that last thought. He caught his breath, Christ that felt good - he'd done nothing but wrap a hand around himself and he was almost dizzy already.
He was turned on enough that he probably didn't need any thoughts and fantasies to get off and should just think of the physical sensations, the rush of endorphins, the water running down his body, but his traitorous mind was supplying him with images anyway, memories of how Tony had looked this morning, how beads of sweat lined his brow, how his shoulders shifted and muscles played over on his back as he went at a punching bag. How his eyes were bright with adrenaline, just like that night they'd kissed--
He clenched his eyes shut and placed his hands on the tile wall. No.
All right, think of the USO girls instead.
He reached back down. There had been Teresa, the tall blonde who'd first asked him to walk her to her billet when he was still so shy he couldn't say more than two words to any of the girls, and then asked him inside, in direct defiance of the USO chaperone's strict rules. She'd kissed him, taking the lead, and he'd gone along with it right up until she'd started unbuttoning her blouse and then he'd made stammering apologies and left.
Amazingly, she hadn't been angry; she'd thought he was sweet, and had made it her personal mission to get him more comfortable around girls. They'd fooled around a number of times after that, until she'd gone back home to Charleston...
No, Teresa wasn't doing it for him.
All right, then, Shellie, the little brunette who'd first gone down on him, her perky breasts rubbing up against him whenever they fooled around. She'd teasingly pushed his limits, again, and again, and eventually left him so breathless that he'd decided one night, in for a penny, in for a pound, and went along eagerly when she'd popped her mouth off of him, lay back on the couch of her billet, and pulled him down on top of her.
He still remembered slipping into her for the first time, finally understanding what Bucky had always gone on about. And vaguely wishing he wasn't losing his virginity on a couch with a chorus girl, but thinking that resisting the girls, his newly healthy body being what it was, was a losing proposition anyway. He might as well do it with one he liked as much as he liked Shellie.
The memories of Shellie weren't enough, though. She'd been beautiful and exciting and he'd loved it, but thinking of her didn't do much for him. He was still hard and panting, but unable to reach release. If anything, trying to think of her was a distraction, like thinking of algebra while jerking off. There was a theory that if you could get yourself excited physically, then pair that physical excitement with fantasies of the right gender, you could train yourself to be excited by that gender. It... really didn't work for Steve.
Maybe you needed to be bi for it to work. Tony could probably manage it, no problem, if he thought it was necessary. Which he didn't, the lucky bastard.
His hand sped up, remembering Tony's arms around him. Tony thrusting against him. He bit his lip.
Tony had kissed him back so hard Steve would've almost had bruises the next day, and it had felt amazing. He'd been all smooth planes and angles, his scent spicy and male, his arms and hands so strong. Steve had felt like he was drowning in him, wanting everything all at once, and his hand curled around himself now as the water ran in rivulets down his stomach and over his aching flesh. He squeezed, groaning, remembering Tony's lips nibbling up his neck and to his ear, breath hot against his cheek, Tony's hands sliding down and pulling them together, feeling Tony hot and hard against him, itching to touch him, to rip their clothes away and feel all of him, skin to skin.
"Anything, I'm up for it," Tony had gasped, and Steve's mind had almost blanked out at the possibilities - Tony's lips wrapped around him, sinking into Tony's body, feeling Tony come - and Steve's hand sped up, tension ratcheting up unbearably as the water felt like a million fingers caressing him and he almost felt Tony's teeth catch his ear and Tony's hard length rutting against his own and--
He cried out, releasing in spurts against the shower wall, shuddering heaving breaths and feeling like a wave had knocked him over.
He leaned against the wall, panting.
God damn it.
He shouldn't have done that. He didn't need the nice people at God's Peace to tell him that.
He shouldn't have done that, shouldn't be letting himself think of Tony like that. Even thinking of Tony physically close to him in a perfectly innocent way, the way he had been when Steve had broken down and Tony had pulled him close and held on - even that wasn't a good idea. This... this was just stupid, and completely counterproductive.
Just like it had been the last three or four times he'd done it.
He got out of the shower and checked the time, drying himself off and pushing away the guilt beginning to curl in his gut. Too early to go down to the common areas; he was spending too much time there, and so was Tony, and the thought of facing him right now, after jerking off to thoughts of him, made him feel raw, exposed.
Idleness, yet another problem, he thought as he finished getting dressed. The rest of the team were still being called out, and had ongoing follow-ups on recent missions. He had nothing to do. Nothing useful, anyway. He'd started watching non-Oscar movies on his own, but it wasn't the same. And as for television... the less said about that, the better. Mythbusters and The Walking Dead were interesting albeit incomprehensible, but he'd turned off his TV in the middle of an episode of Jersey Shore a week ago and hadn't been able to bring himself to turn it back on since.
He could go out onto the deck, get some fresh air - though for all he knew that might throw JARVIS into a panic and bring security running. He could to Central Park, go climbing on some of those boulders on the south side... though he wasn't sure he wanted to have his therapist speculate about as to whether Steve actually wanted to exercise, or just be somewhere with a steep drop again. Not that the piddly height of those boulders in Central Park would be useful for anything involving steep drops.
The studio it was, then. And to occupy his mind and stop it from wandering to thoughts of what he'd just done, he'd listen to Clint's Music History 101 playlists. Clint had decided that it was a crying shame that the last seventy years of music were a blank to him except for a vague idea that today's kids mostly listened to what sounded like factory noises with some shouted Korean words. So Clint - who also turned out to play a passable guitar and had a surprisingly good voice - had put together playlists for him. They started at Big Band and moved through rock, folk, country, disco (Oh God), techno pop, grunge (surprisingly, not bad), metal (incomprehensible but surprisingly good to have in the background as he pummelled punching bags), hip hop, rap (not that unfamiliar, like talking blues but sped up), and ending with what Steve was sure was an over-representation of Korean boy bands, though Clint swore that K-Pop was the single most significant development in popular music since Chuck Berry's "Maybellene."
He picked Clint's Sixties playlist, wandered into his studio, and rifled through his rough sketches from the Oscar project for one to expand into oil paint. My Fair Lady, maybe? Lawrence of Arabia?
An hour later, halfway through what was turning out to be a decent desert scene and in the middle of realizing that no matter how many times he listened to "I Get Around" he was never going to be able to find any reason whatsoever for its popularity, he put down his brush and checked the time.
Finally. Movie time. He cleaned his paintbrushes and covered the canvas, heading for the common floor and finding Bruce already there, in the kitchen as usual.
Steve sighed as he watched Bruce work. He didn't feel like eating. Nothing tasted good. The knot of hunger in his stomach was a constant discomfort, and he choked enough food down to keep it at bay, but couldn't force himself to eat enough to make it go away.
