Steve looked a lot better than he had in recent weeks, indistinguishable from the last time he'd done a press conference other than the civilian business suit in place of the spangly uniform. Still wearing Tony's monitoring device, though it was an unobtrusive anklet now instead of a bracelet. Although Steve was looking a lot better, and presumably feeling a lot better too, Tony didn't want to take any chances with his safety, and none of the rest of them did either. Steve hadn't objected.
He looked so calm and professional, too. No sign of the fact that he'd thrown up right before coming over, despite the fact that his medication hadn't caused him stomach troubles in a long, long time.
Steve cleared his throat and leaned towards the mike, and the buzz of conversation from the gathered reporters went down as camera bulbs flashed.
"Hello everyone," said Steve. "This is only going to take a few minutes, and then I'll turn you over to our SHIELD Liaison and Mr. Stark. They have some information about the last attack on the city. I'm just going to speak today to clear up a few rumors that have been reflecting poorly on the Avengers. I'm going to read out a statement, and then I will ask you to respect my privacy and leave it at that, and will not be expanding on what I've said or taking any questions. Mr. Stark will stay, and will be free to say whatever he wants... which he usually does." He gave Tony a small smile and a chuckle ran around the room.
He glanced down briefly at his prompt card, then back up at the reporters. "I've been Captain America for a while now, and I do understand that in that capacity I'm a role model for many Americans, particularly American youth. I take that responsibility seriously. I try to conduct myself with integrity at all times, whether I'm in public or not. However, my private life is my own, and I don't share it with the public willingly.
"That said, because of recent media attention, we all felt it would be good to clear a few things up. First off, there have been questions about why I'm not currently working with the team, and whether I've resigned or been fired or am dying or have joined the... Russians? Al Qaeda? Chitaurians?" There was a chuckle from the press. "The reason isn't nearly as interesting as the rumors; I'm dealing with," he paused briefly, "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, same as thousands of Americans and soldiers do every day in this country, and I'm on temporary leave of absence. I have no plans to retire - or defect - and will be back with the team soon. The only reason I'm not with them right now is that it's not particularly responsible to be at work if I'm not able to perform at the mental and physical level my team needs from me." He paused briefly, waiting for the flurry of note-taking and cameras to quiet down. Clint kept his face nonchalant-supportive, knowing Natasha was doing the same and Thor was probably glowering mightily at anybody who looked even slightly disapproving.
"The other set of rumors are somewhat more personal." The crowded room abruptly became absolutely silent. "Mr. Stark has been never made a secret of his sexual orientation. I've never discussed mine in public, because frankly it's nobody's business but my own. Unfortunately, recent events have made remaining silent problematic. So I will put rumors to rest now: I am gay." A frisson ran around the room, but Steve continued to speak evenly, forcing the reporters to remain relatively quiet. "As for my relationship with Mr. Stark: it's true that we live in the same building, but so do a dozen other people. Avengers Tower has 93 floors and is the team's official residence. Mr. Stark and I are not roommates. We are not a couple, and we are definitely not secretly married." There were a few chuckles from the reporters. "We are friends and colleagues and I have a lot of respect for him, despite our many differences. I make no judgements on his behaviour, and he makes... many on mine, but respects me as well." He glanced down at the prompt card briefly, then back up at the reporters. "That is all. Thank you for your attention."
He stood up and left, joining Clint, Natasha and Thor, as the room erupted into questions and shouts.
"That's really all he's gonna say, folks," said Tony, leaning towards his own mike. "Which, yeah, I know, unreal."
"Are you really not a couple?" asked a reporter.
"Like he said, no. Captain America doesn't lie."
"Had any sleepovers?" asked another, and the cameras were fully focussed on Steve, who remained impassive.
Tony chuckled. "What are we, twelve? Seriously? He's said all he's gonna say and I've said all I'm gonna say, for once in my life. I told you this would happen," Tony said, glancing over at Steve, who shrugged. "I think that's Stevese for he's not responsible for your imagination." The reporters laughed. Steve gave them all a polite nod and left the room, presumably to join Bruce waiting in the small hallway outside.
"Yeah, I think we all know as long as he's still here you guys are going to keep asking stuff about him and looking to see if you get a reaction," Tony noted.
"You know we're just going to keep asking you, right?" said a young woman in front.
"Yeah, sure," said Tony with a grin. "I've been doing these since I was a kid."
"What do the rest of the Avengers think of this?"
Clint shrugged, hoping if any pictures of him were published anywhere - unlikely, as the media would probably be chock-full of Captain America and Iron Man - his face could only possibly express his heartfelt sense of 'Whatevs, dudes.'
"Why go public on this at all if he's not going to answer any questions?" asked a reporter near the back of the room.
"Because the titillation of 'Is he, isn't he' was getting a little ridiculous," said Tony. "And because I was likely to open my big mouth anyway and make it look like an accidental outing."
"How does Captain America feel about homosexuality?" asked a tall man near the front. "In his day it was considered a pathology."
"Is it true that he's sought out conversion therapy?"
Tony shook his head. "Not my life, not my job to speak for him."
"What do you think of conversion therapy?"
