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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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October 18

"What the hell is your problem, Captain?" said Fury, and every other time Tony had seen him, he'd looked in control. This time he looked like he was about an inch away from punching Steve, however ill-advised that move might be. "Do you think this is some sort of joke?"

Steve didn't so much as blink in the face of Fury's blistering - well, fury - though since Steve still had a gash from his right eyebrow to his chin, it was hard to tell if he was unaffected or just didn't want to move his facial muscles. "I considered the alternatives and--"

"You could have sent Iron Man in!"

"Iron Man was busy," said Steve. "Those things were going to--"

"Iron Man was busy saving a bunch of people from a bus pinned down under a collapsed bridge. You could have taken those people to safety. He has armor, Captain. And repulsors. Those things had sixteen-inch fangs and spiked tails that were taking chunks out of buildings, and you went after them with a fucking shield and brass balls, and that is not acceptable!"

Tony swallowed. It had been a terrifying moment, and he could still remember the sick lurch in his stomach when he'd realized he couldn't get there fast enough to help Steve, not without abandoning the civilians.

To be honest, he was still a little terrified.

Steve shrugged the arm that was not in a sling. "I took out five of those things--"

"That's because Hawkeye exploded four of the others before they could kill you!"

"So I did my job too!" said Clint hotly. "Which is why we're a team, right?"

"Except he'd told you to watch over the warehouse and mall roof, and he's just lucky you happened to be glancing in his direction!"

"The Captain knew Hawkeye could do both," said Natasha.

"The Captain didn't know any such thing," said Sorensen.

Fury leaned forward. "Damn it, we did not fish you out of the ocean so you could make stupid-ass decisions and get yourself killed!"

"Why the hell did you fish me out, then?!" Steve snapped. "You wanted a soldier? You got one! If you don't like my calls, then find yourself someone else who--"

"We just might," said Sorensen.

"We just might not," snapped Fury, not bothering to look at Sorensen.

"You aren't the only authority," Sorensen muttered.

"Sir, with all due respect--" Hill began hastily.

"Agent Hill, when I want your opinion, I'll ask for it! Or if that's not enough for you, you can tell it to your people on the WSC! Right now, I'll thank you to keep your mouth shut! That goes double for you, Sorensen!"

Fury turned back to Steve.

"Captain, I personally have never had a problem with any of your calls over anybody's safety but your own," he said, his cold voice a contrast to his words. "But today you were stupid and reckless and while I may normally think Agent Sorensen's opinion isn't worth the paper it's printed on, this time I may have to sign off on his report and agree with it, which is doing nothing for my ulcers. Get it through your thick head that your job requires you to risk life and limb more than enough as a matter of course. And for fuck's sake, make use of the resources you've been given instead of assuming the answer to every life-threatening situation is 'Throw Captain America at it'! You're supposed to be a strategist; do your damn job! Because this time, you nearly killed yourself; next time, your death wish just might get somebody else killed!"

"That's not fair!" said Clint.

"He hasn't put any of us in danger!" said Tony, finally breaking his silence because damn it, that went over the line.

"Yeah?" said Fury. "Widow was disabling their vehicles and setting traps and expecting backup from Captain America. He gets taken out? She's left going up against eighteen of the human goons by herself--"

"I would've been there--" Tony began.

"Your suit suddenly lets you be in two places at once? And even if it did, do you really want to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a firefight with no leader, and no idea what he was gonna do next, because he was so eager to get himself killed that he actually succeeded this time?"

"Any of us could get killed; it's the nature of the job," said Natasha. "And if anything happens to the Captain, Iron Man takes over. He's done it before."

"Iron Man takes over if there's no other choice," Fury shot back. "Or if shit happens and things go wrong. Not if your fearless leader throws his damn life away!" He glared at Steve. "Have I made myself painfully clear, Captain?"

"Crystal, sir," Steve bit out.

Fury glared at the team. "Does anybody have anything to add? NOT you, Sorensen!" he added without turning his head.

There was a ringing silence.

"Will that be all, sir?" asked Steve.

"For now. You have not heard the last of this, Captain. Dismissed."

"Yes sir." Steve stood up and left, and the team followed him silently.


October 22

Natasha stepped onto the deck, Steve and Tony's raised voices floating over to her.

"--then you should've said so at the debriefing!" Steve was saying angrily.

"I didn't want Sorensen to have any leverage on you," Tony shot back. "But for once he's right! You should have sent me in!"

"Then why not put it in your report?"

"I don't want this to be official. Damn it, I'm on your side, Steve! I'm trying to help!"

"I've told you before, I don't need your help!"

"Look, I am not saying a word about the rest of your fucked-up personal choices! I don't say anything about that place you go to, but this isn't--"

"Natasha?" Bruce called out from inside, and Steve and Tony whipped around, spotting Natasha.