He headed over to help Bruce anyway, noting with relief that although it was still a little distracting to be feeling physical sensations so strongly - the crispness of the broccoli, the coldness of the water he used to clean the vegetables - at least his hands were steady, and his mood relatively stable. Stable in terms of feeling depressed and useless, but at least not liable to fall apart for no reason. Again.
He looked up from the kale and endives (turned out Bruce didn't grow this stuff in his lab either), to see a vaguely familiar-looking man coming out of the elevator with Tony.
"Whoa!" the man stopped short, his mouth falling open, and Steve tried to figure out where he'd seen him before.
"What--" Tony had noticed his friend's lack of movement. "Oh right. Steve, Rhodey, Rhodey, Steve."
Right, Colonel James Rhodes. Steve remembered him now, from Tony's files: one of Tony's oldest friends, from his college days and from working with the military when Stark Industries was still making weapons. The man really looked like he had no idea whether to shake Steve's hand or salute or possibly start jumping up and down, and it was a little disconcerting.
"Captain America. Sir. It's - it's an honor to meet you, sir. I mean, it's--"
"Rhodey, don't you outrank him?" Tony said, smirking.
Rhodes blinked. "Well technically - but, I mean--"
"Good to meet you, Colonel Rhodes," said Steve, and it looked like they were mutually deciding to forego the whole saluting thing, so he held out his hand. "Tony's said a lot about you."
Rhodes shook his hand, glanced at Tony. "Has he?"
"Relax, some of it was good," Tony laughed. "Some of it was even true. And I never even breathed a word about the burrito incident in the girls' shower room in the MIT dorm."
Rhodes gave Steve a weak smile. "Don't listen to him. It's - it's a real honor to meet you, sir."
"Uh. Thank you," said Steve, feeling off-balance. Not that he'd ever felt terribly comfortable with hero-worship, but getting this kind of thing from a kid or a civilian while he was in uniform and actually doing something was very different from getting it from a fellow soldier - who, moreover, outranked him, and had done quite a bit of hero-work of his own - after he'd basically quit. After he was essentially at home and doing nothing more useful than wasting everyone's time and being a burden on his team.
Maybe Tony hadn't told him? It wasn't supposed to be common knowledge, but it was hardly a state secret, and this man was supposed to be one of Tony's closest friends. Surely he didn't think Steve was still out there, making a difference?
Except apparently he did.
"I'm, I mean, it's really..." Rhodes cleared his throat. "I've been a big admirer of yours for a long time - couldn't believe Tony got you to come live in the Tower, I was stationed in Munich for a while now and I, um, I studied all the reports about the incident with the Chitauri, which, if I'd known, I mean it would've been a hell of an honor to work with you on that one - well, on any of what you've done, Tony's been filling me in--"
"You do know I'm benched, right?" Steve finally broke in, unable to take the man's misplaced admiration. "I'm not going on missions right now."
Rhodes's eyes widened a bit. "Uh... yeah, not for the last few weeks." Steve stared at him, puzzled. "You're... you're still Captain America."
"Seriously Steve, Rhodey was second only to Phil Coulson in his fanboyness. I think he joined the service because of you."
Rhodes closed his eyes briefly, and Steve had the feeling that if his skin had been lighter it would've been brightly lit up by a mortified blush. "Tony, my dad was a Marine," he protested weakly.
The elevator door opened and Clint and Natasha got out, looking supremely pissed off.
"Oh crap," said Tony. "Assassin Twins looking thunderous. Everybody take cover."
"Have you read the news today?" said Clint, brandishing a Starkpad and nodding a perfunctory hello to Rhodes.
Bruce made a sound in his throat and went back to chopping. Steve and Tony shook their heads.
"No, I was in the lab and then I went to get Rhodey," said Tony. "Why?"
Clint tossed the pad onto the counter, and Steve had a moment's reflective thought that it was a good thing Tony made his electronics far more durable than most things in this flimsy, throwaway age, before he caught sight of the headline.
Captain America Quits Avengers?
Steve pulled the Starkpad closer and felt a wave of nausea. He scanned the stories quickly, picking up bits here and there, as Tony and Rhodes stepped closer to read over his shoulder.
...not seen since Hurricane Sandy ... insubordination? ... rumors of psychological breakdown... mysterious SHIELD agency is answerable to whom?
"You didn't know?" asked Rhodes, and Steve shook his head. "You thought--" Rhodes shook his head. "Tony didn't tell me, Captain Rogers; I read about it in the news this morning."
Steve wanted to close his eyes at the breathless speculation. He'd seen this so many times with media from this time; the sensationalism, the viciousness, the endless back-and-forth babble. And now they were going after him.
Speculation of problems with his adaptation to twenty-first century life ... Does Captain America have Combat Stress Reaction? ... PTSD: Real Problem, or Over-Diagnosed Cop-Out?
Oh and his team were coming under fire too:
Iron Man quits as well? ... Who is the Black Widow? ... Captain America turfed for another female presence on Avengers roster? ... Affirmative Action among superheroes?
"I'm surprised it took this long, to be honest," said Bruce.
"I thought SHIELD staffing was supposed to be confidential," said Tony. "So what if Steve hasn't been there the last few times we've been called; we've all missed a few missions."
"True," said Natasha, "but between the administrative staff, support agents, and SHIELD Medical, a lot of people knew."
"I suspect Sorensen," said Clint.
"You suspect Sorensen of everything," said Natasha impatiently. "If you could, you'd pin the Lindbergh baby kidnapping on him."
Steve pushed away the Starkpad, feeling ill. "Lindbergh baby?" he said, grasping on to something familiar. "It was that Hauptmann guy, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was the Hauptmann guy," said Natasha. "Anyone who says otherwise is just a conspiracy theory nut." She gave Clint a significant look.
"There were a lot of anomalies in that investigation, and in the defense," Bruce protested, and Clint nodded and opened his mouth.
"No, no way," Tony forestalled him. "We're not going to talk about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, are we? With two super-spies and a guy who's a little too paranoid for his own good in the room, if we get into this, we're not gonna let it go--"
Steve turned off the Starkpad. "Beats talking about the news," he said wearily. There was no way he wanted to read that crap. It was no more meaningful than any of the stories about how they had voted, or whether Natasha was sleeping with Clint or Bruce this week. "Funny, when my plane went down I thought the Lindbergh baby kidnapping was solved and the Titanic lost forever. Now I find out there's people who grew up knowing about the Titanic but didn't realize it was ever lost, but the Lindbergh kidnapping is a common conspiracy theory."