Tony's eyes narrowed. "I think it's a poisonous load of crap. There's a reason it's not recognized therapy anywhere, and I fully support anybody who wants it prosecuted as a form of psychological abuse."
"What about his attitude towards gay marriage?"
"Second verse, same as the first: I'm not gonna speak for him."
"Has Captain Rogers ever been in an intimate relationship with--"
"Here's a game plan," Tony told the plump woman who'd asked. "You guys don't ask, and I won't tell."
"Will you answer questions about your own relationship with Captain America?" asked an elderly man. "Have you ever been in a sexual relationship with him?"
"Buddy, Cliffs Notes version: I'm bi, he's gay, not involved, never have been, I'm not his type and he's not mine, end of story. Move on. Just because two people on a team could sleep together, that doesn't mean they're going to. If you're gonna be that way about it, you might as well suggest that Black Widow's sleeping with all of us - except Steve, obviously - although yeah never mind, you people already do suggest that almost every single edition of some of your mags. Widow's a popular girl, I guess--"
"Has Captain America brought any men home to the Tower?" came another voice.
"I am not going to answer any questions if they have to do with Captain America's sex life." Tony stopped and gave an exaggerated shudder. "God, I feel like we're traumatizing ten-year-olds all over the country right now, not 'cause he's gay but because I just said 'Captain America's sex life.' Damn, I just said it again."
"Has Captain America dated--"
"Dude, what did I just say?" said Tony, exasperated.
"Who is in command of the Avengers right now?"
Tony smiled in approval at the young woman who had asked that one. "We're notsomuch with the military hierarchy. We're still functioning as a team, we're still out there. We're looking forward to Steve coming back soon, but in the meantime I tend to make most of the field decisions."
"Why go public with his leave of absence now?"
"In part to quash some of the more... creative rumors, and also because mental illness isn't anything to be ashamed of. Sometimes life throws you curve balls that take a bit of time to work through."
"Captain America suffering from PTSD, though?" said a thin man with a sour expression. "And depression?"
"Listen, Captain Rogers worked way past when most people would've quit," said Tony. "In his time you just manned up and kept a stiff upper lip and didn't talk about it until you either got over it or killed yourself or dropped into a bottle or something. He can't drop into a bottle, and he's got too much integrity to let down people who are relying on him to be in top mental condition. So when he felt that he was going to be operating at a level where his actions might compromise the team, he told us, and got help. That's all. Go Google PTSD and clinical depression if you want, and think about why somebody who's in a pretty high-stress occupation might not want to put their team-mates at risk while going through it."
"Do you think he can still be considered a role model, with these revelations coming out about his character--"
"The revelation is that he's a human being and isn't going to hide either his orientation or his current troubles, because he doesn't have to." He gave the reporter a thin smile. "That, plus the fact that he's saved your asses more times than I can count, makes him a pretty damn good role model to me. Don't know about you. And if anybody thinks they shouldn't look up to him any more, because he's chosen to be honest instead of making it look like he's got anything to hide, then maybe they need to re-examine their definition of role model."
Clint smirked and sat back, letting Tony do what he did best, reflecting that his own responses would probably be a little more profane. There was a reason he was almost never allowed to talk to the press.
Finally Tony was standing up and leaving the stage, leaving Sorensen behind to handle questions from the smattering of reporters who looked like they were going to stay. Clint had to admit that in terms of being boring enough to make the last few reporters want to leave, Sorensen did an excellent job.
"No, SHIELD did not know," he heard Sorensen say as he started to follow Natasha, Thor and Tony out. "No, we didn't need to know. There's no 'morality clause' in their contracts, and no need for one... SHIELD does not discriminate against LGBT individuals... no, it's not appropriate to discuss details of anybody's leave; it's a standard SHIELD Administrative Leave..."
They finally made it through the door to the hallway, where Bruce and Steve were waiting, and headed off to the Quinjet.
"Clint, time to pay up," said Bruce with satisfaction. "I told you there wouldn't be a single Doombot question."
"I really thought they'd ask at least one," said Natasha, "just to keep up appearances."
"If I recall correctly," said Thor, "the Hawk's penalty was that he must make our sustenance for tonight's movie. Which seems to punish all of us for his loss."
"And I was looking forward to finishing Annie Hall," said Natasha.
"Hey! No fair! Help me out here," Clint turned to Steve to protest, and saw him pulling Tony aside.
"What the hell was that?" Steve was asking, his voice low and angry.
"What?" Tony blinked at him. "Wait - are you pissed off at me?" Steve glared and Tony frowned at him, baffled. "Why?"
"You didn't need to lie!"
Natasha stopped and turned around.
"What? When did I--"
"'Never been involved,' you said," Steve snapped. "I agreed to this whole thing so that I wouldn't have to lie or hide. I didn't need you to do it for me!"
Now Thor and Bruce had also stopped, and Steve and Tony suddenly noticed they had an audience.
"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Clint.
"None of your business," snapped Tony.
"Too late," said Natasha briskly. "Clint told me a while ago that I should leave work at work and not pry into our team-mates' lives; that backfired pretty spectacularly." She stared at them, her eyes hard. "So, what does he mean, lying about 'never been involved'?"