"Are you boys all right?" Natasha asked, a little disappointed that Bruce had called out when he had.

"Fine," they both snapped.

She raised an eyebrow. Interesting definition of 'fine.' Tony was vibrating with tension, but that was par for the course; Tony was a bit high-strung. Steve wasn't doing well, though. She and Clint had been around SHIELD agents in distress enough times to recognize the signs. Too many missions all in a row - plus the debacle the other day, the reports filed this morning, and Sorensen constantly on their backs - were draining all of them, and obviously getting to Steve as well. It was subtle, but there; if he could be showing tiredness and fragile temper even with the Serum, he had to be under a hell of a strain.

Not that she blamed him. They'd all read Sorensen's final report this morning; it hadn't been pretty, and Fury and Hill's signatures and additions at the bottom had been icing on the cake. The team all supported Steve, but apparently Tony had some doubts, and that had to sting too.

"Whenever you two are done, it's movie time." She went back inside, letting them finish their argument in peace. Steve's 'back the hell off' vibes were so strong, it was surprising Tony hadn't backed right off the deck. He certainly wouldn't appreciate her interference.

"You know, we can watch the ending of A Man For All Seasons again if you want," said Bruce as she came back in. "I know you wanted to see it."

"Clint told me about it. I'm kind of glad I missed it, to be honest. Something about taking ethics to that self-destructive a level is off-putting."

"It was inspiring," Thor protested. "A truly worthy ending for a warrior."

Clint laughed. "Thomas More wasn't a warrior. He's the patron saint of lawyers."

"I have been told your lawyers are warriors for justice," said Thor. "Though I have also been told many less savoury things about them. Including how many lawyers it takes to illuminate a room."

"No, Thor," said Clint patiently. "It's 'How many lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb.'"

"Indeed! 'None will change it, but if you seek one to screw it...'"

"Do you even understand that one?" asked Bruce, queuing up the new movie.

"Not at all," Thor admitted, and beamed as Natasha sat down next to him on the sofa and offered him a bowl of Doritos. "Ah! Thank you. This Midgardian food truly is unique."

"Clint, get your own bowl," said Natasha, slapping his hand away from Thor's.

"What's this one about?" asked Steve, coming into the room with a bowl of nachos as the credits began. He settled down next to Bruce, his body language still stiff.

"Crime drama and racism in the Sixties," said Tony, coming in and taking up a perch on the arm of the couch next to Clint. On the opposite side of the room from Steve, noted Natasha.

"Also, Sidney Poitier," said Clint. "'They call me Mr. Tibbs' himself, and the only black actor to ever win a Best Actor Oscar in the twentieth century."

"What?" said Steve, pausing with a nacho halfway to his mouth.

"Yup. And that's actor or actress."

Steve blinked. "That's... pretty depressing."

"Not what you were expecting?" asked Bruce.

"It's just I remember Hattie MacDaniel being the first black person to win an Oscar right before the War. Guess I assumed it wouldn't be an issue any more."

"There were some Supporting Actor and Actress. Just not top billing."

"See? Racism's still alive and well, Spangles," said Tony.

"I've figured that part out all by myself, Tony," said Steve sharply. "It's still depressing."

"Hey, you're pretty comfortable with other kinds of -isms, I don't see why--"

"Don't start, Tony," said Bruce firmly.

"Yeah, Mom and Dad," said Clint through a mouthful of Doritos. "No fighting in front of the kids."

Steve and Tony would be all right, Natasha decided after observing them for a moment. She firmly turned away from them and focussed on the screen, reminding herself not to bring work home by continuing to watch them for clues. This was part of why she was living here; Clint had pointed out, and she had eventually agreed, that she needed to learn to not be on the job all the time, and at SHIELD quarters, surrounded by spies, she couldn't turn that part of herself off. Whatever was bothering Steve and Tony was none of her business.

She settled back to watch the movie.


October 24

Steve turned over, putting his pillow over his head, and tried to clear his mind of disorganized, distracting thoughts. Empty field. Grass blowing. Walk. One step, two steps, three steps, look at the grass. Nondescript field, could be anywhere in the world.

No, it couldn't. It was too much like the small open lot behind his mom's apartment building in Brooklyn, two blocks from the orphanage where she'd worked, where the nuns had taken him in after her death. How many hours had he spent there, when she was alive, drawing and wishing he wasn't so sickly and weak, and could help her out at home? How many hours had he spent there after her death, wishing she were still alive?

He'd gone back once. The apartment block and the open lot were now a large boxy building that sold fridges and stoves; the orphanage was now a coffee shop with three floors of one-bedroom apartments over top.

All right. Not a field, then. A forest. A forest with trees that reached to the sky, leaves underfoot. Walking along a forest path, no sounds but the rustling of leaves...

