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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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1.

January 8

"Because Steve's coming back to work, that's why," said Clint, packing his arrows. "And that means back to SHIELD."

"We knew he would eventually," Natasha pointed out patiently, checking her Widow's Bites. Hm. One of them definitely needed replacing. "I don't really see why anything has changed. We agreed that keeping quiet was for the best, we agreed that--"

"We agreed before, when Fury was in charge. He's not in charge any more. And SHIELD's already put Steve through the ringer."

Natasha pursed her lips and gave her gun a cursory check, loading the ammo.

"SHIELD's different now, Tasha. You know it's different. What we're doing is different. What Steve's gonna be doing is different. And he deserves to know--"

"If anything, it's safer," said Natasha. "For Steve, at least. A lot more milk runs."

Clint added a package of extra strings to his bow case. "And what about when he needs to use SHIELD Medical?"

"Seriously, Clint," Natasha challenged him. "What vested interest would Medical have in messing with Steve?"

"Not necessarily messing with him. But using him to do research, whether it's good for him or not."

"Why?" asked Natasha, checking the batteries on her comm.

"He's an asset. Just a tool for SHIELD to take advantage of."

"We all are."

"Not to Fury, we weren't," said Clint, carefully replacing the garroting wire in his shoulder pocket.

Natasha rolled her eyes. "Please."

Clint snickered. "Well, OK, we were. But we weren't just assets. It was different with Fury, you know it was." He stared at her, obviously frustrated. "Nat, he coulda had you killed when I brought you in. He listened to me and Phil instead when we told him to give you a chance. He could've left me with Loki after Manhattan, or had me killed too. I'm sure the Council wanted him to. Fury fought for both of us, against the Council. The Council doesn't give a shit about people - even a city's worth of people. And Hill's just - they say jump and she just says how high."

Natasha had to admit there was some truth to that. She looked over her emergency ration packs. Probably wouldn't need to replace those yet...

"We agreed to not say anything about the Council's nuke because of Fury, Tasha," Clint pointed out, adding a couple of darts to one boot and a vial of poison to the other. "At least I did. With him gone - and with all the weird shit that's gone on there in the last few months..."

"Clint, we don't even know for sure that SHIELD Medical was doing anything wrong to Steve." Natasha blew out her breath, frustrated. Her own agency, and she hadn't been able to crack it. "We don't know anybody was doing anything wrong."

"Don't give me that. Steve's own therapist thought there was something weird going on."

"The only things we know for sure have been going wrong at SHIELD actually look more like Fury's fault than anyone else's. The Mean Teen getting away from Joneville under his watch; what Chang said the other day about funds going missing a few months ago--"

Clint stared at her. "Nat."

Natasha sat down and fiddled with her boot-knife for a moment before separating it in two and sliding the pieces into the soles of her boots.

"You may be right. I'm just trying to get you to convince me."

Clint took a deep breath. "So, we tell them?"

"I didn't say that." She paused. "For one thing, you know it's treason. We took an oath to uphold national security. You don't break that on a whim. Bad things happen to people who do."

"It's not a whim. Everything's changed, and you know it." He put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her earnestly. "You know it. Besides, we wouldn't be telling some random guys off the street. We'd be telling our team-mates. The Avengers." He sighed. "And we better hurry, because if SHIELD has its way we might not be part of that any more."

"Hill said she was happy we'd integrated," Natasha pointed out.

"So how come the two of us being called out again and again?" Clint challenged. "Doing stupid missions, without the team?"

"Why do you care? We didn't like it when we were sitting around idle."

"For one thing, we totally missed The Last Emperor," said Clint, packing away a small bottle of gun oil. "For another thing, it's not just us being off the team. I get the feeling the new world order doesn't just want us off the team; they want to shut the team down, period."

"You're being paranoid," said Natasha firmly, and had to smile at Clint's don't-bullshit-a-bullshitter eyeroll in response. "If they wanted to shut down the team, they'd be happy about Steve wanting to do Research and Analysis and join another department. Instead Hill shut that down."

"I can't make heads or tails of that part, to be honest," Clint admitted. "Maybe she wants him to feel useless? I don't know."

Natasha took a deep breath. "All right. If they try to pull us away from the team, we tell them. They should know."

Clint nodded, but his eyes remained hard. "That's not enough. We're stalling. Why not tonight? Before we go on assignment again?"

"It's a two-day surveillance. What's the rush?"

"Tonight," said Clint stubbornly.

"You're like a little kid. No. We're going on assignment in three hours, and this will probably take some time for them to process." She gave her equipment one finally cursory glance. Everything accounted except her cyanide pill. She added it to her wrist pocket.

"You're delaying."

"I'm not. Clint. They're not going to take this well. Would you?"

Clint's mouth opened, then closed. "Good point. All right. As soon as we come back."

Natasha hesitated, then nodded.

Clint nodded grimly, then checked his watch. "I guess it's for the best. We'd have to miss the movie otherwise. Think it's Rain Man tonight." Clint grinned. "And then we'll drive off to the mission. 'Course I'm an excellent driver."

Natasha blinked. "You're going to drive us? I thought we were being picked up."

"Never mind, you'll understand after the movie. Come on, let's go."

They took their packs and took the elevator to the common floor, getting off and heading towards the movie room and stopping abruptly as they spotted Tony and Steve coming out of the kitchen, locked in a fierce embrace.

"Come on, Tony, come back to my room," Steve was saying urgently, mouth busy on Tony's lips and hands grasping him, pulling him down the hallway, then stopping to push him against the wall and rocking against him.

"Steve, fuck, not here," Tony murmured, pushing Steve's hands away and stopping his protest with a heated kiss.

"Can't - can't wait," Steve panted, pinning Tony's hands to the wall and biting his neck. Tony threw his head back against the wall, opening his eyes and spotting Clint and Natasha, who were both stopped in the hall, mouths slightly open.

"Steve, fuck, no, come on," he said, tugging ineffectually at his hands. Steve bit the juncture of neck and shoulder, and Tony moaned and pressed closer, thrusting them together. "Steve," he groaned. "Normally love wall sex, dude, but you're gonna regret this tomorrow. Let me go. Let's take this to my room."

