sparsenicjade
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AN: Thanks (again and again and again) to forsweatervests for the beta, especially given how busy she is. The title comes from the origin of the term "scapegoating." Using this for my "whipping" square on hc_bingo.

***


Steve Rogers is assigned the Avengers as his team on a Monday morning in February. He flips through their dossiers, accepts that this team will be no different than the last, and goes to do his job.

*


When the military redrew the Disciplinary Guidelines Manual in the late 90s, there had been doubt as to whether the research showing that Special Ops groups would react better to the punishment of their leader than of the individual committing the action in question was accurate. After the first few public whippings, however, the other team members forced to watch, it had proven itself so efficacious that nearly every government agency had adopted the practice for tight-knit, specially skilled teams.

Years later, when the Serum-Enhanced Soldier (SES) program finally admitted defeat due to pervasive inability to control the subjects, almost all of those who had survived the experimentation were either terminated, or given the choice of becoming unit commanders to elite units. Steve has never been able to explain why they even bothered presenting a choice, but he suspects they were simply loathe to completely waste the invested time and money if there was some, any use for the remaining products.

In any event, Steve took the second choice. To this day, he thinks it was probably the wrong one.

*


In their three years as a team, the Avengers have been assigned over ten team leaders. None have lasted more than a few months, all have been reassigned to what are called level-one teams, or teams showing a predisposition to be low disciplinary concerns. Steve is the first SES to be assigned to the Avengers, which is surprising, but the military commander in him suspects nobody has wanted to add another to a team of already superhuman players, regardless of his role.

Steve is smart enough to wonder what changed their mind, and too much of a soldier to ask. Instead, he packs his belongings and reports to Stark Tower, where he is greeted by absolutely nobody. He can’t find it in himself to feel surprised. They don’t want him here, he knows. It’s almost better than welcoming him with fake smiles.

A voice from absolutely nowhere speaks up, “Captain Rogers, I believe.”

“Yes…sir?”

“I am JARVIS, I control precisely 98.2 percent of all the Tower’s functions.”

Steve thinks back to the dossiers; Stark’s thick and as full of awards for technological advances as warnings about possible clinical narcissistic disorder. He suspects the latter came from a cadre of well-meaning but severely frustrated psychological professionals. The former, it seems, is just plain fact. “Nice to meet you.”

“Master Stark has…asked that I show you to your quarters.”

Steve wonders if he’s imagining the wry undertone in the computer’s voice in his choice of verbs. He says, honestly, “I appreciate it.”

Ominously, JARVIS responds, “We shall see.”

*


Steve knows the room he’s led to was meant to be an insult. In a tower that soars into the air, his quarters are on the sixth floor. In a building lined with windows, his room has a scant two, floor to ceiling though they might be. Steve smiles to himself, because the insult falls far short of the mark.

Even when Steve’s mom was alive, he’d spent most of his childhood in and out of shelters, later group homes, and finally, barracks. The quiet of the space, the full-sized bed and en-suite bathroom are probably the sweetest things he’s ever been given. He’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do or not, but his mother raised him with manners, so he says, “Thank you, JARVIS.”

There’s a moment before the computer says, “You are welcome, sir.” And another before it says, “If you need any navigational aid, do feel free to speak up.”

If Steve didn’t know better, he would think the computer was hesitant in offering its help, as though it might be punished for doing so. In any case, Steve’s entirely certain he will need the help, so he says, “Perfect, thank you.”

Steve doesn’t have much. It doesn’t pay to as a surviving SES. Steve only knows of two others at this point, and one of them has stopped even bothering to buy clothes, just wearing his fatigues full time. Steve, however, has never lost the need to have something to cling to, if none of his unit mates are going to be that something.

He doesn’t let himself think of the Howling Commandos, of active service and a time when discipline meant a kind 200 push-ups and a week of cleaning the barracks. Mostly, Steve doesn’t let himself think. It’s best.

He folds his few shirts into a drawer, pants in another, undergarments in a third. He places the few books and pictures he has on the desk. After that, he lays down on the bed, sinking into its impossible comfort, and allows himself an hour or so of sleep before he has to meet his latest team.

*


The first meeting goes about as well as can be expected. Stark refuses to even acknowledge Steve's presence except with snide comments at Fury about test tubes and science labs. Steve isn't entirely certain whether the animosity comes from the team's reluctance to have a new leader—a sentiment written between the lines of every report Steve was given to read—or an actual prejudice against SESes. It wouldn't be the first time Steve has run into that. With as many of the SESes who had gone completely off-the-rails, they had some pretty bad press. And Stark is a scientist who has evidently pulled perfection off more than a few times. Steve wouldn't be surprised to find out that the failings of the SES project insult him on an intellectual level.

Barton never comes down from the vents, from where everyone acknowledges him and nobody pulls him into the room. Romanoff watches him with blank eyes that Steve’s smart enough to know are seeking out his weaknesses. Thor is largely, if half-heartedly arguing as to why their team, “Has a warrior bond, which needs no supervision.”

Banner, on the upside, gives him a slight smile and stays out of it, but Steve supposes he isn’t really all that responsible for Banner, more his alter-ego. Pepper Potts, Stark's fiancée is there for reasons Steve can't comprehend, but he finds he doesn't mind, since her perusal of him is nonjudgmental, as though she is willing to give him a chance. Steve suspects her opinion matters to Stark, which might prove useful.

Fury is different than his previous commanding officers. He’s somehow both more personal and less personal all at once. Or possibly that’s just how he interacts with this particular team. Hard to say. In any case, if most of them seem wary of Fury, they don’t seem to outright distrust him, which is something. Steve can work with that.

When Fury signs off, having dutifully introduced Steve, he leaves them with, “I answer to the Council on this assignment.”

Something flickers on Romanoff’s face, and even Stark looks a little uneasy about that. Steve asks, “Council?”

Stark looks over at him, as if seeing him for the first time. He does a once over, considering. Finally, he says, “I give you a week, Rogers.”

“Captain Rogers,” Steve says, for lack of any better response. Stark won’t believe words.

Stark smirks. “Oh yes. Yes, sir.”

Steve has never been particularly good at walking away from a challenge.