"I wouldn't call it common, but it's out there," said Clint. "There were a lot of anomalies--"
"No, Clint," said Natasha firmly, put Bruce's vegetables onto a platter, and handed it to Clint. "Go. Bring that into the movie room and get the movie started," she said, giving him a push and turning to Steve. "Steve? Are you all--"
"I'll read the news stories later," said Steve firmly. "Thanks for letting me know, but--"
"But you'd really rather not talk about it," Natasha finished.
Steve nodded. "At all."
"Fair enough," said Bruce, following Clint into the movie room. "So what's on tonight? Are we at Patton yet?"
"Great American hero, that's probably why Rhodey's here," said Tony as they all grabbed drinks and headed in. "I told him what we were watching tonight."
"That's not why," said Rhodes. "I'm finally home and on the East coast after three months in Germany and I decided to come visit. If anything, I'm here in spite of your movie choice. I heard Patton was an asshole."
"He was," said Steve.
Rhodes looked at him, surprised. "You met him?"
"A couple of times. The Germans were scared of him, but he was a loose cannon. I wasn't the only one hoping he'd get permanently shuffled off after the slapping incident." He shrugged. "He got results, though, which I guess is what matters."
Bruce went to put on the movie. "Steve, are you really OK with watching this?" he said quietly.
"Yeah, fine," said Steve.
"'Cause really, we can skip to the next one," said Tony.
"I'm already benched, I'm already off-duty," said Steve, annoyed, "and I'd like to watch the damn movie. I will leave if it's - what's the word, triggering?"
Rhodes gave him a sympathetic look. "Tony, lay off. Remember how you threatened to fire Happy and Pepper for hovering over you after Afghanistan."
The movie started and Steve had to admit, he was impressed by the man playing the General. He had him down to a tee, from bushy eyebrows to mannerisms, and he was just as Steve remembered him: brash, rigid, unpleasant, cocky...
"Was he really that big an asshole?" asked Rhodes asked as they watched him berating soldiers.
"He really was," said Steve.
"And he slapped a soldier who had battle fatigue?"
"Two, actually," said Steve. "He was a bully. The uniform didn't make him any less of one."
"He was disciplined for that, though, wasn't he?"
"Not enough. Eisenhower made him apologize, and for a while it looked like his career was over." He sipped his beer and shrugged. "He bounced back."
"I thought people still thought battle fatigue was made up back then," said Clint.
"A lot of people did," said Steve. "That wasn't the point. He showed lack of self-control. Mind you, I would've decked him myself if he'd done that to any of my men."
"Did you have any soldiers with battle fatigue?"
"Are you kidding? The stuff we did? And after half of them being prisoners of war? I personally signed three men back home. Had to fight to do that, too." He paused, remembering his men, remembering how hard he'd had to work to convince Chuckie Allen that he'd done enough, how he'd finally had to talk over Jerry Mason's mother, for God's sake, who'd arranged an international telephone call to insist her son didn't need to be 'molly-coddled' and could finish out the War on the battlefield. "A lot of people thought they were just cowards. Including them."
There was a silence, and he looked up to find the entire team gazing at him.
"But you didn't," said Clint.
"I'm just wondering why you thought it was wrong for Patton to slap soldiers for battle fatigue," said Tony, "and you fought to get your men out when they needed to get away from combat, but then you hid it from all of us when you did. For months."
Steve swallowed, feeling exposed. "It's not the same."
"Things are different now, you know," said Rhodes after a long, uncomfortable moment. "Soldiers are only human. We've gotten better at understanding that. Not perfect, but better."
Steve gave him a level gaze. "My Starkpad begs to differ. Or did you not read what I read?"
"That's a few journalists and other civilians who don't know shit," Rhodes insisted. "It's different now. In the military at least." He paused. "And I'll drop it if you want, Captain." Steve nodded gratefully.
"Hey, actually, Rhodey, tell him how different," said Tony.
"Tell him how different the military's become," said Tony. Rhodes glanced at him curiously. "The wedding you went to last month?"
"Oh - you mean Welles and his guy?"
"Welles and his guy."
Steve rolled his eyes at Tony and Rhodes blinked, obviously lost, but acquiesced. "Yeah, one of my Lieutenants," he said to Steve. "Been with the same guy fifteen years, finally able to marry him without losing his career. Not that it was such a secret thing; they'd been living together ten years. The 'roommate' thing was pretty transparent."
"Nobody cared?" asked Steve.
"Not really. I figured it out a few years ago. Obviously I didn't say anything, but the longer time went on the less he bothered to hide it." Rhodes grinned. "Besides, he's the only one who could handle our tracking systems snafus, and he worked real well with the liaison from Hammer Industries when nobody else could stand the son of a bitch, so nobody wanted to rock the boat. Guy made himself indispensable."
"Steve here had a different experience," said Tony. Rhodes looked at him curiously.
Steve shrugged. "One of my men got found out. It was bad for morale."
Rhodes nodded. "It's not any more. Really. I mean, I'm sure there's problems in some places, but--"
"You wanna tell him--" Tony began.
"Tony, stop," said Steve. "He doesn't need to keep making the point."
Tony's eyebrows shot up. "Why? Don't tell me you've changed your mind on that?"
"You know my objection was that it hurt unit cohesiveness. I did a lot more reading, talked to a few people at SHIELD. Colonel Rhodes isn't the only soldier who's said they don't care. If they don't, I guess I shouldn't either."
"Good for you, Captain," said Rhodes. "Most people would rather rip their tongue out than admit they've changed their minds."
"Hey I never asked, did you watch that link I sent you?" asked Clint. "The soldier who came out to his dad after Don't Ask Don't Tell was over?"
"Yeah, I did."
"What did you think?"
"I think if I'd been his dad I would've been pissed off at him for putting that on the internet. But he seemed like a decent kid. And the other videos where he talked about how people in his unit took the news - well, they were one of the things that changed my mind." He turned back to the movie pointedly. "I've conceded the point already, right? Can we get back to the movie?"
"So... what about gay marriage?" Clint asked, and Bruce groaned.
"Enough, guys. One major milestone at a time."
Steve gave Bruce a grateful nod though he reflected that really, he should be more appreciative of the fact that the team was making an effort to be normal around him. Rhodes' presence was proving distracting; they forgot they were supposed to be treating him with kid gloves. Thank God. Especially in the aftermath of the (somewhat garbled) news of his Admin Leave finally coming out in the press. If he saw one more swiftly covered look of worry, he was gonna punch a wall. And he'd only just finished repairing the one in the kitchen.
