Clint strummed softly and gave Steve a small smile. "Yeah, he really was." He pushed a chair out to Tony with his foot.
"For how long?" Steve asked as Tony sat down, noting the deck's subtle heating system had finally come on. Clint and Steve were in light jackets and jeans, not looking terribly bothered by the light breeze despite the threat of snow in the air.
"All his life. And I'm not just giving the AA party line about alcoholism being a lifelong thing even if you don't touch a drop for thirty years."
"How long had he been sober when I met him?" asked Steve, fiddling with the bracelet Tony had put on him to track his location and vital signs. Tony resisted the urge to tell him to leave it alone. It was built for his strength, after all. He couldn't yank it off if he tried; he certainly couldn't damage it by fidgeting with it, no matter how often he did.
"He'd just earned his six-month chip." Clint grimaced. "For the fifth time."
Tony gave a low whistle.
"Yeah," said Clint, giving the guitar a gentle strum and looking out over the slowly darkening city. "He was what you call a high-functioning alcoholic. His prize possession - other than his trading cards - was his three-year pin. Earned it in '98."
"What happened that he didn't earn the fourth year?"
Clint blew out his breath. "Battambang. Bit of a clusterfuck, lost five agents. He didn't go into a tailspin, but it was a year before he managed to go even a week without." He paused. "Not a good time."
Tony watched Steve, wondering distantly at his sudden interest in Phil Coulson's mental health issues, but mostly just happy that he was taking an interest in the world around him at all. Because the last few days had been brutal. Ever since Tony had brought him back to the Tower, he'd been quiet, tired, and passive, not giving any input during the team's discussions about what to do with him - or even bothering to shave or get out of bed the first day. The only emotions Tony could read from him had been resentment and self-loathing and occasional frustration. He seemed to trust Tony and the team far enough to go along with whatever they said, but Tony didn't know how much was trust, and how much sheer hopeless indifference. And considering how little confidence Tony had in what he and the rest of the team were doing, Steve's lack of enthusiasm didn't help.
"How many people knew about his drinking problem?" Steve asked.
"Um, not as many as you'd think, considering how nosy SHIELD people are. '05 was pretty bad for that though - it was kind of an open secret for a while, at least among the Level Sevens and a few of the Sixes. Not that Phil was ever falling-down drunk at work or anything, but there were definitely way too many days when he wore dark glasses 'cause he was hungover, and more than a few nights and whole weekends he just totally blacked out." Clint ran a few soft scales. "And after bad missions? Once he was done the reports, he'd go out and have to get collected and poured into his bed by his assets. Natasha could tell you some stories - there was that time with the ficus tree and the soundtrack to Rent that was just..." Clint trailed off, smiling sadly. "I mean, it was pretty funny, but... the worst was we couldn't always keep it from the juniors; kinda hard to hide carrying your boss to his room when you're in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Most of 'em didn't think there was anything pathological about it. We'd usually pretend to be just as drunk as he was."
Steve shook his head.
Clint shrugged. "He got better. There's probably rookies even today who get told the stories, but after '05 he ever let it get that public again. So what with the high turnover and the fact that he never let it look like more than a bit of slurring when he was supposed to be off-duty - and he could kill you with a shoelace - it died down. Everyone who knew him respected the hell outta him."
Steve hesitated, then asked cautiously. "What made him a 'recovering' alcoholic instead of just... an alcoholic?"
"Mostly political correctness on our part," said Clint, grimacing. "Phil didn't use the term 'recovering' himself. But he was a good guy, Steve. The best. He picked me outta the trash and Natasha outta hell, and he gave us real lives. He did so much with his life, worked so fucking hard. He just..." Clint shook his head sadly. "He didn't have anything other than SHIELD in his life, and SHIELD's not an easy place to work for. You can do a lot of good, but you also see a lot of shitty stuff, the hours are brutal, the organization's kinda messed up..."
Bruce wandered out onto the roof and pulled up a chair, and Steve looked at his watch.
"You traded your shift with Natasha?" he asked quietly, and Bruce paused for a moment before nodding.
"Yeah. My experiment's done. I was gonna be up all night waiting for results, but it blew up on me. She's up next, though." They'd given up being discreet about who was on Steve-accompaniment duty a day into the arrangement; Steve didn't appreciate it. "Do you mind, or would you rather I call her and we stick to the schedule?"