Clint blinked as Steve started to blush. "I'm sorry, what?" No. No way. He gaped at Tony. "You mean... you're... you and Steve?"
"No way," said Bruce.
"Iron Man and Captain America are fucking," said Clint in disbelief.
"No!" Steve blurted, and flushed deeper. "We're not."
"But you were?" said Clint.
"You were doing something," said Natasha.
Steve looked away, his face crimson.
Natasha crossed her arms. "When?"
"A few weeks ago," said Tony, blowing out his breath. "It was just a couple of times."
"And you didn't sleep together?"
"No!" said Steve. "Of course not!"
"We just... made out a couple times," said Tony. "Steve, come on, it was nothing--"
"Then you shouldn't have lied about it," snapped Steve.
"I did not lie," said Tony, his lips going thin. "Look, for myself I don't give a shit what I say to these people, because they twist things into pretzels whether you try to be straight with them or not. But I knew I was speaking for you. I did not say we'd never done anything. I said, and I quote, 'not involved, never have been, I'm not his type and he's not mine, end of story.' I'm not your type, remember? No old-timey morals, take everything as a joke, 'all about style'? And you're not mine; you're so fucking repressed you've ended up in psych care in my building! You're so far in the closet you're practically in Narnia, for fuck's sake." He stopped, breathing hard, and seemed to reach for patience. "Steve," he said more calmly, "we fooled around a couple of times, because I'm a slut and you were, I don't know, curious or I don't know what, but we've never been 'involved,' and don't you dare call me a liar for saying the truth."
Steve turned on his heel and left.
Tony closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead wearily, then followed Steve down the short hallway and out the door.
"Wow," said Clint, a little stunned. "Captain America and Iron Man. In our house. And we had no clue." He turned to Natasha. "Wanna turn in your SuperSpy badge?"
She nodded. "Bruce? Did you know?"
"I had no idea," said Bruce. "How would I have known?"
"You see Tony all the time, in the lab," said Natasha.
"And you think we talk about who he's sleeping with?"
"I find this strange," said Thor.
"What?" asked Clint. "That we had no idea this was even happening, in our own home? That this is twice now that Steve's totally blindsided us? Steve Rogers, a guy who's so upright he wouldn't even lie to get out of a speeding ticket?"
"I find it strange that you are surprised."
Thor frowned. "Our ways are... Asgard and Midgard are very different. And the ways of your people are confusing, and have changed much since we lived amongst you. But it was clear that there was a bond of deep affection between our Captain and the Man of Iron. And that the Captain was deeply conflicted about it." He paused. "As is the Man of Iron."
"Tony?" said Bruce, baffled.
Clint rubbed his eyes. "OK. So, to recap, the two super-spies and the sciency BFF saw fucking nothing, and the alien dude who's not even here half the time and is not real up on modern relationships finds it odd that we're surprised." He ran a hand through his hair. "This day sucks. I'm going to bed."
The far door opened, and Tony came back in.
"Is he all right?" asked Natasha.
Tony shrugged. "Says he's going to the SHIELD gym before heading back to the Tower."
Clint traded a glance with Natasha. Technically they still had Cap on suicide watch, with one of them accompanying him all the time, but they'd talked about cutting that down in recent days. And it had really seemed like Steve was just pissed off right now, not emotionally unstable. Besides, JARVIS was still monitoring him through the anklet.
"Might be a good idea to give him some space," Clint ventured, and there were a number of nods from the team. He turned to Tony. "So, you're in the doghouse?"
"He's pissed at me," Tony said, going for a casual tone and failing utterly. "He's actually pissed at me."
"Yeah, well maybe he's not used to casual grab-ass," said Clint. "Didja think of that?"
"As one asshole to another, Tony, I dunno how different it is when there's two dudes involved but generally you don't actually tell the other person that whatever you did 'was nothing,' even if it didn't mean squat."
"That's not why--"
"Tony," Bruce said, his voice even. "Did it cross your mind that maybe a deeply closeted man who was raised by nuns during the Depression might not be the best person to have a casual sexual encounter with?"
"OK, why does everybody assume it's me who wanted this to be casual?"
"Because it always is?" said Natasha. "Although this is a new low, even for you."
Tony turned and glared at her. "All right, maybe I fucked up. Scratch that: I know I fucked up; I shouldn't have - but maybe I didn't go for anything more serious because I didn't want to fuck up even more. Did you think maybe we only made out a couple of times because I realized he's got enough going on without me in his life? And maybe if he didn't, I would want--" He snapped his mouth shut and gave them all a scornful glare. "You know what? Never mind. This is none of your business. I'm going out; you go ahead back to the Tower without me." He turned and headed off.
There was a brief silence.
"It is as I said: deeply conflicted," said Thor gravely.
Clint heaved a deep sigh. "This day really sucks," he repeated. "I am going to bed."
I have squandered my resistance,
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises.
They sounded good together out on the deck, Tony thought as he got himself a drink, Clint's husky baritone on the melody, Steve's light tenor harmonizing. It had come as a bit of a surprise to the team to realize that all of them had decent voices and could carry a tune, prompting Clint to propose recording an Avenger's Musical. "It would be like the Star Wars Christmas Special, it would be awesome, dude," he'd said, eyes sparkling. "Can you imagine if Phil was still around? He'd cream himself to get a copy, even if Fury put him in charge of erasing every last one from the internet!"
