1. September 21
"Which means?" said Fury.
"Apparently he's pissing off the Avengers, sir," said Hill. "He's second-guessing Rogers' command decisions in his reports, pressuring Barton and Romanov to return to SHIELD barracks, and making noise about Thor, Banner and Stark not having any SHIELD training. And demanding Stark turn his paperwork in on time."
"That's all stuff Coulson might've done too," Fury pointed out. "Particularly the last."
"Coulson wouldn't have pissed us all off doing it," said Clint darkly.
"Coulson threatened to taze Stark. Repeatedly."
"Maybe Stark's into that, sir," Clint shot back.
Tony smirked, but reflected that probably the comparison to Coulson wasn't the best way for Fury to have started this meeting, at least as far as Clint was concerned. Of all of them, Clint seemed to despise Sorensen the most, and Tony could bet it had a lot to do with Sorensen trying to step into shoes that really, nobody could fill. With anybody, but particularly with Clint.
"Is this unanimous?" asked Fury. He glanced around the group, encountering uniformly grim expressions. "Captain?"
"Not entirely sir," said Steve. "I stand behind my team and their complaints, but personally I welcome the opportunity to learn from Agent Sorensen's feedback on my command decisions."
"Even when he's a douchebag about it?" asked Clint.
"How long has Sorensen been with SHIELD?" asked Tony. "How much experience does he have?"
"He's the Council's boy toy," said Clint derisively.
"What does that mean?"
"It means the Council dropped him into SHIELD not too long ago, without even asking Fury. He didn't train as an operative. He was just brought in--"
"So were a lot of our operatives, Barton," Hill pointed out. "You. Romanov. Coulson."
"I went through accelerated training. Fury himself qualified Natasha. And Coulson was a Ranger."
"And Sorensen was approved by the Council," said Hill. "They have their reasons."
"Since when do they insert themselves into our Human Resources?"
"Since the Chitauri," said Hill. "Now, you can either play nice, or find someone else to play with."
The door opened and Tom Sorensen walked in, his mouth in a grim line. "Sorry, for some reason I wasn't told there was a meeting."
"That's because you weren't invited," said Tony. "We're talking about you behind your back."
"Sit down, Agent," said Fury.
God damn it. Tony watched Sorensen set himself and his files down, and manfully resisted the urge to throw a spit-ball at him.
Of all the things that pissed him off about Sorensen, the worst was how the guy went after Steve relentlessly. Steve himself seemed to take it in stride, but Tony had barely restrained himself from flattening the guy last time they'd barely finished a mission and he'd immediately started picking at everything Steve had done. While Steve was still being patched up by the medics.
He still kinda wished he had decked Sorensen, but... yeah, probably not such a good idea. That way lay showing Steve that Tony was maybe starting to have a bit of a... thing for him. Calling Sorensen a 'petty asshole who can't handle being around a living legend who's a better man than you'll ever be' might have been a bit of a giveaway though, and the gleam in Steve's eye and firm pressure of Steve's hand on Tony's back as he gently steered him away from Sorensen had made Tony wonder for one brief moment if he noticed. And maybe even returned the feeling.
OK, really not the right time to be thinking about any of that. Sorensen finished spreading out his files and Tony firmly called upon his Inner Pepper ("It's time to be act responsibly, Tony, there's a time and a place for everything"), and turned back to Fury.
"So where were we?" Tony said. "Oh that's right. Play nice, or find someone else to play with? Don't take it personally, Nick, old buddy," he said, turning to Fury. "But I'm not sure we actually want to play in your sandbox." He glanced at Sorensen. "Some of the new kids are meanies."
"You're being awfully lackadaisical about all of this," noted Tony. "Makes us think you don't love us."
"It's your life," said Fury. "Your team. You run it as you see fit. You aren't part of SHIELD. Neither are Dr. Banner or Thor."
"What about your homegrown talent?" said Tony, nodding at Natasha and Clint.
"They're free to take an extended leave of absence if they want to," said Fury. Sorensen frowned and opened his mouth. "This has already been discussed," continued Fury before he could interject. "The Avengers Initiative began with SHIELD, and is associated with SHIELD, but is not fully integrated into SHIELD."