Steve shrugged and fiddled with the bracelet and Tony reflected that, considering the fact that he very clearly resented the 24/7 accompaniment and the restrictions that had been put on him, he was handling the whole situation with a lot more grace than... well, than Tony would have, for one.
"Would you prefer that as an anklet?" Tony suddenly asked.
"Your bracelet. You're gonna wear a groove in your wrist."
Steve glanced down at it. "I'd prefer it off."
"Not an option," and "No way," said Bruce and Clint at the same time.
"I know that," Steve said bitterly. "Doesn't stop me from hating it."
Clint picked at his guitar for a few minutes.
"I didn't even know you played," Tony commented.
"Haven't in years," said Clint. "Almost forgot how. I picked it up during this one undercover mission in Tallahassee. Told Cap about it while we were talking music, a few weeks back." He strummed a bit. "It's neat, getting back into it. Even though the tuning pegs are pretty worn on this one."
Not a bad hobby to pick up again, Tony figured. It was easy enough for him and Bruce to deal with Steve's near-silence as they took their turns accompanying him (only Steve used the term "babysitting"); they just worked on their pads. He'd wondered how Thor, Clint and Natasha had been using their time.
"You know, I have a fairly nice one at my place," said Bruce. "One of my patients in India gave it to me; he couldn't play it any more, couldn't pay me, and his kids had no interest in it." He thought for a moment. "Why don't you take it? I'm never gonna play it."
"Sure," said Clint. "Thanks."
Bruce glanced at Tony. "I could get it for you now, if you want." Tony nodded, indicating that he would stay on the deck with Steve, and Clint and Bruce headed inside. "I'll be right back," said Bruce.
"You don't seem to be taking being restricted to the Tower too badly," said Tony a few minutes after they'd gone, hating the tentative tone in his voice.
Steve shrugged. "I'm already confined to this time," he said indifferently. "One place is as bad as any other." He twisted the bracelet again. "Besides, if I wasn't here, I'd probably be locked up at SHIELD Medical."
"Still, if you want to go out anywhere, we can--"
"It's not like I have any pressing appointments," said Steve. "Other than at the church."
"Do they know why you're not coming in?"
"No. I just said I wasn't coming."
Tony nodded. "What do they talk about?" he asked curiously. What the hell, Steve seemed to be in a sharing mood.
"I'm told it's different for every person," said Steve. "For some people apparently there's a lot of prayer."
"Avoiding sin and hellfire?"
"I guess so. I don't really believe in that, so I wouldn't know. For some people, it's how to leave a lifestyle they're not happy with. For some it's how to stay with their wives or husbands."
"I dunno, avoiding temptation," said Steve uncomfortably. "Figuring out what I want in a... girlfriend. Or wife."
"Are you still thinking about that?" Steve gave him a questioning look. "I mean, you're out, now. To a lot of people. Doesn't that make any difference?"
"A lot of the people who go there are out, Tony. They're just not happy being out."
"What about... do you talk about specific personal stuff?"
Steve sighed and met his gaze. "Are you trying to ask if I've talked about you?"
Tony blinked. "I guess so. Yeah."
"Not everything is about you."
Steve hesitated, turning the bracelet on his wrist. "Yeah. The counsellor asked if... if you were part of what was making things difficult for me. I told her you weren't."
"Really?" Tony's eyebrows went up.
"I told her if you weren't here, I would've - that I went to you, that night, in your lab before I went on leave. That you were the reason I didn't... do something stupid that night."
Tony swallowed hard.
"I also told her that I knew that wasn't fair to you," said Steve wearily. "You can't be responsible for me, no matter what you think."
"Wait, hang on - so, they do know you're depressed?"
"My counsellor knows, yeah. Now. I hadn't told them until I went on leave."
Tony scowled. "And they keep telling you that you need to change yourself? Did you know that's a huge risk factor for suicide? Don't they--"
"I told them to respect that you weren't part of my problem," Steve said evenly. "I'll ask you to respect that they aren't part of it either."
They were silent for a long moment.
"What I said... the other day." Steve cleared his throat. "About being with you. I don't want to give you the wrong impression."
"What impression is that?"
