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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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February 13

Clint shuffled out of the way to make room for Alison Roma, the senior medic. She sank down to the floor between him and Thor with a weary sigh, pushing her dark hair back from her face.

"Shiang's gonna be OK, isn't he?" Clint asked her in a low voice, glancing over at the middle of the narrow rectangular metal portable, where the four hurt agents were resting on cots.

"Yeah, he'll be fine," said Alison, finding a comfortable spot against the wall. "He's just fucked up his shoulder big time; the dart that hit him burst right in the joint. He might have lessened mobility. You know what that's like." Clint nodded. "Though he'll probably be less of a baby about doing his physio than you ever have been."

Thor's eyebrows went up. "Your shoulder has been hurt?"

"What part of him hasn't been hurt," said Alison, and Natasha and a few of the other agents around them snickered. "Hawkeye's a little accident-prone."

"Not accident-prone," said Clint, offended.

"Reckless, then," said Joe Taggart, the SHIELD lead agent.

"Brave," said Clint. "And dashing."

"And an idiot," said Alison.

Steve chuckled and rubbed a hand through his stubble. Stopped himself before rubbing became scratching.

"How'd you keep him in line?" asked Taggart. "Barton, that is."

"Me?" said Steve. "Who says I did?"

Alison, Taggart, and a few agents near them laughed.

"So Shiang's gonna be OK?" asked Lucas Soto, a local agent Clint hadn't met before quarantine.

"The bugs aren't giving him so much grief any more," said Stan Mackay, the other medic. "Thank God. Three treatments to kill the damn things." He shuddered. "Rogers, let me look at your hand again, would you please?" he asked. "It's so damn frustrating, working with wounds you can't heal. Five god damn days stuck in here and none of them getting much better. And you're the only one who didn't have to go through the disinfectant more than twice."

Clint shuddered, wishing the medics would stop talking about it. Steve and the wounded agents had needed dousing with that freaking gel on them over and over, and it hadn't stopped creeping Clint out. "Hey, Al Mahdi's doing better," he pointed out as Steve held out his hand and Mackay examined it. He glanced over at Rashid Al Mahdi, who was laying out yet another set of cards for solitaire.

"Yeah well Al Mahdi wasn't hit by a dart, he cracked his ribs," said Mackay, running fingers lightly over the thin red lines that were all the evidence of where he and Alison had stitched Steve up. With no anesthetic. While Clint and his team-mates held him down. Clint swallowed.

"You're doing everything you can," said Steve.

"Too bad there's not enough Serum around," said Mackay.

Taggart grimaced. "No thanks. To be honest, after - I dunno, man, I heard you had to go it without painkillers, but that was something else, seeing it."

"I've got painkillers now," said Steve shortly, and an awkward silence fell over their end of the portable.

"And speaking of your Serum-ness," said Alison with forced cheer, "I'm up for the next nap shift. Before I lie down I'd like to check your ribs." She shuffled closer to Steve.

Steve sighed and pulled off the grey SHIELD t-shirt they'd given him after declaring his sliced and blood-soaked uniform a dead loss. The shirt and shorts were dotted with old bloodstains too, but five days into quarantine it wasn't like any of them were fussy about fresh laundry.

"Looking good." She examined the edges of the ugly wound, still pink and slightly inflamed. "You normally wouldn't even have any scarring by this point, would you?"

"Nope. It's just the bugs," said Steve, pulling his shirt down again.

The bugs. Clint scratched his neck, caught himself and winced. They were all infested with the things, and hot, and tired, and thirsty. They had sixteen agents in here and the five Avengers, they were rationing the water and food that came with the portable since SHIELD didn't want anything in or out of the quarantine seal unless it was a dire emergency, the single toilet was tiny, and there wasn't even enough room for everyone to lie down and sleep at the same time so they were taking turns. Five days in they were all going stir-crazy.

Some more so than others.

"Getting out of here is seriously becoming wet-dream territory," muttered Soto. "I think we're gonna have people shooting each other before long." He glanced over at Tony worriedly and scratched at his own scraggly new beard. Alison reached out to stop him. He'd scratched his chin raw. "Right. Thanks."

Tony was leaning with his head back against the wall, features grey and grim, and Steve and Clint exchanged a worried glance.

It was funny, Steve looked just fine - stubble, stained t-shirt and shorts and bare feet aside. He'd looked like shit for the first day or so. Sick, muttering, out of his head, in pain. Tony had been by his side the whole time, as if they hadn't broken up, holding him close when he whimpered in his sleep, murmuring to him when he cried out in pain as the medics examined him and re-applied the gel. But as Steve had gotten better, Tony had slowly gotten worse. Of course, they were all worse - tired, hot, thirsty, bored, itchy from the bugs, irritated at the confinement and at the worry over the three injured agents who didn't have Steve's Serum to help them miraculously heal. But for some of them - like Tony, and Tania Marita, an agent Clint had worked with a few years ago - the situation seemed to be getting desperate.

"Think they'll get an antidote any time soon?" Taggart murmured quietly.

"Our friend Bruce will find a solution," said Thor.

"Wish I was where he is," said Mackay. Taggart glanced at him sideways. "Not that I'm saying he shouldn't have come in to quarantine. But I sure wish I was wherever he is."

"I'm still not sure how our people on the outside didn't catch him when he turned back," said Taggart.

"How smart is he?" asked Sally Ibis, an agent Clint had worked with - and, he'd suddenly remembered yesterday, slept with - a few years ago. "The Hulk, I mean? Did he take Banner far away deliberately? You said he's usually pretty groggy when he turns back."

"The Giant hid our friend away," said Thor. "It has been known to happen."

"How?" asked another agent. "That thing's kinda huge."

"And dumb as a post," said Taggart. "How could he hide?"

"He's smarter than he looks," snapped Tony. "And it wouldn't have been that hard for him to not be found. Your people were a fucking mess."

"Well whoever was in charge of that cleanup is gonna get transferred to Nome," said Taggart, ignoring Tony's caustic tone, as they were all ignoring how quickly he was reaching a ragged edge.

Steve cleared his throat. "Tony. Hey. Next sleeping shift is in an hour or so. You wanna take a cot?"

"No," said Tony, rubbing red-rimmed eyes, clearly exhausted.

"You missed your last shift," said Steve. Tony shrugged. "I'll be there too," Steve said, his voice low.

"Didn't do much good last time," said Tony. He scratched at his own beard. "Don't wanna wake up everybody again."

"Look, nobody minds that," said Clint, preferring not to think of how Steve had had to wake up Tony over and over again as Tony's nightmares interrupted his sleep. "Hell, nobody could sleep through Triviani screaming either."

"Triviani was getting doused with disinfectant," Tony pointed out.

"You can't just stay awake until we get out of here," said Natasha. "It may be days."

"I've done it before in the lab." Tony drew in a shaking breath. "Although, fuck, not even internet access here, fucking unacceptable. And I can't spend the whole time in my helmet talking to JARVIS." He grimaced. "Even though at least when I'm in there I'm getting filtered helmet-air. Not this."

Clint leaned his head back on the wall, trying to breathe through his mouth. The smell really was pretty intense. Feet and underarms and twenty-one people who hadn't taken a bath in five days. Blood and disinfectants and medicine. Recycled air. Clint didn't even want to imagine what he smelled like; the only comfort was that he was no worse than anyone else.

The comm unit came on and Hill's voice floated out. "Iron Man, I need to speak to you."

Tony's lips pressed together and Clint felt a surge of anger. Funny, several days into this and the burn of resentment still hadn't gone down for any of them.

"Sure, boss, go ahead," said Tony.

"You have to talk to Dr. Banner," said Hill bluntly. "He has not responded to my request to come back to SHIELD."

