Author Notes: Thanks so much, Cluegirl, ClawR, and forest_rose for your beta help!
Thanks so much also, DoubblySquared, Kaylee21, Hana Otaku, Qweb, Kathryn Merlin, Doni, Maura16 and Rain for your lovely reviews!
This is actually the final chapter plus epilogue being posted as one chapter for now. It's finally done!
It felt funny, Clint thought as they walked in, to think of SHIELD as the enemy. Such a love-hate relationship he'd always had with the place; even when everything was going well, SHIELD was messed up. It tended to take people in, use them up, and then spit them out in pieces.
It had been his home, though, for so long. Dysfunctional, predatory, but home. Overall just a bunch of screwed-up people trying to do the right thing, however they defined it.
Not any more.
He passed through the door with his team, keeping his face carefully blank, as he had on countless ops in enemy territory. Funny to be using the very skills that SHIELD taught him to take them down.
Not that he actually wanted to take them down. He loved this place, in his own way; that was part of the problem. Most of the people in it weren't bad, and the job they did was necessary. Too bad it had been infected with this rot, starting at the top and seeping all the way through it.
If there had been any other way... but there wasn't. WSC had taken over, Fury was gone, Hill was a Council puppet, SHIELD Medical had been turned into a mad scientist's lair, they spied on their own people, used their personal lives to trash them in the media, put civilians in danger for political purposes, and Clint had had enough.
They were led to an empty conference room and waited impatiently for Hill. He tensed as she entered the room. Damned traitor; Fury had been good to her, had trusted her... and she'd turned around and made his agency the lapdog of a bunch of thugs.
"You wanted to see me?" She frowned at them as they stood around the table. "Sit down, please."
"We'll stand," said Tony. "This shouldn't take long. It's not really a meeting; more of an announcement."
"SI Legal said we had to."
Hill gave him a small smile. "You've found a way out of your contract," she guessed.
"Sure did," said Tony. "It's a nasty side effect of using coercion as a form of contract negotiation. You open yourself up to dissatisfied employees."
"I doubt there's anything we could do to make you a satisfied employee, Stark," said Hill.
"I have been told I don't play well with others," Tony agreed.
"Are you disputing that?"
Tony's 'bitch, please,' face was heartfelt. "Anyway. Yes, we found a way out of the contract. Though I'm sure you know we had a way out of our contract the moment we made it."
"Is that so?" asked Hill.
"You put our team-mate's pain on the line," said Natasha evenly. "Made us choose between seeing him tortured in front of us again and giving you a year of forced labor. There's nothing legal or ethical about that."
"So why has it taken you this long to get out of it?" asked Hill.
"Because we knew you'd go after us," said Clint. "Smear our names, try to bring us down."
"This isn't the Mafia," said Hill scornfully. "I have no interest in bringing anyone down."
"Maybe," said Bruce. "Your bosses don't feel the same way."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You do not rule SHIELD," said Thor. "Your superiors do. And they have no honor."
"They make decisions to protect all of us," said Hill.
"Does that include protecting the island of Manhattan?" asked Thor.
Hill's eyebrows went up. "What?"
"We know about the nukes you sent out," said Tony.
Hill didn't look at Clint or Natasha. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she said.
Tony blew out his breath. "Look. We know about the nukes. We know that the cover story of 'pilot went rogue, he's all better and in a padded room' was bullshit. We didn't want to go after you until we had a lot more dirt on you, because we want to shut you down. It's not just about quitting any more."
Hill stared at him. "Your father helped build SHIELD," she said finally.
"My father was a son of a bitch," said Tony without missing a beat. "But I think even he would agree that it's outlived its usefulness."
Hill frowned at him. "Why are you here?"
"SI Legal told us that in order to do this right, we had to come to you and resign before going to the press," said Tony. "And we are going to the press, Maria. We have a whole lot of dirt, and there's nothing you can do about it but brace for the fallout. You can do the denial dance all you want, but it's all there."
Hill stared at him, then glanced at the rest of the team. "You're all in agreement?"
"We are," said Thor, and the rest of them nodded.
"Get out," she said, her voice tense.
"Sure thing, Maria," said Tony, getting to his feet.
"Oh, can you put down our quitting time again for the record?" asked Clint. "I really liked how you did that last time."
Hill stared at them as they left the room. As Clint watched the door close behind her, she leaned over and pushed a button, speaking into an intercom.
"So," said Tony as they left SHIELD. "What to do with the rest of our day?"
"Back to the Tower?" asked Bruce, looking at the SHIELD building a little nervously.
"Sure, why not," said Tony. "We've got an hour or so to kill before JARVIS sends the info to the press, may as well go back and start watching Crash."
"I missed the end of Million Dollar Baby?" asked Clint, feeling it all had been a little... anti-climactic.
"Yes you did," said Natasha. "Be grateful, it took a nose dive into angst about five minutes after you left."
"Wait, no, seriously?" asked Clint. "We're really going to just gonna go watch a movie?"
"No, of course not," said Steve. "We're going back to the Tower and going over the last of the details before the media release. This is an operation, just as much as if we were fighting."
"We know that," said Natasha. "You have no idea how much damage you can do just sending files to the media."
"Dubai," said Clint, nodding, as they headed for Tony's SUV.
"Glycerin," said Natasha, and Clint had to chuckle at Tony's expression. He had that, 'I'd love to ask you to clarify what you're talking about, but I have a feeling I'll regret it because I always do' look. The look that usually preceded him breaking down and asking for clarification - which made Natasha either ignore him or give him one those smiles she had that made recipients regret all their life choices, and caused Clint to make up the wildest stories he could think of, just to see if Tony believed them.
Tony opened his mouth to ask, and stopped short as they all spotted the man leaning against the vehicle, arms folded.
"Hello, people," said Fury. "Sounds like we have some catching up to do. Mind if I take the wheel?"
The team exchanged glances. What the...
"It's not far," said Fury, glancing at Steve. "Small place in Brooklyn."
They got in, Fury at the wheel, and Clint felt surreal. Fury looked exactly the same as before. No change whatsoever - but then, what had Clint expected? He'd only been gone a few months. He didn't speak to them as he drove the SUV along back streets to Brooklyn, finally ending up at a small brick building.