"That I want - that..." Steve gestured helplessly. "I wasn't - it wasn't a come-on."
Tony nearly laughed. Because he remembered Dad saying that Captain America had no idea how to talk to women, but if Steve honestly thought that anything he'd said in the middle of a suicide intervention could possibly be taken as a come-on, he pretty much didn't know how to talk to anybody.
"I didn't take it as one," Tony reassured him, and Steve nodded. "I know I'm... I'm probably not your type. It's just that you don't know anybody else who swings that way."
Steve looked out over the city bleakly.
"I mean, you're the marrying type. That's what you want." Tony paused. "And with a woman, to boot. I'm the hop-into-bed type, and I don't apologize for that. I tried, with Pepper, to be something else. It didn't work real well. I guess I'm not... I'm not good at the relationship thing."
"I probably wouldn't be either."
"I doubt that. Picking up, maybe that's not your strong suit. An actual relationship? You'd probably be the world's greatest husband." He cleared his throat. "Maybe even with a woman."
Steve gave him a half-smile. "Funny, I'm supposed to be the judgmental one."
"Your face. It speaks volumes." He paused. "Go ahead, spit it out."
"You have a problem with marriage?"
Tony thought for a moment. "Not marriage, no. I just think those places - places that try to change people's orientation - they feed self-hatred."
"You've never been there. I don't feel any hatred there."
"Maybe it doesn't seem like it to you. But you wouldn't be going there if you didn't, at least at some point inside you, hate yourself a little bit for being gay." Steve gazed out at the city impassively, and Tony blew out his breath. "Steve. You say you don't believe in the whole hellish damnation thing. You know orientation's innate. You're smart enough to see that it's possible to get married and have kids in this day and age. The only reason you're still hoping to become something you're not is because you do hate yourself. At least that part of yourself."
"Were you ever called a faggot or a fairy as a kid?"
Steve's mouth twitched. "You mean when I was skinny, weak, and in art school? Oh, maybe once or twice."
"I think that affected you a lot more than you'll admit to yourself. I'm guessing being raised by nuns probably didn't help much either."
"I don't think so." He paused. "Who knows, maybe it did. But I think mostly it's that... it's all I have left from my time. If I'm gonna be out and proud... I really can't be who I was."
"So you're gonna be in and ashamed, because that's who you were?"
Steve sighed. "It doesn't sound too smart, when you put it like that."
For a very brief moment, Tony considered being tactful. The moment passed. "Could I put it in any way that would make it sound any smarter?"
"There's more to it than that."
"Like what? You think liking other men makes you less of a man?" He stared at Steve. "That's part of it, isn't it? Wanting other men was just one more thing that you were taught was weak, your whole life. Like asthma, and being short. And you're so used to fighting against weakness that you can't--"
"Tony," Steve said evenly. "I don't feel like talking about this. Drop it."
Tony held his gaze, not sure what to do. On the one hand, Steve had been completely beaten down, indifferent to everything, for days, and they'd all been treating him like he was about to break. Maybe he needed to fight against something; maybe it would do him good for Tony to treat him like he was perfectly capable of defending his opinions. On the other hand... he had almost broken. And he was being forced to accept all sorts of changes that he didn't want - not just in the last few days, but ever since he'd woken up in this century. Maybe when it was possible to back off and let him be, they should do just that. Even if backing off meant not challenging essentially irrational beliefs.
Hey, at least he was talking again. He was talking, and Tony wished he knew if it was something Clint had said or done during his shift, or Steve had just needed a few days to process after Staten Island before being able to interact with people again.
Bruce came back onto the deck, breaking the moment. "Steve, were you still OK with teaching me pen and ink?" he asked. "I can work on my Starkpad otherwise."
"Yeah, sure, I've got supplies in my studio," Steve said, not terribly enthused, and they headed downstairs.
Tony watched them go, then turned as a Quinjet approached. Oh, goody, he thought, glad Steve wasn't around right now.
The jet landed, and Hill and Fury got out. Tony gave them a friendly wave. "My favorite super-spies," he said. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?" and it was pretty funny how two people who looked so different could have the exact same look of annoyance. Tony let himself smirk at that for a moment, then reminded himself to rein it in a little. It was probably going to take some finessing, getting them to not gang up on Steve.