*


Steve keeps a low profile in the tower, but he doesn’t avoid the rest of the team. That will only lead to problems in the long-run. He goes for runs in the gym, lifts weights, works out on the bags. He uses the main kitchen and occasionally even sits in the main area, sketching. His life is full of things to sketch, lately.

He’s not terribly surprised when it is Romanoff who speaks to him first. He is worried. He knows a little about her. While the rumors are probably exaggerated, this is a woman who knows how to get what she wants without the person she’s getting it from ever knowing.

He’s in the gym when she joins him, taking the treadmill next to his. She lets the silence build until Steve can’t help but say, “Ma’am.”

Steve hasn’t actually worked with many women. There have been a few, here and there, but at the end of the day, the Armed Forces, the Agency and the Bureau were still good old boys clubs. In his experience, women in the field aren’t all that different from men in the field. Off the field, well, it depends on the woman.

“You’ve read our track record,” she says.

“I have,” he confirms.

“Then you know how many commanders we’ve gone through.”

“I know what the reports tell me,” Steve says. In his experience, records can lie, or at the very least, obfuscate.

She looks over at him, then, an eyebrow raised. He knows it’s calculated, but he can’t help but shrug. She asks, “You don’t mind the assignment?”

Two can play at that game, though. “You’ve read my dossier. For that matter, you’ve read whatever confidential material Stark has illegally obtained.”

“And yet you are inexplicably…blank.”

Steve turns his head toward her. “Is that what you think?”

“It’s what we all think, excepting perhaps Stark, who sees only the uniform and his issues with authority.”

He hears what she does not say. “So Stark is the easy one, huh?”

“If you last more than a month, Captain, Stark is definitely the least of your worries. Especially as Pepper seems to think you're, I quote, 'adorable.'”

Steve digests this new information. Finally, he asks, “Why have all the others fallen away?”

She doesn’t answer immediately. By the time she does, Steve has figured he’s being ignored. She says, “Their first loyalty wasn’t to us.”

Steve wonders if she would help anyone out that way, or if he has managed to just ask the right question. He wonders if she would have answered someone else had they asked. Steve’s not sure he knows where the fault lines of loyalty are, given the strange relationship between the team and Fury, not to mention this mysterious Council, but he’s been given a hint. He’s damn well going to use it.

*


Their first mission goes well, to pretty much everyone’s surprise. The thing is, Steve’s theory of leadership is actually fairly simple: know your team’s strengths, play to them, and help out as much as possible without getting in the way.

As such, when they’re given the objective, he opens the planning session with, “Thoughts?”

He’s greeted with a wall of suspicion he can feel against his skin, like a live animal almost. Eventually, though, Natasha looks at Bruce and says, “We’re going to need a distraction.”

The plans start flying then, sometimes silently, at which point Steve softly interjects, “I missed that,” and Stark glares at him, but they go back until there’s a plan. When it’s all wrapped up, they look at him and Steve thinks for a few seconds and tells them, “I’m going to take point with Romanoff.”

It’s where he makes the most sense. He can see they all know it. It still takes them a few moments to agree. Eventually, though, they do, nodding their heads, or just allowing the others to do so.

They’ve completed the objective within 24 hours, only two or three things going completely and utterly wrong. Clint returns with burns that need treating, and Steve’s ribs are going to take a few hours to get back to normal even with the serum’s help. All things told, though, Steve counts it as a major victory. From the looks he gets, sideways and sometimes outright, he suspects the others might be mildly optimistic.

*


The team doesn’t like Steve, Steve gets that, but by the fourth mission in the course of two weeks, they don’t seem to mind him much, either. He’s a necessary evil, sometimes useful, mostly mildly annoying, but a fact of life. Steve can handle that. He’s had at least three teams that went out of their way to see him punished. As such, one that basically ignores him except when super-strength is needed and means a private room in a nice part of Manhattan adds up to an assignment Steve hopes he can make last forever.

It’s the sixth mission where everything goes to hell. Afterward, when he’s Bruce again, Bruce mutters, “That was kind of a good run for us.”

Of course, that’s before Fury announces in a short, bitten off tone that the Council has declared the consequence of Clint’s choice to go with a different—in Steve’s unvoiced opinion, smarter--strategy than the one assigned, is one hundred lashes with a knotted-end scourge. Even Steve blinks at that. He’s had worse, actually, but usually later in his tenure with a team. He wonders if he did something to piss this Council off without even knowing it.

There’s a surprisingly tense silence for a moment; Steve, quite frankly, is used to apathy from his teams. Then Tony, of all people, growls, “That’s bullshit, Fury.”

Steve intervenes, though, because arguing’s not going to change anything, and he’d rather get this over with. “I gave Barton the go-ahead. It was the right move, I stand by it. It’s nothing I can’t take, Stark.”

“Not the point, Superboy,” Tony says, rounding on Steve, who makes himself not back up. He’s used to people like Tony, people who have learned to yell at anything standing near enough just to get someone, anyone to listen. He’s not sure how that happened to Tony, who’s brilliant and wealthy and male, but Steve knows the symptoms and it makes it easier to take Tony’s misdirected anger.

Clint says, “If they want to whip someone—“

“This is protocol,” Steve says, meaning to sound calm. He’s not sure he manages. The op was a shit show and if he’s not as tired as the rest of them, he’s at least close. Then, because he really is only human beneath the serum. “You’ve had other leaders.”

“No,” Natasha says. “No, we’ve had a series of dicks who wouldn’t have known how to listen if their lives depended on it. We’re not bleeding hearts, Cap. We just have a sense of right and wrong.” She frowns. “Sometimes.”

“The Council is generally wrong,” Tony adds.

After a fraught moment, Fury speaks up again, surprising evidently everyone, including Steve himself. He says, voice low and toneless, “I talked them down. It was the best I could manage.”

Steve nods by way of appreciation. “I’d like to get started, then, if it’s all the same to everyone else.”

Thor walks out of the room. Steve watches him go. Clint sighs, and there’s something like jealousy in his voice when he explains, “The Council hasn’t got any jurisdiction over him.”

*


The serum makes Steve faster, stronger, more agile and quicker-healing than other humans. It does not mean he cannot feel pain.