Steve raised his head, alerted by a noise, taking notice of Clint and Natasha for the first time. He closed his eyes, biting his lip, then swore softly and pried himself reluctantly from Tony, not meeting Clint and Natasha's eyes as he and Tony pushed past them and hurried to the stairs. The door swung shut behind them and Natasha could hear a thud against it, hear Tony's gasp of surprise being muffled, see the door shaking slightly.

Natasha took a deep breath.

"Um, holy shit," Clint said quietly.

"Yeah."

"Think the side-effects of this latest one might be overstimulated libido and lowered inhibitions?"

"He might wear out even Stark," said Natasha. The door rattled lightly and a faint groan came from behind it, from which of them she couldn't tell. She glanced at Clint and they shared an unspoken thought that it wasn't likely Steve and Tony were going to make it all the way to Tony's room, let alone Steve's. They were probably fucking against the stairway door right now.

Funny; she'd seen Tony on the prowl a few times when SHIELD had started following him, seen him aroused and hedonistic and letting go of even the minimum of social conventions in pursuit of a quick scratch to an itch... but never Steve. Ever-proper, gentlemanly Steve, who looked like he still wanted to stand up when Natasha or Pepper or Hill entered the room, who didn't think it appropriate to even kiss in public or use foul language in mixed company. Seeing him like this, eyes dazed, pupils wide, cheeks flushed, raw, overwhelming need taking over him, and rutting up against Tony as though nothing else mattered, as though he had to come now or die, barely even noticing two friends and colleagues seeing him nearly undone...

"I... don't think they're going to make it back for the movie," said Natasha slowly.

Clint nodded, still somewhat stunned. "All right. Yeah. We'll, um, let's just head back to your floor and, uh, play cards or something till the transport gets here."

"Good plan."

2.

January 13

"Why do you want to go back, Captain?" Sanjay had asked. "I'll clear you, but I need you to understand why you want me to."

"I told you, I need to work," said Steve. "I'm going stir-crazy doing nothing in the Tower."

"What about Research and Analysis training?"

"That's been paused. Indefinitely."

"I can assure you, Director Hill wants that to continue. There may be some adjustments going on right now, but you could wait another week or two and see what happens. Why go back to the team instead? Why be an Avenger?"

"I feel like I have to."

"As an obligation?"

"No. More like... to prove to myself that I can."

Sanjay regarded him seriously. "What will you do if you're hurt? What will you do if you need medical attention?"

"I'll deal with it. I just... I need a purpose."

"A purpose?"

"Something to do. Something useful."

"There's a lot of useful things you could do that don't necessitate putting yourself in harm's way on a regular basis."

"Like what?"

"For one thing, you're a role model to many people--"

"Without doing anything. Besides, read the papers sometime. Or reader comments on Yahoo."

Sanjay wrinkled his nose. "Those rot your brain."

"Mostly, yeah. But they do give some insight into man-on-the-street opinions. One of them called me a fag who was benched because I couldn't handle living in the real world. Whose role model do you think I am?"

"People dealing with mental health issues. Soldiers. Kids questioning their sexuality."

Steve rolled his eyes.

Sanjay's eyebrows went up. "You don't think that's important? Think of yourself, as a teenager. Wouldn't it have made a difference to you if you had known someone who you admired, who was the way you were?"

Steve sighed. "You know, I ended up Googling some stuff at one point. Something Clint said about how the two 'token LGBT Avengers' didn't know anything about gay history. There were some names I was surprised to see."

"Such as?"

"Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Anderson... a couple of places mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt."

"None of them were out then, were they? Would it have made a difference to you if they had been?"

Steve frowned. "I suppose so."

"You inspire a lot of people," said Sanjay, leaning forward. "You've heard the recent stories about young people accepting themselves because of you. Being able to come out to their families, just because of what you said during that press conference. Imagine how much more you could do--"

"What, if I became professionally gay? My private life is private--"

"I don't mean go on a talk show circuit. I mean just live your life. More openly than you have been."

"How?"

"For one thing, you're in a relationship--"

"No, I'm not."

"-that you don't acknowledge in public. You could--"

"It's private." He paused. "And it's not even a relationship. He's not into long-term anything. I knew that before anything started."

"Would you be with him, if he were?"

Steve sighed.

"You have a real mental block about this, don't you?" said Sanjay, sitting back.

Steve crossed his arms. "We agreed, a long time ago, that this was a no-go zone," he reminded Sanjay.

Sanjay nodded. "How are you doing otherwise? In terms of publicity? Have there been other incidents like the one last week in front of your building?"

Steve chuckled. "There was a loon who walked up to me and Bruce at Trader Joe's and called me a practicing sodomite." Sanjay's eyebrows went up. "No, it was funny - I didn't even get a chance to react. Bruce just said, 'Actually I think he's a Methodist,' and walked us right past." Sanjay laughed, and Steve smiled at the memory. "I think I'll have to remember that line if anybody calls me that again."

Sanjay grinned and made a note. He glanced at his clock and flipped a page. "All right. I'll approve you going back on duty. Light duties only, no command role yet."

"Really?"

"Your new medication is helping you, you no longer experience panic attacks, your sleep is much improved. We're going to work on pain relief next, but I'm encouraged by what's happened so far." He paused and looked up. "How are the side effects of the new formula? Are things back to normal?"

Steve looked away. "Yeah, I guess so."

"I did warn you that it might--"

"It's better. We're fine - I'm fine."

"Fair enough. Although I did think that switching so quickly after just one week--"

"I couldn't live with that," said Steve. "That was... not a situation I was willing to tolerate."

Sanjay nodded. "Well, let's talk again in a week, and we'll see how you're doing. In the meantime, I'll start the paperwork to get you reinstated. I'll send you copies of what you need to sign."

Steve nodded and stood up. "Thank you."

Sanjay smiled at him. "My pleasure, Captain."