"So, I take it you're here to talk to Steve," he said, indicating a couple of chairs.
"To you, actually," said Hill, sitting down.
Tony blinked. "Sorry?"
"We're here on Avengers business, and you are the de facto leader of the Avengers now," said Hill, looking like she'd swallowed a lemon.
"What happened to Steve being treated like a field commander but there being no official head of the Avengers other than SHIELD? I seem to recall Agent Sorensen seeing it that way."
"That was never official policy," said Fury. "The Avengers were to govern themselves as they saw fit; you all seem to have settled on Rogers as your leader and spokesman, and in his absence, apparently you are the one in... command."
"Well well well. From 'Tony Stark: Not Recommended,' to leader of the Avengers." Tony allowed himself a brief gloating smirk. "So, what are we talking about?"
"Captain Rogers," said Hill. "From your report, his situation hasn't improved."
"Suicide watch isn't what I'd call an improvement, no."
"We're going to need him taken into medical custody--"
"He's not going back to SHIELD Medical," said Tony, bracing himself for a fight.
"He's a SHIELD employee," said Hill. "We are not complete newcomers to this kind of thing. Our agents and assets are--"
"Maybe you need to stop thinking of him as an agent or an asset."
"How should we think of him?" asked Hill.
"Have you thought that maybe he's just a kid who's been through a lot?"
"Ya think?" muttered Fury.
Hill scowled. "He's--"
"He's a kid, OK? A traumatized kid!" Tony snapped. "That's all! Damn it, you want survivor's guilt? He's got it for everyone he ever met in the first twenty-seven years of his life. He went through one of the worst wars in human history, sacrificed his life - and then woke up in a whole new world and was told to jump right back into war as if nothing happened. And now he's stuck in this world, and he's lost pretty much the only advantage he has right now, his health--"
"Which is why he should not be here," said Hill. "He should be in a secure facility--"
"One run by SHIELD?"
"Not necessarily," said Fury.
Hill turned to him in surprise. "You want Captain America treated in a regular mental hospital?"
"Uh, yeah we skipped from Godfather II straight to Rocky on our movie playlist," said Tony. "We're not about to let you send him into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for real."
Fury rolled his eye. "Don't be an idiot, Stark, that was a movie, they're not like that. And nobody's suggesting that anyway. I'm not keen on moving him at all."
"Are you serious?" said Hill, aghast. "Sir, our directive was clear that--"
"What about his shrink?" asked Tony, ignoring her. "Does he think Steve should be hospitalized at SHIELD Medical?"
Fury handed Tony a file, opened to a transcript. He pointed at a spot halfway down the page.
Sanjay: God damn it, I've been telling you people this all along and now it's blown up in your faces. If you decide to keep experimenting on him, or bring him here against his will, I will not only not support it, I will fight it. He trusts his team; he doesn't trust us worth a damn and after the way you've fucked up I can't say I blame him. Leave him alone.
Gandry: He is a valuable asset--
Sanjay: And a godamn marvel of modern science, yes, but maybe we need stop treating him like an asset or a symbol or a fucking science experiment and start treating him like a human being.
"His therapist is on board with the... proposal you sent us," said Fury, and Tony raised an eyebrow because 'This is the way things are going to be now, you incompetent assholes' had not been meant as a proposal. "I'm inclined to agree."
Hill scowled. "Sir, Captain Rogers needs--"
"Stark's got his AI monitoring him and a member of the team with him at all times, he's going to continue medication at lower dosages, and he's willing to keep seeing Dr. Sanjay at the Tower. I don't see how being at SHIELD Medical would be an improvement."
"These people are not trained professionals."
Fury turned back to Tony, ignoring Hill. "Dr. Sanjay is. Now, about getting him a non-combat-related position at SHIELD once he's no longer on active suicide watch. Dr. Sanjay's on board with that too, and has a few suggestions." He gestured at the file in Tony's hand. "Do you want to go get him, so we can discuss it?"
Tony blinked, slightly stunned. "Sure. JARVIS, can - no," he broke off, "on second thought, you two wait here, I'll go get him." He turned and headed off the deck.
"Sir--" he heard Hill say behind him.
"This is not your call to make, Deputy Director," said Fury.
"It's not entirely your call to make either, sir," said Hill.