"Yeah, I don't think so," said Tony. "He was lucky enough to be a big green raging monster at the time that you used extortion to extract a promise under duress. He's not part of your little chain gang."

"Get him on board."

"I'm not a fan of indentured servitude."

"Yeah? What the fuck would you know about that, trust fund brat?" asked Ned Hollis, one of the agents who had been hurt, and although Clint could see some of the others wincing at his painkiller-induced tactlessness, at least a couple were nodding. "Not so used to having to do anything you don't wanna do, are ya?"

Tony stared at him. "Except for a three-month period in a cave, yeah, I've probably been kinda spoiled," he said acidly, and Clint winced. He hadn't thought of that. He'd known, obviously, that Tony was probably devolving because of their confinement, but he hadn't thought that part of that might include Tony likening this to the last time he'd been essentially forced labor. Tony turned back to the comm. "Was that all you wanted to talk to me about? Because I have to say--"

"No, that wasn't all," Hill said crisply. "And we are going to talk about this again later. What I wanted to tell you is that your colleague has been working with us despite not agreeing to rejoin SHIELD - apparently he hacked into our servers, we'd like to know how he was able to do that, Stark - and he's getting close to a formula to permanently get rid of the bugs."

"That's good to know," said Taggart.

"And Stark, you have to--"

"I don't have to do a fucking thing except work for you as Iron Man," snapped Tony, "and that does not include recruitment as far as I know. You can't make me do anything else."

Clint swallowed and thought briefly of what it would be like to be back in his own worst nightmare. Feeling again the mindlessness, the lack of control, the unnatural peace Loki had given him - with muted horror in the background as a part of him watched himself moving and talking and killing, and tried to stop it, helpless and struggling uselessly--

Hill was saying something to Taggart now, and Clint shoved his dark thoughts away. "You OK, Tony?"

"Yeah," said Tony, his voice tight. He scratched his side, his own SHIELD-issue t-shirt stained with sweat from countless nightmares.

"Look," Clint said, finally acknowledging the big white PTSD elephant in the room with them. "We all understand, OK?"

"Understand what?"

"Why you're starting to freak the fuck out."

Tony glared at him. "Don't play armchair therapist. I pay professionals for that."

"It's not playing therapist to point out that there are some differences between this and Afghanistan," said Natasha, her voice low. "Nobody's going to force you to build anything for SHIELD. We haven't even decided what our new relationship with them is going to be. You also have a hell of a legal department at SI, and--"

"It's not just that."

"This isn't a cave," said Ibis gently, leaning in. "I know it's hot and smells crappy, but it's totally different, physically. Maybe it might help to concentrate on that."

"Not different enough," said Tony.

"You're confined and it's too hot and there's not enough food," said Steve. "What else?"

Tony passed a hand over his forehead. "You don't want to hear--"

"We wouldn't ask if we didn't want to hear," said Steve. "We're not therapists, but we might be able to help."

Tony blew out his breath. "There were... bugs. In, in the cave. Lice. Got into everything. I know these aren't lice, not here, but." He scratched behind one ear, stopped himself and crossed his arms. "Fuck, what I wouldn't give for a whiskey right now," he said, his voice slightly unsteady.

"Mm. Me too," said Clint. "Or bourbon. We're in the South, right? Bourbon."

"Mint julep would go over well too," said Taggart.

"Or a beer," said Mackay. "A nice cold beer."

"You never realize how often you drink until you can't," commented Ibis.

Tony shrugged. "It's funny, every so often I think it might be a good idea to try going without for a little while," he said, his voice low. "Never lasts."

"How long have you gone without before?" asked Natasha.

Tony took a deep breath. "Uh, the longest? Three months."

Clint grimaced. Oh goody. Nothing like sobriety being paired with a traumatic experience for a borderline alcoholic.

Tony shivered. "OK, folks, this is all very touchy-feely and thanks for, you know, the group share, but I think if we talk about this shit any more I - I'm gonna have a panic attack."

"We could synthesize you a sedative," said Alison. "Already did for Marita." She glanced over at the sleeping Marita, who also looked like hell warmed over when she was awake and who had spent some time as a hostage at an AIM base in Indonesia if Clint recalled correctly.

Tony frowned and started to shake his head, then stopped and took a deep breath. "No. No, not yet. Ask me at the beginning of the next sleep shift."

"You sure?"

Tony nodded.

Clint glanced at the far, dim end of the portable, where six agents slept on the floor rolled up in blankets. Another hour till the next sleep shift. "What do you think?" he asked Taggart. "Movie time?" They'd commandeered the communications console and been able to get SHIELD to send over Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, and American Beauty, but it wasn't easy, with everyone crowded around the small screen.

"Hill said she wanted the channel clear for now. I'll ask again in an hour."

"Avengers singalong time again?" asked Ibis.

Tony shook his head. They'd sung a few songs together the first day that Steve had been able to sit up again, and it had cheered him up and made one of the more tech-minded agents take a video that he'd threatened to upload as soon as they got internet access again. They'd repeated the performance a few times, after much teasing and growing boredom, joined by many of the SHIELD agents.

Tony looked like he was in no shape for that any more, though. Thor shifted closer to him in silent solidarity, and Natasha shook her head as well. Clint shrugged. Whatever; they didn't know more than a handful of songs anyway.

"Quartet?" Taggart asked, and Steve glanced at Tony. Tony gave a curt nod. Steve and Clint, joined by Taggart and Mackay, all moved their way to the end of the portable, farthest away from the sleeping agents.

Funny, the things you learned about people when you were confined together for days on end. One of the local agents had teased Taggart about his college barbershop days after the Avengers had sung the first time, and Steve had commented that he'd sung baritone in a quartet way (way) back in the day. Then Mackay had said his dad used to belong to one too and Clint, bored out of his skull, had suggested putting something together. Taggart, Mackay and Steve had been able to find some tunes they all knew - a lot of barbershop music was from even before Steve's time anyway, and all of them knew the standard repertoire - and Clint had been able to pick up the lead part by ear, and they were off.

The four of them were weaving harmonies together now and it was a different kind of cooperation, and the agents near them, bored and desperate from lack of sleep, heat, bugs and jitters, were certainly appreciating the show. He never would've pegged no-nonsense Taggart as a singer, but there he was, his bass voice rumbling out beautifully as Clint sang lead and Mackay put in the tenor line above them all.

They were getting tired, though. Down by the Old Mill Stream, Wild Irish Rose, Sweet Adeline and For The Longest Time (not in the traditional repertoire, but they'd been able to figure out the parts anyway) and Clint was ready to pack it in. Maybe this had to be done somewhere where you weren't just about going insane from confinement and heat and miserable crawling genetically engineered bugs.

"OK, I'm done," said Mackay, his voice hoarse, as they finished the last note.

"Ah, come on, one more?" said Ibis, and Clint shook his head.

"He's fallen asleep," Steve murmured quietly, nodding towards Tony.

"Good; worth it, then," said Mackay. "Barbershop as lullabies for stressed-out billionaires, what my dad would've thought of that I don't know."

Steve smiled and quietly moved back towards Tony, who was still leaning against the wall, eyes closed. He picked up a blanket and placed it around Tony, carefully putting a pillow on one shoulder where Tony's head could lean against it if it bobbed a bit. And he'd be OK if he listed towards the other side; he was leaning against Thor, whose head was also resting against the back of the wall and who had also dozed off. Odd that of all the Avengers, Thor seemed to be dealing with the quarantine best. Clint had expected his booming voice to be a constant disturbance, but no; Thor just seemed to be sleeping a lot.

Steve gazed at Tony worriedly, fussing with his blanket a bit.

"Just friends my ass," muttered Hollis. Another one whose temper was beginning to get the better of him, what with wooziness and pain medication on top of the same crap that was getting to the rest of them.