The Administrator, sent by the Council, presumably so their orders would not be disregarded, tells the team dispassionately, “One of you is to count. Should you lose track, two extras will be added for every missed or incorrect number.”

If Tony could kill people with his eyes, the Admin would be dead. He can’t, though, so Clint says, “My fuck up, my count.”

Steve finds himself smiling at Clint, a tight sort of expression of appreciation. It’s the first time someone has ever acknowledged responsibility in Steve going under the lash. Steve’s muscles loosen up, even knowing it will hurt. At least it might mean something, just this once.

Steve strips his shirt off and ignores the string of words in a language he doesn’t understand from Bruce. He knows what his back looks like, a hazy mess of thin white lines that are actually far less visible and apparent than they would be on anyone with a normal healing process. He sometimes thinks it was easier, back when he didn't know how much a beating like this would hurt. On the other hand, ignorance was hardly bliss, not once the whipping began. He pauses for a moment to look over at Bruce. “Should you really be here?”

The muscles in Fury’s jaw jut, but Bruce says, “I’m not leaving the team.”

Steve hesitates for a second, then goes to the post, locking himself in to the extent he can, the Admin doing the rest. He is like all the Admins Steve has dealt with in his time, he has lost count as to how many there have been. They are not all large, especially not compared to Steve, but their upper bodies are muscled, shown off by the regulation blue t-shirt. Their presence, the solemn looks that Steve swears they're taught by some sort of mentor, or something, is part of it, meant to intimidate. It used to work on Steve, but that was before he knew how excruciating the actual beatings were. Now, it's just background noise. Steve decides that he trusts Bruce to know his limits, and if he doesn’t, they’ll deal with that bridge while they’re burning it, Steve imagines.

The Admin gives a warning consisting of, “One hundred, start to finish. You will be woken if you pass out,” in a bored, level tone.

Steve knows the drill. He doesn’t bother to answer. The first three are hard to take in the way where Steve hasn’t adapted to the pain quite yet. Then he finds his breathing rhythm and the first twenty, maybe twenty-five, are painful, but not agonizing.

Then his skin begins to tear. After that, Steve has to do everything he can to keep himself anchored. He pushes his thoughts to the parts of himself that don’t hurt, to the fact that Clint’s decision saved at least six lives he’s aware of, to the team actually being indignant on his behalf. He manages to float, somewhere away from himself, until Clint intones, “Sixty-three,” hit, “Sixty-four,” and Steve is pulled back into his body by two hits on the exact same spot.

He screams around seventy. They have to wake him up before eighty, and again before ninety. He makes it through the last thirteen or so by lying to himself, telling himself each one is the last.

When it’s finally over, Steve sags into the post and decides he’s just going to pass out for a bit. The post will hold him up, and he can clean himself up and get himself to medical in an hour or two. It won’t make a difference. He’s not really susceptible to infection, and the extra blood-loss won’t even phase his body.

He can’t help moaning when the feel of hands carefully unlocking his own startles him, making him move. Someone—Banner? No, Thor, that’s Thor, but Thor didn’t, he wasn’t there--says, “Do your best to remain calm, Captain Rogers. We shall see to your wellbeing.”

Steve frowns at that. “Whuh?”

A string of expletives that can only be from Tony is the response Steve gets before he somehow ends up upside down, his stomach over Thor’s shoulder, but his back safely untouched. The jolting motion of Thor’s stride causes Steve’s breath to catch and he kind of loses time. He warns, “Sick, I’m gonna—“ and they have him on the floor before he can throw up all over himself and Thor. He appreciates the help, even if he knows it will be humiliating later on, this whole thing will be.

When he’s done they get him back up and to a bed. Oh, his bed. Steve can’t help burrowing into the soft sheets for a second, despite everything. Banner asks, “Are you allergic to any pain killers?”

Bruce has to ask it a second time before Steve realizes he’s the one who needs to answer. He finds himself laughing a little, the pain making it hard to focus. “Won’t work, doc. Serum eats ‘em up. Like drinking. No use.”

There’s silence for a moment, and then a bunch of people start talking at once and Steve can’t really pay attention. He stays in the shell of his thrumming, aching body, until he’s startled into listening to the team by Clint, who has placed his hand on Steve’s face and is saying, “Cap. Hey, Cap. Bruce is going to disinfect the wounds. He says it’s going to hurt like a motherfucking psychotic bitch, and to let yourself pass out, okay?”

His tone is weird, unfamiliar. Steve has heard what Clint sounds like in the midst of battle and in the moments before sleep. Now he sounds…frantic, maybe, but as though he's trying not to. Steve doubts those were Bruce’s words. They have too much of Clint in them. It’s strange to him that he can tell the difference, even now, but he can. He's too tired to tell Bruce he doesn't need the disinfection. It seems best to just let Bruce do what will calm him, even if it means a little longer before Steve can truly rest. He mumbles, “I’ll do my best.”

Pepper is in the room, both her hands, small and soft, holding one of his. Steve is worried he will squeeze, will hurt her. He starts to speak up, but Clint beats him there, his face twisting oddly as he says, “That’s all we ask.”

*


Steve wakes up with a start, which is unpleasant, but less so than he would have expected from previous experiences. He finds he isn’t cold, which is allowing the healing to work even more quickly than when he shivers. Usually, that’s a problem, since he’s in a barrack, or somewhere not regulated to the temperature of a person lying down, naked from the waist up.

There’s someone else in the room, which happens from time to time. The difference is, this person is being quiet, without trying to hide. Steve might not feel wholly safe in his current situation, but he doesn’t feel threatened by whoever is cleaning his weapons at Steve’s coffee table.

“You want me to let you play possum for a bit longer, or would you prefer a drink?” Clint asks.

“Drink,” Steve croaks, because fluid of any kind sounds heavenly just then.

He starts to move and Clint makes a disapproving noise. “Bruce said you were supposed to stay still until he had checked you out, and you know how he gets when he’s pissed.”

Steve isn’t entirely sure, but he thinks Clint just made a joke about the Hulk. Then he’s too distracted to care, because there’s a straw easily in reach of his mouth and he hasn’t had to move a muscle to obtain it. The water is cool, fresh, as though someone thought to keep bringing it anew.