"You are not going to go over my head to--"
"I won't have to. When Agent Soren--"
The doors shut behind Tony. "JARVIS, turn on the speakers from the deck and send it to my Starkpad," he said softly, and Fury's voice came flowing out.
"...reason Tom Sorensen isn't here. The Avengers don't trust him. He's a disaster as liaison."
"Maybe if we showed more support to him, they would," said Hill. "It's dangerous to play their game. Particularly with the WSC having some pretty legitimate concerns right now. Sir, you know my loyalty to you. But this is... maybe this is not the right time to let Tony Stark get his way."
"If we push them, they will leave SHIELD and we'll have no control over them whatsoever."
"I think you're misunderstanding the situation."
"Well, you may find yourself making these calls soon enough," said Fury. "I hope you enjoy it."
"Tony?" Bruce was coming out of the elevator, Steve behind him, both carrying sketchbooks, pens and inkpots. "Is that the Director?" Bruce looked to the deck. "What's he doing here?"
"Came to see Steve," said Tony. Steve tensed. "No, it's OK. I was coming to get you. It's gonna be OK. I think. Come on out to the deck, there's something Fury wants you to see."
"The job itself is analyzing SHIELD Intel and helping strategize ops," Hill had pointed out.
"Intel that's kept on the SHIELD servers."
"That's just the medium," said Fury. "It's pretty close to what you were doing with the Commandos. Sanjay pointed out that technology was one thing you appeared to have no trouble adapting to. We've only got three good, reliable analysts right now, but there are other jobs if you're not interested in that one."
"Besides, most of the more technical stuff on computers is done by the computers themselves," Tony had said encouragingly. "You just need to learn the interfaces, then analyze the information you get."
Which was why he was sitting here now, in a small SitRoom at SHIELD, figuring his way through SHIELD's internal files, following an electronic bread-crumb trail as part of his training. Bruce sat by on a nearby terminal, combining his babysitting shift with his own research time. They had come to SHIELD headquarters and monitored the latest Avengers outing: an attack by a rampaging Doombot, over in less than an hour with minimal damage to anything, really, and Steve once again wondered if Victor Von Doom treated these things as training exercises too because that was the only possible reason Steve could see for mounting them. And now Steve was working on his computer training while they waited for the team to join them, Clint and Natasha having already signed off and indicated that they were on their way, while Tony and Thor stayed onsite to speak to the press.
"You were never just a simpleton with a shield," Dr. Sanjay had pointed out when they'd discussed his choice later. "You and Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips looked over intelligence on Nazi and Hydra locations, planned attacks, did all sorts of things that made up the bulk of your work. Agent Carter didn't participate in most of the raids at all. You don't have to be in battle to be useful."
Feeling useful was important, Sanjay had fully agreed with Tony, so here Steve was, his mind clear of fog, the medication dialed down considerably, outside of the Tower for the first time in days. Still on suicide watch, but feeling clearer. A lot clearer. A lot more normal. He clicked through the folders on his screen, quickly discarding irrelevant files, and planted an unlocking algorithm.
"I don't think you need to throw out the baby with the bath water with the meds," Tony had said. "The constant testing was too much, but some of it helped. I mean, you've got better sleep now, for one thing. Still nightmares, but that's why we've got somebody at your place at night."
That was one thing that was difficult to live with: somebody in his apartment, sleeping in the guest bedroom, there in case he woke up or couldn't sleep, as if he were a child. JARVIS was programmed to wake them automatically, so that Steve wouldn't have to do so himself. Although, embarrassing as it was, his team-mates were all completely matter-of-fact when JARVIS called them. The first time, Clint had just nonchalantly offered a cold cloth and a glass of water and noted that he'd been pathologically scared of going to sleep at all after Loki; Tony had mused on the benefits of asking Bruce to research anti-nightmare medication.
"Why?" Steve had asked, head between his knees, heart still racing, images of Bucky falling down that ravine in Staten Island flashing through his mind's eye. He had to admit, listening to Tony running off at the mouth was a lot more pleasantly distracting after one of these than just staring at his walls and willing his body to stop shaking.
"He's done some neurochemistry, trying to figure out the Other Guy's triggers. Can you imagine, figuring out what causes nightmares? Maybe that would be outside his reach. But hey, if he did figure it out, I'll say this for SHIELD R & D, they did figure out how to give you some stuff at a therapeutic level. That arm implant may not be 100% reliable for you, but the concept is genius."