Tony swirled the ice cubes around, hesitating before stepping onto the deck. With miserable timing, he'd had to leave on Stark Industries emergency business the day of the press conference and hadn't been near Steve since then. While the upside was that he'd gotten to skip viewing Kramer v. Kramer, it did mean he had no idea what to say to him now, and no idea if Steve was still pissed at him over the press conference.
What the hell, he told himself. It was his own deck and he hadn't done anything wrong. It was Steve's job to apologize, mental health issues or no. Being emotionally iffy did not give you a free pass to treat other people like shit; Pepper, Happy and Rhodey had drilled that into Tony's head often - and painfully - enough.
Asking only workmen's wages,
I've come looking for a job, but I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,
I do declare,
There were times that I was so lonesome I took some comfort there,
Ooh la la la
"Don't sing that verse in public," said Natasha, smiling a hello at Tony as he joined them. "I don't think the papers could take speculation that Captain America's not only gay, but hires prostitutes."
Clint laughed and Cap blushed. "Song lyrics don't count, Tasha," Clint snickered, still strumming. "Besides, I think Seventh Avenue's mostly girls; dunno where he'd find dudes for hire," he said, and continued to the next verse.
Tony sank into an empty seat, relaxing a bit when Steve gave him a small smile and didn't break off the song or leave. Not that Steve would've done that - flouncing off was not normally his thing - but the smile had been genuine.
He sat, savoring his drink and listening to Clint and Steve and gazing over the city, as their voices swung into the last verse.
In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders,
Of every glove that laid him down or cut him, till he cried out,
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving," but the fighter still remains...
Really, not bad. Not Avengers Musical level, but they did sound good. And it was interesting, hearing them singing a Golden Oldie that had been written more than twenty years after Steve's plane had gone down.
He looked over in surprise as they finished and Clint put away his guitar. "You're done?" he asked.
"Sorry, pretty limited repertoire," said Clint. "Besides, I'm getting cold out here. No, I know; high-tech enviro-friendly heating, it's just sitting outside with snow all over the city makes me cold whether I can feel it or not."
"And I need to finish up a report," said Natasha, standing up to follow him and leaving Tony and Steve alone on the deck. Tony narrowed his eyes at them as they disappeared into the elevator.
Steve cleared his throat. "I suspect that was deliberate."
"Our team-mates aren't exactly subtle," Tony agreed. He took a sip of his scotch.
"I'm sorry," said Steve bluntly.
"Oh. OK," said Tony, off-balance. "For?"
"I over-reacted, the other day after the press conference."
Tony nodded. "Right. No problem, don't worry about it. I... I'm sorry I said some of what I said afterwards too," he added, because that had generally worked with Pepper when he didn't really know what he'd done wrong. When In Doubt, Apologize. "And I'm, uh, sorry I had to leave right after, I wasn't trying to be a dick and get away, it was just that the factory in Broxton--"
"No, don't apologize for that," said Steve, waving a hand. "You have responsibilities, we all understand that."
"So... how has it been? The fallout from the press conference."
Steve glanced at him. "Fine. I haven't really kept track of what people are saying. Spent the last few days at the gym or in my studio, to be honest."
"Pepper said most people have been pretty supportive."
"No, not everyone. But even conservatives are being pretty positive. I saw something about former Vice President Cheney saying you're a good role model?" He took another sip. "Although other people's opinions don't matter to you, do they? It's more like your own opinion of yourself is what's important to you."
Steve gave him a humourless smile. "Other people's opinions matter more than you'd think. I realized that morning that it was the first time I was going to come out to people where I knew some of them were gonna react badly."
Tony blinked. "Really? You came out to people in your time."
"That was different."
"But you were just a kid. And you came out to a nun, a priest, and another teenage boy. Not exactly the safest people to come out to."
"I knew it was safe."
"The thirties wasn't the Dark Ages. Besides, it was a boys' orphanage, Tony. Boys fool around together; it wasn't exactly accepted, but it wasn't unheard of either." He leaned his head back. "There was this one boy, Charlie. He got caught too many times with his hands down someone else's pants. Some of the nuns were all about the fire and brimstone and telling us we were gonna burn in hell forever if we let our 'so-called friends lead us down the path of Godless perversion'--"
"But not Sister Barbara. Or Father Brauer. They stood up for the kid. I mean, they still said he was gonna go to hell if he didn't stop, but they tried to help him. So that's who I went to."
"And they helped you?"
"What about your friend Bucky?"
"Bucky had stopped some of the other boys from beating the snot outta Charlie." Steve swallowed hard. "Didn't stop it from being terrifying, telling him. I didn't want him to think... I mean, he was like a brother to me. I knew he wouldn't beat me up, but I didn't want him to get the wrong idea."
"No," said Steve with a small smile. "Bucky was... Bucky was the best friend anybody could've had. I don't know what I would've done without him." His smile faded and he looked down.
Tony cleared his throat, looking away from the grief on Steve's face. "What happened to the kid? Charlie?"