When Steve pulls off and Clint puts the cup back down on the nightstand, Steve rasps, “Thanks.”

Clint sits on the floor and looks at Steve for an unnerving moment before he says, “Least I can do, really.”

Steve is too tired, and still focusing too much energy on healing to be of much help with the guilt Clint is feeling, particularly when it feels confusing to him. This is how specialized units work. Everyone knows it. Whippings happen. For the first time possibly ever, Steve really doesn’t regret having to go under the lash, still thinks they made the right call. And he’s sure as hell never had anyone bother to get him to a bed and leave him water, so all in all, Clint’s crisis of conscience is useless to everyone concerned.

But Steve is still a team leader, he gets that, so he says, “You didn’t lose count.”

Clint tenses at that. His, “I get that I’m not the smartest guy on the team, Cap, but I can manage basic tallying,” is curt.

Steve blinks. “What?”

“I just mean, I get that Tony and Bruce have giant super computers for brains, and Natasha knows two trillion languages, which is seriously not normal, but I’m not functionally retarded. I can make it to one hundred.”

Steve says, “You’re a pilot and an archer. Of course you can count to one hundred. I meant thanks for not getting distracted, or screwing the count up on purpose.”

Clint opens his mouth, then, after a second, shuts it. When he finally finds something to say, it’s a flat echo of Steve, but his eyes are telegraphing considerable hurt. “Screwing up on purpose.”

Steve takes a slow breath, not sure he should backtrack, but also wanting Clint to understand. "It's just, the team didn’t want a leader. And it has found ways to run off the others, is all."

“And you think I would do that. Would use you having your back torn to pieces for a decision I made as a chance to have you suffer more, a way to get you out of our hair."

Steve isn’t fooled by the casual tone of Clint’s voice, but the worse that happens is Clint applies pressure to his healing back, and Steve will heal. Steve always heals. Steve closes his eyes. “This isn’t my first rodeo. Or even my tenth, really.”

Clint’s voice is soft when he says, “One of these days, Cap, I’m going to learn the name of every rodeo you’ve ever seen. And then I’m riding bronc.”

“I don’t think that metaphor makes sense,” Steve slurs.

“Well, English wasn’t my best subject,” Clint tells him, a laugh in his tone. Steve can’t help smiling. He also can’t help falling back asleep.

*


Bruce is at his bedside when Steve next wakes up. His back is still an expanse of pure soreness, his skin hot and too tight over his muscles, but he knows he’s close to being fully healed. Another few hours of sleep and some protein-heavy food and Steve will be good to go. It’s been years since he’s recovered this quickly, probably since the first days of his service as team leader. SES treatment extends the lives of the subjects considerably. Steve is pretty sure he's been doing this for twenty years or so, maybe longer.

He blinks muzzily at the IV lead in his hand. Bruce says, “Hey. Welcome back.” Then, following Steve’s gaze, “Nutrients and liquids. Turns out drugs aren’t the only thing your body burns straight through.”

Steve wonders if that accounts for the difference in healing time. Generally, with his previous teams, he’d been lucky if they helped him get to a bed afterward. He said, “Thanks.”

Bruce made a non-committal sound, and asked, “Think you could handle some real foods?”

Steve’s, “Please,” must be a little too quick, a little too intent, because Bruce pauses for a moment before saying softly, “In the future, just ask.”

Steve hauls himself to a sitting position and sits patiently while Bruce takes the IV out. He says, “It isn’t as if I’m your first team leader.”

“Hm?” Bruce asks, looking up after having satisfied himself that the IV line was safely out and the skin healed up.

“You must have done something to get rid of the other leaders,” Steve says, because it’s a complete mystery to him why anyone would have left this team, given the consideration they’ve shown.

Bruce’s eyes tinge green, and Steve makes himself stay still, not flinch back. After a few moments, Bruce wrangles control, breathing out and saying, “We aren’t considerate of leaders who don’t deserve our consideration.”

Softly, Steve asks, “What did I do that was worthy of consideration?”

“You listened,” Bruce says.

Steve frowns.

Bruce sighs. “The others, they’ve largely been puppets of the Council. They’d override every call we made, sell us out to the Council at any moment. You-- When Clint told you what he planned, Tony said your response was, ‘good thinking, Hawkeye.’ Most of what I remember as the Other Guy is sensations, sense impressions, but I know whatever happened, he approved. That’s never happened.”

As worn down as he is by his previous teams, by always feeling as though he’s the enemy of people he’s been assigned to lead and protect, Steve doesn’t want to imagine how bad a string of leaders would have to be for a team to be grateful to be given support over a clearly correct call. He says, “I’m sorry.”

Bruce shakes his head. “Not on you.”

“I’m staying, you know?” Steve asks. “As long as you allow it.”

Bruce’s smile is small, bitter. “More like, as long as the Council allows it.”

Steve closes his eyes. “Oh, they’ll keep me with you.”

“Why is that, Cap?”

Steve bites back a sigh. He's not sure honesty is the best policy just now, but Bruce is a genius; he'll figure it out sooner or later. Stark has informed him that his "sardonic face" needs some work, but he tries to employ it all the same. “Because Barton kept the correct count and you put an IV in me. You shown them you’re at least not apathetic to me. I’m the best weapon they have against you.”

The green in Bruce’s eyes doesn’t go away as he says, “I see.”

And Steve, who has never wanted to start something he couldn’t finish, says, “You mentioned food?”

Bruce closes his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, food.”

*


Tony has Steve moved onto a private floor dedicated purely to Steve while they’re out on a mission less than a week later. Steve comes back to the Tower, heads to his room, only to hear Tony say, “Yeah, Cap, about that. I reassigned your living quarters.”

For a quick second, his thoughts more instinct than logic, Steve thinks he’s been kicked out. Then he asks, “Oh?”

Tony is vibrating with suppressed energy, the way he does when he’s created a better bow for Clint, or managed something science-related he thinks Bruce will be pleased by. Pepper calls it his “little boy at show-and-tell” aura. Tony leads the way to quarters much larger than the previous ones, and directly under the other five. Tony tucks his arms in front of his chest, tilting his head to one side and says, “Since you’ll be staying, and all.”