"This is where I went to school," said Steve suddenly.
Fury nodded. "Phil Coulson found out it was going to be demolished a few years ago along with the rest of the street, to make place for a department store," he said, parking in the small parking lot. They all got out. "Helped the neighborhood association stop the project. It's a safehouse now." He glanced around as they headed for the back doors. "The neighborhood's changed a little; not sure your school had a coffee shop and two tattoo parlors within walking distance."
Steve shook his head, bemused. Fury opened the door and led them in, leading them toward an open area that looked like it might have once been a small classroom. They warily settled down at a long table piled high with papers and boxes of labelled disk drives.
"So, you're going to the press," said Fury.
Clint's eyebrows went up. "Word travels fast."
"I wouldn't advise it," said Fury.
"Really? Protecting SHIELD? Thought they turfed you."
"They did. But we need SHIELD. It's the only organization that can protect us all from some pretty vicious stuff."
"And who protects us from SHIELD?" asked Bruce.
"Look, it's good that you got the information you got. We can use that, and we will. But we can do more good-"
"Who's 'we'? And how are you going to do good? By sweeping this under the rug?" said Bruce. "Again?"
"If you go to the press, you're going to destroy something that took decades to build. And you'll leave us all without any defence against-"
"What do you propose to do instead?" asked Steve.
"Take it back," Fury grinned. "You people haven't been the only ones searching for answers. But I can't let you take SHIELD down for some idealistic-"
"You want to play corporate takeover power games?" asked Tony.
"I still have plenty of friends in there," said Fury. "And if this was a spy thriller instead of real life, this would be the perfect time for one of them to make a dramatic entrance. In any case, trust me when I say I've got dirt on some of those fuckers that'll make them step down."
"Which fuckers would that be, sir?" asked Steve dryly. "The ones who tossed a bomb at New York City? The ones who let dangerous people out of confinement just so you'd look bad? The ones who-"
"They're all the same people, Cap," said Fury. "The WSC is a group of twelve talking heads. Not all of them are evil. Depending on what you've got, what you've found might help me take down the three that took matters into their own hands. It'll put control back where it belongs."
"Where would that be, sir?" asked Steve. "With you?"
"For now, yes," said Fury. "The WSC wants to call the shots; control everything from the top down. They don't see that with the problems we're facing, we need the ability to think outside the box." Fury looked around at all of them. "We need discipline and order, I agree with them on that. And we've got that at SHIELD. But we also need a team - a lot of teams, actually - who are out there dealing with things on their own, coming up with ideas that you can't get from a bunch of trained paramilitary types. This is why I wanted the Avengers to be separate. You can do what we can't."
"You can do a lot," said Hill, walking in.
"Uh, OK wait what?!" said Clint, as his team-mates burst out in a chorus of exclamations and curses, Thor and Tony springing to their feet.
"You said you don't do dramatic entrances," said Bruce evenly, and Clint felt a pang of alarm at the tightly controlled tone of his voice. Not a good plan, springing something like this on the good doctor.
"You have to admit there were at least three other places in this conversation that would've been a lot more dramatic than discussing administrative hierarchy," said Hill. "Sit down, everyone."
"OK, OK, back up, I'm sorry: what the hell is going on?" asked Tony. Clint surreptitiously moved closer to Bruce.
"We realized shortly after the Battle of New York that the Council was going to try to take over SHIELD," said Hill. "They were scared and they wanted someone to blame the mess on. Director Fury was the easiest target, since he'd defied them."
Clint stared at her, with her perfect hair and snotty voice, and tried to make sense of her presence in this safehouse.
"They tried to get Hill to turn on me immediately after the attack," said Fury. "She put them off at first, but we both saw the writing on the wall. We knew they'd be up to some dirty stuff. So we put our own plan in place."
"Are you telling us you've been on Fury's side this whole time?" asked Natasha, her eyes narrowed.
"Bullshit," said Clint.
Hill shrugged, her cold blue eyes amused as she gave Fury a wry smile. "I told you they wouldn't buy it, sir."
"We don't," said Bruce, his voice strained. "And I'd very much like to know what the hell you're doing here."
"She's here to help me convince you people to cool down and not go after SHIELD like a horde of avenging berserkers," said Fury.
"Yeah, good luck with that," said Tony, and the hostility and suspicion in the room were so thick Clint could shoot an arrow through them.
Fury chuckled. "I don't blame you for your paranoia. Here," he said, and passed Bruce a Starkpad. "Show of faith. Here's everything we've got on SHIELD." He pointed to one folder. "And a folder with files that show how long Hill's been working for me." He gave them a grim smile. "You were working your way through Oscar movies last time I was around; have you reached The Departed yet?"
They shook their heads and Fury shrugged. "Too bad. Read the file."
"Am I supposed to be Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio?" Hill asked Fury in a low voice, and Fury chuckled. Hill didn't seem all that impressed, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently as the team gathered around the Starkpad and Bruce started scrolling through the files in the folder labelled 1310.
Clint blinked as the words scrolled by, transcripts that looked like meetings between Hill and the WSC, terse reports that seemed to be from Hill to Fury, more transcripts - whoa, a bunch of conversations between Hill and Fury, what the hell-
Fury: How'd that go?
Hill: Sold you down the river, sir. Should have your job within a month.
Fury: Good work. You should maybe ask for a chair.
"Suppose we believe you," said Natasha. "Why should we work with you?"
"We're on the same side," said Fury.
"I'm not on a side that wants to sweep everything under the table again," said Bruce, looking up from one transcript. "I don't want to keep SHIELD the way it was when they ordered you to strike New York and you," he nodded at Hill, "agreed to hide it from the world just to protect his job."
"I didn't do it to protect his job," Hill began.
"Really? Because that's what it looks like from this bit," said Tony, pointing at a couple of lines of transcript. Clint scanned it.
Hill: ...Where you morons tried to nuke New York? Well that's on the record. As in, we recorded it. We do that. We're SHIELD. So if you're thinking of coming after Nick Fury? Ever? Think really, really hard.
"All right, so you don't trust any of us," said Fury. "I can't say I blame you. But look at the rest of what's on the pad. I've just given you enough information to bring down SHIELD, even without whatever you gathered on your own." Hill made a noise in her throat, her eyes widening, and Fury waved her silent. "It's your choice what to do with it."