"He ran away when he was fifteen. I heard he ended up 'with the wrong crowd,' whatever that meant. There were rumors that he'd become... you know, a hooker. Or got himself raped or killed. Never did find out if they were true."
"How old were you?"
"Two years younger than him."
"So your one personal contact with somebody who was gay was a kid who slutted around, ran away from the orphanage, became a hooker, and possibly got killed."
"Don't forget the soldier who almost destroyed our unit because he absolutely had to offer another soldier a blow job. During war time."
Tony nodded. "Right. Have to say, those were great role models, Steve."
Steve shrugged. "Not that unusual, for the time. And they weren't my only role models; there were a few fellas in art school who were pretty obviously... that way. Very, um, feminine."
"No straight-acting guys who just happened to like dick?"
Steve winced at the crudeness. "How would I have known? How would anybody have known? It wasn't like today, Tony." He shook his head. "Today they're out, and almost nobody cares. And even the ones who do act like dames - you know that agent at SHIELD Technical Support, the one with the big glasses?"
"The one who embraces every lisping stereotype in the book? Gutierrez?"
"Yeah. He's - I can't imagine anyone making fun of him the way people did in art school."
"Not to his face, anyway," said Tony. "Clint said something about him coming to Tech Support after spending five years on the Termination Squad. He could probably kill you with one of his darling little rainbow cufflinks."
"It's still hard to believe it."
Tony hesitated a moment. "So I take it you're not going back to that conversion place."
Steve sighed and gazed out over the city. "No, probably not." He looked at Tony. "Why do you assume that, though?"
"Aside from you being pretty much irreversibly out now? Um... because they're the ones who probably outed you?"
"I'm not so sure."
Tony frowned. "Really? How many people there knew who you were?"
"Two, as far as I know. There may have been other people in their office who had access to my file, but the place itself is pretty small."
"Who else would've outed you, Steve? Everybody else who knew was a friend."
"Why would the church out me?"
"Good publicity. Celebrity client and all."
"If so, it backfired. If anything, those places are getting even more heat, ever since the stories came out... at the same time I did. What you said about them didn't help either."
"Hey, any publicity is good publicity," Tony pointed out.
"If they were going to use me for publicity, they would've done it after I was... I dunno, married, or something," said Steve. "Or at least going out with a woman. Why do it now? And the stories didn't use the name of the place I was actually going to. It was just part of a list."
"Maybe they didn't want to be too obvious." Tony paused. "Come on, Steve, who else would've done it? Nobody at SHIELD knew but your therapist. There was just the team, and Rhodey and Pepper. Not one of us would've--"
"Somebody else could've seen me entering the church." Steve paused. "And there have been odd leaks going on to the press."
"You know what Natasha found the day I was hacking into SHIELD. There was somebody copying files in there."
"Yeah and I wish I'd known about it," said Tony. "I would've tracked them down."
"We still don't know it was anything out of the ordinary," Steve pointed out. "Natasha said it could've been nothing."
"Natasha said it was SHIELD Medical and Financial files, at least, maybe others. And you have spent a lot of time at SHIELD Medical..." Tony frowned as he reluctantly dismissed the rather baffling topic. "Anyway. It's probably for the best that you're not going back to the church, whatever the reason." He swirled the ice cubes around the bottom of his glass. "Let's go in, I'm getting a refill," he said, standing up. "I mean, there's not much point in you still trying to go straight, is there? Now that the world knows you're not?"
"That wasn't the reason I was doing it," Steve pointed out as they came back inside. "It wasn't so that nobody would ever find out. Though that would've been nice."
"I might want to get married and have a family some day." Tony gave him an exasperated look and Steve held up a hand. "Yeah, I know. I have heard of gay marriage."
"You changed your mind on serving openly in the military--"
"The military isn't sacred."
"Tell that to Rhodey," said Tony, heading for the bar. "Anyway, I'm not gonna argue with you on this one. I don't even really believe in relationships, let alone marriage. I've never seen a functioning one. And I don't particularly want kids, so I'm not the best spokesperson for that either."
"I don't know if I want kids either; I just don't want to close off that possibility forever. And I wouldn't deprive a kid of two parents."
"You wouldn't have to," said Tony, taking out a whiskey bottle.
"Two parents of the opposite sex," said Steve, dropping onto a bar stool. "Kids need both role models."
"Hey, you were raised by a single mother, and then by nuns," Tony pointed out. "You turned out OK."
Steve stared at him. "My childhood was terrible, Tony. I would never do that to a kid."
"Think it might have more to do with your mother dying and you being poor, than not having a father." Tony grimaced. "In any case, trust me, two parents of the opposite sex do not a stable home environment make. And trust me, we're gonna want to change the topic on this one. Hey, do you want a drink?"
Steve nodded. Tony reached for the cabinet.
"Whiskey OK?" Tony asked, and poured after Steve nodded again. "On the rocks? How are you feeling, by the way?"
"Sure. Um. Fine?"
"I mean, stability-wise." Tony got ice for both of them.
Steve's lips pressed together briefly. "Fine, Dr. Stark."
"How's the lower dosage working?"
Steve touched his arm absently. "Fine."