It’s almost too much, really. Steve has gotten used to the cozy space several floors lower, but Tony’s standing with so much careful casualness that all Steve can find it in himself to say is, “This is—this is great, Stark, thank you.”

Tony grunts and says, “Open house is at seven. I took the liberty of inviting the whole team, and Pepp. Possibly a few other people. I can’t always remember these things.”

Tony is gone before Steve can argue, which is the way things between them always go. Steve looks at the clock. He has a couple of hours to shower and figure out where everything is before his new home is invaded. And if there’s a bit of a warm curl in his stomach at the thought that he has people who want to come welcome him into it, well, that’s between him and the nightstand. (Probably JARVIS, too, but Steve thinks the AI likes him enough to let him get away with an indiscreet half-smile every now and then.)

*


They get three more missions without the Council getting on their backs, and then Tony has to make a split-second decision that ends up saving not only a dozen or so civilian lives, but also probably Natasha in the process. Of course, the Council goes crazy over something—Steve thinks he hears a word here or there about property damage, but he puts that thought aside, because he will validly go off the deep end if he’s right—and Steve’s back on the post. It’s a one-fifty count this time, because the one hundred didn’t get their message across, or so they say.

Tony counts out every damn one. Steve thinks Bruce has to leave at some point, but he’s all right with that. He doesn’t need Bruce watching. None of them deserve this, really, he’s pretty sure. Tony’s going to be an epic mess, Steve thinks idly, when he gets to the point where the pain makes his brain fill with white noise for bits and pieces of time, until the sheer agony of it all steals away even those thoughts.

Should’ve made sure Pepper would be home, Steve thinks vaguely, because it’s easiest to try and hold onto thoughts that aren’t about himself, that are about the team. It’s helpful, having something he cares about to take the strokes for.

Tony doesn’t lose count, or if he does, Steve in unconscious for the extras. Either way, Steve will have to thank him later.

*


Steve’s on his floor when he wakes up. There’s nobody in the room with him, but he can hear them talking from down the hall. Natasha is asking, coldly, “What’s the option? Abandon earth?”

Steve doesn’t want to think a bunch right then, so he does his best to shut out the noise and reach for the nightstand, hoping there will be water. His hand knocks into something and within seconds, Thor is in the doorway, stating, “We did not expect you to wake so soon.”

Thor gets the water for him and Steve takes small, even sips until his stomach begins to settle. “How long?”

“Only a few hours, Captain.”

That is much shorter than his previous bouts of unconsciousness have been. He wonders if he’s been eating better or worrying less or something else to cause the shift. He supposes it doesn’t really matter, but it is curious.

“What’re you arguing about?”

“The only thing of our concern at this moment,” Thor answers, being annoyingly cryptic for a guy who’s usually an easier read than a picture book.

“The Council?” Steve hazards.

“Their treatment of you,” Thor specifies.

Steve takes a second to process that. He blinks a few times, feeling fidgety, even though he knows he should stay still. “Oh.”

Thor brings the water back to Steve’s lips and has him take a few more sips. Then he sits on the bed, next to Steve and says, “Rest. We shall discuss our conclusions when you are further healed.”

Steve thinks his mind should be too wired to take the advice, but Thor’s presence beside him is all-too reassuring, the room is once more warm in a way that lulls him, and he can’t help drifting off. He says, before he’s completely under, “I’m holding you to that.”

*


Natasha brings Steve pecan sandies and sits on the bed, eating them with him. Bruce has fussed at him not to expend his energy on sitting up, but Steve hates lying on his stomach, the way it makes him feel open to attack from all directions.

He doesn’t expect to get an answer when he asks, “Why would we abandon earth?”

She tilts her head, and after a moment smiles, just a tad softer than her normal expression, which Steve always thinks must draw blood. It doesn’t bother him, really, that’s just her, but he’s surprised to find how nice this smile is, how he feels having it settle on him. She says, “Because Asgard, whatever its other faults might be, does not have Earth’s barbaric system of penalizing a leader for the faults of his team.”

“Tony wasn’t at fault,” Steve says, because, honestly, he feels the bigger problem is punishment for actions which deserve none.

Natasha leans back onto her hands and counters, “He disobeyed orders.”

“Because he made a capable judgment at the time that those orders needed to be disobeyed. Special units like this one are formed with the notion that they will think on their feet. One can’t obey orders all the time and still make momentary decisions necessary in a combat situation.”

“With thinking like that, I’m surprised they haven’t terminated you, SES 2.” She looks at him as she says it, doesn’t flinch away, but her eyes aren’t cold either, just…curious.

Steve takes a cookie. “How far into my file did Tony hack?”

“What gives you the impression he’d stop?”

Steve laughs, not amused, exactly, just sort of surprised by how much the knowledge doesn’t bother him. “In any case, I figure if Tony hasn’t figured a way to guard against outside listening devices then nobody has. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to actually tell someone my opinion, I’d almost forgotten how it feels.”

He’s still musing over the barely-recognizable feeling of being himself when she asks, softly, “Did you know you’re the only one left?”

His gaze snaps to hers at that statement. “The—“ He swallows, the cookie feeling sharp in his throat. “All of them are gone?”

He shouldn’t be surprised, not really, except, well, there’d been another four that had chosen team leadership. And they weren’t his friends, but they were…he’d lived with them for the better part of two years. They'd sweated and bled and been sick in each other's presence as the testing had taken place.

“Were you close?” she asks, uncertainty lacing the question. He doesn’t know how to explain it, particularly to someone who, from what he can tell, is fairly new to caring about anyone aside from herself.

“No. Just…just kids in a barrack together, I guess.”

“But you mourn them.” It isn’t a question, but it isn’t a statement, either.

Steve considers for a long moment. “I think, mostly, I mourn having a place. Believing things mattered. Being something more than outdated, irrelevant tech.”

She sits up. “You’re our team leader.”

Steve smiles, but it’s bitter, it hurts at the edges. “Of a team that’s not sure what it’s fighting for anymore.”

Natasha watches him closely after that her expression the closest to truly sad Steve has ever witnessed. Eventually, she reaches down and hands him a cookie. Reflexively, Steve says, “Thank you.”