"Hollis, you want any more sedatives?" asked Alison.

"'m fine."

"You could probably do with some more sleep."

"Don't wanna sleep," he said, shifting on his cot, his voice rising in irritation. "I'm fine. Fine, fuckin' fine. I'll just lie here smelling everyone's feet and thinking about getting that fucking bug dosage again and watch as the Golden Boy over there walks around like he doesn't have a care in the world."

Clint glanced at Steve, who looked wary but resigned. Of course; he'd probably dealt with plenty of wounded soldiers who only saw the impressive recovery time and not the price it came with. And Hollis had been unconscious while Steve was being ripped apart and stitched back together.

"He's quarantined, same as you," Taggart pointed out mildly. "None of us are happy about this."

"Yeah? Pretty boy here doesn't seem to mind. 'Course he's got his boyfriend here." He crossed his arms. "Fucking faggots," he muttered.

Steve pressed his lips together and Clint took a deep breath. Oh, great. Technically he knew not everybody at SHIELD would be filled to the brim with rainbows of welcome, but they'd worked with Hollis before and the man had never treated any of the Avengers with anything other than respect.

"What did he just say?" asked Ibis.

"Shut up, Hollis," muttered Alison.

Tony stirred restlessly and Steve glanced at him.

"Relax, your lover-boy's fine," sneered Hollis. Steve gave him a level gaze but held his tongue. "Or do you wanna go cuddle up to him again? Maybe whisper sweet nothings in his ear?"

"Hollis, what's your problem?" asked Clint, temper fraying.

"Clint, don't," said Steve quietly.

"Hey, he's not your butt buddy, you don't tell him what to say," Hollis snapped. He glanced at Clint. "Unless you are. You a faggot too now, Barton? You guys real close these days? All sucking each other's dicks at Avengers tower?"

"Hollis!" said Taggart.

"He's sick," said Steve clearly. "Leave him alone."

"I'm not the one who's sick, you stupid fuck," Hollis snapped back. "And shut up. Don't want any fucking faggots defending me or staring at my ass."

"I can't stare at it, Hollis," said Steve evenly. "You're lying on it. And I'm not gonna take anything you say seriously when you're not yourself."

Clint gave Hollis a pitying look. "Dude, you're gonna feel like an asshole when the drugs wear off," he said, and turned his back on him.

"One thing Hollis is saying is true, though," said Taggart, his voice low. "I'd say the secret's out."

"What secret?" asked Clint.

"You and Iron Man," Mackay said bluntly to Steve. "This ain't 'just friends' no matter what you told the media. And why would you lie about it, anyway?"

Steve hesitated a moment, then sighed. "It wasn't a lie when Tony denied it," he said quietly. "And we never said we weren't together when we were; we just didn't confirm anything."

"So you're... you know, dating?" asked Ibis.

"Not any more," said Steve.

"Came to your senses?"

Steve shook his head.

Mackay whistled. "Tony 'love 'em and leave 'em' Stark strikes again, eh? Got some balls to do that to Captain America."

"Wasn't his fault," said Steve, his voice hard. "It was mine."

Tony moved in his sleep, his breath hitching, and Natasha moved closer to him protectively.

"Fucking faggots," muttered Hollis.

"Hollis, everyone gets that you're not in control of your mouth right now," said Alison, "but if you don't shut up I'm gonna sedate you before you completely tank your career."

"A man can't have a fucking opinion any more, we all have to be so politically correct. I think last time I asked, freedom of speech it applied to conservatives too, right?"

"Yeah. And morons. You're entitled to your opinion, but you're outing yourself as a bigot and an idiot."

"Not to me," said Steve quietly. "He's got a right to feel how he feels."

"That's because you come from a time where shit like that was acceptable," snapped Clint. "It's not any more."

"Just be quiet, Hollis," said Taggart. "Nobody here agrees with you."

"I happen to know Soto does," said Hollis. "Just too much of a fucking coward to say so. We talked about it after Captain Queer came out. He was just as grossed out as I was."

Soto flushed brightly and opened, then closed his mouth.

"You don't have to defend your point of view," said Steve.

Tony startled awake. "Shit!" he gasped, hands flailing out, and Steve was by his side in a moment.

"You're OK. You're OK. We're just in the portable."

"Jesus Christ. I have to get out of here," he muttered, his hands shaking. "Fuck, I have to get out of here."

"Man of Iron, our friend Bruce will find a solution," said Thor, somehow awake and coherent within moments.

"You're OK," Steve said gently, kneeling in front of Tony and holding his hands steady as Tony tried to bring his gasping breaths under control. "We'll get out. Soon."

"Shut the fuck up, fucking pansies--"


Tony blinked at Hollis, still confused and out of it. Thor stood up. "Friend, you are wounded and not in your right mind," he said to Hollis, and gestured the other Avengers towards the lighted end of the portable. Steve helped Tony stand and make his way the short distance and they all settled down on the floor again.

"So. You dumped Captain America, did you?" asked Mackay, clearly trying to distract Tony. Tony blinked, startled, and looked at Steve, who shrugged.

"I'm telling you, SHIELD agents are horrible gossips," said Clint. "Why don't you go back to gossiping about Corrigan and his crazy ex?"

"No thanks, man," said Mackay, wrinkling his nose and glancing towards the dim part of the portable where Dan Corrigan, a Florida agent, lay sleeping. "Nothing to tell anyway. She hasn't tried to break through the perimeter again."

"I think Corrigan's gonna try to talk to her after we're allowed out," said Ibis. "Or at least bail her out."

"Ugh. Why?"

"How should I know, dude. Besides, Corrigan's story's as old as SHIELD: we attract shady weirdos, who usually end up dating other shady weirdos." Ibis glanced at Tony and Steve. "Dishing about you two would be an interesting change."

"There's nothing to dish about," said Clint sharply. "They dated, it didn't work out. You're not gonna get a story like... well, like Corrigan's." Clint tilted his head at Natasha and she nodded, shuffling over with him so that the Avengers were in a small circle, slightly apart from the SHIELD agents. "No, Steve didn't badmouth you," Clint told Tony once they'd rearranged themselves, his voice low. "On the contrary."

"My track record seems to indicate it was probably all my fault," said Tony grimly. "Ask Pepper how great I am at this kind of thing."

Steve frowned at him.

"Maybe you weren't the problem, dude," said Clint. "Maybe you're a better person than you think you are."

"I keep telling you," said Steve. "You don't give yourself enough credit."

"Couldn't it be that you and Pepper just weren't right for each other?" asked Natasha.

"I've got a bit of an undeniable history, remember?"

"Did you cheat on her?" asked Natasha. Tony shook his head. "Did you treat her badly?" Tony shook his head again.

"Why was it automatically your fault, then?" Clint asked, irritated by Tony's subdued air. Damn it, yes, he was sleep-deprived and PTSDing like crazy right now, but there was something seriously wrong with the world when Tony Stark looked quiet and guilty and nothing like the cocky asshole he was supposed to be. "Dude. You're not just a spoiled little trust-fund playboy any more. You're a superhero. You're dealing with a lot of shit." He glanced at Steve. "You brought someone else out of some pretty heavy shit. That changes you."

Tony stared at him uncertainly.

"Dude. Seriously. Steve says you weren't the problem between the two of you. Maybe you weren't the problem with Pepper either."

"People," said Taggart, leaning into their little circle. "Don't worry, I'm not trying to eavesdrop on Avengers secrets." He deposited a stack of packaged sandwiches and freeze-dried fruit into their circle. "Just doing a food drop."