"It can be rediscussed," said Sorensen darkly. Fury fixed Sorensen with a bland look. Sorensen cleared his throat. "Provided you want to, sir," he amended.
"What about Captain Iceman?" asked Tony.
"He's free to stay or leave as well," said Fury. "SHIELD has no legal hold on him."
"Excuse me?" said Hill, turning to him in surprise. "SHIELD invested--"
"SHIELD rescued him and gave him medical care and housing for the first few months after his rescue," said Fury. "He doesn't owe us for any of that, since he wasn't even conscious to consent to the rescue or initial rehab at the time. And even if he was, his back pay from 1945 has been calculated, and he could pay us back and still have plenty left over." He gazed dispassionately at Hill. "What would you suggest as an alternative, should Captain Rogers decide to end his ties to SHIELD? Indentured servitude?"
"So I'm to take it that there is a general feeling of discontent here?" asked Sorensen, breaking the silence.
"There's a general feeling that you're trying to fix what ain't broke," said Clint.
"Ain't broke? Your missions in Albuquerque, Hoboken and Richmond don't need fixing, according to you?"
"How could Hoboken have gone better?"
"You could have maybe captured the perpetrator."
"We could have maybe left Hoboken a field of rubble," Clint shot back.
"If you had followed proper SHIELD procedure--"
"If you had taken your head out of your ass--"
"Proper SHIELD procedure wasn't appropriate for the initial stage of that operation," said Steve, giving Clint a quelling look.
"What about afterwards?" Sorensen pressed. "There are regulations to be followed in the aftermath of any mission. You people seem to feel you're above that kind of thing."
"We are," snapped Tony.
"It's not a question of being above them," said Steve sternly. "That's not the point."
"The point is, you called us for three battles over a six-day period," said Bruce.
"You're supposed to be super-heroes."
"We're still human beings. We were called in on the 16th, 18th, and 20th. That's not enough time to recover between missions, let alone do paperwork."
"And Richmond - what was that?" said Tony. "A weird weapon used as a gun, for a bank robbery. We didn't need to be there."
"SHIELD deals with robberies," said Sorensen.
"We're not SHIELD," Tony shot back. "And Hawkeye had already been hurt in Hoboken; he shouldn't have been called out to--"
"Then he should have been benched by your leader," said Sorensen.
Natasha tsk'd impatiently. "Hawkeye has a piss-poor sense of self-preservation--"
"Hey!" said Clint.
"-can crawl through the vents at the Tower, and knows where the Captain sleeps. Maybe Cap knows what would happen to him if he tried to bench Hawkeye over a sprained ankle."
"Are you saying you're afraid of your fellow team-mates?" Sorensen asked Steve.
"Oh for fuck's sake," Clint muttered. Steve didn't bother to respond to Sorensen, staring at him in disdain until Sorensen dropped his eyes and took another tack.
"I do agree that Hawkeye should not have been there, that's obvious," said Sorensen. "Valuable time was taken up getting him off his perch, losing his line of sight--"
"That had nothing to do with the ankle!" Clint exclaimed. "That was because the robbers went behind and--"
"And Widow's hand-to-hand could have been useful if she'd been sent in during the hold-up. That's what she's good at."
"She's also good at breaking in, you ass," said Clint. "That's what she was supposed to be doing. And she did it. She got us in without Iron Man or Hulk having to blast the bank wall open."
"And why was Hulk only used in one of these missions? In fact, in only three missions since the Avengers Initiative began?"
Steve leaned forward. "The Hulk is for emergencies. Alien army invading emergencies. Otherwise we rely on Dr. Banner's other talents."
"Otherwise it's like getting an enema for indigestion," Clint put in.
"And speaking of Dr. Banner's other talents," said Bruce, "he can't help if he doesn't have good intel."
Sorensen frowned. "I sent the pink slime--"
"You sent it with no explanation," Bruce shot back. "And you have not shared SHIELD information with me that might have been useful. Widow found out that SHIELD suspected the Mean Teen - sorry, the Verminator - had an associate based in Hoboken. It would have been nice to know that before we went in. I could have examined the area more closely before it was fully destroyed."