The stories in the news weren't such a big deal, he supposed. Yes, it was unpleasant, but he'd known the news would eventually come out, and he supposed it was no worse than any of the other news crap Sorensen had been sending them since he'd taken over as liaison. And in any case, there was nothing he could do about it but wait for it to pass.
He forced himself to down a few tacos and carrot sticks as the movie went on. The carrot sticks looked more appetizing, but the carbohydrates would keep the hunger away for longer, force him to eat less. There was that hummus stuff that Bruce liked so much, too, also fairly filling.
This movie wasn't so bad, Steve realized. He supposed that was an upside to being hyper sensitive to physical sensations right now; he was too distracted to be overly bothered by the scenes of combat on screen. Which was fairly screwed up if he thought about it, so it was probably best not to think about it.
"All right, time to restock, replenish, and take a leak," said Clint at the end of a particularly intense battle scene, and Steve got up along with the rest, deciding to visit the washroom.
"...can't wait to go to an American cafe," Rhodes was saying as Steve walked back into the kitchen a few minutes later. "I mean, don't get me wrong, German places are great, but I wanna hear English spoken by a pretty waitress with an American accent, and I want pie. Not strudel; real pie. Like, pumpkin pie. Maybe pecan."
"Steve can help you with that one," said Clint.
"What? Pie?" Steve asked.
"That place we went to the other day, when I showed you that bookstore."
"The one with the pretty waitress," said Clint. He smirked. "The one who seemed to know you real well."
"Ooh, she has a name."
"Yeah, of course she has a name. I go there a lot. I remember names."
"She sure remembers you." Clint grinned. "And not just because you're Captain America."
Steve blew out his breath.
"Come on, don't pretend you never noticed she's pretty hot for you--"
"Clint," said Natasha.
"Oh come on, she was practically throwing herself at him. In a very demure way."
"Clint," Natasha repeated.
"What? He said he wasn't sleeping with Agent Carter, and oh my God Phil would've killed to get the inside scoop on that. So it's not like he's still--" Natasha elbowed him and he blinked. "Or, never mind, maybe... sorry," he finished lamely.
"No, it's all right," said Steve, squashing his annoyance at Natasha's over-protectiveness. "I'm not - you don't have to - I'm not in mourning over Peggy. That waitress just isn't my type."
"Really? So come on, dude, what's your type?" He paused and looked at Natasha. "What? He said she wasn't his girlfriend! So maybe it's not too soon for him to date, and I sound like a maiden aunt trying to fix him up with a nice girl at the church youth group don't I, ugh, I'm just asking a simple question."
Steve shook his head, a chuckle escaping him.
"What's your type? Hell, I didn't even know Captain America had a type. Tall and leggy or short and curvy? Stacked or perky?" He glanced at Natasha, rolled his eyes, and said, "Or, OK, bookish or sporty? See, I can be not-shallow."
Not that it matters, but my type is standing next to Colonel Rhodes, he thought of saying as Clint went on, and for a brief, insane moment, he wondered what would happen if he said just that. And he was suddenly tired of it. Tired of all of it. He was in all those news stories, and his life was an open book already to his team-mates, and less than three hours ago he'd jerked off to thoughts of one of them, and he didn't feel like listening to Clint speculate any more.
"Dude, give me something here," Clint was saying.
"My type is more... male."
Clint's eyebrows shot up. "Um. Do you mean, like, tomboyish, or male?"
The cessation of all conversation was actually pretty funny, now that he thought of it. Except for Tony, all of them were gaping at him. Tony's mouth was drawn up in a half-smile and he was gazing at Steve with... Steve didn't even know how to classify it. Warmth. Surprise. Approval. Affection.
"Um. Are you kidding?" Clint said slowly.
It was weird, he should be feeling nervous or exposed or relieved or... something, but all Steve felt was a distinct glow of satisfaction at leaving Clint so completely off-balance. "No. Why would you assume that?"
There was a general exchange of glances.
"Because... because we're supposed to be spies and we had no idea," said Natasha, carefully putting down her butter-knife.
"Because you're a national icon and there's never been any hint of anything like this, and you have five biographies written about you," said Clint. "And trust me, if there had been even the tiniest clue, Phil would've known all about it and would've discussed it like for-fucking-ever during stakeouts."
"Because I think Welles - and a bunch of other folks - would flip out if they ever found out," said Rhodes.
"Because of your opinions," said Bruce.
Steve couldn't help chuckling. "Fair enough. I'm still not kidding."
"So, hang on, hang on," said Clint. "Just to get this straight. Except, you know, not straight. You're telling us you're bi too?"
"No. I wish. Gay."
"Peggy Carter really wasn't your girlfriend."
Steve shook his head.
"Wow. Uh, OK. Mind blown," said Clint. Natasha nodded.
"Are you... how long have you known?" asked Bruce, suddenly noticing he'd left the water running and overflowed the ice tray he was filling, and turning it off.
"All my life," said Steve.
"And you were serious, weren't you," said Clint. "About not getting married. Serving in the closet."
"I served in the closet, Clint," said Steve impatiently. "I know exactly what it means. It wasn't that big a sacrifice, considering the alternative."
"Tell that to Welles," said Rhodes. "You did it for how many years?"
"Try a lifetime."
"I'm not arguing the point," said Steve. "Just saying I really didn't have much of a problem with it."
"No, I know that," said Rhodes. "I'm just glad we don't lose good people over it any more."
"Must've been hell, back then," said Bruce. "Growing up like that. And in a Catholic orphanage to boot."
Steve shrugged. "Not really."
"Not compared to the Depression. Or being sick all the time. Or the War."
Natasha made a small noise in her throat. "And now?"
Steve shrugged again. In the grand scheme of things? No, it wasn't that big an issue. Compared to the sense of not belonging anywhere? Losing an entire world? Feeling completely out of control in every part of his life?
"Seriously?" asked Clint. "But, like, wasn't it - how did anyone date, if everyone was in the closet?"
"I wouldn't know," said Steve.
Clint's eyes widened. "You mean you... never?"
"Wow. That's one thing for you to look forward to in this century, I guess," he said. Steve frowned, and opened his mouth to correct him.
"Great, Clint," said Tony. "Now you sound like a maiden aunt trying to fix him up with a nice boy from the church youth group. Maybe you're the one who needs to hook up, so you can lay off your team-mates' sex lives."
"OK, so, is this a state secret?" asked Rhodes. He glanced around the room. "Because I take it nobody here knew. Did you know?" he turned to Tony.
"Tony knew," said Steve quickly, and Tony shot him a look of relief. "I told him a while ago."
Clint turned to Tony. "Holy shit, Tony, discretion. Who knew you had it in you?"