Clint sat back. Damn it. This was one of the oldest tricks in Fury's book: letting you decide for yourself, knowing you'd most probably end up doing exactly what he wanted you to, without Fury expending the effort of convincing you.
"What else is on here?" asked Steve, gesturing at the pad.
"You'll find a lot of financial misconduct, promotions of unqualified personnel to sensitive positions, some of which put the public in danger; getting rid of two of our top scientists because they weren't sufficiently loyal to the WSC; trying to get the private records of SHIELD Psychiatric Services-" Clint glanced at Steve as Steve blanched, and Fury gave Steve a grim smile. "You might be happy to hear that Dr. Sanjay was particularly adamant about not cooperating with that; in fact, he destroyed many of his physical records to make sure they wouldn't fall into WSC hands."
"Why didn't you come to us?" Natasha suddenly asked Hill. "Let us know you were working with Fury?"
"I tried to reach out to you. You were too paranoid for your own good."
"Several months ago. We were sparring. I tried to let you know that you could tell me what was going on with your team."
Natasha scowled at her. "You did a piss-poor job."
Hill shrugged. "To be honest, I wasn't trying that hard. We also didn't know where the Council had ears in the building."
"Turns out they had ears everywhere," said Fury. "And bugs everywhere. Look in the file; we found a number of unauthorized surveillance sites."
"We know," said Steve. "We found a few too."
"Really? Which ones?"
There was a quick exchange of glances in the team, then Bruce spoke up. "One was a warehouse. Another was on the Tower."
Hill nodded grimly. "Let me guess: the deck?"
Clint swore. "You knew?"
"We didn't know. We thought it might be one possible site."
"In fact, we used it against them," said Fury. "It was one of about two dozen places where we had conversations in which Hill expressed her loyalty to the WSC, just in case they were listening."
"I'd gone to bat for him right after the Battle of New York," Hill explained. "Had to convince them that I'd changed my mind, that I mostly still supported Director Fury but now thought they'd been justified in calling for the nuclear strike. We had to have bits and pieces of that conversation where we knew we'd be overheard, and then again in all these different places where we might be overheard." She frowned slightly. "It was incredibly boring."
"If you suspected we were being bugged," said Bruce evenly, "why didn't you warn us?"
"We didn't know," Hill shot back. "We were under no obligation to warn you about anything." She gave them all an impatient glance. "What did you want us to say? By the way, we think the Council may have you under surveillance - but don't tell them we told you so or they might overhear you talking about it?"
Clint blew out his breath. Typical SHIELD. "Fair enough."
"No, not fair enough," said Steve. "We said and did a lot of pretty private stuff there. It was part of our home." Clint swallowed. His skin crawled a bit as he remembered saying some confidential stuff about Phil on the deck, but having read the transcripts he knew it was nothing compared to how exposed Steve had to feel about it. His own private talks with Tony, coming out to him, their break-up - his breakdown before he'd gone on leave-
"I'm not going to apologize for that," said Fury. "I'd do it again. We were working on a strictly need-to-know basis, and we weren't sure there was anything you needed to know." He looked around at them. "All right, people, I've told you what I want to do. Not take down the WSC entirely; just the rotten apples. But I need your cooperation, or at least your patience."
"You want us to trust that you know who the rotten apples are," asked Bruce. "This is a 'who watches the watchers' kind of thing, isn't it?"
"Yes, pretty much," said Fury. "And my answer is: we do."
"Our answer is: that's not good enough," said Steve.
"Then that's your insurance, right there," said Hill, nodding at the Starkpad. "That's everything we know about them. If you give us what you have and you don't like what we do with it, at a later point you can-"
"Why should we give you our information?"
"You can tell us. You don't have to show us," said Fury. "I'm assuming you've already sent files to the media, or have them on some sort of timer release so that if you don't call them off, they'll get sent?"
"Something like that, yeah," said Tony, and Clint wondered just what the Daily Planet would think of the files they were going to get later today. The reporter Tony was sending them to seemed like a good kid, but...
"What do you have on them?" asked Fury.
Tony stared at him for a moment. "Among other things," he finally said, "we've got records from SHIELD Medical showing that some WSC-appointed personnel were abusing their position and conducting unethical medical research."
"Some financial transfers," said Natasha. "Some interference with holding facilities. The surveillance files."
Hill's eyebrows went up. "We didn't have anything on Medical, though we suspected. We may have some of the same financial and holding files. We didn't have the Avengers Tower surveillance."
"Your files will make a difference," said Fury. "If we work together."
"Suppose we do help you," said Natasha. "What's in it for us?" Bruce and Thor both made disapproving sounds, and Natasha gave them a quelling glance. "I'm not saying we will. I'm getting information."
"They knew about the nuclear strike," Bruce began. "They're just as culpable-"
"We tried to stop it and only covered it in order to keep the Director at the head of SHIELD, so that he would be there if they ever tried anything like that again," said Hill impatiently. "And now we're asking for your help, so that we can get rid of the very people who called for it."
"If we do help you, we want something in return," said Natasha.
"The team will not be subject to SHIELD regulations or to SHIELD's power structure," said Natasha.
"Not a problem," said Fury.
"No specs shared," said Tony. "No reverse engineering of anything of ours that you happen to get your eager little hands on, either."
"That, we'll have to talk about," said Hill.
"We're talking about it right now," said Tony. Fury scowled at him, then nodded.
"No more trying to get any of us in to SHIELD Medical," said Bruce, and Clint could almost sense the hostility and suspicion in him, but at least he was trying. "We would use outside medical resources."
"Basically, the Avengers will be independent consultants," said Tony.
"As a team, yes. We'd like all of you to remain part of SHIELD as individuals," said Hill. Bruce, Thor and Steve shook their heads.
"Yeah, I don't think so," said Tony.
"What about you two?" Fury nodded at Clint and Natasha.
"Hell no, said Clint, and, "We'll have to think about it," said Natasha at the same time. They looked at each other.
"There are benefits to SHIELD, Clint," said Natasha.
"I don't ever wanna be put in the position we were put in before, keeping secrets from the team," said Clint.