And bombs going off in the distance, men running, frantic effort to save the men looking to him for leadership while his right arm burned from a bullet he'd taken trying to save Shaughnessey, who'd died in his arms anyway, blood all over Steve's uniform and fear in the men's eyes as they all wondered if they'd cut it too close this time and if Shaughnessey would be the only name missing from the Commandos if and when they made it back to the base...

He turned over in bed, firmly stopped those thoughts and concentrated on bringing his heart-rate down, slowing his breathing, as he'd been taught in the first weeks after waking up.

He cleared his mind again. Outside settings were not working. And imagining an empty city street... tonight it would just turn into yet another battle scene with Doombots or slithering biological obscenities and leave him covered in sweat and wanting to throw up. Not conducive to sleep at all.

So. Long empty hallway, lots of closed doors. Count the steps down the hall, count the doors.

...and he was at SHIELD, handing in his report on the last battle, Fury and Hill's signatures under Sorensen's report burning in his mind's eye.

Captain Rogers' actions could have seriously compromised the team's objectives and Agent Romanov's safety, had Agent Barton's fortunate actions not saved the situation. It is recommended that Captain Rogers be formally reprimanded...

Although Fury hadn't gone as far as to agree to a formal reprimand, Steve had had to try to justify actions that really couldn't be justified, and in the end had handed in a report that fully acknowledged his failure in judgment. He should have sent Tony in. But he'd just been so fucking tired, and he hadn't slept in so long, and he'd known going after those creatures would hurt, but didn't everything, and he'd wanted so much to just fling his shield at the damn monstrosities - they didn't even have a name for them - and leave it there, go home, let them damn well destroy the stupid pointless mall the Avengers were supposed to protect, who cared. But that wasn't an option, and so he'd...

He'd fucked up. Sorensen knew it, Hill knew it, Fury knew it, and his team knew it too, whether they said so or not.

No. This wasn't working. He wasn't going to get any sleep like this. His thoughts were all over the damn place, zipping from one random connection to another, impossible to settle.

He got up, pulled on a pair of jeans and headed for his studio, for something complex enough to occupy his mind for a while. He had those oil paints that he hadn't realized he missed until that battle with the Delineator and what Tony had dubbed the Loki-spray. The smell of turpentine had reminded Steve of art school and the joy of being able to use media he'd been too poor to afford as a child, so he'd gone out and gotten himself some oils, but they hadn't seen much use yet.

He'd been happy at art school. His constant illness and physical weakness hadn't been an issue, except when his asthma made it hard to attend class.

They still taught oil painting at City College. They also taught digital photography and 3D design, but the place itself was still familiar. At least it hadn't been turned into an electronics store or yoga studio.

He didn't belong there any more, though. And tonight he probably didn't belong in his own studio, he realized as he looked around. Too restless; he'd probably just end up covered in paint stains, with a ruined canvas and dried oils, and, much as he kept telling himself that he could afford it, he shrank at the thought of the waste.

He glanced over the charcoals and pen and ink.

God, no. Last time he'd started doing an ink drawing he'd ended up sketching Tony's hands and hair, and pushed the paper away from himself like it burned him.

Besides, even if he could paint, it might not be such a good idea tonight. He glanced at a half-finished canvas against the wall. Last time he'd picked up his paints, he'd gotten halfway through a portrait of Peggy before he was overwhelmed by the desire to call her and damn the consequences, damn the fact that she probably wouldn't remember him. Because at least she was something, some connection to the person he'd been before, the person who was disappearing more and more every day--

Fuck it, the person who should have disappeared seventy years ago, along with that damn plane.

He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, blocking out Peggy's full red lips and warm brown eyes. The SHIELD therapists had warned him that he'd probably have some PTSD about icy water closing over his head, about drowning. And he remembered it, clear as day, remembered Peggy's voice keeping him company until the very last moment, remembered the sharpness of regret that he'd never get to dance with her, never have another kiss, never live in peacetime or have sex again or get married or have children, remembered with crystal clarity the water freezing him on the outside even as it poured into his lungs and burned him on the inside, the darkness taking him. It had caused him a number of nightmares when he was first rescued.

Except now, he wished for it back. Thought about it with nostalgia. He remembered how desperately he'd wanted to live, how fiercely he'd fought to hold his breath even when he knew it was hopeless, and wondered what it would be to feel like that again, when all he seemed to want now was to go back in the water and never come back out again.

He blinked as cool moisture spilled over his cheek, and backed out of his studio.

No. No, God, this wasn't going to help, he realized as he pressed his fingers to his eyes. This was not just a regular restless night. This was gonna be a bad one. One of those long nights when he spent the entire night arguing himself out of seeking the peaceful nothingness of those icy waters, ending everything, telling himself all the reasons why he couldn't, wrestling thoughts that just got darker and darker till he wanted to scream.