"Thanks, Hunger Games," Tony scowled at him. "You do know I ran a weapons company, right? I've actually heard of confidentiality."
"And this is confidential," said Steve. "I don't care about any of you knowing, or Thor or Pepper, but I don't much want to see it in the papers."
"No, of course not," said Natasha.
There was a short silence.
"We can probably go back in to the movie now," Steve suggested.
Clint blinked. "Right. Yeah. Movie."
"I'm sorry, what are we watching again?" said Bruce, and Tony laughed.
"Right. Right." Bruce picked up a bowl and headed out, still shaking his head, slightly stunned.
Tony leaned past Steve to pick up a couple of bottles of beer, touching his shoulder on the way past. "Steve. Holy shit. Good for you," he said, his voice low. He gave Steve a small smile and tossed one of the bottles towards Rhodes, then headed back to the movie room. Steve followed, forcing down a completely inappropriate surge of warmth at Tony's words, at the touch of his hand on Steve's shoulder.
They all moved back into the couches, food in hand, and Steve breathed a sigh of relief. He'd told a group of coworkers what he'd always been taught was one of the most shameful secrets a man could have, and it was just another piece of information to them. A surprising piece, of course, but it really didn't change how they saw him. Not that he'd expected any different, given all of their previous conversations on the topic, but it was something else again, sensing their complete acceptance.
They started up the movie again, and Clint threw a piece of popcorn in the air and snagged it with his mouth before asking, "So Steve, you never did give a good answer: what is your type?"
Natasha reached over and slapped him upside the head as Bruce and Rhodes burst out laughing.
"What? I'm just asking! Big and muscly, or lean and wiry, or - Nat, lay off!"
Steve made himself smile as he shook his head and turned back to the screen.
My type is sitting next to Colonel Rhodes.
"Agent Hill," Natasha nodded, not breaking her pattern. Twin forearm block, upward punch, middle punch in fixed stance.
"I thought Avengers Tower had its own practice range," said Hill, beginning her warm-up exercises.
"It's always good to change things up," said Natasha, doing a downward strike.
"I see." Hill got into position for push-ups, then glanced over at Natasha. "Spar, once you're done your pattern?"
Natasha considered for a few moments as Hill began her set. It wouldn't really be a fair fight; Natasha's rather brutal upbringing made her unnaturally skilled, and Hill was just a woman with a great deal of combat training, but it wasn't possible for Natasha to always spar people who could challenge her.
Middle punch in left walking stance, low block with the left forearm.
And Hill probably wasn't asking out of a deep desire to have a challenging workout.
"All right," she said.
"How are things going at the Tower?" asked Hill, moving to sit-ups.
"Fine," said Natasha, moving to a right walking stance, middle punch.
"How's Captain Rogers?"
"He's fine." Natasha did a side piercing kick and double punch.
"His new medications working out any better?"
Natasha frowned at Hill, then turned for a middle guarding block and finger thrust. 'Working out any better'... that was a difficult question to answer. His mood had been subdued but relatively stable recently, but the side effects had been a little brutal. Blinding headaches that doubled him over for two days until he refused to continue. One that seemed to screw with his eyesight, to the point where he'd bailed out of The Godfather screening before ever hearing the immortal 'made him an offer he can't refuse' line. Another one that had apparently caused mild seizures.
Turn, middle guarding block, two turning kicks.
And it was really none of Hill's business, as far as Natasha was concerned.
"He's fine," said Natasha.
"No trouble to report there?"
"I'm not asking you to divulge anything confidential," said Hill.
"No, of course not," said Natasha, turning into a low block.
"You seem a little reticent. I checked with Medical and some of the more recent ones didn't go well. Didn't he go into convulsions?"
Natasha looked straight ahead as she did three middle punches. "We do have separate quarters, you know."
"It is important to know as much as we can about what's going on with every member of the team. It's unfortunate that your liaison's been so busy since Captain Rogers has been on leave." Natasha tried to read Hill's tone. Not deep respect for Sorensen, certainly, but definitely not the same contempt Natasha and the rest of the team felt. And, very nice, she'd underlined the 'liaison' thing. "Director Fury has him chasing down some leads with on the Verminator's disappearance." Was Hill pissed off about that? "How are you doing without him?"
Hill got up to do practice kicks. "We're very happy that the team has bonded well, you know."
"I'm sure you are."
"Does he talk to you?"
"To me, specifically, or to the team?" Pressing block, elbow thrust.
"Either. His therapist believes they're making progress - though obviously he can't divulge any specifics - but we're also concerned about his emotional support system outside of therapy."
Natasha tried to imagine Nick Fury saying the words 'emotional support system.' "He's said that he misses his friends from back in his time," she said, doing the two side front blocks.
"Apparently I'm grieving," Steve had noted the other day, his voice tight. "I'm sure glad SHIELD has professionals around to let me know these things."
"What about his PTSD?" Hill asked.
"It's hard to tell. He's a pretty private guy." Natasha did the last two knife-hand guarding blocks, held the final block for a moment, then moved back to ready posture. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's a little reluctant to trust right now after those stories came out in the paper last week."
"That blew over. We knew it would."
"His Admin Leave wasn't supposed to be on the news." Natasha broke ready stance and picked up her water bottle, taking a sip.
"There was no way to keep it a secret forever. To be honest, we didn't really try. Obviously the details are to be kept confidential, but we couldn't exactly hide the fact that he's not working from the public." Hill moved to the sparring mat. "You are fairly high-profile."
Natasha moved to the mat as well. "So nobody's trying to figure out where the leak happened?"
Hill frowned. "I didn't say that." They bowed to each other and settled into guarding blocks, circling. "Is he coming back to work soon?" asked Hill, opening with a light turning kick.
"No idea," said Natasha, easily dodging. "Wouldn't Fury know better than I would?"
Hill's face was blank.
"Is he still in Joneville?"
"No. Still dealing with the fallout from it though." Hill tried another kick.
Natasha blocked and deflected, continuing to circle. "I thought the Verminator was back in custody."
"She is. We still don't know how she got out." Hill spun around, missed a back kick, danced back before Natasha could counter. "It's fine, though. We've handled it."
"Did the WSC think you handled it?"
"They're not a problem," said Hill. "I've handled them."
I've handled them. Not we've handled them. Interesting.
"Fury's back in town, then?" Natasha retreated, drawing Hill in, and feinted to the side, stopping a knife-hand strike a hair's breadth from Hill's neck.
"Not exactly," said Hill, not flinching.
"Where is he?"
"Bogota, helping the WSC answer some questions about how the Clarkson operation went."