"Think it can give me booze at a therapeutic level too?" Steve had asked, sitting up and wiping a hand across his soaked brow and craving the oblivion of alcohol with a deep hopeless longing. Funny, he'd never been much for drinking before the Serum; it was only now, when he couldn't get drunk, that he sometimes felt he'd give his soul to be able to do so.
"That wouldn't be therapeutic," Tony had said, handing him a glass of water. "And I know, I know, I'm a fucking hypocrite, what with self-medicating all the time. Still not a habit I'd wish on anyone."
Steve twisted his bracelet around his wrist as he waited for the program he'd unleashed to burrow through SHIELD files, then made himself stop. Fidgeting: not a habit he wanted to cement, no matter how much the thing irritated him.
He glanced at Bruce, steadily working away on his own terminal. For the most part, his team-mates were unobtrusive about their babysitting duties. Thor tended to spend the entire time regaling him with sagas, but they were interesting in a completely bizarre kind of way. Tony and Bruce worked on their Starkpads, Clint played music or board games, and Natasha read. It was... comforting, he supposed, that they would volunteer to do this for him, when he ignored how completely humiliating it was that they'd felt they had to do it in the first place.
All right, he was in. He leaned forward and checked his training checklist against the files on his screen.
Natasha entered, freshly showered and tucking a SHIELD-issue t-shirt into a pair of sweat pants.
"How was it?" Bruce asked.
"Fine," she said. "Though I could've done without getting sprayed with Doombot oil when the last one near me blew up. They didn't really need us there." She took out her book, and sank into the nearest chair. "Any advice from the control room?"
"No, not really," said Bruce. "Looked good from here."
Steve nodded agreement. It had been a simple operation. He made a note on his list, then studied the screen more closely.
Bruce looked over. "You found your service records and rescue records?" he asked.
"What's that?" Bruce nodded at the screen.
"Records from after my rescue. While I was still asleep."
Natasha glanced over, smirked. "Not on the list of things you were supposed to track down," she pointed out. "Good for you." She looked closer at the screen. "Where are you?"
Bruce looked over. "You've accessed one of the Omega Level servers," he said, impressed.
"I didn't really mean to," Steve admitted. "Just took a wrong turn, then decided to explore. Doesn't say much for SHIELD security."
"Don't worry about it, you're using Starktech. Tony likes to tease Fury that SHIELD needs decent computer security, but really it's just that his software is almost impossible to guard against. If Tony ever ran SHIELD nobody would ever be able to get in."
Steve had to smother a laugh at the thought of Tony running SHIELD. He turned to the post-rescue internal memos, scanning down one from Fury.
...I am aware that our Wakeup Scenario team has been used successfully on numerous captured enemy operatives. They have gathered invaluable information when their realistic setups have convinced enemy operatives that they are among friends. It is worth noting, however, that they are dealing with enemy operatives, and it is my understanding that Captain Rogers is not currently classified as such.
"Do you know how long they were going to keep it up?" asked Bruce.
"A couple of days at most," said Natasha. "Unfortunately Cap was a little too bright for them. I heard it took you less than five minutes to figure it out?"
"Something like that." Steve paged through documents listing SHIELD's efforts to keep him in a coma, and then a plan on how to allow him to awaken, and a list of the contents of the room in which he was to wake up. A discussion of whether he should be in hospital gown or regular clothing, whether they were going to try to convince him that he'd been very sick and needed to stay in bed, or tell him he was physically fine. Apparently they'd decided to tell him he was physically fine but needed to stay put because he kept passing out. He supposed he owed some thanks to whoever had been responsible for not making it so he ended up running through Times Square in a hospital gown.
"That's funny," said Bruce. "There's a bit of tampering here."
"Not sure I can explain it. Suffice it to say, within the SHIELD systems you wouldn't see this, but Tony's got a special algorithm for finding out what belongs where, electronically, and there's a few anomalies here..."
"See this line, where they've got internal listing of the sound file with the baseball game that was going to be playing on the radio? And this one, with the pattern for the uniform they were going to use for the nurse?"
"It's been changed." Steve looked closer at the screen where Bruce was pointing. "Looks like this was done from the inside."