Like having his mind helpfully point out that it wasn't even really up to him; if crashing into the ocean and drowning in ice wasn't enough to kill him, who was to say anything he could think of would do the trick? His bones and tissues and organs healed miraculously; they'd done so multiple times. The best idea he could come up with was a gunshot through the heart or temple, but who could guarantee even that wouldn't heal before he ran out of blood? Maybe his body would slow down to the point of near-death... and then restart.

He wiped his cheek impatiently, rubbed his eyes and took deep breaths until he had himself under control again.

OK. He glanced back at Peggy's half-finished portrait and closed the door.

Upstairs. He headed for the deck, breathing a sigh of relief to find it empty, and went to the railing. The city spread out below him, quite beautiful from up here in the dark, streetlights streaming away in orderly lines, cars moving swiftly through the streets. The crass neon signs less visible right now - at least the writing on them harder to see, many of them quite pretty from up so high.

He took a deep breath. The air was chilly, crisp. The deck was all clean lines and glossy surfaces.

It wasn't where he wanted to be. Nowhere was where he wanted to be.

OK, think of positive things. The air up here was pleasant. The building itself was nice to look at, at least on the inside; the outside still bothered him, with its ungainly leaning structure. The people he lived with, his team, were solid. His... friends, now. He could probably call them that. They had his back, as much as they could.

I'm on your side, Tony had said, and Steve knew that, but he couldn't have Tony on his side. Or anywhere near him. If he'd learned one thing with the church, it was that he had to keep his distance from Tony.

Even if being with Tony was one of the only things that felt any good lately. Talking with him, following his thoughts - trying to, at least - getting to know him, hearing his ideas. Finding himself laughing at the bizarre connections Tony came up with, distracted from his own problems by the mental leaps and bewildering jokes and comments that, from anybody else, would make him confused and irritated but from Tony just made him curious, made him want to understand. Finding himself intrigued by the way Tony hid caring beneath egoism and obnoxiousness and admittedly poor social skills.

That wasn't all there was to it, though. If it was only that, he could handle it.

It was the way Tony looked at him, the way he pushed Steve to think about himself as well. The way he seemed to worry about Steve, care about him, the way nobody had since Bucky and Peggy.

The way Steve didn't want to just talk to him.

They'd been alone together few times since that last time. He just couldn't afford it. The memory of what had happened had been too much, too seductive.

He'd tried so hard to resist all his life, damn it. He'd honestly thought, as a kid, that if he could sleep with girls, his attraction to men would go away. But it hadn't. And what had happened with those girls - exciting as it had been, naked skin pressed up against his, hands that weren't his own running over him, lips and tongues drawing all sorts of sensations from him - what had happened with Tony had been different as night from day.

God, he'd had sex before, come inside another human being before, and yet the press of Tony's body against his had lit him up in a way none of those girls ever had. The taste of Tony's mouth, the sound of Tony's gasps, had stayed with him for days afterwards, and made him wake him up moaning and hard, was sending a thrill through his body even now, and he suspected he wasn't ever, ever going to be able to forget. It was one of the only things that hadn't felt ugly or artificial or painful or bewildering in months. He'd made Tony shiver, made Tony's eyes darken with desire, it had felt right and perfect...

...and he couldn't have it. Not if he wanted to hang on to even a shred of the man he used to be. The man he should be.

Because he wasn't anything like that man any more. That man wouldn't have used one of the only friends he had, twice, wouldn't have pushed that friend away and hurt him the way he had. Because he had hurt Tony. The memory of Tony's eyes widening with surprise and pain for a moment before shutting down to his usual distance still burned.

Fuck, he wished he could get drunk. Wished he could stop his brain, somehow - sleep, drugs, blow to the head, anything. Anything to stop all of this.

But there wasn't anything that would work. There was no relief from his scattered, jagged thoughts, no relief from his memories and regrets and fears, any more than there was any relief from pain when he got injured.

He bowed his head, eyes filling with tears again and hoped to hell nobody took it in their head to come up here at this time of night because--

"JARVIS," he said, and damn it, his voice was shaking. He cleared his throat. "JARVIS, could you please tell me if anybody heads towards this floor?"

"Certainly, sir," said JARVIS, and Steve nodded his thanks.

He rested his elbows on the railing and put his face in his hands, allowing himself a moment's weakness and letting the tears come. Just a few minutes, just a few minutes of not holding on so tight, just a few minutes to feel sorry for himself, for not being able to forget what Tony felt like in his arms, for not being able to stop missing his own time, his life, Peggy, for not being able to stop wishing for Bucky to come along and joke him out of his mood.

He shuddered, tears slipping through his fingers, chest aching. Just a few minutes to let himself mourn the fact that Bucky hadn't survived the War because of Steve, that Steve had survived the War when he shouldn't have, that he had survived to no good purpose because he just couldn't adapt to this world, couldn't do it without losing himself - possibly couldn't do it even if he was willing to lose himself...