"If you do decide to stay, it will be understood that anything you learn from SHIELD will be shared with your team," said Fury.
"Are you sure about that, sir?" asked Hill.
"Yes, I am. The trust in the team is more important than their loyalty to SHIELD."
"This is a lot to think about," said Steve.
"Well you better think about it quick," said Hill. "SHIELD knows you've got something on us. They know I've left the building, and they may be tracking me right now. We don't have time for a long, drawn-out heart-to-heart."
There was a pause.
"This is not a battle," said Fury quietly. "Battles are what you people are for. This is a dirty information war that's going to be played through meetings and intimidation and all sorts of nasty shit you people are not prepared for."
"I am," said Natasha.
Fury smiled at her. "So you are." He gazed at Hill in thought for a moment, then seemed to come to a conclusion. "Why don't we do an exchange," he said. "Romanov, come with me, Hill, you stay here with them. Having you with me when I confront the Council might throw in some extra antagonism we don't need," he spoke over Hill's protest. "It'll also be yet another show of good faith. Take them through the Starkpad, give them the highlights."
"And Clint can also let the team in on some other Level Seven info we've had to sit on," said Natasha.
Fury raised his eyebrows.
"There are some things they really should know, sir," she said.
Hill, unexpectedly, spoke up. "I agree."
"All right," he said, and nodded at Hill. "I trust you to make it all... palatable. Romanov and I have two hours. At the end of two hours, if we haven't contacted you back and told you I'm back in charge and at least two of the names on the WSC removed from power and on their way to detention, you can go to the media."
Clint gave Hill a wary frown. He didn't like her. He'd never liked her, this rigid, by-the-book, dour woman Fury seemed to trust so much. But maybe... what she had done had taken a hell of a lot of guts.
He glanced down at the transcript again.
Hill: The Avengers were the mistake that saved the world. That's my official statement.
Maybe they could work together.
"Let's go through this stuff first," he said, as Natasha and Fury left the building. "I'm really hoping to find Sorensen was secretly subscribed to a Furries site or something. The Level Seven shit... can wait."
"Captain Rogers, can I ask you a few questions about Reed Richards?" asked a reporter, jogging up to Steve and Clint as they approached the Tower. Steve glanced at her tag - Amy Davis, Daily Planet - recognizing one of Fury's approved reporters, and looked at Clint, who shrugged.
"You can ask; I can't guarantee an answer," said Steve. "Reed Richards, the leader of the Fantastic Four? Not sure what I can tell you about him; I've never met him." At least it wasn't yet another round of questions about SHIELD. Steve really wasn't sure he could deal with yet another reporter trying to figure out that particular corporate spy takeover. Not that there had been much to tell, outwardly speaking, but it was clear that the press suspected far more had happened under the surface than a mere change of Directorship.
"I'm surprised you don't know him," said Davis. "Seeing as he spends a lot of time with your - what term do you prefer? Partner? Boyfriend?"
"I don't think either of us has been a 'boy' in a few decades, but I assume you mean Mr. Stark?"
"I do. Do you prefer another term?"
"Doesn't matter, whatever term you want to use; I've heard worse," said Steve.
"Keep telling you not to read Yahoo reader comments," said Clint.
"What is he doing with Reed?" asked Davis. "He's been seen going into the Baxter Building several times in the last few days, and-"
"I have no idea; you can ask him, though," said Steve, though apparently Fury was making overtures to the Fantastic Four, so maybe Tony was-
"Stark's not usually very straightforward with the press."
"I wonder why," Steve muttered. "Clint, do you know?"
"I've seen them talking in the SHIELD building, but it's like when he and Bruce get going, can't understand sh- um, can't understand a word. They don't even talk English."
"I think I have to agree," Steve laughed.
"Are the Fantastic Four going to brought into SHIELD as well?"
"You'd have to ask one of them," said Clint.
"What can you tell us about the reorganization that's going on at SHIELD?" asked Davis, and Steve suppressed a sigh. Here they went.
"Not a thing," Clint told her with a straight face. "We're not part of it, we just work with them."
"There's a new Director, again, after only a few months. Does that mean that-"
"Look, we just go where they tell us," said Clint. "Unless we have a better idea. How they run themselves is none of our business."
The reporter frowned. "Well, what about reorganization within your own structure?" she asked Clint, glancing at Steve. "Do you think two people dating has affected the balance of the team?"
"Really? What if they break up?"
"Hey, whatevs, they're big boys, I'm sure they could handle it," said Clint.
"What about being over-protective of each other in the field?"
"Yeah, that doesn't happen," said Clint. "For either of 'em. Look over our mission reports."
"And what about your PTSD?" Davis turned to Steve. "Are you still-"
Steve kept his expression neutral. "I've made progress. And I'm not going to share that, it's personal."
"You're still not in command, though."
"The Avengers aren't a real strict command-type organization," said Clint.
"Yes, but the fact that Tony Stark is in command - doesn't that mean that he's abusing his position of power?"
Steve blinked at her. "Beg your pardon?"
"You could charge him with harassment, you know."
"Uh. I'm... not going to do that."
"Listen, if it's harassment, it's harassment that he enjoys very, very much - ow!" Clint rubbed his foot where Steve had stepped on it.
"I hear you've been seen going to a local church," said Davis. "Though not God's Peace. What are your views on-"
"I'm sorry, we're back home," said Steve in relief, because there was no way he was going to talk about his views on church. One discussion with a Christian who'd wanted him to speak at a pro-gay marriage rally had been enough. In a way it was nice that there was so much love and acceptance and fuzzy feeling in parts of the Christian community, but it was hard enough trying to figure out how he felt about the religion of his childhood and how it had changed without trying to tell everyone else about it. Let alone trying to tell anyone else how they should feel.
"This will just take a few minutes," said Davis, putting on a winning smile. "I think a lot of people want to know how you feel about-"
"No, we have a very important meeting to attend to," Clint cut off the reporter, and Steve blinked.
"You know, our team-building exercise? About defusing bombs?"
"Yes! We do," said Steve, giving Davis a polite smile, and they ducked into the Tower.
"We are watching The Hurt Locker, right?" asked Clint.
"Yeah," said Steve, amused. They got into the elevator. "What would you have said if we were still watching Slumdog Millionaire?" he asked. "International relations?"