Fury, helping the WSC. Fury never helped those assholes if he could help it. Rumors of a disciplinary meeting were probably correct, then.
"When is he coming back?"
"I haven't been informed," said Hill. "Above my clearance level."
You're lying through your teeth, thought Natasha. And you're pissed off. And... something else.
"The Council's pretty involved these days, aren't they?" she asked, doing a spinning back kick that skimmed along Hill's hairline.
"It's useful," said Hill. "We've received a lot more information and personnel. In return, of course, we have to take a little bit more time to keep them informed, but it's beneficial in the long term."
"You find the new personnel helpful?"
"Oh yes." Hill feinted to the side, aimed a knife-hand strike at Natasha's neck and winced as Natasha blocked it. "Don't you?"
Natasha jumped to the side, easily dodging a reverse kick. "You aren't concerned about the WSC's judgment?" What with them having aimed a nuclear weapon at New York? she wanted to ask, but it wasn't necessary.
"That was an anomaly," said Hill.
Yes, with all blame assigned to a SHIELD pilot with a well-timed psychotic break, thought Natasha sourly. The pilot had been handsomely compensated and bundled off to a plush retirement, but the cover-up still disgusted her.
Hill circled. "It would be unfortunate if anybody thought it wasn't."
"Such as your teammates."
"How's the Delineator?" asked Natasha, reflecting that while she and Clint might have agreed to cover SHIELD's ass in that respect, Hill probably didn't want to hear what either of them thought of having to keep it from their fellow Avengers.
"He's being watched, don't worry. We won't have another escape. Not on my watch."
"Deputy Director," said an agent Natasha didn't recognize, stepping up to the edge of the mat. Natasha swiftly covered her shock. Deputy Director?!
"Yes?" said Hill, holding up a hand and pausing their sparring match.
"The WSC is calling for you."
"Agent Romanov, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to take this," said Hill, heading off the mat. "Thanks for the workout."
"You're welcome," said Natasha, and watched her leave. She picked up her water bottle and glanced over the gym, spotting a junior agent she knew on a treadmill. She headed over and took the machine next to him, exchanging a few pleasantries as they ran next to each other.
"Chang? Since when is Hill referred to as Deputy Director?" she asked a few minutes later.
Chang glanced sideways at her. "Not long, just a few days," he said. "It's not permanent or anything, I don't think. Fury's got some leave time coming. Or... something."
Natasha nodded and asked Chang about his new baby, giving him half her attention and making the appropriate admiring sounds as Chang described spit-up and rolling over and other no doubt vitally important baby-related things.
Fury. Taking a leave of absence. When pigs flew.
Taking a leave of absence, and leaving in charge Maria Hill, who was so by-the-book she actually thought Tom Sorensen was not a complete waste of paper, and who Natasha didn't trust as far as she could throw. Hill, who had been a bureaucratic thorn in Fury's side ever since Natasha had known her but who Fury seemed to trust, as far as a man who lied and manipulated as naturally as he breathed could be said to trust anybody.
Natasha smiled at Chang, got off the treadmill, picked up her towel and water bottle and headed off for the showers, and home.
"The guy wouldn't talk to me anyway, so no harm done, right?" Tony fiddled with the board he was working on, taking a screwdriver from U and not needing to look up at the screen to see the half-amused, half-exasperated expression Pepper was probably wearing right now.
"Has it occurred to you that Steve might not appreciate you doing that? Might find it a little... stalkey?"
"No, Tony. You're not his dad, either."
"Trust me, I don't wanna be his dad," said Tony, pushing U's offered wrench away perhaps a little harder than he meant to. U gave him a sad little whirr.
Pepper was silent for a moment. "No."
"Oh, Tony, no," she said, and Tony looked up at her, confused, before a light dawned.
He put his hands up. "No - no, come on, Pepper, I'm not--"
"I know what you told me," said Pepper, "but just because he swings that way, doesn't mean he'd want to swing your way. He's got enough going on in his life without you adding to the mess. Besides, you have enough on your plate without going after a team-mate. You know better, don't you?"
Tony turned back to U and the circuit board and reflected that it was a good thing he hadn't told Pepper how he felt about Steve, or anything about that church Steve was going to, or about him and Steve making out a couple of times, or... well, anything about whatever weird thing had been between them. Pepper was a wonderful woman, but some things even the most understanding of ex-girlfriends did not need to hear. "Pepper, come on. I know better than to dip into the company pool... more than once. I'm a reformed man, Pep, I'm going back to my old slutty ways--"
"The tabloids haven't said a word about you in months," she said, looking worried, and oh, God, was his ex actually looking upset that he hadn't hopped into bed with a stranger in a while? Was this really his life now, that when he didn't - hang on, when was the last time he'd hooked up with anyone?
Huh. Not since Pepper. Not that he'd noticed much, which would probably shock the hell out of a lot of people who thought they knew him. Pepper wouldn't be too surprised; she knew the playboy thing was part of the Stark legend and a rep, not an avocation. Really, when Tony was too busy, or distracted, sex and crazy partying often just didn't occur to him unless people threw themselves at him.
"Sorry?" He blinked at the screen, where Pepper's voice had just stopped on an upward tone.
"I said, are things really that bad? I thought you'd said Steve was doing better."
"He was. He is. He just has good days and bad days." Today, judging from his near-silence at breakfast, was probably a bad day. "And they've got him on a drug cocktail merry-go-round. It can't be healthy. I think he needs to take a break from it."
"Is that what you tried to talk to his therapist about?"
Tony pointed to a box of tiny bolts and Dum-E sped off to get it for him. "Yeah, I don't know how much he's in charge of, though. I think because of the Serum they've got SHIELD Medical making a lot of the decisions." And he wanted to talk to Steve about it, but he was staying away from Steve on purpose, and he didn't want to do anything that might make Steve not trust the people who were supposed to be treating him, and...
Pepper sighed and checked her watch. "Tony, I have to go. Please take care of yourself. And don't worry about Steve. I know he's having problems right now but he's a strong person. He'll be all right."
Tony smiled at her. "Yeah, you're probably right. Of course you're right, you're always right. Bye, Pepper."
He turned off the screen, going back to his circuit board for a moment before realizing he was about to solder the third line to the y-junction and he was probably going to solder himself to the chair if he continued working while still frustrated by Dr. Sanjay's attitude.
Damn it, he'd brought up his worries to Pepper hoping to get a little perspective, to settle himself down. Instead he was even more worried.
Well, Mohammed had gone to the mountain, but the mountain hadn't said a damn thing, so...