Oh good, though Clint, trying hard not to pounce. One of the crappy things about this entire experience was the hunger. Hunger all the time, and the rations weren't doing shit. Nobody was starving, not like when he was a kid, but the ever-present slight discomfort was getting on his nerves. The fact that no meal ever resulted in a nice, full feeling... also not fun.

He glanced at Steve, who'd also been hungry as a kid. This had to be a lot worse for him; he'd agreed after some wrangling to accept three times the rations as everyone else, but according to the medics, he was really supposed to be getting at least four, both because of his metabolism and because he'd spent the first couple of days healing from severe injuries.

Both Clint and Steve were chewing slowly, making it last as long as possible. Clint wondered if Steve also had to battle the instinct to just gulp it all down as quickly as possible, the lurking fear that it would be taken away.

"Yeah, faggots get all the best," Hollis's voice floated up from the middle of the portable. "Even get more food than the rest of us."

"That's because he needs it, you moron," snapped Alison, and the comm crackled.

Hill's voice came on. "We've figured it out," she said, and there was a loud cheer. The agents in the sleeping area of the portable stirred, sitting up and complaining. "To be more specific, Dr. Banner figured it out," she went on. "I'm sending Agent Taggart instructions on the procedure to get you all out of there. It shouldn't take more than a few hours at the most. It's almost over, people."

Clint drew a deep breath of relief as the portable erupted into activity, the newly wakened agents being made aware of the news and Taggart eagerly reading the instructions appearing on the screen in front of him. Thank Christ. No more bad food, no more crowded boredom, no more tension ratcheting slowly tighter and tighter.

"Right," Taggart said after a minute or so, and the rest of them quieted down instantly. "Here's the deal. They're spraying the outside again as a precaution. Banner's got a disinfectant that will finally kill the bugs off so they don't keep coming back. The spores or whatever makes them grow cling to hair, is the problem, and that's how they've been growing back again. So they're dropping in razors so that we can shave... everything, before going into a disinfectant vat. They're setting up the vat right now."

Mackay grimaced. "Ew. Everything?"

"The less hair you have, the shorter time you'll spend in the disinfectant. There's room in decontamination for six, max. We'll have the six women first, then two groups of six men, then one last group of three. Sound good?"

"I'm not stripping down and getting in a fucking vat with two queers," said Hollis.

"Fine, we'll go in the last group," snapped Steve. "You don't have to worry we're trying to stare at your skinny ass."

Clint covered a snicker. For some reason, as many times as he'd seen Steve's Captain America politeness falter under stress, slightly-snarky Steve was still funny.

"How long will decontamination take?" asked Ibis.

"About an hour for each group." Tony sat up, his eyes widening. Taggart waved him back down. "And Hollis, forget it, nobody has to accommodate your hang-ups. If it bothers you that much, you stay a few extra hours."

"I don't care," said Steve. "We're all getting out soon enough anyway."

"Uh, not soon enough," Tony objected.

"Besides, I'm hurt," said Hollis.

Alison spoke up. "No real medical reason for you to get out first," she commented. "Al Mahdi, Shiang and Triviani are hurt too. An hour more or less isn't going to make much difference."

Taggart reconsidered. "I'm all right with sending all the wounded out first, actually, if nobody minds mixed-sex groups in decontamination."

Triviani shook her head and Al Mahdi said, "Don't make no diff to me, I just wanna get the hell outta here." He glanced apologetically at the female agents. "I mean, if you wanna get out first, that's fine, but my ribs hurt like hell and I'd really like them taped up at the hospital."

"Asshole," Alison bristled. "They can't do any better job taping them than I did."

Al Mahdi smiled at her sweetly. "Maybe not, but they'll get me on the good drugs."

"I don't think anybody cares," said Natasha, quickly glancing over the other female agents, who shrugged. "We're all adults." She glanced at Hollis. "Mostly."

"Wounded first, then?" Taggart looked around and got general nods from everybody.

"Hollis, you do realize that still puts you in with Captain Rogers, right?" said Alison with a sneer.

"No, that's fine," said Steve quickly, before Hollis could say anything. "I'll go in the last batch. Tony, you go in the second."

"All right, the first batch is the four wounded plus a medic and... Marita," said Taggart, glancing at the SHIELD agent whose PTSD had been getting to her even more than Tony. "Second batch, all the Avengers - that means you too, Captain Rogers, you were hurt and I'm in charge here - plus one more space..."

"I'll go," said Soto. Clint exchanged a glance with Natasha, wondering if he was eager to get out or eager to distance himself from what Hollis had said about him and show he didn't care about stripping down in front of the only two men who were openly out.

"Third batch," Taggart began, and started listing remaining agents, but Clint didn't care any more because the most beautiful thing he'd seen in a long time was happening: the so-far-unused hole used to pass objects into the portable was finally opening.

Of course, rather than steak dinners or more water the package coming through contained twenty-one electric razors, a few mirrors, hand towels, bottles of some kind of foam, and a huge plastic drop cloth, but by this point Clint didn't care much. He impatiently helped to put up a blanket to block off one part of the portable so that the six women could shave with some privacy - why, who knew, as they were all going to be baring it all in the decontamination chamber anyway in front of at least some males. He supposed it was a little more sensitive to not have them strip in front of all fifteen men.

"All right," said Taggart. "Get as much off as you can with the razors. Just let it all fall onto the plastic sheet; it's gonna get rolled up and incinerated. Then use the depilatory foam; rub it in, then wipe off with the towels. Drop it all on the sheet."

"Everything must go?" asked Clint.

"The more you keep, the longer you'll have to stay in the chamber. I'm told the parts with hair are gonna itch and burn something fierce."

Clint grimaced. "Thanks but no thanks," he said, and started the razor. He ran it over one arm experimentally, shivering a little at the vibrations as his arm hair started to come down onto the floor.

"I've done some bizarre things for SHIELD," said Mackay, propping a foot up on a chair and starting to shave a path through thick reddish-brown leg hair. "But this has got to be one of the weirdest."

"Yeah?" said Clint. "Not me."

"What's the weirdest you've done?" asked Steve, grimacing as he started the razor down his arm.

"You really don't want me to answer that," said Clint.

"You really don't," said Taggart, his short black curls falling to the plastic and leaving smooth brown scalp behind. He glanced around and snickered. "Hey, apparently Avengers don't need testosterone."

Steve blinked. "What?"

"You're all, like, body-bald," said Mackay. The other agents laughed. Clint glanced at Thor, Tony and Steve and yeah, they were pretty hair-free as a group. And getting more so by the moment.

"Except for Bruce," said Tony, still looking shaky but a hell of a lot more cheerful now that the prospect of freedom was just an hour or so away. "He's a monkey compared to the rest of us."

"So's Tasha," said Clint, and glanced at the hanging blanket. "I'm gonna die as soon as we leave this place, aren't I?"

"Don't think you'll need to wait that long," Natasha called out from behind the blanket.

"Is it true someone wanted to do a photoshoot with you guys?" asked Mackay. "The Avengers swimsuit calendar?"

"Aye," said Thor, his brow furrowed. "That was a strange proposal."

"The mugs and action figures are bad enough," said Clint.

"You never know. Would've made you even more popular with the ladies," said Taggart.

"Not a priority," said Steve.

"Men, then."

"Still not a priority."

Mackay laughed. "You're for real, aren't you?"

"You have no idea," said Clint, taking a turn at one of the mirrors to get to his face and head. Ugh. The stubble being gone felt nice, but watching his hair coming off in swaths and falling below in light brown masses...

"Move over, Clint," said Steve, taking his place in front of the mirror and running the electric razor over his face.

"Thought you didn't like electric?"

"To get out of here? I'd use a butter-knife if I had to." He hesitated over his head, then sighed and started in, swaths of blond hair falling onto the drop cloth.