"Probably. Dunno what I would've said for No Country For Old Men," said Clint.
He and Clint rode up to the deck, getting off at the common floor and finding the movie room empty save for Thor, who looked like he'd taken apart the remote and was trying to put it back together with only minimal success. "What's going on?"
"We are starting the movie late tonight, as Bruce's latest results are coming in all haywire," said Thor. "I do not understand what that means, but he was very excited. He will be with us soon, he says."
They went into the kitchen. "So, you didn't wanna talk to the reporter about the Christians, huh?" asked Clint, helping himself to some raw veggies.
"Not a chance," said Steve, grabbing some carrots and starting to chop them into sticks.
"I'm surprised you're going back to church, to be honest. I thought they didn't approve of, what is it they call 'em, certain life choices..."
"I'm not going back to the same church. And I'm not going to any one place very often; don't particularly want to bring that kind of publicity to anyone."
"I can understand that. Why go back at all, though?" Clint picked up some of the carrot sticks and started munching on them.
Steve gently pushed his hand away. "Not sure I can even explain it to a friend," he said. "Definitely don't want to talk about it to the media. I'd rather figure all of this out in private."
"I think you gave up your right to privacy when you put on that spangly outfit," said Clint. "But I know what you mean. I mean, it was one thing being The Amazing Hawkeye in the circus; nobody outside the circus really cares, and you're wearing a mask anyway. This... it's like they wanna eat you or something. And not in a good way." He shuddered. "Still, I thought it was the whole Christian thing that was keeping you, you know..." Clint made a gesture that Steve didn't particularly want to interpret but was probably fairly rude. "What with them being a buncha brain-washing homophobes and all."
"Who's a bunch of brain-washing homophobes?" asked Tony, coming in with Natasha.
"Christians," said Clint, and Tony winced and glanced at Steve.
"Not all of them," said Tony, giving Steve a small squeeze before moving on. Natasha gave Clint a slight shove and a glare.
"Present company excepted, obviously," said Clint, unfazed.
Steve shook his head, unwilling to talk about this, even with his team. Because it hadn't really been religion that had caused his difficulties, though it was easy to blame. If he'd been in a better space, he would've been able to listen to pro-gay Christians, accept what they were saying, or at least be a little more curious about them rather than dismissing them out of hand. He'd been able to reconcile being gay with being a good person - if slightly flawed - way back in the thirties and forties; he'd been able to see that men like him could serve their country perfectly well, when the army actively discouraged them. He would've been able to be one of the millions of gay Christians who were perfectly capable of reconciling their sexuality with their faith.
He'd just been so desperate to hold on to any part of his past that he could - even the terrible parts that were better left firmly in the past.
"I really thought you'd changed your mind about all that stuff," said Clint.
"Not all of it," said Steve.
"Yeah, well, a lotta those folks are still pretty disapproving," said Clint. "Or they say they're 'accepting' but it doesn't go as far as letting gays be actually equal. It's funny the stuff that just won't die." He crunched on a carrot stick, and Steve blinked, not sure how he'd managed to get it. "Hell, there's still folks that think Obama's parents shouldn't have gotten married."
Steve nodded. "In most states when I was growing up, what they did would've been illegal."
"Yeah, it's funny, just because something's illegal and called immoral doesn't make it wrong. Just because people call it 'redefining the institution of marriage' doesn't mean that-"
"You're being very subtle, Clint," said Natasha, rolling her eyes. "By the way, Bruce will be up in a few minutes. He'll have to take a break about an hour in, but he says we should get started."
"OK, forget the gay stuff, then," said Clint, filching a few sprigs of broccoli. "What about premarital stuff? That's changed since your time, right?"
"To be honest, that wasn't a big deal in my time," said Steve. "It was pretty normal for men to sleep with whoever they wanted. It was different for girls, but most men didn't really care, whether they were church-going Christians or not."
Steve sighed. "Yeah," he admitted. "Didn't make enough of a difference, though."
"Do you still care?"
He gave Clint a sharp glance. "Yeah."
"Isn't that hypocritical?" Clint glanced at Tony, who was nominally helping Natasha get drinks but seemed to have stopped once his own drink was in his hand. "I know you two ain't playing' pattycake when you have sleepovers."
"I look after my own conscience," said Steve, not looking at Tony.
"Even though he's not into long-term? You're OK just being with him till he gets this out of his system?"
Steve shoved a tray at Clint and pushed him to the movie room. "I think this is where Tony normally tells you you need to get laid," he said firmly. "So you can stop asking people about their sex lives."
Tony started. "Right!" he said hastily. "Sorry, I'm falling down on the job. Robin Hood, go get laid."
Clint gave Steve a shrewd look. "Or are you just with him till you get this out of your system?"
"Clint!" said Steve sternly, and Natasha whacked him as they all settled in to watch.
This was nothing to get out of his system, thought Steve with a smile, stroking Tony's hair as Tony lay watching the movie with his head in Steve's lap. Whether it had to do with Tony or not, he felt content, as he never thought he'd feel in this time, and he was going to cherish this time enjoy it as long as possible.
It almost felt like his time with the Commandos, where despite the War going on around him, he'd had a purpose, good friends, strength and health and a place to belong for the first time in his life. Except there wasn't the horror of a world in constant danger right now, or the physical discomfort of field conditions.
This, right now, was worth holding on to, worth saving up for those days - and nights - that still came, when he felt displaced and alone. His team surrounding him, a pretty good movie to watch - and he wasn't really bothered by military combat stuff on screen any more, though really the setting here was so different to what he had experienced, both physically and technologically, that it really couldn't remind him of anything. Other than one of the characters looking weirdly familiar.
And it was interesting, getting to learn about fairly recent history in a somewhat more entertaining way than reading about it. Tony seemed OK with the whole desert war thing, too. It was Iraq and not Afghanistan, but still. He ran fingers through Tony's hair, finally longer again, noting his relaxed body language, eyes alert and interested, his even breaths...
Tony had had a good idea with the Oscar movie project. They were almost done, now. He wondered what they would do when it was over.
Bruce crunched on the last of the carrots and sat up. "OK, we're out of food and I need to check on my results." He checked his watch. "Uh... I may be gone for a while - do you guys mind-"
"I shall attempt to hail Jane over your Skype instrument," said Thor.