Sorensen turned to Steve, ignoring Bruce. "The one time you've sent Hulk in since I've been here, the only command you gave him was, 'Hulk, smash.' What kind of directive is that? He--"
"The Other Guy is not exactly a Rhodes Scholar," said Bruce impatiently. "He can't understand much else. He knew what the Captain wanted, and he did it. Because he trusts him and is willing to follow his lead. And he likes smashing things."
Sorensen's lips pressed together.
"Anything else?" asked Steve.
Sorensen lifted his chin. "As a matter of fact, there is." He flipped open a file. "Your colleague Thor, I'm sure is very useful, but he is not here for most of your engagements, not to mention most of our debriefings. It's not--"
"He's an alien god," said Clint. "When we say he's on another planet, we're not being smart-asses."
"And we have no idea what that weapon of his is made of, what its true capabilities are. We should examine it, and--"
"Trust me, you do not want to touch that man's hammer without his permission," said Natasha. "And that's not a euphemism."
"Furthermore, he has no documented combat training," said Sorensen. "Half of you don't. It's not enough to come in on an informal basis whenever something on our training calendar strikes your fancy; I'm talking about formal mandatory SHIELD combat training, preferably geared to your capabilities."
"So, you want me to put on the Iron Man suit and we go a few rounds in a formalized curriculum of your design?" Tony laughed. "What about the Hulk? Would you like him to show up for lessons so you can instruct him on how to use his talents? Can I watch?"
Clint and Natasha were openly laughing now, and Bruce's mouth quirked up slightly, and Tony could swear Fury's eye was glimmering with amusement as well. Steve, however, was drumming his fingers on the table and did not look nearly as amused as the rest of them.
"I don't think SHIELD has the budget to do formal combat training for me, Thor, and the Hulk, Sorensen," Tony said.
"Speaking of budgets, what's the price of the range in Stark Tower?" said Sorensen.
Tony blinked. "Sorry, what?"
"It's being used by SHIELD agents. We require a budget and specifications as to its design and safety features."
"Sorry, what?" Tony repeated.
"If our people are going to be using the space, we need to know what we're using. I've heard that Widow and Hawkeye are both using your range, and I've noticed some arrows that were not developed by SHIELD's R&D. We need to see--"
Tony sat back. "My toys. My house. You're not getting any specs from me. You can kiss my genius ass--"
"If you are going to use SHIELD resources and personnel, you will be expected to comply with SHIELD regulations."
"SHIELD regulations can line up to kiss my ass."
"All right, this is getting out of hand," Steve broke in. He turned to Sorensen. "Agent Sorensen, we do appreciate your efforts on our behalf," he said. "And we appreciate our association with SHIELD. Consider this a meeting to air out some concerns."
"Consider it a reality check," said Bruce.
Sorensen gave them a hard stare.
"I'd think about what they're saying, Agent," said Fury mildly. "They're throwing you a bone. I suggest you take it."
"They're being a hell of a lot more diplomatic than I'd be," said Tony. "I'd say you're a douchebag--"
"That's my word," Clint objected.
"Iron Man. Hawkeye. Enough," said Steve. His eyes were steady on Tony's, and his head was shaking slightly, asking them silently to stop.
And he was pissed off. Blue eyes frosty, face pale, lips slightly pressed together. Sorensen, the idiot, probably thought Steve was too good a little soldier to take any of this personally. He was wrong.
"Fine. Sure, Captain." Tony sat back.
"Whatever you say, Cap," said Clint. He stood up. "Director, can we go? I think we're done here."
"Where are you going?" asked Sorensen.
"Our regular team bonding exercise," said Bruce. "It's very important. Helps us deal with our daily fuck-ups."
Fury waved in dismissal, and they stood and started to head for the door. Tony reflected that, unenthused as he was over Tom Jones - watching some idiot seduce his way across England in period costume was not in fact Tony's idea of fun - both were a marked improvement over spending any more time in Sorensen's presence.
"Director," Sorensen began, "if this is an Avengers activity, I should be present to supervise--"
"Hell to the no," Clint spat. "I'd rather dive into a bucket of pus."
"What kind of team bonding is this?" asked Sorensen.
"We watch a lot of porn," said Clint.
Fury had a sudden coughing fit and Tony wasn't imagining it, Hill's eyes were glinting with amusement.