It would be so easy to pull himself over this railing and land below. Not even the Serum could fix that. And at least he wouldn't put his team in danger during a battle. He'd kill anybody he landed on, and God help whoever had to clean up the mess tomorrow, but...

God, this wasn't helping. He shivered, pulled himself up, wiped at his face and held his breath, forcing himself under control.

Prayer, maybe. Prayer had worked a few times during these nights. Not to ask for a miracle or for God to solve everything for him, but just for the strength to not give up, for one more day.

Nothing came to mind. No matter how long he stood there, how desperately he searched for words.

None of the prayers he'd learned at any of the churches he'd known: not the one he went to with his mother, not the one near the orphanage, not the one he'd dragged Bucky to near City College, not the one he went to these days when he could, with its artificial candles and grape juice instead of communion wine. Not even the church he was going to for counseling.

The only prayer he could think of was the one he and Bucky and the other three Protestant boys had learned at the orphanage, when Sister Anne brought them back early from their own service and they snuck into Catechism.

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
 In choosing to do wrong, and failing to do good, 
I have sinned against You...

He couldn't finish it.

God, please help me, I can't do this without You.

He gazed down at the city, and the far too tempting drop.

I can't even do this with You.

He couldn't.

And he couldn't drag anybody else down with him when he finally failed.

"JARVIS," he said, his voice sounding far away to his own ears. "Where is Tony?"

"He's in the workroom, sir."

Steve took one last longing look at the street below and backed away, heading for the elevator. He pushed the button to the workroom, straightening his clothing and scrubbing at his face with the heel of his hand. Far too soon, the elevator door opened and he was at the door of Tony's lab, looking in to see Tony, head pillowed on his arms on the table, a hologram spinning slowly above, and fine tools scattered all around him.

Steve hesitated, watching Tony sleep. His face looked so relaxed with his eyes closed; none of the frenetic inventing and observing and reacting evident, none of the sharp wit and constant stream of consciousness ready to be let loose on his audience. The soft glow of the arc reactor through his threadbare t-shirt lit his forearms with gentle blue light, echoed by the slowly spinning hologram. Steve suddenly itched to draw him, to commit this to paper: Tony in his natural environment.

He shouldn't have come down here. Steve started to back away.

"Sir?" JARVIS's voice startled him. "Perhaps I should inform you that Mr. Stark has been asleep for fifty-four minutes and I am about to awaken him."

"What? Why?"

"He claims to be 'too damn old to sleep for more than an hour on a lab table like a frat kid' without throwing out his back."

Steve hesitated. "Can you let me into the lab so I can wake him up?"

"Certainly, sir. You have been cleared for access to the lab any time you wish."

Steve nodded and stepped through as the lab door opened and Tony's loud, jangling music washed over him, and he made his way to Tony. He gazed down at him for another moment, then reached out and gently touched his shoulder.

Tony's soft breathing hitched, and he slowly blinked open his eyes. He squinted up at Steve for a moment, clearly disoriented, then closed his eyes, rubbed them, and sat up, yawning.

"Steve?" He yawned again. "What are you doing here? Volume down, JARVIS. JARVIS, did I fall asleep?"

"I was about to wake you up myself, sir," said JARVIS, as the music fell to a muted background roar. "Captain Rogers happened to be here instead. You did say he was allowed to enter any time."

"Yeah, no, that's fine, JARVIS." Tony blinked up at Steve, the fuzziness of sleep dissipating rapidly. "Steve?"

"I... sorry, you said I could - I didn't come here to wake you up."

"Steve? What's wrong?"

"I can't... can't keep doing this."

"Doing what? Are you all right?"

"I - no."

"What's wrong - Jesus, you look like shit," Tony said, fully awake now, staring up at Steve. "What can't you do?"

"Lead the Avengers any more."

Tony frowned, obviously totally lost. "What? Are you - Christ, is this about that thing the other day? It was a calculated risk, that's all--"

"Stop it."

Tony blinked, then stood up. "What are you talking about?"

"I can't go on being your leader. I'm not fit to be."

"Says who?"

"Fury was right. I do have a death wish." He took a deep breath. God, why was this so painful to say? How much of a coward was he? Tony's eyes were wide, and it was so hard to make himself go on. "I just spent the last half hour arguing myself in and out of throwing myself off the deck, Tony. I can't..." he closed his eyes against the stunned disbelief in Tony's face.

"Are you - what, are--"

"I want to die, so fucking badly, and I can't keep trying to lead this team - shouldn't even be on the team, I'm a danger to all of you like this." He took a deep breath, eyes still closed, not wanting to see the anger, or worse, pity, in Tony's eyes.

At least it was out in the open, now. Who knew what the hell would happen to him now, but at least he wouldn't have this dirty secret dragging him down like a lead weight in his stomach.

He breathed evenly. He'd done all he could. He wasn't competent to handle his own life, obviously. Maybe Tony would have better luck. Or maybe he'd just be locked up somewhere, forgotten and isolated and then maybe he could end it without guilt.