"Everyone back in... thirty?" said Natasha, and the others nodded. "Clint, we still have that report to finish up for Hill."
"We'll make more snacks," said Steve, and he and Tony went to the kitchen as the rest of the team scattered. Steve headed for the fridge, taking out a bunch of carrots, celery and a head of broccoli, and passed them to Tony to chop while he gathered the ingredients for dips, noting Tony was a bit oddly subdued. Maybe the movie was affecting him. He'd said he was OK, but...
But he'd tell Steve if it bothered him, Steve decided. He started measuring out the mayo.
"So what would you say if the media asked you about gay marriage now?" asked Tony out of the blue, carefully chopping celery into bite-sized sticks, having been almost banned from the kitchen last time when he'd minced it instead.
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Are you channelling Clint now?"
"Natasha interrupted before you could answer him."
Steve shrugged and measured chives into the mayo and sour cream. "I still don't think it's a cause worth dying for."
"But do you think it's a good cause?"
"I understand why a lot of people say it's desecration. Marriage is important to people, Tony."
"I know that." Tony moved on to the broccoli. "What do you think, though?"
Steve smiled at him. "All right, yes. I think gays should have the right to marry. Happy now? Don't ask me my opinions on nudity during Pride Parades, though, because I really don't think we're ever going to agree-"
"Good," said Tony. He paused. "And what if I asked you?"
"Asked me what?"
Tony cleared his throat. "About marriage."
"You just did," said Steve, and got out a tray to put the veggies on.
"No, I mean in a more... you know, 'the personal is political' kind of way."
"God, I had no idea you'd be so slow," said Tony, a little exasperated. "I mean, pretty blue eyes and all, but not much behind them sometimes." He put down his knife, took one of Steve's hands and got down on one knee, looking up at Steve with a small smile. "Uh, what if I asked like this?"
Steve stared at him, baffled, a handful of celery poised over the tray.
"Steve? Seriously, this is kinda killing my knee here. I'm asking."
Tony's eyebrows rose. "Jesus, Steve, what do people normally ask when they're down on one knee?"
Steve gaped at him, bafflement giving way to disbelief as he put the celery down. "Are you... are you joking?"
Tony sighed. "No. But I am getting a little self-conscious."
Steve suddenly realized his own knees were feeling a little weak. "Are you - no, I'm not gonna ask if you're serious again." He drew a hand through his hair, meeting Tony's dark eyes and registering amusement warring with nervousness and - oh, God, Tony looked like that when he was one step away from getting obnoxiously cocky and mouthy to hide how vulnerable he felt and - "Uh. Yes?"
Tony blinked. "Yes, what?"
"Yes, I'll marry you?" Wow, he'd sounded stronger and surer of himself when he weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. He gulped, his heart speeding up, and now Tony's eyes were crinkling at the corners and the bastard looked like he was about to start laughing at him. "Yes," he said firmly, and yanked Tony to his feet, deciding only to mention the squeak he made if Tony made fun of his acceptance. He caught Tony's waist and pulled him close, stopping whatever smart-ass comment Tony was about to make with a firm kiss that quickly turned passionate.
Tony pulled back, breathless, after a moment. "Just to get this straight," he said, and oh, God, he looked happier than Steve had ever seen him, and a little dazed, "I totally threw out all the half-baked and over-the-top romantic ideas I couldn't decide on and just popped the question like an idiot in the kitchen during movie intermission and it worked and you said yes?" He paused. "I'm not high right now?"
Steve laughed and pulled him close for another kiss, a sense of disbelief flooding him. "You're not high. Unless I am too." He kissed Tony again, pulled away slightly. "You - are you serious?"
Tony nodded, and Steve realized his heart was beating faster than he could remember outside of battle and Tony was actually trembling. "I - I've been thinking about it a lot," said Tony. "Couldn't figure out how to bring it up. I mean, I could, but every idea I could come up with also sounded like I should be committed somewhere or be forced to write Hallmark cards as punishment and I was getting desperate enough to try asking Pepper. Or Rhodey. Or JARVIS."
Steve pulled him close again and their lips met, moving together, warm and familiar, Tony's breath warm on his mouth, his beard tickling Steve slightly.
Tony huffed a laugh against his mouth. "Can't believe I was so nervous," he admitted.
"I was worried you'd ask me about it before I was ready. And I wouldn't have a chance to chicken out if I needed to."
"You? Chicken out?"
"Hey, everyone's a coward about something," Tony quipped.
Steve laughed. "No, I had no idea. Why tonight?"
Tony paused. "You... do you think I'm just in this for kicks?"
Steve frowned. "What?"
"When Clint said-"
"Are - I didn't think that - you didn't have to propose just because-"
Tony shook his head, smiling. "I proposed because I love you. Clint just made it happen tonight."
"You're sure about this?"
Tony kissed him again. "I'm sure. I've never been so sure about anything." He grinned. "It's supposed to be for better or for worse, right? And we've had the worse already."
Steve nodded, then tilted his head. "You know, it could be worse."
"If it is, I want it to be worse with you."
"I... don't know how to take that," said Steve laughing. "But... me too." He shook his head. "Uh. Don't take this the wrong way, but I really wasn't expecting this."
"From me," said Steve. "When I decided not to try to date a woman again I thought I'd decided I'd never get married." He blinked. "I'm gonna be married," he said slowly.
Tony chuckled. "You're not already picturing our wedding, are you? Because I'll be honest, the farthest I got was the proposal, and even that was a struggle." He raked a glance over Steve, mouth quirking up at the corner. "I may have thought about post-proposal sex, which didn't include moving a tray of half-chopped vegetables off the counter." He paused, kissing Steve again, then pulled back. "I'm thinking about it now, though. And you know if you leave it to me it'll be outrageously ostentatious and in Las Vegas, so if you want it intimate and in military uniform, you should probably start pushing for that now."
Steve laughed, covering his eyes with his hand. "Not Las Vegas. Oh, God. I can just picture - you'd want us in our Avengers uniforms, I wouldn't put it past you to put a veil over your helmet..."
Tony cracked up, and they held on to each other, as they laughed, and Steve felt a little giddy. "Tony... why?"