Sorensen's eyes narrowed. "Assuming that were true, it would be completely inappropriate," he said stiffly. "For one thing, it's sexist, and Agent Romanov should not be expected to put up with it."
"I select most of our movies," said Natasha.
"Except Shaved in Shelbyville," said Tony. "I got us that one."
"Iron Man," said Steve reprovingly.
"OK, Cap recommended it."
Steve blinked, then gave Sorensen a bland smile. "It was very artistic and tasteful," he said, and they walked out the door.
2. September 27
Out. Out of here.
He passed through his living room, hesitating, eyes darting around for something to do, anything.
He couldn't read any more, couldn't draw, would probably ram his motorcycle into a wall if he tried to drive, he didn't want to look over the stuff he'd got from the church...
OK, the common floor. It was a big tower, he could wander. He could maybe get himself something to eat, look out the large window - not that his own wasn't large too, but his apartment felt like a cell right now.
Thank God. The kitchen was empty.
A beer. A walk around the outside deck. Then he'd go to bed and try again.
Or maybe take a dive off the deck.
God, stop it.
He closed his eyes and took two deep breaths, stuttering to a stop as the elevator door opened and Tony and Natasha came out, chatting.
He made himself wave at them casually and turned back to the fridge, taking out a beer and moving aside as Natasha reached in for a fruit juice, still talking to Tony about the mission she'd apparently just returned from.
"A lot of nothing; the worst part of it was missing the eating scene in Tom Jones. It's what most SHIELD ops turn out to be, but I'm not complaining, I'm just glad to finally be able to - are you all right?" asked Natasha, stopping short. Steve turned, realized she was talking to him.
"What? Yeah," said Steve.
Her eyes narrowed. "No, you're not. Your breathing is too fast, and your hands are unsteady." Tony turned to look at him in surprise.
Shit. "Had a... nightmare," said Steve. Yes. Nightmare. Better than 'sleepless anxiety for no god damn reason.' "It's nothing."
"You get a lot of those?" asked Tony.
Steve shrugged casually. "Every so often. Had 'em for years. Nothing new."
"You don't sleep a lot, do you?" said Natasha.
"Slept for seventy years," said Steve lightly. Natasha shook her head. "Why are you up?"
"Just came back from Kolkata."
"Pepper was CEO'ing me from LA," said Tony.
"Well, I should really go to bed. Good night," Natasha said. She prodded Tony. "So should you."
Steve ran a hand through his hair, relieved, as they both headed for the elevator. He'd barely had a chance to let out his breath when the elevator dinged and Tony came out again.
"Seriously, are you OK?" asked Tony without preamble as he approached.
"Yeah, fine." Steve took a sip of his beer, forcing steadiness into his movements. "You didn't come down here to check on me, did you?"
Tony smiled sheepishly. "I might have. Sorry." He paused. "How come you drink beer if you can't get anything out of it?"
"I still like the taste."
"Hey, whatever works after a nightmare. I had some doozies after Afghanistan."
"OK. Well, don't tell Natasha, but I'm gonna go down to the workshop. Hang on," he leaned past Steve and reached into the fridge, and Steve forced himself to not tense up. Calm and steady. Nothing to see here, move along.
He turned away so that Tony wouldn't see him close his eyes tightly, would just go away before he could embarrass himself even further. Twitched violently as he felt Tony's hand on his shoulder, and felt his beer start to slip through his fingers.
"Steve - ah, shit!" Tony blurted, and the bottle tumbled to the floor, and Steve's body reacted with no input from him whatsoever, turning Steve around and sending him against the counter in a frantic whattheFUCKwasthat?! attempt to get away from the loud noise.
He stared down at the puddle of beer and broken glass at Tony's feet, his heart racing.
"Damn it - hey. Hey, Steve?" Tony's voice was closer now, right next to Steve's ear. "Hey, are you OK?"
Steve's entire body was shuddering, his breath fast and laboured.
"Steve, hey, it's OK," said Tony uncertainly.
"I know that, damn it!" said Steve, and turned away from Tony.
"OK. I'm sorry. Um."
Steve gripped the counter and put his head down. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, this was what he'd feared, losing it in front of somebody else - and OK, at least this was a team-mate and he wasn't in public, but--
"Hey. Breathe deep."