Thor stepped away from another mirror, running a hand over his face. "I've not felt my face without a beard for... generations. This is most interesting."

"Wait till you get to the depilatory," said Al Mahdi, struggling to shave around the wrapping on his ribs.

"No sympathy from back here!" yelled one of the female agents from behind the blanket.

Clint pulled the waistband of his boxers out and stared down at his crotch. Steve glanced over at him and sighed. Clint brandished the razor and revved it.

"Jesus, Barton," Mackay grimaced.

"All right," said Clint, looking down, "so long, pubes. Nice knowing you. Haven't seen my own bare balls since--"

"Too much information, Barton!" yelled a female agent.

"You know, some people are into this," Tony commented.

"Into what?" asked Steve, his face scrunched in distaste as he started his own razor.

"It's a thing. Trimming."

Steve gaped at him. "What? There?"

"Everywhere, Spangles," said Tony. "Men and women. Trimming it, thinning it, waxing it--"

"Waxing?!" Steve nearly dropped his razor.

"Oh yeah," said Clint. "Girls especially. Snatch and crack."

"Oh my God." Steve grimaced, looking down at himself. "That's... with wax? There?"

"Hawkeye, quit traumatizing Captain America!" yelled out one of the women.

"Boy, you didn't corrupt him much, did you?" Mackay smirked at Tony, and started carefully unwrapping Al Mahdi's ribs.

"Yeah, you know, I can't see it," said Al Mahdi and Clint reflected that it was weird, the Florida agents had been rather standoffish and a little awed by the non-SHIELD Avengers - especially Captain America - at first, but they were pretty comfortable now. He supposed watching the man in the spangly uniform covered in blood and writhing in pain, followed by five days of sitting around being hungry and bored together, had taken some of the awe out. Not to mention shaving pubes next him.

"Can't see what?" asked Steve.

"You two," said Al-Mahdi. "As in, together."

Steve ducked his head and tapped the side of the razor to get the hair out of it.

"Why not?" asked Mackay.

"He's just all, you know, moral and shit," said Al Mahdi gesturing at Steve. "Sorry, man, but you are. You're like... the poster boy for good and righteous." Steve's eyes flicked towards Hollis and Al Mahdi rolled his own. "For most people, you are. Like, I could see you dating some highly decorated officer, or some guy who teaches Sunday school and runs a kitten sanitarium or something, you know? But... Tony Stark?"

"Yeah, well, opposites attract," said Mackay.

"And SHIELD agents are horrible, horrible gossips," Clint commented, as Steve reddened further. As did Tony, interestingly enough. "I'm really hoping none of these conversations make it to the news."

"Who would care?" asked Mackay. "By this point the media's said you're a couple so many times nobody would believe this time it was for real."

"When you're done, toss the used razors in here," said Taggart, indicating a garbage bag. "Don't bother cleaning them; it's all gonna get incinerated. And Gleason and Dallard, you're in the last group anyway; you may as well help get the wounded ready so they can get into the vat as quickly as possible." He swiped a foam-filled hand towel over his arm, waited a moment and scrubbed it away. "You know," he mused, smoothing a hand down his arm, "I can sort of get the attraction."

"Really?" Clint grimaced.

"Yeah. Not enough to do this as a hobby, but it probably does feel pretty interesting." He paused. "Hope my wife thinks so too instead of just being weirded out."

"Perhaps I shall go and visit my Jane," said Thor, rubbing thoughtfully at his bare face and then running a hand up to his shorn head.

Clint guffawed as he tossed the razor in the garbage and started in on the depilatory foam. He glanced at his team. Tony and Thor looked almost unrecognizable, Steve looked surprisingly good with a buzz cut.

Taggart rubbed the top of his head. "Think if I put on an eyepatch anyone will mistake me for Fury?" he asked.

"Yeah wouldn't that endear you to the WSC," muttered Mackay. They all turned as there was a clanging on the side of the portable, and a cheer went up as Clint heard something clamp on to the side.

"Never thought I'd be grateful for a giant vat of disinfectant," called out one of the women, and Clint grinned tiredly. One thing you could say about SHIELD; it might be messed up and bizarre, but it was never dull.


It was a fucking endless and pointless hassle, is what this was. Tony felt his bile rising at the thought. Finally blessedly free of that portable, finally clean again - a little too clean, as his face felt cold and his head felt funny with the ultra-short hair that he hadn't had since that time he and Rhodey had gotten spectacularly drunk after Rhodey enlisted and he'd agreed to a military buzz in solidarity with his friend - and instead of being on the way back home, here they were.

They'd been graciously allowed a four-hour nap at a Miami hotel and then Hill had insisted on a press conference, of all fucking things - another brilliant idea from the Council that she was only too happy to go along with, apparently. The one upside had been that she'd promised they only had be available for questions for the first twenty minutes, after which SHIELD personnel would take over, and then they would be off the hook for several days. Apparently she didn't trust them to not say anything stupid to the press. A little brighter than she seemed, maybe.

Tony checked his watch. Five minutes more and then he could lean back and not say another fucking thing for days. He glanced at Jasper Sitwell, an agent he vaguely remembered hanging around Phil Coulson, who had apparently come in to run the conference.

"And the bugs are definitely gone now?" asked a reporter.

"Dr. Banner found a way to get rid of them permanently," said Natasha. "It was all contained."

"The Avengers didn't show up until partway through," asked another. "Why weren't they the first team sent in?"

"Too far away," said Sitwell smoothly, and Tony glared at him and wished he wasn't too tired to just elbow him aside and explain the real reason, damn their stupid fucking confidentiality agreement.

"How are the new hairstyles?" asked one at the back.

"Smooth in all the wrong places," said Clint, and the reporters snickered.

"Unless you're into that," said Tony.

"Hey, no judgement here," said Clint.

"You look like raw recruits," said one reporter.

"And Widow's rocking the pixie look, isn't she?" quipped Tony, his gut churning but smile firmly in place. This, at least, felt familiar - from Congressional hearings, from board meetings while Obie was alive, from fucking Howard's passive-aggressive little tirades about Tony's inadequacies until the day he died: helpless rage and resentment channelled to flippancy. He'd worked so damn hard to avoid this kind of thing since his parents died, and yet for some reason he kept ending up in these situations.

Keep it together, keep it together... he was free, he was clean again, there were no more bugs, natural or otherwise, anywhere on his body, and he was going to go from here to his hotel room where he was going to consume the entire minibar and hopefully wake up three days from now with a terrific hangover and no memory of the entire experience. And then breathe down Legal's neck until they found a way to get them all the hell away from SHIELD.

And if he had to make nice with fucking Maria Hill until then to avoid making the mess even bigger... well, he was a big boy. He could do this.

"What was it like being in there for five days?" asked one reporter. "That portable looked pretty small to hold twenty people."

"Twenty-one," said," said Natasha. "A little too intimate."

"Do the citizens of that area of Miami have to worry about the quarantine?"

"Nope," said Clint. "It's perfectly safe to go back. You won't end up in a little tiny portable getting to know your neighbors a little too well."

"Iron Man, what was it like, being confined like that?" asked one reporter. "Did it remind you of your ordeal in Afghanistan a few years ago?"

Tony swiftly tamped down on the surge of panic. "Are you kidding?" He laughed. "No running water in Afghanistan. No singalongs, either," he said, and from the chuckle that ran around the room he could tell the video of the Avengers singing Stand By Me -- or was it Rolling in the Deep? -- had probably been released.

"There were rumors that a fan tried to break into the portable," asked another reporter. "Is that true?"

Tony blinked, a surge of relief flashing through him at the realization that apparently that was it for the cave questions. "Sorry, a what?"

"An Avengers fan tried to break in," said a tall woman.