"I wanna make an honest man out of you," said Tony lightly, then sobered. "I wanna say, before your God and everybody, that we're together for the long haul. It's not - it's never been that important to me, but it is to you. And... it's more important to me than I thought it was."
"I want this, Steve," said Tony quietly. "My childhood - it wasn't like yours, but I didn't grow up seeing what a good marriage was like. I never really thought it was for me. But... you seem to think I can do the boyfriend thing. I'm starting to think maybe I can do the husband thing too." He took a deep breath. "And. Uh, if you wanted kids..." He took another deep breath. "If you wanted them, you make me feel like maybe I wouldn't be, you know, the world's worst father." He gave Steve a brave smile that looked like he was about to swallow a bottle of cod liver oil.
"I'm pretty sure I don't want kids," said Steve, suppressing a snicker.
"Oh thank Christ!" Tony blurted, sagging in relief. "I mean-"
Steve started laughing again, and Tony joined in, holding each other close, the snack tray forgotten behind them.
"Hey, we're starting the movie again," said Bruce, popping his head into the kitchen. They glanced at each other guiltily and pulled apart, and Steve hastily finished plating the veggies.
They entered the movie room, where Bruce was trying to explain the results of his latest experiment to Thor, and Steve felt flushed. They were engaged. They were gonna be married, they were going to be together for the rest of their lives. It felt surreal.
Clint and Natasha walked back in, deep in conversation.
"...don't care what she says," Clint was saying while Natasha listened with patient amusement. "I'm not doing the re-test, Fury's little undercover heroine can just pucker up and kiss my - what happened to you?" Clint stopped short, Natasha almost crashing into him.
"What?" said Tony. Natasha's eyes narrowed and she looked from Steve to Tony and back.
"You two. What happened while we were out?" asked Natasha.
He glanced at Tony, who opened, then shut his mouth.
"Uh," said Steve intelligently.
"This is what comes of inviting spies to live under your roof, nothing's sacred," Tony muttered.
"Spill," said Natasha, and now Bruce and Thor were staring at them too.
"To be fair, their record hasn't been that great with us," Steve pointed out.
"Had to make up for it sometime," Tony agreed.
"Are you going to tell us or are we going to find out the hard way?" asked Natasha.
Steve smiled at Tony and shrugged. Tony grinned back at him.
"I may have just asked Spangles here to join me in holy matrimony," said Tony, and the room erupted.
"Holy fuck are you serious?!" shouted Clint, as Natasha uttered a few rather unladylike words with a wider smile on her face than Steve had ever seen and Bruce and Thor hastily got up.
"And he said yes?" asked Bruce, laughing, coming toward them.
"I think so, yeah," said Steve, and Bruce grabbed his hand, shaking it, then pulled him in for a hug.
"You are to be wed?" asked Thor, his eyes bright, pulled Tony close and gave him a clap on the back that nearly threw him to the ground. "Congratulations!"
The next few minutes were filled with hugs and backslaps and congratulations, and for a moment Steve felt disoriented. There was no judgment here. None. Every one of them was just thrilled for both of them, wishing them well, as if they were any other couple who had decided to pledge their lives to one another.
"... and Cap's gotta be be amazing in the sack, to get Playboy Stark to commit - OW!" said Clint, as Natasha slapped him upside the head.
Steve laughed, and the team finally settled down to re-start the movie, their spirits high. He sat down next to Tony, gently tugging on him to tuck his head onto Steve's shoulder. He pressed a kiss to Tony's forehead, smiling, feeling indescribable.
He was engaged. And to someone he not only loved, but also desired, and not just in an aesthetic sense the way he had Peggy. It almost didn't feel real.
Maybe this century had something to recommend it after all.
Epilogue: The King's Speech
"It shouldn't be that bad," said Natasha as the Quinjet sped over a New Jersey forest dripping with melting late-spring snow. "It's just a short hop away, and with no civilians around, we can let the Other Guy out to play. We'll be done in no time."
Bruce looked resigned but reasonably optimistic.
"Seriously, who decided that it was a good idea to play out The Wizard of Oz in Jersey?" asked Tony, looking over the information SHIELD had sent them. The creativity of some of it was admirable. It was just too bad about the batshit insanity.
"We'll probably be back in time for tonight's movie," said Natasha.
"Yeah, I can't believe we're actually finishing the Oscar project," said Clint.
"What is the final movie?" asked Thor.
"Argo," said Clint, frowning. "Unfortunately, it's from the 'Mel Gibson takes a dump on historical accuracy' school of filmmaking."
"Also takes a dump on international relations," said Bruce. "Apparently it's a good movie, but don't mention it to Canadians, Brits or New Zealanders. They weren't amused."
"I heard he thanked them at the Oscars, though," said Clint. "So everything's fine, right?"
"Yeah, because what everyone will remember will be the fact that he thanked them. Not that the entire movie ignored everything they did."
"All historical movies have to take some liberties," said Natasha dismissively.
"That is merely weak storytelling," said Thor. "My father could speak of the dullest training session and turn it into an adventure with no untruths." He suddenly looked rather sad. "My brother, on the other hand... well, they did not call him God of Lies for nothing."
"I'm tired of the history movies, anyway," said Tony. "I mean, the Oscar project was supposed to make Cap acclimate to the twentieth century, wasn't it? And the last two were King's Speech, World War II again, and The Artist from the silent movie era."
"Well, maybe it was comfortingly familiar," said Clint. "Right Cap?"
"I didn't actually see too many silent movies," said Steve. "They were expensive. Though I do remember that speech."
"Really?" asked Natasha.
"Yeah. We listened to it on the radio, me and Bucky. I had no idea he'd had any kind of a stuttering problem. I just thought he was being serious."
"So, you been all nostalgic for home the last few days, then?" asked Clint, and Tony abruptly wanted to kick himself - damn it, there he'd gone and done it again, been completely oblivious to something that had probably been fairly important to Steve...
But Steve was shaking his head. "No, not really," he said. "They're just movies. Besides, this is home, now," he said, and smiled at Tony.
Tony felt warmth spread all over him as he smiled back. God damn. He probably looked like a lovestruck idiot, but who cared. He leaned over and snatched a quick kiss as the Quinjet landed.