"Bruce said you had a bit of a panic attack the other day," said Tony, handing over Steve's glass.
Steve sipped his drink thoughtfully. "It's actually helpful that I spent all those years being told asthma was just mind over matter. It's kind of encouraging, now; Bruce tells me to breathe more slowly, and my breathing actually settles down. Never worked when Bucky tried it."
"Yeah. Panic attacks suck," said Tony, and took a sip. "I had a couple after Afghanistan; always felt like I was dying. Mind you, I never was able to tell how much of what was going on was panic attacks, and how much of that was my body breaking down from the arc reactor poisoning me. And I didn't have too many of them; Pepper insisted I get lots of therapy and cutting-edge meds." He swirled his drink around, remembering Pepper's efficiency, the way she'd forced him to take care of himself emotionally. The way she'd actually made a difference, so that he was able to walk away from what was a completely horrific experience not that much more screwed up than he'd walked into it.
So completely different from how he'd handled Steve. Not just failing him when Steve had first come to him, but unable to do much to help even now. Other than sitting and taking up space while Steve brooded after nearly killing himself, or holding him silently while he cried on the kitchen floor. Barely able to do anything more useful than point out that maybe non-stop chemical experimentation wasn't a good idea, or that watching The Deer Hunter and Ordinary People was probably also not the best thing for Steve right now.
Tony watched the play of light off the ice cubes in his glass. "I... I'm sorry I'm not good at this."
Steve blinked at him. "What?"
I'm sorry I don't know what to do or say. I'm sorry all I can do is babble to you about Bruce finding a cure for nightmares when you're shaking after dreaming about your best friend dying. I'm sorry I can't even say any of this out loud. He drained his glass. "But hey, you're... you are looking better. More... I don't know, centred?"
"I guess so."
"You could go out, you know. You're not on constant watch any more. You've got the anklet - I mean, at some point, you'll be able to take it off, but--"
"I think that'll be a while coming," Steve said lightly, resting his elbows on the bar. "I don't really mind being here. I don't really have anywhere to go by myself. I mean, I was going out to see the city, before, but... other than Central Park, which was just a dump when I was a kid, the rest of it really isn't that attractive."
"Still, isn't there anything you want to do?"
Steve gave him a grim smile. "Well, I was supposed to go on a date with one of the women going to the church. In a couple of days, as a matter of fact. Other than that, no."
Tony's eyebrows went up. "The church runs a dating service?"
"You would call it that," said Steve, grimacing.
"You'd be OK dating a woman you know isn't really into you?"
"It's a little more honest, I'd think, than dating a woman who thinks I'd be thrilled to get her into bed."
Tony shook his head in disbelief. Sounded about as much fun as root canal.
"But you're right, there's not much point to going," said Steve. "I don't want to give up, but... I haven't been much good at doing any of what they've told me to do." He paused. "For one thing, I'm really not supposed to be alone with you."
"I never named you to the counsellor. I just told her that there was somebody, and that we'd - and that I was still tempted."
Tempted. Tony's heart skipped a beat, and he took a drink to cover his reaction. Of course, any good intentions Tony had had at keeping his distance had gone all to hell after Staten Island, eclipsed by bigger concerns, like Steve's life and safety. Not that it really made any difference in terms of Steve 'avoiding temptation'; whether you called it suicide watch or babysitting, their time alone together had not been sexy. It had mostly consisted of Steve being silent and in pain, and Tony feeling useless or chattering inanely at him.
"So your counsellor thinks just because you're... curious--"
Steve put his glass down impatiently. "Look, it's not that you're the only gay or bi man I know," he said, his voice tense, his eyes on the bar top. "Stop saying that. It's not that you're... convenient. You're pretty damn inconvenient, Tony."
"You have no idea how many times I've been told that," Tony quipped.
Steve didn't smile. "I know what you said, that it didn't mean anything for you, and that's fine, but... I wasn't just curious." He pressed his lips together, a blush heating his face.
Tony cleared his throat, his stomach doing a small flip. You don't actually tell the other person that whatever you did 'was nothing,' even if it didn't mean squat, Clint had said, and damn it, even Tony knew that much. And - oh, shit, he was probably going to fuck things up again, but somehow he couldn't leave the guy hanging, his emotions so raw and open, with Tony just sitting quietly on his own. He opened his mouth without letting himself overthink it.
"Look, what I said, that day, was - you... you are my type. Very much my type." Steve's head snapped up and Tony drew a nervous hand through his hair. "I mean, I'm not just a friendly guy who does that kind of thing with anybody with a pulse." God, he should probably shut up and he was probably fucking this up, badly. What else was new. "But, but you said pretty clearly that you didn't want anything like that to happen with a guy."
Steve was gazing at him thoughtfully. "Sometimes I honestly don't know why not. You're right; nobody cares."
You care, thought Tony as Steve lifted his glass and drained it, then set it down.
"I am so damn tired of fighting," Steve said softly, staring down into his glass. "I don't even know why I should any more."
"I've never understood, to be honest."
"Was it really that simple for you, accepting that about yourself?"
Tony gestured helplessly. "I don't really remember. I mean, it was so long ago - and seriously, one more thing for my dad to disapprove of and the tabloids to talk about? Didn't really register much for me, I don't think."