Steve made a questioning sound.
"You... um, Steve, looks like you're having kind of a panic attack."
Steve shook his head slightly, trying to slow down his breathing. Bring it down, count from ten to one, focus on the breath...
"Does... this happen a lot?"
"Not a lot," Steve managed. "Just... when I've had a nightmare."
"Or when something happens that reminds you of something nasty?"
Steve lifted his head and narrowed his eyes at Tony, wiping his forehead. Fuck. Beads of sweat. He probably looked vaguely green - he'd seen himself in the mirror during one of these, and it wasn't a good look.
"Anybody talk to you about PTSD?" Tony said quietly. "What with having been deep-frozen, near-death experiences, and all that?"
"Yes. SHIELD medical said I wasn't suffering from it. I don't get... flashbacks, or anything."
"Maybe you need a second opinion."
Steve stiffened. "What the hell for?"
"Um, because you don't seem to sleep a lot. You get jumpy sometimes. And you may not be hearing bombs when you drop a bottle, but you're wound tighter than Hawkeye's bowstrings."
"I'm fine. A few nightmares. I can deal with it."
Tony put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You sure? Remember, 'heroes are mortal and not divine'?"
"Yeah." Steve took a deep breath. "I can handle it."
"OK." He paused, and looked a little uncertain. "Just - if you, you know, can't sleep or something, you can always come down to the shop and see if I'm up. And if I'm not, don't worry about waking me up."
Steve shook his head.
"Yeah, never mind." Tony gave him a small smile. "I mean, offer stands, but don't worry, I can understand why you wouldn't take me up on it. I'm not the first person people think about talking to about anything important. Pepper had all sorts of ideas about why. She's probably right about all of them--"
"Tony," Steve interrupted him, disturbed by Tony's defensive tone. "You're the only person I've told I was gay. In this century, I mean. Obviously you're not that off-putting."
"Really? I wondered about that." He paused. "What about in your own time?"
"I told one of the nuns at the orphanage. And the priest. And Bucky knew."
Steve found himself chuckling unexpectedly. "God, no. No, he tried really hard to set me up with a nice girl. Or twenty."
They were silent for a moment. OK. This was OK. He wasn't shaking any more - not much, anyway - and he wasn't hyperventilating. Tony didn't seem bothered by his small panic attack. Which, really, hadn't been that bad - his asthma attacks used to be much, much worse.
"So... how about that election?"
Steve blinked. "What?"
"I can't ask you 'How about those Mets' since I don't know shit about baseball but I've been told you're probably still pissed that the Dodgers moved to LA."
"So you thought talking politics would be better?"
"Um. On second thought that's maybe not as great an idea as I thought."
"Probably not," Steve gave a small laugh. "Everyone seems... silly. There are real problems, and people are focussing on the most incredible things. Have you heard about the Birthers?"
Tony threw back his head and laughed. "Oh God. You. You've been to Birther sites. That's hysterical."
"They're as bad as the sites with all the people who think they know what we think, politically." Tony smirked and Steve continued. "You're used to it, I guess. I'm not."
"You should set them straight," said Tony. He paused. "No, on second thought, bad idea."
"Yeah, no, I don't think Fury's heart can take the Council asking what the hell Captain America's doing on Fox News."
They laughed. "You'd get great ratings. You're a natural with the cameras."
"I hate it. You actually seem to like it. And you're good at it." Steve suddenly realized how admiring he sounded, and hoped he wasn't about to blush. He had noticed Tony was good at it... but really, he didn't need to put it like that. He cleared his throat. "All right, I should probably..."
"Hey, no, we were doing the mutual admiration thing, I love that," Tony said with a smile. "We were having a moment."
Steve huffed a small laugh. "Were we?" He looked up at Tony and suddenly caught a serious look on his face.
"I don't know," said Tony, his voice uncertain. "Were we?"
Steve couldn't look away. This wasn't Tony's regular cocky asshole look. This wasn't his flippant look either. This was something else.
"Were we?" Tony asked again.
Steve swallowed. Tony put a hand on his shoulder and damn, that should not feel as gentle and good as it felt.