Steve headed back to the Tower, stopping by the cafe to get a coffee to go and giving Beth a small smile, grateful that the place seemed busy this afternoon and she couldn't stop to chat. She'd been nothing but polite and friendly, even mentioned his coming out ("Good for you," she'd said) and politely refrained from mentioning his absence from the team. She was nothing but pleasant and open. He was the one who felt a little ill-at-ease around her.

In fact, everything surrounding coming out had gone a lot easier than he'd expected. Conservative preachers aside, except for some ugly words online and a few instances of people recognizing him on the street and being assholes (three of which he wouldn't even have noticed if not for his enhanced hearing, plus the one that Bruce had so memorably handled), everyone had been either supportive or kept their opinions to themselves.

He parked his bike and entered the Tower, finger hovering briefly over the elevator buttons. He should go down to the gym. Maybe go to his studio. Think over what it meant to be approved to go back on duty. Maybe look at the paperwork Sanjay said he'd send over.

He punched the button for Tony's workshop instead.

A wave of Aerosmith washed over him as the door opened. He winced slightly and waited for his ears to adjust before looking around. Tony was in a far corner, a tiny screwdriver in hand, random pieces of metal spread out on the table before him. He was doing something that apparently occasionally involved welding, judging from the safety glasses on his head. He looked up at Steve briefly, adjusted the screwdriver, and said something Steve couldn't quite hear.

The way I see it, you've got to say-- and Steve Tyler's voice suddenly dropped to a low murmur.

"Hey Spangles, what's up?" Tony called out. Steve waved him back to work, making his way across the shop. Tony picked up a small torch and a bright burst of blue flame zapped the pieces of metal in his hand. He turned the piece around in his hand, surveying it critically, then glanced up at Steve as Steve reached him.

"You OK?"

"You know these don't do you much good if they're not in front of your eyes, right?" Steve said, smiling at Tony and pushing the glasses down.

Tony rolled his eyes. "I forget. What's up?"

"I've been cleared," Steve said. Oh. He hadn't exactly come here planning on saying anything yet.

Tony's eyebrows went up. "That calls for a celebration." He paused. "Doesn't it?"

Steve nodded and Tony leaned forward to give him a kiss, then went to get a couple of glasses for them from the small workshop bar.

Steve looked around. This wasn't what... damn it, how did this keep happening? He could understand it when he'd been depressed, he could understand when he'd been able to think of nothing but sex, but now? Why did he always end up at Tony's place? Why was Tony always on his mind?

At least Tony was now merely on his mind instead of constantly on his libido. The first days after going back on the anti-anxiety medication had been hellish, and Steve had been skittish about being near Tony at all for a few days after the incident with Clint and Natasha. Things were... better in that department now. A little too much better, actually.

Tony came forward with two glasses of wine and they clinked them together.

"To your triumphant return," said Tony.

"Well, it's a return. Don't call it triumphant yet."

Tony smirked. "Listen, Capsicle, you'll be great." And he leaned closer and kissed Steve, hitching his breath a bit as Steve parted his lips and their kiss deepened.

It shouldn't be this way, thought Steve vaguely. This wasn't supposed to be as attractive. Even without the pull of over-stimulated libido, here he was with Tony again and within minutes he... he had completely lost track of the plot. Who knew what the hell this was about. He was lost in Tony's mouth, their lips caressing each other, Tony's hands carding through his hair. Tony's warmth, his hands, his breath, his scent, and God it was so perfect, the muscles on his chest and back flexing against Steve's, so good, so right...

So different from those times they'd been making out when he first went on the new medication and it got out of hand, turned Steve into raw need and itch and ache needing relief. The mere memory of that had made him burn with shame later. Especially remembering Clint and Natasha, hardened assassins who had seen everything, mouths gaping as he practically tried to fuck Tony against the wall in plain sight because he had to, because he couldn't stop himself, because even the five minute walk to his room was beyond his reach as he tried desperately to slake his need.

...although come to think of it, he'd almost take the itch and the ache over the complete absence of anything sexual right now. It wasn't that he wasn't having a good time, because he really was; everything Tony was doing was perfect, it was usually all he needed to get him going, he'd jerked off to the thought of this kind of thing endless times, wishing it didn't affect him so viscerally... and now that he had his wish and it wasn't what he wanted after all.

Tony broke off their kiss to move his lips over Steve's face, over to his ear, nibbling his earlobe, and Steve sighed. God, that felt so good...

And Tony was definitely feeling the way someone was supposed to feel right about now. A low moan escaped him as Steve ran a hand up his back and cupped the back of his head, and Tony pressed himself against Steve.

Fuck.

Tony backed off immediately, but it was too late, Steve had felt how hard he was, he could feel the frustrated desire trembling in Tony's fingers, the fluttering pulse in his throat. And it wasn't fair, wasn't at all fair that Tony was alone in how he felt, that Tony wanted to go further and for once Steve's hesitation had nothing to do with his scruples or hang-ups; it was a simple chemical imbalance, a tweak to his medication keeping his mood stable but his sex drive almost completely dead.

He stepped back and Tony put a hand on his cheek.

"Hey."

He looked up at Tony. Tony bowed his head, their foreheads touching. "I don't mind," he said quietly. "If this is what it takes--"

"I do mind," Steve snapped tiredly.

"I would've thought you'd be happy. No... sinful urges and all."

"Would've been happy to get here on my own. Not like this."

"I don't mind," Tony repeated.

Steve sighed. "You have a lot more patience than most people give you credit for."

"Hey, in the grand scheme of things, you're not to hard to be patient for," said Tony. He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand through his hair, giving Steve a small smile. "So you swing from fuck-or-die to budding asexual in a week, and half the time you look like you want to go to Confession for not staying pure before marriage. The other people I put up with on a regular basis are my nagging ex-girlfriend, a flyboy who stole a multimillion dollar machine from me, and a guy who might turn green and destroy my kitchen if he burns his toast. Looking at it that way, Steve, you are not the most trying thing going on in my life."

Steve laughed despite himself.

"Besides, in terms of people I sleep with, it's nice seeing the other side. I'm normally the one trying other people's patience. I once suggested celebrating a six month anniversary by having a threesome. To this day I don't know if she broke up with me because of the suggestion or because the girl I wanted to bring to our bed was Miss February and my girlfriend was Miss April and they'd had a rivalry I didn't know about." Steve groaned. "Hey, how was I supposed to know? I'd put a lot of thought into selecting February. We'd started dating in February. I thought it was romantic."

"You have no shame at all, do you?" said Steve, with a wry smile.

"Shame? No. Regrets, yes."

"You? Regrets?"

Tony's eyes darkened. "Are you kidding me?" he said, his tone still slight, but with a small edge. "I have regrets - lots of 'em. I've done a lot of stupid stuff, made a lot of mistakes - and I don't mean any of what's on Youtube except for the one with the mohair pants - but I've hurt people, most of whom deserved a lot better from me." He paused, swallowed. "I don't sit around and ask myself if what I do in my bedroom meshes with some obscure set of rules that maybe I'm not quite following right. When I do something wrong, it has nothing to do with having a good time with a willing partner."

Steve winced. OK, he probably deserved that one. "Like what?"

"I've fucked up a lot of things in my life," said Tony, his voice hushed, none of his normal flippancy evident. "Part of why I'm not the marrying kind: because I know I'm no fucking good at any of... this," he said, gesturing between them. "I can fix anything mechanical. Invent the most amazing things. I can see things so clearly when we're talking about things. People? Not exactly my forte."

"You do fine," said Steve uncertainly.

Tony turned away, fiddling with his screwdriver. "Well, put me in front of someone I care about when they need me and I don't have a clue what to do."

"You do," said Steve.

Tony didn't look at him. "Steve. You came to me that first night, and I'd had no idea you were in trouble. And then I panicked and practically handed you right over to SHIELD Medical with a bow, for fucks's sake. That shows people-smarts to you?"

Steve gaped at him, stunned. "That's... not how I remember it."

"You weren't thinking clearly. I'm not surprised."

"No, look, that day, that you came after me, on Staten Island." Steve had to stop, remembering the hopelessness, the despair, the sheer sense of futility he'd felt. How he'd stood on that ledge for over an hour, the wind on his face, his will to live weakening. How by the time Tony had shown up, he was too drained to feel much beyond vague annoyance and disbelief. "That's not what happened, that day. I would've - you came after me. If you hadn't..."

They were silent for a moment. "How... I never asked, but how close were you?" Tony finally asked cautiously.

Steve shivered. "I don't know. But you - you were there, and you made a difference. I might have stepped back on my own, but I might not have. I didn't feel like I had anything left to live for, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I did. You probably saved my life."

And he was continuing to save Steve's life. For a man famous for being a selfish, oblivious brat, for a man Steve had accused of being concerned only with himself... Tony had shown himself to be a better friend, shown more caring for him - for a lot of people - than just about anybody Steve had ever met.

"You are good at this. I mean - I know, this," he echoed Tony's vague gesture between them, "isn't anything - it's friends-with-benefits. But. Your... your friendship is a benefit. Whether we - whether we keep doing anything or not. It's... you've helped. You really don't see that?"

Damn, but he was inarticulate. He'd always thought it was because he wasn't good with women. Maybe he just wasn't good with anybody he felt this... strongly about.

"Well," said Tony, and cleared his throat, still concentrating on his machine. "You're very generous." He put down his tools and smiled brightly at Steve, but the expression didn't make it all the way to his eyes. "So, after I finish this, since celebration sex is off the table for the foreseeable future, can I interest you in a celebration dinner?"

"Sure."

"Want to invite the team, or should this be a party of two?"

Steve hesitated briefly. It had been a few weeks since the last spate of rumors about them, and they weren't really a couple but paradoxically being unable to have sex was making Steve feel more like being with Tony in other ways - ways that he normally shied away from.

"For two. It can even be at one of those Japanese places you like so much."

"We'll miss Driving Miss Daisy."

"Whatever," he said, and smirked at Tony's smile.

"Whatever? Did Captain Tightpants seriously just say 'Whatever'?"

"I think so."

Tony laughed as he dialled up the restaurant. "God, I feel like calling up the tabloids. Not only out on a date with a guy, but playing hooky from team-building activities and about to eat raw fish. It's positively indecent. I've really corrupted you. I'm so proud."

3.

January 15

All right, they were going to do this. They were really going to do this.

She shouldn't be so nervous, thought Natasha as Jessica Tandy snipped at Morgan Freeman on the screen. She'd done far more dangerous things. She'd been a spy since childhood, fought bad guys and aliens and gods, put her life at risk over and over again... but this felt somehow different. Somehow more risky. Definitely harder.

They were all leaving tomorrow morning on a reconnaissance mission. Nice and easy, a perfect outing for Steve's return to the team. Some weird stuff was going on in Taft, a small city in California, where SHIELD had been stationed for a few days, watching odd colors undulating in the sky. Thor had been called and said that it might be some kind of god gate but not one with which he was familiar, and it didn't look dangerous at all. But then a small building had fallen down for no reason anyone could tell, the undulations had become more frequent, some kind of giant dead lavender lizard had appeared on top of the local liquor store, and SHIELD had decided to send in the team. Tony and Bruce were going to watch and work with the scientists (Thor's Lady Jane was going to be there too, to his very vocal delight), and the rest of them were going to be on standby. Sounded like a standard SHIELD mission: a lot of waiting, a lot of preparing, small possibility of extreme action.

Steve was ready to go. He looked good. Centered; steady. She hated to do anything to disturb that, but there really wasn't a choice.

She gazed at Tony and Steve as they watched the movie. Tony sat on the floor, leaning on the couch, Steve sitting behind him and absently running a hand through his hair. Steve leaned forward and whispered something into Tony's ear that made him chuckle, then pressed a kiss to the side of Tony's neck. Tony smiled and tilted his head to the side, eyes sliding shut.

"Come up," Steve murmured softly into his ear. Tony nodded and moved up on the couch, then lay down with his head on Steve's lap, eyes still on the screen, Steve's fingers idly running through his hair again.

They looked peaceful, but also somehow... subdued. More couple-like than they'd been since they'd started whatever-this-was between them, but with a sense of something missing as well. Which made sense, considering what she'd overheard Tony talking to Bruce about the other day.

"Yeah, no, he says it's not a long-term solution," Tony had been saying as Natasha approached them around the corner. "He's giving it another couple weeks and then he's gonna try other stuff."

"Is it just the sexual side effects he's concerned about?"

"Yeah. Kills everything."

"I can imagine that would make things awkward."

"I told him I didn't care."

"And he believed you?"

There had been a pause. "I meant it."

Must be love, Natasha had thought before she deliberately made a noise and both men dropped the subject. Part of her knew very well just how uncomfortable Steve would've felt at her overhearing that, but she refused to feel guilty about it. Bruce had taken over as the team's backup medical resource after Steve's initial disasters with SHIELD Medical and Tony of course knew everything that went on with Steve, but if Tony and Bruce wanted to keep anything secret from the rest of them, they should have known better than to discuss it in the kitchen.

The movie ended and the news came on automatically. Natasha made a noise in her throat, which Clint ignored in favor of staring at the screen, and she mentally rolled her eyes at him. If they were going to do this, they should do it. Turn off the damn TV and get on with it. That, or they should all go to bed to get some rest before tomorrow. Had there been an Avengers Den Mother present, she would've been turning off the TV and dragging them off for their own good.

"We should all go to bed," said Bruce. "We'll need rest before tomorrow."

"Yes Mom," said Clint, and Natasha snickered. "Hey, Celeb City Buzz is on."

Steve blew out his breath. "Celebrity culture and reality shows. That and climate change make me almost wish I'd stayed on ice."

"They're like flies," said Tony. "You just have to learn to ignore them."

Clint smirked. "Yeah, Cap. You're just pissed 'cause there was another frenzy of 'Iron Man and Captain America are secretly married' stories this week."

Steve rolled his eyes. The screen changed to a flurry of pictures and a rough series of short shots outside the Maria Stark Foundation party last week. It settled on a shot of Steve walking to the limo, looking rather dapper in a dark suit, and being followed by two reporters.

"Captain America! Is it true that you're dating Zachary Quinto?" asked the male reporter.

Steve blinked but kept walking. "Who?"

"Why are they showing this now?" Tony grumbled. "That party was last week." Clint waved a hand at him, grinning.

"Are you dating anyone?" asked the female reporter.

"Sorry ma'am, I've already said that I won't discuss my private life," said Steve, continuing to move towards the limo.

"Did you come to the ball with anyone?"

"Yes, of course," said Steve, deadpan. "My team."

The reporters were not dissuaded, and kept shouting questions. "Is there anyone special in your life?"

"Is it true that you were attending conversion therapy?"

"Iron Man has gone on record saying those places should be shut down. Do you agree with him or not?"

Steve shook his head and moved on and into the limo.

The screen dissolved to two anchors, who were chuckling and shrugging. "That was Captain America last week, notoriously private as ever," said one, a heavily made-up woman. "No word as to what he thinks about the latest round of rumors this week. The one thing we do know is that the stories about Captain America and Iron Man being an item are probably not true - sorry, guys! - despite them being spotted at a restaurant together this week: Tony Stark has never been shy about the details of his personal life, so if there was anything going on there, trust me, we'd hear about it."

The other anchor, a man with spiked hair, laughed. "What do you think about his refusal to address conversion therapy?"

"I think that--" the screen abruptly went dark as Natasha turned off the channel.

"Hey, better than that other shit they printed in some Christian news site - did you see that one, Nat?" said Clint. "Saying Captain America approves of that crap?"

Steve turned to look at him, his eyes narrowing.

"So fucking stupid," Clint went on. "Like anyone in their right mind would endorse those damn witch doctors."

"What do you know about them?" asked Steve.

"Uh, electro-shock therapy? Pray the Gay Away? Might as well wave a dead chicken around. Though waving a dead chicken wouldn't be abusive. Except to the chicken."

"Not all of them are like that," said Steve, his voice odd. Natasha felt a sudden unease.

No. No, he couldn't have...

"Yeah, well, these Christian 'news' assholes said you approve of them, just because you never denied those rumors that you actually went to one of them, and there's no proof that you've ever dated a guy. If you ask me, you oughta sue the bastards." Clint smirked. "Or let yourself get photographed playing tonsil hockey with Iron Man. Preferably in costume."

"Why would I sue?" asked Steve quietly.

"Um, libel?" said Clint. "Defamation of character?"

"Not if it's true."

There was a deep silence.

Clint blinked. "OK, um... that's messed up."

"Clint," said Natasha.

Clint sat up. "No, that's messed up. Dude, are you serious? You actually went? When did you stop?"

"The last time I went was December 20."

Clint frowned and flicked his gaze between Steve and Tony. "That was after you two started."

Tony sat up. "How do you know when we started?"

"We're not blind. Though apparently we are. Again." Clint glanced at Natasha. "Did you know?"

Natasha shook her head. "No, but it doesn't surprise me that much."

"Doesn't surprise me either," said Bruce.

"I... do not understand," Thor confessed.

"That's really messed up," Clint said, ignoring Thor. "That you'd go at all, never mind after you two were already--"

"Clint," Natasha repeated firmly.

"No, come on, Nat, it is." He glared at Steve. "You know, we were all protective of you - we all tore Tony a new one because we thought he'd messed around with you, but all the time you were--"

"Clint," Tony snapped. "Maybe you don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Maybe that's a good thing," Clint shot back. He glanced around at the rest of them. "You don't think it's fucked up?"

Bruce rubbed his forehead. "Clint, think about it for a minute. Steve, when did you know you were gay?"

Steve blinked. "I always knew." He shrugged irritatedly at Bruce's patient look. "Ten, twelve? I don't know."

"And you fought against it all your life, I bet."

"Yeah, of course."

"And you were twenty-six when your plane went down." Bruce turned back to Clint. "Fourteen years of fighting, versus one of being told he didn't have to. What did you expect? Would anyone be able to just accept something like that without a struggle?"

Clint scowled. "You know, that's fine, that's - Steve can make his own decisions about trying to be something he's not. But here's the thing: I thought they were just being discreet and not wanting the paparazzi to bother them while they sorted themselves out. But it's more than that, isn't it?" He glared at Steve. "You're still hiding. Acting like the two of you are some kinda dirty secret." And now Tony was determinedly looking away, and Steve's jaw was set. "That's not being discreet, that's--"

"Clint," Natasha said, her voice steely. "Do you really want to antagonize everybody? Right now, tonight?"

Clint hesitated, mouth still open, then sat back and took a deep breath.

Bruce frowned at her. "What do you mean? You mean the day before a mission?"

Natasha blew out her breath. "No." She exchanged a glance with Clint. "Not just the mission."

"What is it?" asked Bruce.

"Fuck. Me and my big mouth." Clint rubbed his forehead, then gave Natasha a wry smile. "This is why you're the social graces part of this partnership." He sat back, looking tired. "Look, whatever; Cap, Tony, none of my business. Whatever floats your boat, man - if Tony's OK with that conversion shit, and with you treating him like - let's just all forget I said anything."

Steve gave him a level gaze. "You still look like you want to say something."

"Yeah, well I was kinda hoping to segue very smoothly from some random item on the news to what we had to talk to you guys about. This is gonna go about as smooth as chunky peanut butter. After it's been thrown up."

Natasha moved her chair around and faced her team-mates. "There's something we haven't told you about that we probably should have a long time ago. Something about SHIELD." She lifted her chin. "And before you make any judgements, let me remind you that we took oaths. By telling you this, we're violating about fifty different rules and regulations, not to mention laws."

"You're Level 7 Operatives," said Steve. "We know there's a lot you can't tell us."

"Well, this was kinda big," said Clint. "And probably a lot more messed up than any church crap you were involved in." He took a quick breath. "You know that pilot that went rogue during the battle of Manhattan, and went to nuke downtown? The one Fury said suffered a psychotic break and got sent off to a soft padded room somewhere?"

"Yeah? Is he... is the pilot back?"

"No, he's still safely retired. But Nick Fury is a lying liar who lies lying lies." Clint paused. "And so are we."

"What are you talking about?"

"Brucey, you're gonna wanna take a few deep breaths," said Clint. "You were told the guy just flipped. The truth is, the WSC ordered him to go."

"What?!" Bruce gaped at them.

"Deep breaths, dude. It happened a long time ago, and it all worked out, right?"

Bruce visibly calmed himself. "You're saying the Council ordered a nuclear strike on New York."

Natasha nodded. "Fury fought them. They ignored him."

Steve was staring at them. "The Council sent nukes. Against eight million people."

"The Tesseract was open, Steve. Aliens were coming down, and we didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't know how many of them were going to come through that thing. All we knew was that it was open, and spewing bad guys--"

"And Manhattan island was an acceptable loss of life," Bruce said flatly.

Thor was looking grave. "If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the people to whom you owe allegiance ordered the attack that would have destroyed this city."

Natasha nodded.

"And they asked you to speak falsehoods about it? And you agreed to do so?"

Tony spoke up. "When did you two know?"

"We found out the week after the battle, after Clint had been cleared, post-Loki," said Natasha. "Sworn to non-disclosure before we were told anything."

They were all still staring at Clint and Natasha, and Natasha had never felt so naked. These were people who trusted them, their team-mates.

"Why break that secrecy now?" Steve asked quietly.

"We took oaths to SHIELD," said Clint. "And Phil, and Fury. They're both gone. We never took any oath to the WSC."

"And that's who's in charge now," said Natasha. "And you need to know that."

"Plus Steve's back at work, and hasn't been treated exactly well by SHIELD so far."

Tony was scowling at them, arms crossed. "Damn it, you should've told us. I can't believe you two have been sitting on this--"

"Level 7, man," said Clint. "Some of the freaky shit we've had to sit on - just this year alone - you do not want to know."

"You know, I felt sick when I found out the country I fought for had dropped nuclear bombs on Japan," said Steve, his features grim. "And that was in war time. Even the idea of nuclear bomb, that kind of mindless--"

"My father worked on that bomb," Tony pointed out evenly.

Steve took Tony's hand in his. "And I felt sick knowing a man I worked with and trusted helped to invent it," he said quietly, looking down at their clasped hands. "I know there were good reasons for it, but the only thing that made it bearable was that it was only used twice. And now I find out I work for people who would have tried to use it again."

"Fury tried to stop it from being used again, Steve," Clint pointed out.

"Fury's gone."

"Which is why we're telling you," said Natasha.

"Besides, Fury didn't tell anybody what the Council had been willing to do--" Bruce began.

"The Council was willing to use it, but they were also trying to save people," Natasha protested. "Trying to save the planet, not just one city."

"It's really that simple to you?" Bruce said, his hands clenched.

"It's war," said Natasha.

"And you two just went along with it."

"Yes."

"You are... you are my shield brother and sister," said Thor slowly. "I have fought by your side. I have trusted you."

Natasha's heart sank. "I won't apologize for keeping this secret," she said, keeping her voice even.

"I will," said Clint ruefully. "It was a shitty thing to do. We shoulda said something a long time ago."

"The fact is that we didn't," said Natasha. "And I won't apologize for keeping my word."

Thor gazed at her thoughtfully.

"A whole city," said Bruce. "All of us could be dead."

"Let me remind you that the reason we're all alive is because of that bomb," said Natasha. "Tony flew that bomb into the opening and killed off whatever controlled those things we were fighting."

"Dr. Selvig knew how to close the Tesseract--"

"In the meantime we were fighting an enemy that massively outnumbered us," Natasha reminded him. "People were being hurt. A lot of people, not just us."

"The ends justify the means?" said Bruce.

"Sometimes." Natasha took a deep breath. "Not this time. Obviously. Or we wouldn't be telling you. But it's not as black-and-white as you're making it sound."

"You still should've told us," said Tony.

"Tony," said Steve quietly. "They had other obligations. And we were barely a team yet when they found out what happened."

"It's been a few months since then. If they'd told me before, Jesus, I would've--

"What?" said Natasha.

"I would've gone after the whole Omega-level server thing a hell of a lot more, for one thing!"

"Would you have done anything differently?" Natasha asked Steve.

Steve stared at her. "Maybe. Probably. I don't know."

Thor looked grave. "I do not know if I would have been so eager to remain allied to an organization led by persons with such eagerness to give up when difficulties arise. Or such callous disregard for life."

"Would you have stayed?" Clint asked Bruce.

Bruce shook his head.

Natasha took a deep breath and glanced around her team-mates. Thor still looked appalled, Tony angry, Steve weary, and Bruce more visibly upset than she had seen him in a long time without being green. But after the initial shock, most of their upset didn't seem directed at her and Clint. That was good, at least. They could work with that.

Bruce stood up.

"Gonna hit the giant bag of weed?" Tony asked sympathetically, and Bruce gave him a sharp glance before walking off. Tony took a deep breath. "I think we're gonna be talking for a while tonight." He paused. "And to think, tomorrow was supposed to be a cake-walk."

"Tomorrow will be a cake-walk," said Clint gloomily. "It's tonight that's gonna be a bitch."

4.

January 20

Thank God the Taft mission had been a cake-walk, thought Tony as he gazed out over the railing. 98% preparation, 2% perspiration, and they'd had almost no trouble taking down the weird little wanna-be villain posse they'd found. Noobs messing with a stolen teleportation device they couldn't control. At one point after their capture Steve had gently bopped one with his shield, more to move him out of the way than anything else, and the guy had actually pissed himself.

Forty-four minutes from initial shot to final takedown, most of that spent with Tony taunting the leader. It was almost a record, broken only by that genetic designer who'd surrendered within five minutes back in February. The good people of Taft had barely had time to notice anything was happening before it was all over and the Avengers were leaving.

It had been the perfect mission for Cap to come back. Only Tony had known how nervous he was, only Tony had known that he'd had trouble sleeping the night before, and not just because of the revelations about SHIELD and the WSC. He'd been calm and professional during the extremely short battle, gone through debrief with no hint of any inner trepidation, and accepted the admiration of a gaggle of Taft's youngest citizens with ease. The papers had mentioned his return to the field, but the battle had been minor enough that there hadn't even been any media frenzy.

And then they'd come back home. To redoubled combing through SHIELD databases, looking for they had no idea what, all of them debating or contemplating the finer points of ethics. Tony discreetly figuring out how to legally and financially dislodge the Avengers from SHIELD. All of them on edge, wondering what they were going to do next. Where each of them was going to fall. It was pretty clear that Tony, Thor, Bruce and Steve wanted to leave SHIELD, but they weren't sure when or whether Clint and Natasha could join them, or what the consequences would be to them, as Level 7 agents who had betrayed their oaths... or whether they could remain team-mates even if they did leave, what with there being some distrust and resentment towards them, at least from Bruce - and all right, a bit from Tony himself - and...

"Tony?" Steve poked his head out onto the deck and Tony braced himself.

"Hey Spangles." He smiled back at him, gestured for Steve to join him at the railing. Steve did, gazing out over the city.

"You wanted to see me?"

"Yeah." Tony glanced back at the table where his gin waited for him patiently and took a deep breath. No. Not another one. He needed to be at least a little coherent for this. Briefly he wondered if for once it might not have been a better idea to stop when he first started to feel like his judgment might impaired, rather than relying on the fact that he'd been successfully managing classes, exams, conferences and board meetings while totally blitzed most of his life. Because yes, he'd had a lot of successes in that field. But somehow he always forgot the crashing failures.

"What is it?"

Right. Tony turned, gave Steve a small smile. "Yeah." Rip off a bandage. Get it over with, in the current spirit of making major decisions and getting off the pot and all that. "This is... I'm gonna try to get through this without it being awkward. So, um, it's probably going to be awkward as hell."

"What is it? Have you found something in the SHIELD database?"

Tony shook his head. "No, this is personal. Here, I'll just say it. This - you know our little friendly arrangement?"

Steve's eyebrows drew together.

"Yeah, I can't do that any more."

Steve blinked.

"This is the part where other people always say 'It's not you, it's me,' but I don't have a lot of experience with this side of it so bear with me. It's, uh, really not you. Maybe a little you. But mostly me. All right, all me - wait, hang on, do you know what I'm talking about?" he said, taking in Steve's blank expression.

Steve nodded slowly.

"OK, I - you just looked a little out of it there, I'm - this is like talking into a void. So, yeah, like I said."

Steve nodded. "Why..." he trailed off. "No. I'm not - sorry. You don't owe me any explanations. I'm... I'm sorry. If I did something--"

"No. No, that's not..." Tony pressed his lips together. "Steve. I told you I could do this. I usually can, all right? Friends-with-benefits has really never been a problem before."

"Why is it a problem now?"

Tony looked away. "It just is."

"I'm not trying to argue out of this, you know," said Steve hesitantly. "I'm just curious. What changed?"

I've changed. I want more. I actually give a shit that you're almost never there in the morning. That we just... come and go.

Tony's shoulders hunched. Oh, Christ, that part was the last thing he wanted to get into with Steve.

"Look, I've never had a problem before with being discreet," he said deflecting. Hell, it wasn't like this part didn't bother the crap out of him too, and had even before Clint had made his opinions known. "And believe me, if I never sleep with another star-fucker again it'll be too soon," he said, and had to smile as Steve's eyebrow went up and his lips silently repeated 'star-fucker'. "But this... I just... can't be your bit on the side. I can't be something you're ashamed of."

"I'm not ashamed of you," Steve said, his eyes widening. "Tony--"

"No, but you're ashamed of yourself after we're together." Steve's eyes dropped and he swallowed hard. "You are. Fuck-buddies doesn't work for you."

"You're not a fuck-buddy."

"Right, because we don't fuck. We just screw around. We haven't even really had sex. You can still feel virtuous about that, at least." Shit, that had come out a little more bitter than it sounded in his head. Damn it, he was supposed to be going for sensible, tactful, and mature, wasn't he? "You could even still go back to that church place, whatever it's called, and be able to say--"

"God's Peace. And I don't feel virtuous. I feel like I'm taking advantage of you." Steve paused, his eyes dark and guilty. "And apparently so do you. Which makes me not much better than the people who took advantage of you when you were at MIT, does it?"

The only way I can get friends is if I flash around my money or my dick, he vaguely remembered telling Steve, and holy shit was he not going to go there.

"That's not the same thing. Christ. Not the same thing at all. You're not taking advantage. But I'm Tony Fucking Stark, and I don't do this hiding from the world bullshit."

"I don't - I just think some things are private."

"There's private, and then there's dirty secret, Steve."

"You're not a dirty secret. You're..." Steve paused and took a deep breath. "Look, we're - we were doing this by your rules. So we're not a couple. But you're the best friend I have. I'm not ashamed of you. I - how I feel about you, it's not." He swallowed and looked down, his composure faltering. He took a deep breath. "It's - it's not your fault that I fell in love with you, it's not your fault I couldn't deal with this being just a friendly thing," he said, his voice husky. "It's not your fault I don't feel right sleeping with a guy and not having it mean anything, let alone being - telling the world about it. But... it's not. You're not a dirty secret. I didn't mean to make you feel that way."

"You're... in love with me," said Tony flatly, his mind reeling.

Steve sighed. "Tony, for Christ's sake. If you hadn't figured that out by now..."

"I hadn't," said Tony, feeling numb. In love with him. Perfect. He'd not only not managed to make Steve feel better, he'd managed to make him feel guilty over casual sex, and then somehow totally missed the part where Steve was falling in love with him - with Tony Fucking Stark, genius when it came to machines, and pathetic sub-moron when it came to people.

Dude, your healing!cock is notsomuch, he could hear his internal Clint Barton narrator mocking him.

"If you were a dame I'd be the happiest guy in the world." Steve gave a weary laugh, leaning his elbows on the railing. "Well, maybe not, because I woulda proposed to you months ago and you're not the marrying kind, but--"

Tony stopped him with a kiss, and Steve startled for a moment, then leaned into it. It was over fairly quickly, and Tony pulled back, cupping the back of Steve's head and touching their foreheads together. "If I was a woman and you had, I would've said yes," he said, and bit his lip. Oh, shit. "Damn it. That wasn't - fuck, forget I said that, I'm not into marriage and you think it's some Straights-Only club anyway - shit, I'm sorry, God, that's a lot more than I meant to say. Fucking declarations of love during a break-up. I really shouldn't drink before a heart-to-heart, it never goes well, how do I never manage to remember that."

They both drew away at the same time.

"Look, forget it, I didn't say anything," said Tony, and clenched his hands to keep them from shaking. "I'll forget what you said too. Let's just leave it as we're not gonna screw around any more. Unless you decide you actually wanna be out and proud and quit the self-hating thing."

And let's never tell anybody I ever said any of this because all of my hook-ups except Pepper would wet themselves laughing at me.

Steve nodded quietly, his features pale. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry it didn't work out. For you."

Tony shook his head. "Don't be. I had fun. It's funny, being with you, other than your fucking hangups? Seriously better than... hey, better than any drug, and trust me, I know what I'm talking about. That's part of the problem. With you I feel higher than anything - booze, E, whatever - and we've never even fucked properly." He paused and laughed bitterly. "And you think it's a mistake. Hard to deal with that. I feel higher than a fucking kite, and you feel lower than a child molester."

Steve frowned. "I don't feel--"

"Fine, will you let me exaggerate a little?"

"But I don't--"

"We're in love, Steve. It should be the happiest moment in your life, when you realize the person you're crazy about is just as crazy about you."

"I'll take your word for it," said Steve, looking miserable. "Haven't exactly done this too many times."

"Me neither," said Tony. Steve gave him a skeptical glance. "Hey, it's true. Do you have any idea how many people I've fucked?" Steve shook his head. "I don't either. You know how many times I've been in love? Three times."

"Tony... I'm sorry. I never meant to..."

Ah, shit. Tony really was too drunk for this. Right now all he wanted was to take Steve in his arms and tell him never mind, of course they could keep messing around. Kiss that sad, guilty look off his face. See whether the libido-killing medication was still affecting him, and reassure him that it was OK if it was, and--

No. He blinked and gathered his thoughts. There were good reasons for staying the course. To wit:

One: Steve might think he was in love with Tony, but he was just a kid. A kid with almost no experience. What did he know?

Two: Steve deserved better than a fuck-up who couldn't even figure out the simplest interpersonal things.

Three: Tony might be a fuck-up when it came to people, but he didn't deserve to be kept in the closet like a fucking umbrella. And he could damn well make and keep friends based on more than just flashing around his money and his dick.

Right.

"Go on in, Steve," Tony said, with small flash of pride for how he managed to make his voice sound almost steady. "It's almost time for Dances With Wolves and we've got a full day of figuring out SHIELD's shenanigans tomorrow." He paused. "We can still be professional about this, right?"

Steve nodded, and Tony could almost see the 'soldiers do what they have to' stoic mask settling onto his features. "Yeah, of course."

"Happily, having to try to figure out how to deal with someone I'm no longer sleeping with is one area where I've had lots of experience," said Tony, his mouth twisting bitterly. "Hey, you and Pepper have something in common now."

Steve gave him a small smile. "I've always liked her."

Tony gave him a small smile back. "Yeah. And hey, you know, it's better this way. I inevitably fuck up eventually anyway. Better get out while the getting's good."

Steve shook his head, and the mask slipped for a moment as he held Tony's gaze. "You don't give yourself enough credit," he said quietly, and went inside.

Tony put his face in his hands, fighting back the urge to throw something or to cry. He took a deep breath, then he turned back to his patiently waiting gin and tossed it back before heading back inside.