His eyes popped open as Tony put his arms around him, drawing him close. He stayed stiff, unsure of what to do, feeling Tony's entire body start to tremble.

"Jesus. Jesus, you're suicidal, and I had no fucking clue," Tony whispered. "Jesus, Steve, why the hell didn't you say anything?"

"What would I have said?"

"Anything. Christ. You didn't have to... how long?"

"A few months."

"Holy Christ."

"I didn't want to worry anybo--"

"You think we wouldn't want to be worried?" Tony said, pulling away slightly. "Christ. OK. OK. I... I have no idea what to do. Pepper. Pepper'll know." He reached out and grabbed the nearest Starkphone.

Steve bit his lip. Of course Pepper Potts would know how to deal with anything, get him put away somewhere discreetly, handle this efficiently... he nodded, and pulled back. The thought of involving anybody else made his skin crawl, but he'd put himself in Tony's hands and told him, he knew everyone would have to know eventually. The thought of beautiful, capable Pepper Potts knowing, looking at him with pity and disappointment - never mind Fury, and his teammates and... he drew in on himself. He didn't have a choice now. It was out of his hands. Whatever happened now would be for the good of the team. He stepped away from Tony, a shiver running through his body.

"No, wait - no, don't, don't pull away." There were tears in Tony's eyes now, and fear, but no pity, no disgust, and his hand tightened on Steve's arm. "Please. Just... Pepper'll know what to do. You'll be OK. I swear. You'll be OK."

Steve stared at him. OK? How could he possibly be OK?

"I - I don't know how. But you'll be OK."

He nodded again and Tony opened his mouth, then closed it, searching Steve's eyes anxiously and looking almost as helpless as Steve himself felt. Then Tony looked down and dialled, keeping a hand on Steve, cursing as the phone rang and rang. "Fuck, where the hell is she, she can't still be at the office can she - what time is it JARVIS where's Pepper right now hang on she's in LA, right, JARVIS what time--"

"It's one o'clock in LA," said Steve numbly.

"She'll still be up - Pepper!" Tony heaved a deep breath. "Pepper, Jesus, thank - what? No, no I'm fine, I - no, no I'm not working, I'm - Pepper, hang on, sweetheart, please, OK, please just let me talk." He took another deep breath, taking Steve's hand in his and holding on tightly. "OK. It's not me, I swear, I'm fine. It's Steve. No, he's not - can you just, I won't be able to finish this if - Pepper, I love you, please shut up." He closed his eyes tightly for a long, tense moment. "Pep, he's not doing so good. He's, he's kinda depressed. As in, really really bad, suicidal ideation and hang on, I'm gonna put you on speakerphone 'cause he's right here--" and Tony made a signal and Pepper's voice flowed into the room.

"What do you mean, he's - Tony? Tony, what's happened? Were you hit with something, some--"

"It's not an alien anything, Pepper, he's just depressed." Tony turned back to Steve, his hand tightening on Steve's. "How long did you say? A few months, now?"

Steve nodded.

"Has he seen anyone?"

"He's probably been a macho asshole trying to cope all by himself all stiff upper lip but he just came to me tonight and woke me up--"

"Steve?" Pepper's voice was gentle. "Steve, can you talk to me? Tony sounds like he's freaking out a bit."

"Yeah, just a bit," said Tony.

"Yeah," said Steve.

"Why did you come to Tony?"

Steve shrugged helplessly. "I don't know." He watched Tony's nervous motions, felt Tony's hand in his own, feeling far away. "I couldn't do it any more. Couldn't take it."

I can do this all day, he used to say when guys twice his size were crushing him into the dirt. And now he couldn't even last the night against his own demons.

So this was what giving up felt like. He bowed his head.

"Hang on, Pep," he heard Tony say, and then Tony pulled him into his arms again and held him tightly, and Steve felt something inside him start to crumble, a wall weakening. God it had been so long, so long since anyone had touched him, held him, since he'd felt human skin and warmth and life, and he felt the unbearable tension seeping out faster than he could call it back - and then he didn't want to any more, and he let out his breath, barely stopping himself from clinging to Tony like a child. Tony's heart was beating quickly, his breathing harsh in the relative quiet of the workroom. One of his hands slid up Steve's back and to the back of his neck, fingers running quick, soothing motions through his hair.

"Steve. We'll figure something out. OK?" Tony pulled back and gazed at him seriously, his eyes dark and determined, and waited until Steve nodded before taking his hand and moving to sit down. "Pepper can do anything. We'll figure this out. You'll be OK."

He let Tony pull him down onto the bench next to him, Tony's arm warm and steady around his shoulders, let Pepper's reassuring voice wash over him, and put himself in their hands.


"You're WHAT?" Clint blinked blearily, staring at Cap. Too damn early for this, and he hadn't had a coffee yet. "You're quitting? What the hell for?" He paused. "Hold on, is this because of fucking Fury--"

"No. Clint. Shut up," said Natasha, pushing a chair out for him with her foot. "He's got PTSD."

Clint blinked some more, trying to make sense of the scene at the breakfast table. Steve, face pale and drawn, arms crossed and eyes fixed on the floor; Bruce, Natasha and Thor gathered around him and looking way too solemn for this time of the morning, no coffee, tea, toast or eggs in sight; Tony talking quietly into a phone by the counter. He sank into his chair. "So... you're resigning? Over PTSD? Like over half of SHIELD doesn't suffer from--"

"As in, major PTSD," said Bruce quietly. "Suicidally depressed."

Clint's mouth dropped open. "Depressed? So fucking take a leave of absence, Jesus, get some therapy and shit but don't quit on us!" Tony thumbed his phone off and joined them, dropping into the chair next to Steve. "Fuck, who's gonna lead us if you're not here? It was bad enough when Tony took over when Fury had you in Frankfurt a couple weeks ago, but I'm not putting up with him permanently."

"No, and I wouldn't want to do it permanently either," said Tony - and whoa, Tony looked like crap too, his eyes bloodshot and his face lined with tension. "I keep telling him--"

Steve shook his head. "But I - I can't--"

Natasha sighed. "You need help, obviously. But you'll be fine."

Clint nodded. "Dude, go to the SHIELD therapists. Some of them are douchebags, but Dr. Engelssen, he was awesome. I was really fucked up after Loki, remember?"

Steve looked uncertain. "I remember you were out for a while."

"Where do you think I went? I was tranqued out of my gourd for days, which actually wasn't that helpful, and then I spent some time in soft walled rooms sobbing 24/7. Just ask Nat. I was a mess."

"Complete mess," Natasha agreed.

"But I didn't eat my gun, and I'm all right now," said Clint, leaning towards him. "And you will be too."

Steve glanced at Tony, then at Clint and Natasha.

"Steve, I've dealt with PTSD too," said Natasha gently.

"So've I," said Tony. "It's hell, but it's treatable. You know--"

"It's not just PTSD," Steve broke in. "I told you that."

"No, I know," said Tony. "But--"

"I didn't come to you because I wanted to save my job," said Steve. "That's over. I just..." his voice trailed off and he cleared his throat.

"I - I know." Tony blinked rapidly and then quickly drew a hand across his eyes. "Steve, I know," he said, his voice rough. "I'm just saying, don't dismiss coming back. Nobody but you thinks you should quit permanently." He turned to the rest of them, one hand on the back of Steve's chair. "Please, OK, help me out. He wouldn't even listen to Pepper on this."

"What did she say?" asked Thor.

"Same thing I'm saying. Leave of absence, therapy."

"Why are you opposed to that?" Bruce asked Steve gently. "You know it's doable. You... you know what I tried to do when I got low. Do you think I shouldn't be on the team?"

"All of us are screwed up in one way or another," said Clint. "Hell, if everyone at SHIELD who had a little trouble went and quit we'd be nothing but empty halls. Christ, Coulson was a recovering alcoholic, Sitwell--"

"But how can you trust me to lead you if I can't even--"

"Because you're a damn good leader," Clint interrupted. "Because we need you. Come on, dude. Get Fury to put you on Admin Leave, get you sorted out. You don't need to quit."

Steve stared at him.

"Fury probably won't even blink," said Natasha, elbows on the table now as she spoke urgently. "He and Coulson were expecting you to be a lot worse off. Nobody's ever gone almost seventy years in ice before; we really didn't know what to expect."

The phone rang and Tony answered, gesturing them all to be silent. "Fury," he mouthed, turning away from the table but drawing his chair very slightly closer to Steve's.

Clint got up, feeling jittery now. Coffee. They all needed coffee, like, to mainline. This was too big to deal with on an empty stomach, and he was suddenly overwhelmed by a longing for Phil's steadiness, his calm competence. God damn, what he wouldn't do to have Phil here.

"The last thing that happened to him was that he was basically forced to commit suicide," Phil had said one night, when SHIELD had been deciding what to do with the unconscious man in medical quarters. "That's the last thing he remembers - we hope, because God help us if he remembers the ice." He shook his head and tossed back a Coke, eyeing it like it was offending him by not being scotch. "And the Council wants us to wake him up in a fake little room, made up to look like it's 1945, fool him into thinking - he's gonna see through that, Fury and I can both see it. We'll be lucky if he doesn't suffer a psychotic break and kill a few people."

Clint and Natasha had traded a glance, not used to seeing their unflappable handler so upset.

"They're even gonna put on a baseball game on the radio. And the morons..." Phil had shaken his head in disgust. "The game they found is from before he went down, and whoever found it didn't even check. I started to point it out, but you know what? The hell with them. I'm not doing their job for them."

Natasha's eyebrows had climbed to her hairline. Phil was a fixer. Doing other people's jobs for them was what he did.


"Natasha, the earlier he figures it out and we stop lying to him, the better. It'll be hell trying to gain his trust after that anyway - but better he mistrust SHIELD than he mistrust the entire world around him, or his own ability to figure out what's real and what isn't."

"Does Fury know about the mistake?"

"He seemed suspiciously unsurprised when told I him. In any case, he's not saying anything either. Fuck 'em if they can't do their jobs."

Phil swearing was such a rare thing, but so understandable when it came to Captain America. Phil would've been right here, he would've known how to get through to Steve, but instead of Phil, Steve got--

"Oh Jesus, fucking Sorensen," said Clint, and Thor gave a low rumble of dismay. "He's gonna have to know."

"Yeah, no," said Tony, turning off his phone. "Pepper got in contact with Fury first, he's coming over. In fact, he's--"

The door opened and Fury came in.

Steve paled and stood up, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry I let you down, sir," he said after a moment, his voice low.

Fury sighed. "Son, I think that's my line," he replied, waving him to sit back down. Steve didn't, so Fury pulled out a chair and sat down himself, gesturing to Steve to follow suit.

"All right." He put his elbows on the table. "Believe it or not, we were expecting this."

"What?!" Tony said.

Clint shrugged. "Told you," he said, putting down the pot of coffee he'd made, and placing cups on the table.

"Not quite to the extent that Ms. Potts talked about," Fury told Steve briskly, pouring himself a coffee. "But we never expected you to just recover and go on your merry way. When you seemed to adapt quickly, we counted ourselves lucky and didn't dig deep enough to make sure you were on solid ground. That's on us, not on you." He was speaking in his regular asshole voice, and it seemed to be putting Steve at ease.

"Our people deal with all sorts of shit, Captain, and it fucks us up," said Fury. "No shame in needing help. We should've insisted you understood that. I'm just glad you went to your team instead of throwing yourself out the window." He took a sip of his coffee. "You didn't trust us, and that's also not on you. I told you, when we first woke you up, that the whole business with the fake room wasn't my choice, and I think it's come back to bite us in the ass."

"Sir, what are you gonna do about Sorensen?" asked Clint. "He's been riding Steve since--"

"He didn't cause this," said Steve flatly.

"He's sure as hell not helping," Fury pointed out. "Look, Tom Sorensen is an idiot who can't wipe his own ass without filling in a form in triplicate and checking with the WSC. It was not my choice to dump him on you. I can't do much about him, but I will keep him off your back while you're on leave, and when you come back - and you will come back - I will do what I can to keep him... manageable."

"I'm giving you my verbal resignation," said Steve stubbornly. "I'll put it in writing if you want."

"That's nice. I don't accept it."

"Thank you," Tony murmured.

Steve's jaw clenched briefly. "I thought you said SHIELD didn't do indentured servitude."

"Call it looking out for your best interests while you're in no position to do so yourself," said Fury. "You can quit as soon as our therapists clear you for duty, if you still want to. Your team can witness to that."

Steve frowned. "But--"

"Captain," said Thor, uncharacteristically subdued. "Listen to the Director. You will still be free to choose your fate at a later time, when you are better able to choose wisely."

"Stark and Ms. Potts already spoke to you about some options available, here or at SHIELD Medical," said Fury. "I've brought your therapist from SHIELD with me, but we have others. You've established a good working relationship with the man, but he's feeling like an ass for letting you get away with just talking about the merits of iPhones versus Starkphones for months, and I'm not about to make him feel any better right now."

Steve stared at Fury, and Clint was forcibly reminded of his own days after Loki, after Phil: the agony of talking through everything, the meds that took the edge off, the tranquilizers for when he just couldn't deal with the memories any more, the heaviness of slogging through the aftermath. The ache of having to process so much shit, the way Steve hadn't. And Steve wouldn't even have meds to ease him through it; Steve would just have to do it all on nothing but spewing out all of his pain to a white lab coat, helpful as SHIELD therapists could be. And there had to be a shitload of pain in there for the guy to be where he was now.

"Captain, come with me," said Fury, more gently than Clint had heard him speak since Sitwell's young daughter had come to visit SHIELD Medical when Sitwell was injured. He stood up. "Go up to your apartment, talk to Dr. Sanjay, listen to what he has to say, let him help you figure out what to do next. I swear, whatever you say to him - or whoever you end up talking to - will remain private. The only thing that'll make it into your file will be whether you are fit to return to work or not."

Steve stared up at Fury uncertainly, then stood up. He paused and glanced around the table at the rest of them.

"Um. Thanks," he said. His gaze stopped at Tony, who looked more lost than Clint had ever seen him. "Thanks, Tony," he said quietly, then turned and followed Fury out the door.