*


Steve thinks the team is starting to doubt their choices. It takes him a while to figure out, but after the third time, when Natasha is the one to have stepped out of line, the team's patterns alter just slightly. They have to get Steve actual medical attention after his third whipping—two hundred strokes with a bullwhip—and he doesn’t wake up for a full twenty-four hour cycle. When he awakens, he’s in the common room, where they’ve evidently moved his bed.

Hulk is sitting on the floor, cross-legged. Steve’s mind, which isn’t terribly coherent, thinks it’s a good thing Tony reinforced the floors for instances such as these. He reaches out and pats Hulk’s knee. “That’s good. I’m good. We’re all good.”

Hulk makes a noise that Steve is not sure equals agreement, and Steve falls back asleep. But two weeks later, when they’re back in the field, he feels like something is off. He can’t say what it is, really. They’re all talking to him. They’re backing each other up. There’s nothing actually wrong, but at the same time, there’s something…not right.

He listens to them later than night, when they’re back at the Tower, Tony bitching about damage to his latest model, Thor humming some Asgardian tune of victory, and Natasha sharpening knives. Clint is perched on a counter, and Bruce is sipping at tea, and nothing in any of their mannerisms gives away any hint of discomfort or even a sign that things are slightly different.

Steve goes to the gym and spends a lot of time beating the crap out of bags, trying to bleed the tension from his own body. He makes himself put aside the concern so he can be what the team needs him to be.

But it happens again. Clint pulls shots he would usually take. Tony hesitates slightly, waiting for instructions at certain moments. Thor asks questions where he normally charges ahead. Even Natasha and Hulk are strangely careful in their approach to situations.

After a month, when he’s completely sure he’s right, Steve thinks about his options. There aren’t that many, really, there never have been, not since he signed the paper making him part of the SES program. But there are options. He makes his choice.

*


Steve arranges for a meeting with Director Fury within the week after making his decision. Fury waves him in at the appointed time and asks, "What can I do for you, Captain?"

Steve does not let his voice waver as he states, "I'm requesting termination."

There is a beat, and then Fury's visible eyebrow rises just a notch. "Soldier?"

"I was told I could rescind my decision to take on leadership at any time," Steve says.

"That is, of course, your prerogative," Fury says slowly. "However, if it is the team, we can reassign—"

"It is not the team." Reassignment, would, of course, fix the problem as well, but Steve can't find it in himself to go to another team, not after this. It was one thing when all the teams were roughly the same, when survival was just that, but he can't go back to that. What's more, he's pretty sure his death will piss the Avengers off enough to knock them back into their game. He worries his reassignment might feel like one more betrayal, might act as more of a gut wound than the type of injury that can be healed, even causes the injured body part grow stronger in time.

Fury nods, once. Softly, he says, "I think it is. Just not in the way I was suggesting."

Steve shrugs. "My reasons don't really matter, do they, sir?"

The look Fury gives him is completely indecipherable. "Suppose that depends on who you're asking."

"I'm asking the director of SHIELD." Steve has come to understand that SHIELD answers to the Council, but he has also figured out that Fury does his best to avoid having to consult with them, which means that, more often than not, he's the one making the final decisions about day-to-day operations.

Fury's good eye narrows in consideration. "And so far as he's concerned, this agency isn't wasting a valuable, irreplaceable asset without a reason."

"If you don't waste this one, you're wasting the other five," Steve challenges, because he's not irreplaceable, not really, not even if all the other SESes are gone. They can be made again, and there's nothing that incredible about increased strength and healing, in any case. The other five, though, are truly one-of-a-kind, both for their skills and for their thought processes. Steve isn't going to stand in the way of that anymore.

Fury flinches, but it's minor, like a man who's only hearing a truth he already knows spoken aloud. In the end, all he says is, "I hate waste of any type."

*


Fury rats him out to the others. Steve thinks perhaps he should have seen it coming, but he didn't, so used to nobody caring that he's forgotten how to function in a system where others do, where that can be used as a weapon against him.

When he drops into the common area for dinner two days after his talk with Fury, who has told him he will consider Steve's request, but only barring finding a better solution, the other five, plus Pepper, are already there, which is not terribly usual. Both Clint and Thor eat at random times all day, much like Steve; Natasha often takes meals on her own floor, and Bruce and Tony forget about dinner more often than not.

Steve asks, "Did we schedule a meeting?" It's rhetorical: Steve is the only one who ever tries to schedule meetings, and it only works about a third of the time.

"You," Tony says, pointing his finger at Steve. Then, uncharacteristically for Tony, he gets a little stuck, repeating, "You." Finally, he seems to find his stride again. "Are a neanderthal made into a freak experiment by a government that couldn't find its ass with both hands, a flashlight, a compass, a map with a key—"

"Okay, yeah," Clint interrupts. "What Stark's getting at, here, is that you're an asshole and a moron, and nobody is fucking terminating you on our watch, not even you."

Steve gives himself a moment to look each of them over, to process the chain of events that has clearly occurred. Then he swallows and asks softly, "Do you have a better idea?"

Five mouths begin to open, but Steve raises his hand, a command and a plea all at once, finishing, "That does not involve any of you losing parts of yourself bit by small bit?"

Five mouths close. Pepper puts her hand on Tony's shoulder, her gaze fixed on Steve. Then, after a beat, Thor says, slowly, "Asgard has many allies. Allies who, should they band together to exert pressure on Midgardian authorities over the issue of the mistreatment of honored warriors, warriors standing as a first defense against our combined enemies, those Midgardians in power might have very little choice but to bow to the wishes of an otherworld alliance."

All five of them blink at Thor. Thor shrugs. "I did not entirely ignore the teachings of my father on politics. Just mostly."

It's a good plan, Steve will acknowledge. Still, "If this doesn't work—"

"We figure out something else. There are two actual geniuses on this team," Tony reminds him, sharply, and without any of the flare of his usual self-advertising.

Steve counters, "And in the meantime, you do what you have to do. Every single one of you. No flinching or pulling back. That's an order."

There's a moment of tension where Steve expects full on rebellion, but then Natasha says, "Yes, sir."