"Somebody penetrated the perimeter," called out a grey-haired man near the back. "There was a rumor that it was a woman who claimed Captain Rogers had been dating her."

Steve's eyebrows climbed up and Tony rolled his eyes.

"Again?" he said, chuckling. "Again with the who's dating Captain America rumors?"

"Was it?"

"No, absolutely not," said Steve, leaning forward into the mic.

"Not an ex-girlfriend?"


"Do you have an ex-girlfriend?"

"No, I do not."

"Would you tell the press if you were--"

"You people are going to have to stop asking those questions," said Tony. "He's said before he won't discuss his personal life. Apparently the Captain doesn't kiss and tell."

"Yes, whoever does end up dating Captain Rogers will be a very lucky... person," said one of the reporters near the front.

Steve gave her a level stare, and Tony could hear in the murmur from the reporters the word 'conversion' and damn it, they were like dogs with a bone, they just wouldn't leave Steve in peace about this. Oh well, at least nobody was asking about the two of them; apparently none of the SHIELD agents in the portable had talked. Yet.

Steve leaned to the microphone. "Uh, man," he said. "Not 'person.'"

"A lucky man?" said one of the reporters in the front row. "So you aren't going to conversion therapy?"

"No," said Steve.

"And you are planning on dating men?"

"If I find the right guy," said Steve, looking away from Tony, and Tony had to laugh because he had no idea. None at all. Forget Miami narrowly escaping bizarre bug infestation: that was going to be the soundbite that came out of this. Captain America looking for 'the right guy.'

"And that's it for the Avengers," said Sitwell, leaning into the mic, and Steve shot him a fervently grateful look. "I think everyone's appreciative of them coming in so soon after their ordeal, but we've got a bit more ground to cover and--"

"We have a few more questions--"

"You're welcome to ask them of the rest of the agents here," said Sitwell, and Tony sat back and pushed his mic out of the way. He smiled as his fellow Avengers copied his movements almost perfectly. "We have Agent Jemma Simmons to speak about the precautions we'd like Miami citizens to take re-entering the zone where the bio-contaminants were being produced--"

Tony zoned out as a nervous young agent with a British accent leaned forward and started to answer questions. He rubbed his eyes.

"Look at that poor kid," he chuckled, nodding towards Simmons. "All full of adorable biotechbabble; nobody gives a shit."

"Why not?"

"Steve. You just finally ended the conversion rumors and put yourself in the Eligible Gay Bachelor dating pool. You're gonna be paired up with every gay celebrity on the planet until they get bored or find another hot story." He shook his head. "Agent Biohazard over there doesn't hold a candle to that."

Steve ducked his head and Tony chuckled, and then looked down at his Starkpad. God, it was going to take him days just to catch up on missed messages, let alone - he looked up as Steve tapped his shoulder.

"Listen," Steve murmured, leaning closer. "If I tried to kiss you right now, would you let me?" He paused. "Or would you slap me for getting fresh?"

Tony gaped at him, then felt a smile breaking over his face and leaned closer. "OK, don't you dare," he said. "Fuck, no, don't, we'd never hear the end of it, but - are you serious?"

"I'm serious," said Steve, a small smile tugging at his mouth. "I would kiss you right now in front of God and everybody if you'd let me."

"I'm not gonna let you," said Tony, and he probably looked like an idiot by this point, because he couldn't seem to stop grinning at Steve, but what the hell, Steve was smiling back. "We are gonna talk as soon as the press conference is done, though," he said, and Steve nodded.

He turned back to Biohazard Girl, glancing at his Starkpad and damn it, ten more minutes to go until they were free, and then he and Steve could--

Could what, exactly? Steve was now gazing with apparent rapt concentration at the biogeek and Tony could not have understood what she was saying if she'd come with subtitles and a PowerPoint presentation. He could feel Steve's body heat next to him. Through the wall of exhaustion and discomfort, there was something in him that felt like bursting open. Had Steve seriously meant what he'd said, had he--

OK, wait. Calm down. He could be totally misreading things here. Had Steve been suggesting a 'let's kiss and make up and make out' kind of kiss, or a 'damn it, the media's gonna hound me, can you help me throw them off' kind of kiss - except that didn't make sense, if they got together and the media saw it there would be more publicity, not less, and--

They'd felt very close during the time in the portable, but they'd both been messed up as well, and they still weren't entirely stable. A shower, freedom, and four hours of sleep did not wipe out the entire experience. And if there was a shrink around he'd probably say something about Tony still feeling jittery over being confined and pressed into service, and Steve possibly still dealing with the whole surgery-without-anesthetics again - hell, Tony was still a bit traumatized over that - and they were both still upset over SHIELD having their balls in a vise. And things hadn't worked between them; it wasn't just that Steve had been effectively still in the closet, it was that Tony wasn't any damn good at anything serious no matter how much he might want it, and--

And finally the endless press conference was over and the reporters were leaving and the infernal microphones were off.

"Finally, fuck." Clint stretched and yawned. "Me and Nat are gonna go back to our floor. Did you know they've actually got Gladiator on the hotel's pay-per-view? We're gonna order it, and then order one of everything on the room service menu, on SHIELD's tab." He grinned. "Anyone else in?"

"I'm in," said Bruce. "I don't know why, but the idea of sticking it to an organization that doesn't even have me trapped in any way is strangely satisfying."

Tony grinned. Bruce had been as serene as always during the press conference, but it was clear that he was beyond pissed at his team-mates' predicament.

"This would be Midgardian food that is not dried in ice?" asked Thor, and Natasha nodded. "Good. That was becoming tiresome."

"You go on ahead," said Steve, and looked at Tony, his gaze a mixture of hesitant and challenging. "Tony?"

"Why? Where are you going?" asked Clint.

Natasha glanced between them, then a small smile quirked her mouth. "I... think maybe that's none of our business."

"What?" Clint blinked.

"The Captain and the Man of Iron shall remain behind," said Thor firmly. "They may rejoin us later." He flicked his eyes between them. "Probably not. Let us go back to our floor."

Bruce glanced at them, did a small double take. "Right. We'll, uh, see you later."

They stared at each other awkwardly as the other Avengers hurried out and they were left alone with the hotel employees clearing the chairs and equipment from the press conference.

"Are you hungry?" asked Steve, and Tony blinked.

"You mean - for room service?"

"No. For dinner." Steve took a breath. "For you. And me. Together. Possibly at a restaurant." He paused. "Like a date."

A date.

Damn, Tony was probably a little too sleep-deprived for this. The sensible thing would be to say no, to go on back to their floor of the hotel, join the others for room service, possibly watch the movie, not do anything or talk about anything until they were both in a more reasonable, objective frame of mind.

"Yeah. That'll be good," he found himself saying instead. Screw reasonable objectivity, apparently.

"There's a restaurant at this hotel," said Steve. "Italian, I think." And suddenly the idea of non-freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs sounded like the most mouth-watering thing Tony had ever imagined.

They made their way to the hotel restaurant and were seated quickly and without fuss, and Tony reflected that it was interesting to be almost unrecognizable. He ran a hand over his smooth chin, glancing at Steve and his unfamiliar buzz cut.

He glanced at the wine list as the waiter fussed around them with place settings and he tried to bring his scattered thoughts and feelings under control. He'd wanted alcohol, with the desperation of the deprived, the whole time they'd been in that portable, but he really had to be sober for this. Whatever it was. Everything shifting under him, again. He put the wine list aside.

"I wasn't ashamed of you, you know," Steve said quietly as soon as the waiter had left. "I was never ashamed of you."

OK. That was direct. And they had yet to order dinner. He supposed this was better than sitting there in nervous anticipation making small talk, but still.

He took a sip of water. "What is this about?" he asked when he could speak without getting tongue-tied.