Tony quickly hacked in to SHIELD Medical, absently considering offering to set them up with proper anti-hacking software - and there were Steve's files. Service record, rescue files, initial unfreezing... nothing having to do with Dr. Sanjay - but oh, interesting, transcripts of conversations with SHIELD Medical's R & D people. He scanned one of the more recent ones:
Gandry: This one looks promising for pain control, but might induce paranoia.
Rogers: I'd rather not, then.
Gandry: Why not? I think we can--
Rogers: If I think you're out to get me? You don't see a problem with that? I could break you.
Gandry: We have security measures. We're SHIELD.
Rogers: And what about when I go home?
Gandry: Your team-mates are certainly capable of--
Rogers: No. I'm not gonna risk my team's safety.
OK, that was good, Steve was standing up for himself. But this Gandry, whoever he was, seemed a little cavalier about possible side effects. Tony scanned down as Gandry explained another experimental drug, comparing it to one Steve had tested recently, which was apparently adequate at keeping away anxiety but resulted in distracting physical over-sensitivity and heightened libido. Tony resolutely turned his mind away from the implications of that, other than noting that Steve didn't bother to correct Gandry when he assumed Steve meant he was aroused by women.
Not out to SHIELD Medical, then. Not surprising. He still couldn't quite believe Steve had come out to the team. Tony had almost had tears in his eyes. Steve might truly believe that he accepted who he was and just wanted to avoid same-sex relationships, but nobody denied part of themselves when they didn't have to without at least some self-hatred. And yet he'd revealed something that even people raised today, with relatively enlightened attitudes, often kept secret for a lifetime. And revealed it not just to Tony, but to an entire set of people who'd been strangers to him a few months ago. And to Rhodey, whom he'd just met.
Tony had been so proud of him. He would've kissed him if it wouldn't have been wildly inappropriate.
But then Steve had stopped whatever medication he'd been on at that time, and his mood had gone... not necessarily down, but distant. He'd been spending more and more time out of the Tower and away from the team, making it all the way through The French Connection but walking out of The Sting last night for no reason Tony could fathom. Even at home, he'd been unwontedly quiet and pensive. And this morning...
Tony scanned through SHIELD Medical records, ignoring Dum-E's soft taps on his leg. There really wasn't much here to work with. Descriptions of physical and emotional side effects of medications, bloodwork, nothing to cause concern other than the sheer number of substances being tested over a short period of time. Which SHIELD Medical had determined to be perfectly safe due to Steve's hyper-metabolism.
Damn it, Pepper was right. Steve would not want him looking at this. He made himself put the work away and vanish the file.
Stalk much, Tony? Clint had asked, and OK, maybe he had a point.
The trouble was, there wasn't anything else he could do. Maybe if he and Steve were close friends, he could ask him what was going on, but Tony had made sure not to be alone with Steve since that second time they'd made out, and Steve seemed quite accepting of that. Besides, Tony just wasn't good at this stuff.
"Dum-E, stop that, I don't need it," he muttered, as Dum-E tried to hand him a soldering iron, and Dum-E paused, waiting. Damn, no mental energy for even a mild threat to his bot. "Just... leave it on the table. I'll get it in a minute."
Dum-E seemed to shrink down slightly. This was stupid. He was sitting here, not getting any work done, getting his bots worried about him as he worried about Steve. And he was being an idiot. It had been a while since the last time things had gotten out of hand between them; whatever weirdness had been there had passed. And... and if there really was something wrong with Steve, it was probably better to see him than worry about him. Or spy on him.
Really, all he had to do was go make sure Steve was OK. Let him know in a bro-like fashion that, hey, maybe they could work out together sometime. That wasn't inappropriate, was it? Not stalking, not coming on to him, just two guys hanging out and sweating together. In a totally non-homoerotic way.
Tony mentally rolled his eyes at himself and put down his tools.
"JARVIS, where's Steve? He usually works out right about now, right?"
"Captain Rogers is not in the building."
"Where is he?"
"I am not sure."
Tony blinked. All right, he'd programmed JARVIS to be as human as possible, but he was probably imagining a worried tone in JARVIS's voice. "What?"
"He may be out for his run in Central Park. He has also expressed an interest in rock-climbing."
"Rock-climbing? Like, without stairs?"
Tony nodded. "JARVIS, I'm gonna suit up, see if I can catch up to him."
"Good luck, sir," said JARVIS, and Tony also had to be imagining the sound of relief in JARVIS's voice.
Two hours later, he was getting ready to give up. Steve wasn't in Central Park. He wasn't at SHIELD; in fact, nobody had seen him all day. Tony had had JARVIS hack into Steve's Starkpad and found his appointments at that church he went to - turned out he wasn't going there very often either, and had no appointments for another week.
This was ridiculous. Tony was being an idiot. Yeah, Steve had been distant and a little self-deprecating lately - referring to his current lack of occupation as "a step down from gathering tin cans with my little red wagon during the War" - but he was fine, and Tony should just let him be.
He hovered instead, getting JARVIS to project Steve's browser history over his visor. Found something about a park with a climbing trail on Staten Island, a ravine that had some interesting serpentine rock formations. Tony headed off.
He cruised over the park and felt a pang of relief, followed by a flare of annoyance. At himself or at Steve, he didn't know. Because there was Steve's motorcycle, and there was a lone human heat signature on the trail, and soon JARVIS was confirming that it was indeed Steve, and Steve was obviously fine, and Tony had just wasted a couple of hours chasing down a guy who just wanted to spend some time in the great outdoors. He hovered briefly, looking down at a steep ravine.
Jesus, from here, a drop down would kill anybody. You'd never find the body.
Steve was standing on the edge.
Tony shivered. He hesitated for a half a moment, then headed towards Steve and landed behind him. "Steve?"
Steve stiffened and turned, his expression half-irritated, half-resigned, then turned back to the ravine.
"What are you doing here, Tony?"
Tony flipped up his visor. "Just came to say hi."
"All the way out here?"
"And ask if you maybe wanted to work out together. I know you go every day. I need to get back to doing that too. Been kinda busy lately."
Steve gave him a skeptical glance and it occurred to Tony that he'd come an awfully long way just to casually ask the guy if he wanted to hang out sometime.
Tony glanced over the trail behind them, avoiding the steep drop. Looked nice, for wilderness. Well, Staten Island wilderness. The air was brisk on his face and Steve was wearing only a light sweater and jeans, but he supposed the Serum's effects normally kept him warm, barring interference from R & D's latest concoctions. "Nice place," he commented. "You come here a lot?"
Silence. The wind ruffled Steve's hair as he turned away from Tony.
"Um, OK, I didn't just come out here for fun," Tony admitted. "I'm a little worried."
Steve didn't react.
"Should I be?"