Tony's blink is a slow expression of complete disbelief, but once he's done it, he swears under his breath and answers, "Fine."

Thor nods his acknowledgment and Bruce sighs, rubbing a hand over his face, but Steve understands the agreement. Clint sets his jaw and says, "Aye, aye Captain."

*


After thinking they've gotten their way for a bit, the Council basically loses it upon finding out Thor has contacted his father and gone back to Asgard for a bit. Steve wonders, cynically, if they suspect something is up. It doesn't really matter, they're on the warpath, so the minute Hulk destroys something that belongs to someone important which kind of got in his way while he was trying to save the world, they have Steve at the post again.

He knows whatever they're planning isn't strictly by-the-book, because Fury looks like he is literally going to kill the Administrator when he walks into the room with the implement-carrying case. Before Fury has given them all withering stares, made them aware of his displeasure, but Steve doesn't think this one is going to get out of the room alive.

He understands when the Admin opens up the case. It's holding a Singaporean-style punishment cane. Canes are, as a general rule, only allowable for offenses such as desertion. Steve is about to ask how many, when Clint says, "No. No, this is not—"

He's halfway to the Admin when Natasha gets hold of him, managing to get his wrist and have him on the ground within the blink of an eye. He looks up at her and says, "Tash, they can't, they can't," and his breathing is shallow. Steve thinks, PTSD.

Natasha looks keeps her hands on Clint's chest and murmurs something to him in Russian. It doesn't seem to calm him, but it keeps him where he is. She looks at the Admin and says calmly, "He's going to go with Dr. Banner. If the report so much as hints that he was not in this room, I will kill you over the course of a year and they will never find your remains. Are we clear?"

Steve is surprised that the Admin looks…troubled. And not by Natasha's threat, he doesn't think. Steve wonders if the Admin has been told what happened, knows that Dr. Banner can't be trusted to stay, but is the supposed reason behind this. Knows the punishment doesn't fit the crime. In any case, he nods, once.

Natasha takes Clint out and comes back in the room. She pulls Tony over to Steve with her. She puts her hand over where one of Steve's hands is chained and looks at Tony. Tony nods and follows suit. She says, "Just the three of us, Cap. Just concentrate on us."

It is Fury who ends up asking, "How many?" low and pissed.

There is a moment of hesitation and then the Admin—the same one as the previous times, which is unusual, they always change, a way to keep them from becoming emotionally attached, from caring about the person they're torturing—says, "Thirty." In the shocked silence that follows, he tells them, "I will count."

Natasha puts the hand she's not using to cover Steve's hand up to his face. She says, "Find somewhere in your mind, somewhere good."

Steve isn't surprised when the first thing that comes to mind is the memory of all seven of them playing games, Tony laughing at how bad Steve's poker face is, Thor's innate gift for finding the most hilarious responses in Balderdash, Clint's tendency to cheat at Battleship.

Natasha must see he has it on his face, because she says, "Breathe in. Keep it somewhere close. Go there when it gets too hard to stay here."

Steve breathes in and the first strike comes, no warning but the sharp whistle of the wood. The Admin establishes a rhythm, neither fast nor slow, and Steve, in the little bit of rational mind left to him, realizes it is meant to be a mercy. There is no mercy to be had. Every stroke is unbearable, and after only five, Steve is trying to slip away.

Natasha is talking, a steady stream of words Steve can't connect to. Tony—Tony is silent, but his grip on Steve tightens, never wavers. Steve doesn't know when he passes out, just that they revive him, just that they have to do it twice. He doesn't immediately understand that he's done, either. It takes the three of them—Fury coming to their aid—working him free of the post for him to have some awareness of that.

He won't let go of the grips - fights them, even, for a moment. It doesn't register until Fury says, "Let go, Soldier," and Steve almost hates to follow orders about anything at that point, but this is one he can't help listening to.

*


Steve wakes up while they're sewing him back together. He'll heal without the measure, but it will take longer. He's got IVs in him that are full of who-only-knows-what. He arches up from sleep into the pain without meaning to and there are suddenly five sets of hands on him, Bruce's cupping his face. Bruce says, "Breathe, Cap. Just breathe."

It's easier said than done, but he finds that if he concentrates on the feel of Clint's calluses, both his hands folding over one of Steve's, on Tony's touch, identifiable by the way his hands can't quite lay still over each of Steve's ankles, the brush of Pepper's fingers over the nape of his neck, and Natasha's surprisingly small hands, holding his other hand, he can just manage it.

The doctor keeps stitching, and they all hold on. Steve does his best to do so as well.

*


Thor returns on the second day after the caning, when Steve is mostly fresh pink scars and able to get around just fine. He's wearing sweats and a t-shirt, the damage covered, and eating Tony out of house and home—Tony just keeps making JARVIS order more—so Thor is kept blithely unaware of what has transpired in his absence. Steve is relieved, honestly. Bruce has hulked out twice in as many days, and everyone's emotionally worn. It's nice to see Thor's smile.

It's even nicer to hear Thor say, "My father has spoken with a number of other leaders. Several have professed their desire to aid in defending earth's warriors from its…"

"Butt monkeys?" Tony suggests.

Thor frowns. "I do not believe—"

"Expression," Natasha says. "The official version probably was something more like 'politicians'."

"Indeed," Thor agrees.

"And just when can we expect to hear from our newfound friends?" Tony asks.

"They are to make contact either today or on the morrow. Talks, I am certain, will be scheduled shortly."

"Shortly," Bruce says flatly.

"I have impressed upon them the import of the situation," Thor says, but he sounds anxious in a way that's not usual.

Steve speaks into the silence that follows. "We probably have a bit of time, in any case." They've never followed up a beating immediately and, as of yet, not without some patently ridiculous excuse. At the moment, they haven't been given any, so Steve figures he's probably safe.

Thor looks suspicious at that statement. "Why is that, brother?"

Natasha rescues him. "We were busy while you were away, is all."

"I was gone too long."

"You were gone as long as you needed to be," Steve says. He won't have them blaming themselves, he won't.

"I will be there when the contact is made to urge all due haste."

"I like that plan," Tony says.