Steve slid off the bar stool and moved around the bar, facing Tony. "I envy that about you so much," he said, his voice quiet. "You make no apologies for how you feel. You don't think any less of yourself for it."
"Why should I?" asked Tony. "What's wrong with wanting what everyone wants, just because it comes in a different package?"
Steve shook his head, his eyes uncertain, tension in every line of his body. "Maybe nothing. I don't know any more." He drew a shaking breath, and his eyes dropped down to Tony's lips.
OK, this was getting out of hand, Tony realized. There was hope in Steve's eyes, and fledging acceptance of himself, and God Tony wanted this a lot more than he'd thought he did and all the comforting statements he'd made to himself about 'just an anomaly' and 'platonic friends is fine' were such complete lies he was kind of impressed that he'd managed to convince himself even for a moment--
But Steve wasn't really stable, yet, and giving up on that church was a far, far cry from embracing his sexuality, and Tony was so, so bad at this...
"Steve," he said, and swallowed. "I - we... I don't want..." And oh God, he went stupid when Steve's deep blue eyes met his and his brow furrowed slightly.
"I mean, yes I do want - 'don't want' is so far from true it's not even funny. I want you so much you have no idea." He cleared his throat and held on to his resolve with both hands. "But I don't do long-term, and you do."
Steve gave a short laugh. "I never have," he pointed out. "And if I can't be with a woman, maybe I don't."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Oh really? Captain America's gonna get into the casual scene? Seriously?"
"Maybe Captain America's tired of being alone," said Steve.
"I thought you believed in waiting until marriage."
"Doesn't look likely that I'll ever get married. What am I supposed to do?"
"Uh... 'don't knock masturbation, 'cause it's sex with someone you love'?" Tony joked weakly.
Steve snickered and drew closer. Tony gazed at him, frozen with indecision, but didn't move back as Steve slowly lifted a hand to his cheek. He took a deep breath as Steve brought their faces together, hesitating an inch away from Tony's mouth.
Reasons This Is a Good Idea, Tony's brain supplied as his breath mingled with Steve's. One: Steve wasn't on medication. Or rather, he was, but it was good, and it stabilized him. Two: he wasn't on suicide watch any more. Three: he probably wasn't going to go back to that awful church. Four: Steve had been so alone, for so damn long, and wanted Tony, and Tony wanted him, and...
Reasons This Is a Very Very Bad Idea...
Oh, there were too many to count, but Tony wasn't made of stone, and the reasons were so hard to remember as Steve bridged the final gap between them, and Tony groaned as their mouths met and Steve's lips parted instantly under his, their tongues sliding together with an almost electric tingle, tasting of fine whiskey and excitement, the tension in Steve becoming something else, something joyful and vibrant. Steve gasped and buried his hands in Tony's hair, gently biting Tony's lower lip between his own before sliding his tongue back into Tony's mouth. And Tony wanted so much more, wanted to slide his hands down to Steve's ass and pull them closer together and see if Steve was already hard or not, and then Steve's hands were running down Tony's back and to his waist and--
Tony grabbed on to what little common sense he had left. This might be OK, but there was no way he should let it go too far. Never mind that they were technically in a public area; Steve really wasn't compos mentis enough to provide real consent to much more than this.
"Steve, Steve," Tony gasped, pulling away slightly. Steve stilled immediately and Tony took a quick breath, then moved his mouth to Steve's ear. "Slow down," he whispered. "We don't need to do everything all at once. Come on." He gently tugged Steve to the couch, sinking down and pulling Steve next to him, turning and capturing Steve's mouth again. "Is this good?" he murmured between kisses, feeling like a bit of an idiot but what the hell. "We don't go any farther than this? Above the waist only?"
"Yeah, yeah it's good," Steve gasped. "Jesus. It's good," he said, taking Tony's mouth in another hungry kiss, then moving to his ear and nipping Tony's earlobe between his teeth, sending a shiver through Tony.
Let's see if I can get the hang of this, thought Tony as Steve's lips ghosted from his ear down his neck, leaving sparks of sensation behind. It had been a distressingly long time since he'd hooked up with anyone, and he was used to most of his hook-ups being driven straight towards bed, but he had had some experience - about a million years ago - with just fooling around, and there was a certain charm to it. Sensuality to be enjoyed when this wasn't just a headlong rush towards orgasm. It had been a while, but he had a pretty good memory.
He relaxed into it, savoring Steve's mouth, finding sensitive spots on his neck, encouraging him to explore, both of them losing themselves in each other for what felt like forever. Steve melting into him, small gasps and soft moans, the scent of the hollow at the base of Steve's throat, his pulse thrumming rapidly under Tony's lips. Quiet laughter, Steve's eyes sparkling, and if felt powerful, it felt incredible, it felt like this couldn't be anything but right...
Hours later, it seemed, they came up for air.
"I..." Steve broke off a kiss. "This is - we should probably stop pretty soon," he whispered. His face was flushed and his eyes bright, and despite his words he looked more... peaceful than Tony had seen him in a long, long time. Tony felt a bizarre flush of pride. I did that.