"It's about making some things clear," said Steve. "You said you ended our arrangement because I was still pretty much in the closet. I'm not any more."

Tony swallowed hard. Oh, shit. Suddenly about a million Reasons This Is a Very Bad Idea crowded into his head. He opened his mouth.

"I don't think that's all it was about, though," said Steve, and Tony's words froze. Steve reached out and carefully took Tony's hand. "I'm not going to hide."

"OK." Tony swallowed again.

"But you're not going to hide either."

Tony blinked. "What?"

"You're not going to hide behind 'I don't do long-term.'"

"I don't."

"You did. With Pepper."

"Look how that turned out."

"That's no excuse to never try again," said Steve. "Besides, you've got 100% better success rate than I do, right?"

Tony shook his head. "I... I'm really not good at this."

"And I've really never done this at all. I'm not asking for guarantees and I'm not asking for forever, but I'm not going to do friends with benefits."

"What's changed?"

"I got my head out of my ass," said Steve with a grimace. He squeezed Tony's fingers and said gently, "And maybe it's time you did too."

Tony frowned.

"You won't stay a dirty secret; I won't be a fuck-buddy."

Tony drained his glass. Steve's eyes followed the line of his throat, his fingers tightening on Tony's slightly. "So you want to be... what, dating, then?" Steve nodded, and Tony sighed. "You have no idea what you'd be getting into."

"Probably not. Neither do you."

"What if I say no?"

"We'll finish dinner, and maybe I can talk you into a round of goodbye no-strings-attached... whatever," Steve said, and Tony could feel his effort at keeping his tone light. "And that'll be that."

"What are you gonna do?"

"I'm not going to a pick-up joint or getting an eHarmony account, if that's what you're asking," said Steve, chuckling. "I know even less about dating men than I do about women. But."

"But you've had offers. And you might take them up."

"Just go back to doing what I did before. Wait for the right partner."

Tony tilted his head to the side. "Why did you accept it, before?" he asked curiously. "No strings attached, that is."

"Because I didn't think it could be about a relationship, Tony. I thought it was just sex. But it can't be, not for me." He looked down. "Look, I'm sorry, I can't offer you very much. I don't know how I feel about a lot of stuff. I'm not... experienced. And I'm not a fan of premarital anything, and I'm not the most stable--"

"I'm not exactly poster boy for stability either, am I?"

"But I can at least offer honesty." He gazed at Tony. "And I meant what I said. You're not bad at this. Not with me, anyway."

"I have a lousy track record."

"Well, I don't have any track record," said Steve.

Damn it. Almost all the reasons Tony had had to stay away were still there. And he sucked at this kind of thing...

But damned if Spangles didn't make him want to prove himself wrong.

"So... you want us to be... boyfriends?"

Steve chuckled. "What would you prefer? Partners? Lovers?"

"Um." Tony wrinkled his nose. "Partner sounds like a business relationship, lover sounds like a bad Harlequin, boyfriend sounds like we're in high school."

"I've been called worse," said Steve.

"So have I." He sat back, toyed with his menu. He was tired, his eyes still felt gritty, his back was sore, all of him was way too smooth, there was still this shit with SHIELD...

And there was no reason for this feeling in his chest, happiness and hope bubbling up through the confusion and fear, lightness that he wanted to ascribe to the giddy feeling he sometimes got when he was particularly sleep-deprived after days in the lab, but that felt somehow completely different...

"So? Are we?" asked Steve.

"Are we what?"

Steve gazed at him patiently.

"Dating? Going to try for this?" Tony blinked. "What the hell. Why not?"

And Steve's grin was so bright Tony drew in his breath. Steve clasped his hand more firmly, then gently pulled him closer and kissed him.

As kisses went, it wasn't one of their best. They were both tired, Tony's lips were chapped, his face felt bare and cold, everything was slightly off and it crossed Tony's mind that, holy shit, anybody could see this - granted, they weren't right in the middle of the restaurant and it wasn't all that busy, but...

But it felt natural. Easy. Amazing, as they finally drew back, smiled at each other, ordered their food and ate. Relaxed, happy to be free of the portable and clean and bug-free and free in general, and the tiredness, the overhanging shit with SHIELD, all of it just seemed so much less pervasive. He could even be grateful that Hill had made them sit through those forty minutes of press stupidity rather than leaving it hanging over their heads. Now they were free to just sit and eat and enjoy the moment, as they made small talk about the agents they'd met in the portable, and Sitwell, and going back to New York - and then dinner was over and Tony had no idea where it had gone.

They made their way back to their floor, and Tony paused as they exited the elevator.

"So... we're dating, now. How traditional." He paused. "Just how traditional is this going to be, though?" He smirked. "Was that offer of no-strings-attached 'whatever' only contingent on me turning you down? Can I interest you in strings-attached whatever, or are we starting from zero?" He fluttered his eyelashes at Steve. "Are you going to see me to my door and kiss my hand, then go back to your place?"

Steve rolled his eyes. "People didn't even do that in my time," he said, and gave Tony a gentle push towards his room. "We had sex in the forties too, Tony. Even I had sex in the forties."

They stopped at Tony's door and Tony took out his key card. "And?"

"Can I come in?"

Tony opened his door. "I thought you'd never ask."

Steve came forward and embraced him, parting his lips, and it felt so familiar, so easy. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed this. And then they were hurrying through the small sitting room and practically stumbling into the bedroom and Steve was pushing Tony down onto the bed, eagerly unbuttoning his shirt and running his lips down Tony's throat, and it felt amazing, it felt awesome, it felt...

A little off, actually. His face bare, everything so over-sensitive - and Steve's hair so short, nothing for Tony to run his fingers through. He stifled a laugh as Steve nibbled on his neck.

"What?" Steve asked, lifting his head.

"Nothing - tickles, a bit," said Tony.

Steve chuckled. "Feels a bit funny from this end too," he said, and they kissed again. Steve drew back. "Not used to feeling all of... this," he said, running fingers over Tony's lips and cheek. He kissed him again. "I don't understand women who complain about kissing guys with beards. I like it."

"Ever thought of growing one yourself?"

Steve shook his head. "You saw what I was growing in when we were in quarantine," he said. "Patchy and too dark."

Tony laughed and pressed up against him, grinning as he felt distinct hardness against his thigh.

"I take it the libido-lowering meds are no longer an issue?" he said, groaning as Steve pushed down against him.

"I'm still not at base-normal for me," said Steve. "Frankly, that's a good thing."

Tony shook his head in mock dismay, unbuttoning Steve's shirt and pushing it down his arms. "So many men would give so, so much to have what you had."

Steve smiled, pulling his shirt off. "I'll settle for being normal. In this at least. I can think about you without immediately wanting your hand down my pants."

Tony snaked a hand down and deftly unbuttoned Steve's fly. "Do you object to my hand down your pants?"

"Never," gasped Steve as Tony's hand slipped in. "But I'm glad I can look at you without getting hard."

Tony grasped him. "I dunno, feeling pretty hard right now."

"I'm not just looking at you," Steve pointed out. "We're in your bedroom and there's nobody else around. It's a little more private than a conference room." He thrust into Tony's hand and they pushed against each other, moaning, and Steve's hands came down to Tony's pants and undid them as well, pushing them down his hips a bit.

He pushed Steve onto his back ran his lips down Steve's throat, down to his chest, a little put off by the unnatural extra-smoothness - and damn it, this was supposed to be sexy. And it was, mostly. But... he'd thought about Steve in his bed so many times in the last few weeks. Thought about his eager hands and darkened eyes, how he'd felt when Tony pressed his thighs together and Steve pushed between them, caressing him and tensing and catching his breath before shuddering his release. Thought of his dark thoughts held at bay for a little while as they touched and melted together, his impulses overriding everything. And now they were back to what Tony'd fantasized about so many times--

He winced slightly at the over-sensitization as Steve pulled his underwear down.