They all scrambled out, and Fury strode over.
"Have to tell you, you're not one minute too early," he said. "This is a pain in the ass. I'm almost ready to go back on the run and tell the WSC they can have their damn agency back."
"That bad?" asked Steve.
"Mostly just embarrassing to be beaten back by children's book characters. We can probably get in, but it'll take us a lot longer than it'll take you."
Tony nodded, glancing over the wooded estate with its slightly medieval-castle-like mansion. "All right, so, we need somebody up on that roof-"
"Actually, Stark," said Fury. "What do you think about what we talked about yesterday?"
Tony blinked. "What, right now?"
"No time like the present."
Tony turned and looked at Steve. Steve frowning and looking out at the trees, apparently trying to spot the wolves with collars skulking about, and - and Fury was right. He felt his instinctive worry turn to certainty and an odd sort of pride. "Yeah, why not?"
"Captain?" said Fury.
"Want to take over leadership of the Avengers again?"
Steve blinked. "What? Right now?" He immediately turned to Tony, blue eyes wide, and Tony couldn't help laughing at his rather stunned look.
"Why not right now, babe?" he asked, reaching out to take Steve's hand. "Half of what I decide is your suggestions anyway."
"Stark's not a natural team leader, Captain," said Fury. "He'd much rather be off blasting things on his own than trying to deploy team-members."
"C'mon, Cap, time's a wasting," said Clint. "If you're looking for votes, you got mine, 'cause I gotta tell you, Tony may be a genius but he's kind of a douchebag as a tactician. Forgets all about me half the time."
"Thanks, Katniss," said Tony. "See if I give you a lift anywhere again."
"Truth hurts," said Clint with an unapologetic grin. "As one non-team-playing dickhead to another."
Steve gulped and looked over the estate. "You do know you're talking about my fiance, right?" he muttered, his eyes narrowing at one of the towers of the castle.
"Fiance?" Fury exclaimed, and Tony grinned at him and waggled his eyebrows. Fury rolled his eye. "How the fuck is this my life," he muttered.
"Babe, you got this," said Tony, and Steve bit his lip. He turned to Tony and for a brief moment Tony could see all his insecurity, all his uncertainty - everything Steve had trusted him to see during the past several months.
"You think so?" he asked, his voice low. "I haven't been-"
Tony shook his head to stop him, thinking of everything Steve had been through, all of his strength and determination and stubborn perseverance. "You're the bravest man I know." He brought Steve's hand to his lips and kissed his fingers quickly. "You got this," he repeated. Steve held his gaze.
"Captain?" Fury asked.
Steve closed his eyes briefly, then nodded and gently pulled his hand out of Tony's, turning to the team. "Yeah. All right. Widow, you and I are going to go around the south to breach tower security where the report said there might be an entrance. Hawkeye, up on that roof, if you can shoot the collars off the wolves I think SHIELD will be able to get into the grounds without them attacking. Iron Man, I think that turret's got some strategic importance, see if you can blast it after you take Hawkeye to the roof. Thor can handle the flying monkeys."
"I shall return with the heads of these foul creatures, Captain," Thor boomed, and took off.
"I'll just piss off and let you do your job, then," said Fury with a grin, and strode off to his people.
Tony gave Steve a kiss and flipped down his mask, grabbing Clint none too gently and hauling him up, grinning at his indignant squawk. He glanced down, seeing Bruce narrow his eyes and let go of his normal calm, and grow.
Tony plopped Clint down on the roof and flew back for Natasha, and Steve tapped on Hulk's leg.
Hull looked down at Steve, and Steve pointed to the castle walls.
1. The movies watched/mentioned are
Million Dollar Baby, 2005
The Departed, 2007
No Country for Old Men, 2008
Slumdog Millionaire, 2009
The Hurt Locker, 2010
The King's Speech, 2011
The Artist, 2012
2. Yes, the "Level Seven shit" that the Avengers should be let in on is the whole "Coulson Lives" thingy, which wasn't a thing at all when I started writing this. Clint and Natasha are Level Seven; at some point in time, I'm sure they would've been told. And probably kept it from the other Avengers out of duty and respect for Phil's wishes… and felt like crap about it.
The transcripts of Hill and the WSC are from the Deleted Scenes on the Avengers DVD. They really do try to get her to turn on Fury, and she politely tells them where to go and threatens to expose that they tried to send nukes to New York. She also does joke to Fury that she "sold him down the river," which I know is more than a little racially charged. I'd really like to know who thought it was a good line to use in that particular place. I get that it might take place between those two characters, who have a history together and might have discussed racial issues, but as a throwaway Ha ha ha isn't she clever line... um :/
3. Jeremy Renner starred in The Hurt Locker. Got a Best Actor Oscar nomination, too. Looked rather yummy despite the crewcut :)
4. Yes, according to Marvel canon, when AU!Tony married AU!Steve, she wore a veil over the helmet, OMFG.
5. If Argo was your favourite movie ever, that's fine, but please don't tell me. I'm a history buff, a Canadian, and someone who hates it when America looks awful to the rest of the world. The movie makes me want to cry.
6. OK, well, that's that for the story! Can't quite believe I'm done. Thanks so much to my many, many betas: scrtkpr, schemingreader, tree00faery, NotAllGirlsAreGlass, TheKinkyPet, CariZee, vasiliki, Winterstar, CJ Andre, Cluegirl, forgetmenotjimmy, ClawR (BeatriceEagle), holliswrites and forest_rose.
Thanks most especially to scrtkpr, for being my sounding board for the beginning of this story, especially for internalized homophobia stuff. You would not believe how much of her feedback made it into this story, or changed how I wrote about stuff.
Thanks so much to all of you for following this story for... oh boy, 11 months, especially after I got my new job and posting slowed to a crawl. I have no plans for a sequel at this point, though I do have a short standalone that might fit into the same universe, after Steve and Tony have been married for a little while.
Mostly I'm eagerly looking forward to Captain America 2, even though Iron Man 3 andThor 2 both totally AU'd this in terms of the Avengers pretty much saying sayonara at the end of that movie and never seeing each other again, except for Tony & Bruce, and Captain America 2 looking to do the same thing except for Steve & Natasha.
Thanks so much, everyone! Hope you liked the ending!