"Blueballs?" Tony asked, regretting it the moment he said it, but Steve just rolled his eyes.
"Nah, just getting a little hotter than I can really..."
"Yeah, I know. Me too." They shared another slow kiss, their lips swollen sensitive, and pulled away reluctantly.
Steve kept a hand on Tony's, lacing their fingers together, and looked down. He carded his other hand through his own hair, straightening it a bit, and cleared his throat. "Look, I know." He looked up at Tony, a small smile on his lips. "I know you're not into long-term," he said. "I don't. Uh. Really don't expect this to change anything."
Tony nodded, feeling his pulse slowing down, and squeezed their fingers together. "So... you're OK with, you know, friends with benefits?" he said. Steve nodded. "Wow, No Strings Attached With Captain America." He shook his head. "Try putting that on a trading card."
Steve gave him a wry smile. "Talk about traumatizing legions of ten-year-olds."
"I won't tell," Tony promised.
"Who knows, most of them probably wouldn't even care." Steve shook his head, sitting back on the couch. "Ten-year-olds aren't how they used to be."
"A lot of things aren't how they used to be."
Steve sighed. "No." He was silent for a while. "Guess I'm... really not going back to the church, then," he said, and Tony would've felt another rush of pride if not for the subdued tone of Steve's voice.
"That's... that's good, isn't it?"
"I guess so," Steve said quietly.
"Why wouldn't it be?"
"Other than I'm gonna be missing the second date I've ever had?" Steve looked down at their clasped fingers. "Giving up without even trying?"
Tony frowned. "Steve. I don't get it." He hesitated, trying to feel his way through this cautiously. "You say you don't believe the whole damnation and hellfire thing. So what does it matter whether you try to go straight or not?"
"It's not about avoiding punishment from God," said Steve slowly. "It's never been about that. God forgives us anything; I believe that."
"So what's the problem?"
"Just because God can forgive us doesn't meant we shouldn't do our best to do what's right anyway. Doesn't mean we should just give up." Steve pressed his lips together. "It's not just a religious thing either. I mean - during the War, I never thought the men who didn't go into the army should be punished; I just wanted to do the right thing."
Tony nodded. "And you kept trying to do the right thing, even when the army rejected you four times."
Steve nodded, still looking down, one thumb gently rubbing the top of Tony's hand.
Tony gazed at Steve's profile for a long moment; the smooth brow, the eyes that no longer looked as haunted as they had a few weeks ago, but always had that hint of sadness, the lips that had just been so pliant under his own. He covered their clasped hands with his free one, then drew it up Steve's shoulder, giving him a gentle squeeze. "Steve."
Steve sighed and looked back up at him. "Yeah."
"Are... do you really feel like you're giving up on the church?"
Steve blinked. "I am."
"Even though you've been with women before, and it didn't, you know, fix you?"
"I didn't know what I was doing back then, Tony. The church doesn't just throw men and women at each other and assume that's all it takes to straighten them out." He bit his lip. "Besides, it might have worked with Peggy; I never got the chance to try."
Tony felt his heart aching a little. Damn it. Walking away from that stupid place should be a triumph, should feel like freedom and self-acceptance, a rejection of irrationality - like doing the right thing after all. Not this sense of defeat, of 'giving up' without even trying.
And if he walked away now...
He took a deep breath. "Then... then maybe you should go," he said, feeling a little unreal.
Steve's mouth dropped open. "What?"
"Steve. I really - shit, I really can't believe I'm saying this and I should probably get Bruce to examine me for alien mind control. But maybe you should. Go back, I mean. At least for that one date."
"After... this?" Steve gestured between them.
"Hey, no strings attached means no strings for either of us. And you're looking for long-term. You're also looking for female. And you... you were enjoying yourself a few minutes ago, but I think you think you're giving up on something pretty important to you."
Steve frowned. "You're actually pushing me to--"
"Not pushing you." He squeezed Steve's hand, then let go and leaned back on the couch, running a frustrated hand through his own hair. "Jesus, you know exactly what I think of those places, please don't get me started on how fucking poisonous and--" he cut himself off. "But you look like you're already regretting this, and... fuck it, go. Get it out of your system. Or... I dunno, find out that it works for you after all," he said, and was a little startled at the bitter taste that thought left in his mouth. "Just, if it doesn't go well, come back." He corrected himself. "Not to - this, not to me, not necessarily, just... talk to somebody. Maybe an ex... ex-gay client, or something--"
"Why, because what I need is yet another counsellor?" said Steve dryly.
Tony gave a small laugh. "No, just... I don't know, it's your life, you decide. I don't want you to. If it was up to me I'd shut all those places down permanently. But I also don't want you to feel like you gave up on anything."
Steve gazed at him seriously. "I'll think about it."
Tony nodded, but couldn't help wondering if he was totally fucking up - again.
Steve stood up. "I really should go to bed," he said. He leaned close, hesitated, then pressed a brief kiss to Tony's mouth. "Good night, Tony," he murmured, and started to draw away.
Tony quickly put a hand up and tugged Steve back, kissing him again more slowly. He finally broke off.
"Good night," he said, his lips still tingling, and watched Steve walk away.