"Yeah, it's good," Bruce agrees.

Clint gives Thor two thumbs up. Natasha just smiles. It's more agreement than all the rest combined.

*


The team gets called into the meeting being held at the insistence of Odin and several other sentient beings who could probably level earth if they got the inclination to do so. Steve's surprised, because he's not used to his opinion, or the opinions of those serving under him, mattering much. He asks Thor, "Do I wear my Army dress uniform?"

Thor tells him, "I doubt your choice of regalia will sway these discussions one way or another, Captain."

Steve wears it anyway. It's uncomfortable, but he hasn't bought a suit since pre-serum, so it's really his only choice. Natasha, in a suit that leaves both everything and nothing to the imagination at once, smiles at him, says, "You clean up nicely."

Steve honestly kind of expects Tony to saunter in wearing jeans, but he's in fact in a full three-piece suit, something Steve suspects cost more than Steve's entire yearly salary. Even Clint and Bruce are in suits, if nothing so flashy as the other two. Thor, of course, is in full Asgardian dress. Steve thinks they might actually make something of an impression. He knows better than to hope.

They wait outside the meeting for quite some time, even Tony being quiet in his agitation. It rubs Steve the wrong way, but he doesn't know that inciting Tony is the best idea. Luckily, they get called in before he resorts to drastic measures.

They are each called upon to testify, answering questions about their actions, their choices. Thor is brought up first, and Steve watches as the heir-apparent makes his feelings known, somehow managing to stay regal the entire time. It's strange, because Thor is often such a goofball with just the six of them, Steve forgets he will one day ascend to the throne. His testimony is a forceful reminder.

Clint's anger is just barely leashed in his, and Natasha uses words as well as she does her widow's bites. Tony is cutting and too-smart, reigning himself in at the last moment every time. Bruce is Bruce, calm and quiet, so much so as to make every person aware of what lies just beneath the surface.

By the time Steve is called, he feels emotionally worn, if strangely buoyed by the protectiveness, the loyalty of the others. They ask him, "Isn't it true you volunteered for this?"

Steve blinks. "The alternate option was death."

"Which many of your compatriots chose."

Steve doesn't let himself think about the labs, about how they tested the SES's abilities. "Everyone has a breaking point. I had not reached mine."

There are more questions, endless questions about the success rate of the program—information he's not even privy to—questions about his efficacy as leader, questions about his qualifications. Steve gives them what he knows, no more, no less. At some point, long after Steve has stopped even dreaming of being freed, one of Odin's allies stands and says, in soft, strangely accented English, "That is adequate, Captain Rogers. Thank you, all of you, for your participation. We shall adjourn for the day."

And just like that, Steve's fate is, once again, no longer in his own hands.

*


Tony takes them all to a baseball game that night, Mets v. Yankees, and Clint buys a round of beers, which does nothing for Steve, but the taste is somehow reassuring, and drinking it with the others feels good. It keeps his mind off things for a couple of hours, which Steve appreciates.

That night, when he can't sleep, Thor finds him in the gym, and the two of them spar until Steve's body can't help but shut down. In the morning, Bruce sips tea while Steve eats breakfast, the two of them silently sharing the paper.

Steve is never left alone while they wait for the Asgard and their allies to come to a decision, and he thinks it should bother him—it's his job to care for them, not the other way around—but it doesn't. He does his best not to think about what happens if the Council is not persuaded, what his options are then.

It takes three days for the team to hear anything. They're called in to Fury's office, where Odin is standing along with two other aliens, formerly seen at the hearing. Thor makes a half-bow. "Father," he follows up the title with two others, obviously meant for the aliens, but Steve can't make sense of the noise Thor is making. He settles for a demure, "Sirs."

Fury looks at the others, and then nods. He tells the team, "You will be pleased to know that several of the members of the Council have been replaced and that means of controlling elite teams by corporal punishment of team leaders has been restricted to offenses that formerly would have been capable of earning the death sentence."

Privately, Steve thinks that still gives the Powers That Be quite a bit of leeway. Out of the corner of his eye, he can tell Bruce is thinking the same thing. The team is looking at him, though, so he says, "That is, indeed, a relief, sir."

"And that your team has been put under my direct control, outside of the Council's purview."

Steve doesn't always trust Fury, can't always discern where his priorities are, or what agenda he's pursuing. But as of yet, Fury has given him no reason to believe he will actively undermine the Avengers. If anything, he seems to prefer their unorthodox way of handling matters. Slowly, he says, "That is good news, sir."

Fury considers them for a long moment. Then he waves a hand. "Go, get out of my hair. Sleep a little."

Steve doesn't think any of them have been resting all that much, despite the downtime, so he smiles at that, says, "Yes, sir."

*


They don't go straight back to the Tower. Tony insists on celebratory schwarma, even though they're less battered on the outside than they usually are when they indulge. Thor begs off politely to spend time with his father, and none of them begrudge him the chance.

Once back at the Tower, there's an awkward moment where everyone sort of lingers in the common area, nobody really wanting to be alone, but nobody willing to admit to not wanting to be alone. Steve declares, "Impromptu movie night," and Natasha says, "Steve's pick," so they end up watching Philadelphia Story, because Steve likes old-fashioned.

There's cinnamon popcorn, and Thor rejoins them at some point, fitting his bulk into the pile of limbs they've melted into on the huge sofa. When the movie is over, none of them seem all that hot on leaving, so Steve just has JARVIS kill the lights.

In the dark, Tony admits, "I don't trust Fury. Not completely."

"He's a spy," Natasha ironically, but easily, agrees.

"But better than what we had before," Clint chimes in.

"And unhappy with the way things were," Bruce says carefully, clearly uncomfortable with siding with any kind of authority.

"Also aware you have the protection of Asgard, Steven Rogers. And not foolish enough to cavalierly disregard such."

Steve takes all of this into consideration. He's exhausted, partially from lack of good sleep, partially from relief. The warmth of Bruce at his back, Natasha and Clint somehow both draped over him, Tony's hand resting over Steve's stomach, Thor's head against his thigh, makes it hard to think clearly. Finally, he smiles, giving into the moment. "Problem for tomorrow, guys. Sweet dreams."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile