They’re crowded sullenly together in the lounge. Steve’s not sure who turned the television on, but there are certainly a lot of stations broadcasting coverage of the battle they just fought. The primary interest, though, seems to be in the way the team had nearly come to blows about ten minutes in. Steve watches the little screen version of himself turn and yell at Iron Man, whose reaction is hidden by his faceplate. Screen-Thor pushes between the two of them and throws Mjolnir. It passes right through the creature and crashes into the building behind, which was apparently what Tony had been trying to explain in the least helpful way possible. Some days they get along fine, and on others Steve thinks that they may never understand each other. Even when they know what the mission is, even when they agree on the plan, they end up at cross-purposes. And then they end up on television.
The channel-hopping stops on a man with an oddly coloured tan, talking to a woman who is apparently somewhere else in the country. There’s a box around her face, with her name underneath and ‘Los Angeles.’ The man is saying, “What do we really know about these so-called-heroes? Here to discuss that, we have Renee Morris, whose book ‘Avengers Uncovered’ is due to be published in the summer.”
Bruce asks, “What did he say?”
They drop back into silence because the woman is already talking. “-even putting aside Tony Stark, reportedly left out of the original line-up due to concerns about his stability. This is a team with a former Russian spy – now she claims to be a convert, but we all remember the news stories about sleeper agents. That’s one trained killer with dangerously uncertain allegiances, and another who spent his childhood in institutions and then quite literally ran away to join the circus without finishing high school. A creature, which no one seems to be able to control-”
Tony announces, “Right. Done with this,” and stalks out of the room.
The rest of them stay. The woman on the television is now saying, “-criminals and aliens and monsters. These are supposed to be the people protecting us? Defending our freedoms? What’s going to happen when we need to be defended from them?”
Steve hates this decade, this time. It’s not just because of the things the woman is saying, and the effect it’s having on Steve’s already fragmented team. It’s the way that people might believe her. It’s the way she may not be entirely wrong. When Steve asked Tony, months ago, why the people now are so mistrustful, Tony had rattled off, “Watergate, Iran-Contra, Gitmo, Enron…” Steve knows there had been scandal and corruption in his own time too, but he had trusted that the government were trying to do their best. Tony talks about Senators the way he talks about used-car salesmen. Steve has barely caught up with that history but he has a sense of why Jane keeps paper notes tucked into her jacket away from SHIELD eyes, and why Bruce comes back from sessions at medical even more tense than before.
Except that the Avengers aren’t a threat because Natasha’s Russian, or because Clint grew up on the road. Natasha is watching the television screen without betraying anything on her face. But she’s leaned right up shoulder-to-shoulder with Clint, close as the two of them can make it. Clint shows a little more; his face is pale, and his hands are folded tight against his leg.
Steve guesses this wasn’t what they were expecting when they joined the team. He, at least, is a little more used to being in the public eye, although it was never anything like this. He should say something. But the woman keeps talking and now she’s saying, “Captain America, who falsified enlistment documents-.”
The screen flickers once, and suddenly Tony is talking through the television speakers. Steve assumes it’s just them, but on the screen the presenter and the woman jump. Tony says, “Do not adjust your sets. We are controlling transmission. Well. I am.” The picture splits, so Tony’s face appears in the corner of the screen, above the woman’s.
The presenter coughs, and tries to regain control. “Tony Stark. Good evening.”
Tony’s smile has no humour in it. “Good evening. You were talking about us; I thought you might appreciate a representative. Fair and Balanced, after all. And Ms Morris was kind enough to give me an opening.”
The woman coughs. “We have a free press, Mr Stark. And the fact that you and your team are so threatened by that is just the sort of thing that makes people like me nervous. That’s why I decided to write the book. People should know-”
Tony says, “We have a free press, and we have free speech. Which means that if you want to come on here and say that you don’t like me, you can go right ahead. I promise, I’ve heard it all before. But we’re not actually talking about that right now. I’m just a little curious where you got some of that information from.”
“I’m an investigative journalist-.”
Tony cuts her off, his voice hard. “Some of that crap was probably from Child Services. It was definitely sealed records. Bribing someone to open those counts as journalism nowadays? And that’s to say nothing of the stuff that’s protected under- well. I don’t want to throw ‘Patriot Act’ around lightly, but I’d start listening for a knock at the door.”
She huffs. “Was that a threat?”
“No. This is a threat. This goes two ways. I’m a smart man, Ms Morris, and I’m better at this than you. You want to talk about untrustworthy? I’ve looked you up. How about that night you got drunk, got into your car, and put a sixteen-year-old kid in the hospital? That’s a sealed record too, I’m going to guess because of something to do with the extremely large amount that left your bank account the next day, but you don’t care much about that, do you? I see- oh, here’s a harassment complaint from the family of a dead American soldier, that’ll go down well. Another report of illegal search methods.” Tony pauses. “And I see you have a son-.”
Steve shouts, “Tony!” and it echoes around the house.
On the screen, Tony smiles. “Lucky for him, my fearless leader has just broke in to inform me that would be crossing a line. He’s a better person than me. He’s certainly a better person than you.”
Her voice is less steady now. “People have the right to know the truth.”
“Sure. Absolutely. But see, you made a mistake. If you wanted ‘the truth’, if you wanted to defend the world from unstable people with almighty powers… you really should have started with me.”
The man tries to cut in but Tony can’t be stopped when he gets like this. Steve knows that as well as anyone. He should go and find Tony, start pulling wires out of the wall like he has any idea what Tony is able to do that breaks into a live television feed. He just holds his breath, and leans forward in the chair.
