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Chain of Command

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Tony Stark, Steve decided, was the most infuriating man he’d ever met.

“Okay. Let’s go over the battle again. From the top.” Steve sighed—an irritated, almost defeated sigh—and prayed Tony would cooperate this time. 

Tony spun around in his chair, chewing on the tip of a pen. “Oh, I don’t need to go over it again. I already know you can’t take a joke.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your teammates being in danger in the middle of a fire-fight is not a joke, Tony.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Nobody was in danger, I had that under control. I knew exactly where those bombs were going to land. So, the flames jumped a little, and caught Clint’s pants on fire. I laughed. It was funny.”

Ah, there it was. His regularly scheduled ‘Tony’ migraine.

It was gonna be a long debriefing.

Clint, nursing an admittedly minor burn on his thigh, gave a conciliatory shrug. “It was kinda funny. I’d have laughed at me, too.”

Thank you, Legolas. At least somebody here knows how to have a good time.”

“Not helpful, Clint,” Steve ground between his teeth. “And we’re not here to ‘have a good time.’ We’re here to save lives and watch each other’s backs. And you had no way of knowing the blast radius wouldn’t be bigger.”

Tony leaned against the tabletop, the picture of nonchalance. “Uh, yeah. I did. They were petroleum-based incendiaries, they had better shit than that up their sleeves in World War II. I’ve had matchbooks with more firepower.”

The super-soldier gritted his teeth. “That doesn’t mean you should have kept it to yourself. You’re our eyes in the sky, Tony. If it’s airborne, you see it before most of us have a chance to. If we have missiles or bombs incoming, of any kind, I need to know about it. We need to communicate with each other, or we have nothing.”

“Okay, okay.” Tony held up his hands in mock surrender. “Next time there are ineffective incendiary bombs headed our way, I’ll try to remember to warn you first. Somebody can stand by with a water gun to put it out.”

It took every ounce of discipline Steve possessed not to react, but he bit his tongue. Feeding into Tony’s brand of sass wasn’t going to help them. The Avengers were supposed to be an example for the world to look up to, not a cautionary tale on how not to run an organization.

Steve met each of their eyes in turn. He strode toward the head of the table, hands on his hips. “Heads in the game, people. We’re better than this. I see more team building exercises in our future.”

“Oh, great,” Clint groaned. “Like those haven’t all been a disaster.”

“I don’t know.” Natasha arched an eyebrow. “The pottery class was kind of fun.”

“I liked it too,” Hulk declared, tearing into a plate of sandwiches he’d somehow come into possession of. “Those pots smashed real good.”

“Verily,” Thor added from across the table. “Although, the instructor did look vexed when I asked for another. Was not the point of the exercise to break them?”

Steve sighed heavily.

“I don’t know what you thought was gonna happen there, Cap,” Tony quipped. He gave Steve a cheeky grin. “It was like the running of the bulls. In a china shop.”  

Steve clenched his jaw so hard he swore he heard something crack. “I don’t see you offering any suggestions. We have to coordinate with each other more effectively. Skating through every hostile encounter by the skin of our teeth isn’t gonna cut it.”

“Don’t be such a sour-puss, Cap.” Tony quirked an eyebrow. “Sure, this might not have been a perfect win, but the team is fine. Who’s the one leading this merry band of misfits, anyway?”

Later, Steve would look back on this moment, and know he could have handled it better. In the moment, it didn’t stop the words from dripping out, like poison. “I hope you don’t mean you. Do you even know what a team is?”

Tony cocked his head, clearly taken aback. “Is that a trick question?” He stood up, leaning carelessly against Steve’s shoulder. “Jesus, don’t get your panties all in a -”

Steve shook him off, hard enough that Tony stumbled half a step. “If you want to half-ass every other aspect of your life, fine. But the Avengers are my responsibility too. I’m not gonna stand by anymore and let the Tony Stark ego machine get them all killed while you traipse around the battlefield, like an undisciplined wild man.”

The silence that followed was deafening.

There was something wounded, almost vulnerable, in Tony’s expression before he shut it down, but it was there. Steve saw it. And he knew in an instant that he’d gone too far. His stomach dropped.

“Tony- “

Steve reached for him, but he already knew it was too late. Tony was on the defensive, and it was his turn to shake Steve off.

“You know what you need to realize, Cap?” His smile was cruel, tinged with an edge of hostility. “We’re not your Commandos. You might have missed this during your seventy-year siesta, but they’re all dead.”

Steve took the blow like a punch to the gut. He swallowed hard.

“And if I’m so awful at this leader thing, why don’t you do it?”

“Awh, God, Tony.” He took a shaky breath. “Come on. You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

Didn’t you, though?” Tony waved a hand dismissively. “It’s fine. I’ve always said we’d be better off with you at the helm. Star-spangled man with a plan, and all that. The Avengers are all yours, buddy.” He sauntered toward the door, slapping Steve’s shoulder just a fraction too hard.