"That son of a bitch," said Natasha, smiling.
"I can't say for sure. But I will tell you that there were only about four people with the clearance to be here, and two were Coulson and Fury. And the other two were fully on board with the plan."
That son of a bitch indeed. His secrets have secrets, Tony had said.
Natasha was scrolling through other items on the Omega server. "Interesting. I always wondered what happened to the records of the Hikaru op. And why Clint could never find details of the Helicarrier's ventilation system." She frowned.
"There's someone copying files. Within SHIELD Medical. And Financial, and Penal Containment. And..."
Steve moved aside for her, and she and Bruce took over for a few minutes, muttering incomprehensibly to each other.
"This isn't really my area," said Natasha finally. "I can tell something not quite right is going on, but beyond that I can't... for all I know, it's nothing."
"Would be nice if Tony was here," noted Bruce.
"He's doing press." She scowled. "I'm done. I'll flag Fury."
"He'll know Starktech got into Omega Level."
"You know Tony would tell him anyway, just to watch the vein throb on his temple."
Clint walked in, freshly showered and carrying a jug of coffee and several mugs. "What are you doing?"
"Helping Steve get up to speed on computers," said Bruce.
"Really? Wow. I'm jealous. Nobody ever does that for me."
"You're not thinking of joining the Analysis & Strategy Department."
"Remind me to tell you about Operation Reawaken," said Natasha, as Steve went back to the list he'd been given. She took the coffee and started to pour for everyone.
"I'll just pull up a Starkpad and feel part of, then," said Clint. "I may be borderline illiterate but I've got a shiny screen too." He started to put in earbuds. "Hey, Steve, I'll even give you my tech tip for the day. In fact, the only one I have: don't rely too much on autocorrect."
"Why not?" Steve took a sip of his coffee.
"Take it from a guy whose name sometimes autocorrects as 'Clit.'"
Bruce snorted and Steve's coffee went down the wrong way. When he'd finished coughing, Clint was smirking at him. "Hey, it's OK," he chuckled. "I hated it when I was in high school, but as a grownup I kinda grew to appreciate it. I mean, what's your name autocorrect to? Probably nothing. Mine's naughty. Friendly." He paused. "Clitty."
"Clit, let Steve and Bruce get back to their work," said Natasha firmly, and Steve smothered a smile and went back to work.
This wasn't so bad, he realized as he worked his way through the training list. It really was just different media. He could get used to this. If he didn't ever go back to the field, analysing data and planning out operations without following them up on the field wasn't exactly a waste of his skills.
Never mind that it wasn't all that he'd been enhanced to do.
Maybe Tony was right, though, and he didn't owe it to anyone to keep being a soldier. Especially if he couldn't hack it, if being a soldier was part of what drove him to a cliff on Staten Island, with only Tony standing between him and that final long step down. With a job like this, at least he wouldn't have to keep constantly putting himself in harm's way, and it wouldn't matter that his body couldn't handle painkillers. He could finally recover from battle fatigue, like the Commandos he'd sent home during the War.
And the job was certainly necessary. He collated what he'd found, figuring out the interface for encrypting files, and started putting together a practice report.
"Wow. Um, guys," Clint's voice was tight, and Steve, Natasha and Bruce turned to him. His lips were pressed together, a line between his eyebrows. "Cap. You're gonna wanna see this." He pushed his Starkpad over to Steve.
Captain America, Gay? was the first headline Steve saw. His mouth dropped open. "Oh my God." He pulled the pad closer, and scanned it rapidly. Scanned the article under it.
"Hey, it's not so bad," said Clint quietly. "I mean, it's all speculative, it doesn't have to mean anything. And even if it does, getting outed isn't as bad as it used to be--"
"I know that," said Steve impatiently. "It's just that I only ever told..." he stopped, his eyes glued to the screen, sick shock flooding through him. "Jesus Christ."
"You told Jesus Christ?" Clint said, and Natasha hit him. "What?" He leaned closer, reading over Steve's shoulder.
...has been attending conversion therapy, hoping to change his orientation. If he is, what does that say about his own acceptance of who he is? It was followed by a link to ex-gay groups, God's Peace among them. These controversial groups have been associated with higher suicide rates among teens, and are no longer accredited therapy. Could this be why he has not been seen in public lately? Or could there be a different reason?"
"He's there for a friend," says a source close to the Avengers.
It's well-known that Iron Man Tony Stark, whose exploits with women have been legendary, admitted to having same-sex encounters in the past. Could Captain America be trying to "cure" his team-mate? And if so, how does Iron Man feel about that? There was a link to a video.
"That has to be from the press conference that just finished," said Clint, checking his watch.
"He just finished fighting, and they decided to ask him about who Steve wants to sleep with?!" said Bruce.
"To be fair, we fight Doombots every other week," Clint pointed out. "Steve being into men would be actual, you know, news. Welcome to the digital age and all." He clicked on the link to the video and there was Tony, still in his suit, surrounded by reporters, forlorn Doombot remains being gathered by SHIELD personnel in the background. Thor loomed over his shoulder, looking grim.
"Was he trying to cure you?" a reporter was saying.
"No, absolutely not. Captain America has no interest in who I sleep with." He grinned at one of the reporters. "Unless they drink the last of the milk in the kitchen."
"You haven't been seen to be involved with anybody in recent months, though," said another. "No Youtube videos."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Please. Every time I have sex it doesn't end up on Youtube. Otherwise I've only had sex - what, a dozen, two dozen times? Give me a little more credit. Now if you don't have any more questions about today's attack..." he made his way through the crowd, with the reporters shouting questions about Steve at him.
Steve glanced at another article.
Of the ministries contacted, most did not return our calls, and one, Love Wins Out, declined to comment, saying only, "It is our policy to never confirm or deny the membership of any of our clients. We can only say that if Captain Rogers were a client, we would give him the same anonymity that all of our clients receive."
Jesus. Steve scrolled down to the reader comments with sick fascination.
- Guys get the best and the girls get the rest, as usual
- Iron Man's bi, Captain America's gayy, are all the Avengers just born that way
- No that's sick
- Love and support to Captain America!
- Why is this even news?
--- Yeah they should shut up nobody cares who's a fag anymore.
- Hey, I call steamy Iron Man/Captain America torrid love goin on in that Tower!
--- That building's pretty phallic to begin with!
--- They're doing it, totally.
--- Wrong is wrong.
- Hope this is true and that he finds peace within himself. He's a role model no matter what.
--- Do you mean you hope he's gay, or that he is but is trying to 'fix' himself?
- Please let this not turn into another discussion of Captain Americas cherry.
Steve couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry at the last one. "Another discussion?" he said weakly.
"Your V-card is a thing, dude," said Clint glumly. "I thought it was funny. Not so fucking hilarious right now, though."
Tony and Thor walked in, Tony out of his suit but both obviously having come straight from the press to SHIELD without stopping to clean up. "I take it you've all seen the news," Tony said grimly. "Well, heads up boys and girl, the fun SHIELD Brass Trio are going to be here soon."
"What, over this?" asked Bruce.
"For the debrief," said Tony, rolling his eyes. "You may have heard we had a battle today. But--"
The door opened, and Steve stood up as Fury, Hill and Sorensen came in.
"Please don't tell me Captain America's having a sexual identity crisis on my watch," Fury began. He took one look at Steve and sat down. "How is this my life," he muttered.
Sorensen gave him a sour look. "Director, we can contain this. I can put together a statement categorically denying that--"
"No way in hell," said Steve before he could think to stop himself. Clint, Natasha and Bruce got to their feet as one, and Tony put a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell is over," he said. "I lied to get in to the Army, but that was seventy years ago--"
Sorensen gaped at him. "Are you saying it's true?"
Steve squared his shoulders. He had nothing to be ashamed of. "Yes. And I am not going to lie about it if I don't have to."
"The - the media fallout--" Sorensen began.
"The media fallout from lying about it," Hill broke in, "if they find out he did, would be--"
"That's not the fucking point!" said Steve, and thought distantly that once upon a time he would have instantly apologized for swearing in front of an officer and a lady. He ruthlessly suppressed the urge to do so now, and glared at Hill and Sorensen. "My private life is private. I wasn't going to say anything to the media, because it should be nobody's business but my own. If you want me to stay silent, that's one thing. But don't ask me to lie, and don't lie for me. I will go to the press myself before I let you do that!"