Steve was still gazing down, and Tony slowly moved closer, a brief glimpse of the trees and bushes and rocks below making him a little queasy.
"Could you maybe participate in this conversation? I'm getting a little self-conscious here."
"Why's that?" asked Steve, his tone unreadable. "You don't normally have a problem listening to the sound of your own voice."
Tony swallowed. "Please tell me I'm being an idiot, but you're standing really close to the edge there and I'm a little worried that you're not answering because you're thinking of doing something stupid."
Tony moved closer. "Are you?"
Steve gazed over the drop for a minute. "Depends what you mean by stupid."
Tony's stomach lurched, and a spike of heat, then cold, passed over him.
He took a deep breath. "All right," he said, forcing a calmness he didn't feel into his voice and ignoring the waves of nausea coursing through him. "What brought this on? I thought things were getting better. You're off duty, you're getting medication, seeing a therapist--"
"I'm useless and the meds do nothing but make me sick and the therapy... that's pretty useless too."
There was another awkward silence. Focus, focus, think, think think... "Have you... have you tried praying?" Tony suggested.
Steve snorted. "You don't think I'm too smart, do you? Of course I've tried praying." He shrugged. "Doesn't do any good. I still hate this time. I hate this entire world."
"You... you just have to give it time," said Tony. "It hasn't been that long, you have to--"
"You know what?" Steve turned to him, his eyes hard. "It's been long enough. And it doesn't matter how long I wait. It doesn't matter how many fucking chemicals they pump into my arm, how many times I puke up everything I eat and tell myself it's for a good cause. It doesn't matter how long I sit around feeling useless. It doesn't matter how many times I tell myself that this time isn't ugly and wrong and that I'll get it, eventually." He paused, breathing hard. "It doesn't matter if I mourn Peggy and Bucky properly, and my men, and my whole fucking life - nothing brings any of them back! It doesn't matter how well I learn to accept my 'perfectly healthy' homosexuality - none of it matters! None of it changes the fact that all I really want to do is end all of this - permanently!"
Tony sucked in his breath, looked over the drop and told himself he could launch himself in time if Steve did decide to step off. He could make it. They would make it. Steve would be fine.
"I should've died seventy years ago," Steve said bitterly, turning back to the ravine. "Nothing changes that."
No, he'd be safe. Alive. Not fine. He wasn't fine.
"Did you know one of the only things that hasn't felt wrong in months is when we - is being with you?" said Steve quietly. "Not - I mean, I'm glad nothing like that has happened in a while. It's one more complication I don't need. But it's ironic, isn't it, that something I can't have is one of the only things that feels any damn good any more. Even though I feel like shit afterwards."
Tony took a deep breath, desperately wishing he had any idea at all how the hell to respond to that.
"There was that one medication, made it so I could hardly think of anything but sex... if we'd ended up alone together while I was on that, there's no way I wouldn't have--" Steve broke off. He cleared his throat. "Sorry."
Tony nodded, reflecting that it was probably a damn good thing Steve had stopped that particular set of meds. Tony wasn't made of stone, and the thought of responding and taking advantage of Steve that way without knowing he was being affected by fucking medication, causing him even more confusion and guilt...
He cleared his throat. "Steve. I'm gonna need you to back away from the edge, OK?"
Steve stayed where he was.
"For me, OK? I'm pretty sure you're not really going to do anything drastic right now, but I'm still, uh, freaking out a bit here." He paused to steady himself. "I mean, I know generally, if men really want to, they go through with it. Statistically. Women take pills and end up in the hospital. Men shoot themselves in the head. It's still a little, um, nerve-wracking over here..." He was babbling. He really had to stop babbling.
The corner of Steve's mouth twitched, but there was nothing remotely humorous in the look he flicked at Tony. He gestured to the ground beside him, and Tony's heart froze as he took in the small backpack and sketchbook and the... they all had permits to carry, of course, what with being Avengers and all, but he hadn't even known Steve owned a gun. He slowly reached out and picked it up. Checked it. SHIELD-issue, Starktech (Jesus Christ), and loaded.
"I want to," said Steve flatly. "I want to, all the time."
Tony's hands were shaking now, his heart racing. No, that couldn't be true, that had to be the depression talking. Steve had good days; this just wasn't one of them. "Why haven't you?" he asked.
"I shouldn't want to. I repeat all the same things to myself, over and over again, how it's the coward's way out and things will get better and there are good moments worth living for and I've adapted a lot already and I can help people and..." his voice continued tonelessly, a litany of reasons that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with his emotions.
"And what happens?"
"And I still want to. I came here today because I didn't want JARVIS watching me. And so that if I finally stopped being able to talk myself out of it, you wouldn't find me afterwards."
"You... you came here to die," said Tony slowly.
And then Tony had shown up. Tony, who was totally inadequate to handle anything like this without somebody to walk him through it step by step. Just Tony, no Pepper, no Bruce, no team, nobody else. Just him and Steve on a ledge, with a gun, and Tony working with nothing but whatever trust Steve had in him. Trust which had led Steve to turn to him for help once, and then never again.
"Steve. I'm gonna need you to come back to the Tower, OK?"
Steve closed his eyes. "And do what? Nothing's working."
"No. You're right. And I don't know what to tell you, but if you come back you're gonna have to trust me that we're gonna do things differently."
OK, strategy. Tony sucked at emotions, but he could do strategy. "You're feeling sick from the meds, and you're still isolated, and you're feeling useless. Right? So, we'll deal with it. I don't... I don't have any solid ideas yet, this isn't really my area, I'm an engineer, you know? But... but I promise you, we'll do something. Get you away from the lab geeks, for one thing, find something for you to do that isn't make-work... I don't know. Something." He swallowed. "Please. Come with me."
Steve gazed at him for a moment, then back down.
"Do I have a choice?"
Tony glanced down too. "Uh, yeah. If you... I think I can catch you. Pretty sure I can, anyway." He swallowed. "But I don't really wanna test that, and I don't really want to carry you kicking and screaming back to the Tower. I'd much rather you just choose to come with me."
Steve closed his eyes, head bowed and fists clenched, and Tony clamped down on an almost overwhelming urge to just grab him away from the edge. "Steve. Please trust me. God, just please... trust me."
Steve let out his breath, defeated and hopeless. "OK."
Tony barely resisted the urge to sink to his knees in relief. "OK." Christ, his voice was shaking. He stood for a moment, getting a grip on himself, pushing away fear and sudden overwhelming exhaustion and a screaming need to call Pepper and get her to take over, ASAP, before he somehow screwed this up again. He carefully reached out to Steve, and squeezed his shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "OK."