Tony says, “But that wouldn’t have made a good story, would it? Everyone knows Tony Stark’s a mess, everyone knows he screws around and drinks too much and clearly daddy didn’t love him enough. So you dug a little deeper and you decided you were going to go for the big revelations. You decided the best plan was to go on television and accuse- honestly, lady, those guys are too good to be a danger to you. I’m the one you should be scared of.”
The presenter tries to interrupt again, but his mouth moves without any sound coming out. Steve guesses Tony has something to do with that.
Tony says, “Let’s match my truths with yours, okay? Every lie and every dirty private thing you pull out on my guys, goes double for me with you and yours. Let’s see who blinks first.”
His little screen goes dark, and then the whole television.
Bruce tilts his head sideways. “I’m not sure, but I think Tony just dared FOX News to play chicken with him.”
Steve can hear Tony’s footsteps coming back wherever he was. The door opens and Tony looks around at them. “What?”
Natasha rubs her temple. “Tony, what the hell was that?”
He knows, he must know, but he just asks, “Again: what?”
“That stunt you just pulled. You realise that people-?”
“Who still watches the news on television nowadays anyway?” Tony asks rhetorically. He’s looking at Steve, waiting for something.
All Steve says is his name. “Tony.”
Tony’s phone starts ringing. He looks quickly at the screen and hits a button. “Ignore.” He looks back at Steve. “I’m done with this, okay?” The phone rings again. “Ignore. I’m drawing a line.” He looks at the screen once more, and this time puts the phone to his ear. “You hear that Pep? I’m drawing a line.” He listens for a moment. “No, I don’t think I overreacted, you know why? Because I’m drawing a line. You remember when they were saying crap about you, and you wouldn’t let me buy their networks and force them all to report on our awesomeness all day long?” There is a longer waiting period then, as though Pepper recalls this incident quite vividly. At the end of it, Tony nods. “So you get it. Excellent.” He hangs up. Steve has his doubts that Pepper had actually come to any agreement with him.
Steve tries again. “Tony. Why did you do that?”
“Largely? Because – and correct me if I’m wrong – but it didn’t look like any of you were planning to fly down to LA and assassinate her. And those were pretty much the only two acceptable options.”
“Tony, you can’t just-.”
“You mean that I shouldn’t just. I think I demonstrated kind of clearly that I can.”
He shrugs. “She gives up, or she gets distracted and sues me.”
“And when they start saying things about you in the newspapers?”
Tony stares at him. “Steve. Believe me when I- look, in this arena if nothing else, I have more experience than you guys at taking the hits.”
“You shouldn’t have to listen to that crap. If I get her to concentrate on my much longer history of irresponsible behaviour, now apparently including threatening the first amendment, I call that a win.”
Clint taps the edge of the coffee table. “She didn’t say much that wasn’t true.”
“Oh?” Tony wheels around. “So Natasha’s gonna sell us out to the Reds any day now and you’re planning on being too much of an unstable carnival act to stop her? Meanwhile Bruce is juicing himself into a monster for kicks and Steve’s apparently a liar, which – you have to love that the worst thing she could come up with was that he lied so they’d let him serve his country. Seriously. Oh.” He turns his head. “And you’re kind of the ultimate illegal alien, buddy, sorry.”
Thor smiles at this. “I also tell people that my father is a God. I believe this would trouble her.”
There is a brief silence and then Tony starts laughing. “You know what, I bet that it would. I should have mentioned it.”
Steve sighs. “I think you said enough, Tony.”
Tony loses his smile. “Okay. The son, he wasn’t exactly a prince either, you know? I wasn’t about to just throw some innocent kid to the wolves but apparently that particular apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. But I did stop. You said, so I- But her, she deserved way worse than I- forget it.” He turns to walk away.
Steve stops him. “Pull out on my guys, you said. My guys.”
Tony looks over his shoulder. “You’d rather I said your guys, Cap?”
“No. Tony. She wasn’t telling the truth about you either.”
Tony tilts his head and looks hard at Steve. “No, the ‘not accepted first time around’ thing was actually true. Natasha wrote the file, you can ask her.”
That’s not what Steve meant. He reaches up and Tony – who ignores direct orders in the field, who is often as uncontrollable as he is painted in the report which Steve has already read – drifts back into range of Steve’s hand. Steve snags Tony’s wrist and locks their fingers together. When he pulls, Tony stumbles and falls beside him on the couch.
“What?” Tony asks.
When Steve doesn’t answer, he looks ready to ask a second time, but Steve kisses him before he manages it.
Steve could be mad at Tony, because there will be fallout from this tomorrow, and there are already other telephones ringing in the house. But he could either be mad at him, or kiss him – those were the only two acceptable options. Steve is tired, and still hurting from the fight, and if Tony always goes too far then at least he goes. ‘My guys’ he said, and he just broke into a television feed because their team was under attack. If Steve had known how, he might have done the same thing. That’s not the only reason Steve is kissing him, but it may have been a tipping point.
Tony breaks away from Steve, although he doesn’t look happy to do so. “You’re not just trying to give that woman something else to be pissed about, are you?”
“No, Tony,” Steve says. “I’m not.”
“Okay. Excellent.” Tony leans in again, so they’re touching forehead to forehead. “God knows I hate publicity stunts.”
Steve kisses him again.
In the background, Natasha answers a phone. “No, sir, they’re both a little busy right now…. Well, it’s hard to say, but I don’t think Steve is explaining things to him, no.” She makes a low, thoughtful noise. “Mostly I think we’ve decided to stick by him, even if it was stupidly illegal and probably did more harm than good…. Well, because he did it first. Yes, sir.” She hangs up. “Guys, you have about ten minutes before Fury gets here.”
Steve nods, and looks at Tony. “We’re going to have to talk to him. He’s going to want to-.”
Tony grins at him. “It’s okay, we still have ten minutes. I can do all kinds of things in ten minutes.”
Steve does not doubt him.