"What is it?" asked Steve.

"Nothing, nothing," said Tony, and Steve kissed the side of his neck, wriggling out of his own pants. Tony squirmed.

"It feels... weird," he blurted.

Steve froze, then laughed, Tony joining in. "Weird," he said. "Thanks?"

"You're too smooth."

"So are you." Steve tilted his head to the side. "Thought it was supposed to be..."

"A kink? Yeah, supposed to be. Maybe it's an acquired taste." He shook his head in apology, smiling and coming back to Steve's mouth, trying to push the oddness away and just enjoy the moment.

There was something different about this, Tony realized as Steve deepened their kiss. Beyond the obvious. He threw back his head and shivered as Steve pushed him onto his back and worked his lips down Tony's neck. Eager and ardent a lover as Steve was, there had always been an undercurrent of guilt about him, a slight reluctance to indulge too much. A hint of desperation, like he was only with Tony because he couldn't stand not being with him, because loneliness and unwanted desire won against his better impulses and pushed him into Tony's bed. That was gone now, and he explored Tony with hands and lips, holding him close, knees on either side of his thighs, leaning down to fit their mouths together.

And stopped, pulling away, laughing.


"I'm sorry, it's just - you're..." Steve's stopped, trying to contain himself, but laughter seemed to bubble up despite his efforts. "You're - slippery."

Tony burst out laughing, and then Steve joined in and they lay helplessly giggling together. "I think the word is supposed to be 'silky' Steve," he said when he could breathe again. "Seriously, people do this on purpose. It's supposed to be very erotic."

"You've got no... traction," Steve said, and had to stop as Tony cracked up again.

It wasn't that funny, really. In fact it was kind of pathetic - they'd both been pining ridiculously, he could admit that now, admit what he'd seen in Steve's eyes, what he'd felt within himself. They should be coming together in a glorious overwhelming surge of passion that blotted out all other considerations. Instead they were finally naked in bed together again - and laughing their fool heads off. Steve was laughing harder than he'd ever seen him, shoulders shaking helplessly, breath gasping as they lay together.

Finally Tony stopped, wiping his eyes. Now that he thought about it, this was actually probably far better for them than sex right now.

"I... am not sure this is gonna work," he said.

Steve put his head down on the bed and snickered, then ran a rueful hand over his too-short hair. "I don't think so either," he said, his mirth subsiding slowly. He rolled over on to his side and gazed at Tony, eyes still bright with amusement. "You have no idea how much I've wanted this. But it's probably for the best." He ran a finger down Tony's chest, glanced down at where he'd gone to half-mast. "Now that I think about it, it's probably too soon for anything like this anyway."

"Too soon?" Tony asked. "Seriously? Why? Because this is our first date?"

Steve rolled his eyes. "No, not that. I mean too soon after getting out." He clasped Tony's hand. "I probably should've waited until you'd gotten some real sleep. You were... I know being in that portable wasn't easy."

Tony snorted and moved onto his back. "Steve, if you're gonna play the 'poor Tony's Afghanistan flashbacks' guilt card, I'll have to raise you 'poor Steve's surgery-without-anesthetics,' OK? We're probably both massively fucked up right now."

"Right," Steve said. "So we shouldn't rush into anything."

"Fine. Let's call it that. Let's pretend we stopped because we were both being responsible and careful of each other's mental health issues. It's easier to swallow than, 'We tried but just couldn't get past the lack of traction.'"

Steve snorted. "I guess so."

Tony sighed and turned over, gazing at Steve, who grasped his hand and brought it to his lips.

"Speaking of mental health issues, I'm sorry," he said quietly. "For before." Tony raised his eyebrows. "You didn't deserve any of what I put you through."

"You didn't--"

"You brought me through a lot of shit, and put up with a lot from me. I know you don't think you did anything right," he said, speaking over Tony as Tony opened his mouth to object. "You can believe what you want. But you're wrong. You saved my life. Over and over. You gave me something to live for."

Tony frowned. That sounded a little too - but now Steve was giving him a small smile. "Not just..." he waved between them, "this. I mean, I missed you - you have no idea how much I missed you - but this wasn't what made the difference." He paused, evidently choosing his words carefully. "You've made me feel like I belong here, whether you're in my bed or not." He ran a hand down Tony's arm. "I'm still homesick," he said, his voice low. "I'm still... grieving, I guess. Probably will be for a long time. But it's not like it was before, when I felt like I'd give anything to go back. Like I'd rather die than stay here." Steve smiled and drew his knee up, running a hand down to his anklet. "I don't need this any more."

Tony ran a finger under it, making Steve shiver a bit and twitch his leg. "I'll give you the code to unlock it."

Steve nodded. "I'd still like to keep it, though. You should think about making one for everyone on the team; it's pretty useful, having JARVIS able to locate you and monitor your vital signs."

Tony hesitated a moment. "What if... what if you could go back?" Steve looked at him curiously. "Back to your time, without screwing up any timelines or bringing about a paradox to end the universe or anything. Would you?"

Steve nodded and took Tony's hand, bringing it to his lips and kissing his fingers. "Yeah, I would," he said quietly. "It's where I belong. But I'd miss this time, too. I'd miss you." He sighed and rested his cheek against the back of Tony's hand. "And I dunno, I've thought, a couple of times... without Bucky, without Peggy... who knows, maybe even if I had the chance to go back I'd choose to stay here."

"Peggy would still be there," Tony pointed out.

Steve shook his head. "Not for me. I couldn't marry her. I love her - I'll always love her. But I couldn't spend the rest of my life with any woman. It wouldn't be fair to her." He paused and blinked, as if something had just occurred to him. "Or to me."

Tony gazed at him thoughtfully.

"I'm better, Tony. You did that, whether you believe it or not."

"You did it yourself," Tony protested.

"But you helped. The whole team helped." He leaned forward and kissed Tony again. "It's late. We're both exhausted." He drew back. "How are you feeling?"

Tony thought for a moment. Considering that he was weirdly slippery, coming down off an experience that was way too reminiscent of the worst time in his life, hadn't managed to have sex with his... boyfriend, and was still aching for sleep... he bit back an impulse to crow, "Like the King of the world!" and just smiled at Steve.

"Pretty good."

"We should sleep."

"Yeah. Hey." Tony blinked. "Tomorrow's Valentine's Day." Steve's eyebrows went up. Tony chuckled. "You know, the sad thing is, every other time I've been with someone for Valentine's Day I've gone the kinky route. Lingerie, sex toys, leather." He grimaced. "We're both going to be prickly as hell tomorrow though. I may be forced to go the romantic route by default."

Steve snickered, then yawned. "Maybe we'll just sleep through it."

Tony smiled and closed his eyes, feeling Steve's hand gently run across his too-short hair, then felt Steve settle himself on the pillow and drop into a deep sleep almost instantly.

He turned over, watching Steve's peaceful features, mind still a little too wired to come down.

This was probably insane. But damned if insanity didn't feel like the best thing in the world right now. He touched a finger to Steve's smooth cheek, watched his eyes flutter slightly, smiled as Steve moved towards him, reaching for him without waking.

It was insane. He had a lousy record, a lot of it painfully recorded in the media. But Steve believed in him. That said something, to have someone like Steve Rogers think highly of him. Too bad Tony didn't particularly share the sentiment - sure, yeah, genius billionaire and all that, he knew he was pretty hot shit, but not about the important stuff. Not when it came to deserving someone like Steve.

Well, maybe Steve could believe in Tony enough for both of them. Tony smiled, drew closer to Steve, and prepared to sleep.