He was still shaky from the dropped bottle incident, from Tony and Natasha both seeing him so off-balance - he should back up and walk away before this became anything more than it was: two friends, late at night, dealing with demons. Right now this could've been any night with the Commandos.
It didn't look like Tony wanted that.
Steve sure as hell didn't. Which was why he should back away.
There had been something growing between them in the last few weeks, Steve realized, his heart simultaneously sinking and racing. Glances that held a little too long, Tony being a little too vehement in Steve's defence, Steve feeling a glow at that that was totally different from how he felt when any of the others went to bat for him. A lot of other hints here and there. He'd been an idiot for not admitting it to himself.
He swallowed, unable to look away from Tony, seeing what he normally didn't let himself notice -- and Tony's eyes were really incredibly beautiful, he thought irrelevantly. His body so strong, wiry, his hands so deft and skilled, his hair just begging to be played with--
Damn it, he was staring. His body, still in fight-or-flight mode, was tensing in an entirely different way and he was helpless, helpless to stop it. Goosebumps were rising on his arms, his fingers suddenly itching to reach out and touch Tony.
Tony reached for him, slowly, and he should be backing away, he should be putting distance between them before this turned into something very different and they crossed a line.
Tony's hand was on his, and they were gazing at each other, and Steve licked his lips. Tony's gaze lowered and he raised his eyebrows slightly.
Steve took a deep breath. "Tony." He swallowed.
"I know. But I... I can't."
"You seriously don't want this?" Tony paused. "Because I've had a lot of experience with seeing what people look like when they want me." It was amazing how he could say something so egotistical without the egoism that usually accompanied everything he said, up to and including 'I'd like eggs for breakfast today.' "And you want me."
He took a deep breath. Yes, God, yes, he wanted this - wanted Tony - more than he could remember ever wanting anything in such a very long time...
Tony leaned forward, and Steve drew in his breath as their lips touched. His lips were warmer than Steve had expected, and it was... his beard was coarse, and prickly, but his lips were soft and hotter than Steve had expected. They kissed for a moment, lips moving gently together, a lot more chaste and hesitant than Steve had expected, and through the dizzying rush of adrenaline and aching desire part of him wondered what it was that Tony was trying to prove here.
Then Tony kissed him again, cupping his cheek and tugging him closer, and a shiver ran through Steve.
"No." It came from deep inside him, and he made himself step away. "No, you know, becoming another notch in Iron Man's bedpost is not as attractive as you might think."
"What?" Tony's voice was low, his eyes slightly dazed.
"You heard me."
"You think I--"
Steve clenched his fists. "I think you do this kind of thing all the time. Maybe not with men, but with people you don't care about and sometimes don't even know."
Tony's mouth dropped open. "You're not one of them."
"No, I'm not." He stepped away, his body shivering, the warmth of Tony's hands on him, the tingle of their lips having touched, still on his body like a hot brand. "I'm not gonna be part of your indulging yourself."
Tony's eyes had narrowed and his chest was still heaving, Steve noted distantly. "I have a rep, yeah. But I thought you'd learned that the rep isn't all there is to me. And maybe you shouldn't be so attached to your own rep. Maybe you should do a little indulging yourself for once in your life."
"You don't even care what's right or wrong," said Steve, disgust beginning to rise - at Tony or at himself, he had no clue. "You just take whatever you want and--"
"You know what?" said Tony. "I'm starting to get insulted here. I may not be as ridiculously upright as you are, but if you don't get, yet, that I can actually care about people, then--" He broke off and stepped back, and he and Steve stared at each other, about a dozen different horrified thoughts coursing through Steve. What the hell had he done, what the hell had he said, how could he have lashed out at Tony like that, what the hell was wrong with him--
"No. OK. Sorry," said Tony. "This was a bad idea. I'm good at those." He stopped, then went around the broken beer bottle. "Go to bed. And don't worry about the bottle, the kitchen bots can clean it up." He cleared his throat. "I meant what I said about you coming down to the workshop, if you want. I do know about not being able to sleep. I won't... this won't happen again. We'll both just pretend it didn't happen. Good-night." He left the kitchen.
Steve leaned against the counter and put his head in his hands, more ashamed of himself than he had ever been in his life.