Sam, who’d still been on clean-up duty, entered just in time to watch Tony’s exit. And though the genius practically glided from the room, calm as anything, the tense atmosphere was hard to miss. He glanced from Steve to the other Avengers, blinking rapidly.

“Whoa. What happened there?”

“Mom and dad are fighting again,” Natasha replied. The others nodded, murmuring their agreement from around the table.

“Cut the chatter.” Steve knew he was being short with them. It wasn’t appropriate, nor was it befitting a commanding officer. But his frustration was a living, breathing creature, tying his stomach up in knots. “I want mission reports filed asap.”

“Great, now we have homework,” Clint muttered, in an aside to Sam.

Steve glowered. “Now.”

The Avengers knew when to take a hint. They filed out of the room, stealing backward glances at him until they were out of sight.

Once Steve was sure his friends were out of earshot, he staggered to a chair, dropping his head into his hands.

Tony wasn’t just angry. He was hurt. And when he was hurt, he lashed out. Fought like a wounded wild cat, desperate to draw blood.

Knowing what was behind that hurt -- Tony’s maddeningly low self-worth -- made Steve want to tear his hair out, because he didn’t understand. The man was brilliant. He was funny, witty. Attractive. Hell, his face would have launched every ship in ancient Greece. Helen of Troy had nothing on Tony Stark. And his eyes. Steve had known men who would die for a pair of eyes like that.

By God, he certainly would.

The point, Steve reasoned, pushing the thought away, was that Tony should be brimming with self-confidence. And he was, on the surface. But for someone who claimed to love himself, he was awfully quick to insult his own humanity, or downplay a good deed.

Most maddening of all was that Steve knew Tony was an effective leader. He’d seen him direct a battle like nobody’s business, time and time again. He was intelligent as all get out, quick on his feet. And, his ‘fly by the seat of his pants’ methods brought a command style to the field that complimented Steve’s careful tactical planning surprisingly well.

But they couldn’t keep clashing like this. And Tony couldn’t just keep going off half-cocked, flying into every battle like he was the only one on the field.

Thinking of Tony as ill-equipped to do anything almost seemed laughable. But CEO of Stark Industries or not, the billionaire hadn’t gone through the same training as Steve. He was a civilian. He may have been the head of a company, but he didn’t know the first thing about command. And Tony had spent his whole life isolated, in some capacity or another. Functioning as a unit with anyone wouldn’t come naturally to him.

Steve didn’t think he’d been wrong to reprimand him. No one in a position like Tony’s could afford to be coddled. And brilliant as he was, laughable or not, he was frighteningly under-qualified.

He wasn’t looking forward to telling Tony that. The billionaire would take it as a personal failing, no matter what Steve said now. He was already on the defensive. And those walls of his were at an all-time high.

Steve groaned.

The team might benefit from a co-leadership between them, if they could manage to stop bickering long enough to do it effectively.

It wasn’t all Tony’s fault. Steve wasn’t communicating well either. And even an experienced commander would have had trouble reining in a group as wily and diverse as the Avengers. Maybe together, they could accomplish what neither of them ever could alone.

Co-leaders.

Yeah. That could work.

Steve just hoped that when he asked him, his friend wouldn’t feel slighted by the concept. 

and, now he was making command decisions based on whether they would hurt Tony’s feelings.

He hid his face in his hands.

Great.

 


 

Tony managed to avoid him for the rest of the day and well into the next one. That was fine. Steve wanted to let him cool down before the two of them talked things out. Tony was stubborn, sure, but bring a well-organized, factual suggestion to the table, and he would at least hear you out before he tore your argument to shreds.

Steve knew he wasn’t blameless in this, either. His near constant, non-constructive criticism of Iron Man’s leadership had been going on since they’d reformed the team. And rather than taking the other man aside to explain what the problem was, Steve just made himself a part of the issue. Strutted into every debrief, ready to call him out in front of the entire team. No wonder Tony was fighting back. And in the absence of a stable command structure, the team was left floundering on the field.

Steve would step up and lead the team by himself, if he had to. But despite any evidence to the contrary, he didn’t want to see Tony step down. His style might be vastly different, but that was why the super-soldier wanted to cultivate it. Together, they could be great. A dynamic duo. Like cereal and milk, or…chocolate and peanut-butter.

This whole fiasco was as much Steve’s fault as it was Tony’s. Maybe more. Even if Tony hadn’t functioned with anyone as a unit before the Avengers, Steve certainly had. He should have known better.

It couldn’t be allowed to continue, no matter what happened next.

Steve was just standing in the kitchen after his morning run, glaring balefully at the coffee maker and contemplating bringing Tony a peace-offering, when the call to assemble came through. He snapped into action, dashing to get his uniform on as the others sprinted through the halls, in various stages of undress.

To his credit, the billionaire was there with everyone else, as quickly as ever. Not that Steve had expected any different. And he deferred to Steve with relative ease. Though he avoided their usual pre-battle banter in favor of piloting the Aven-jet, with Sam.

Steve took the time to touch base with the others. Make sure all their equipment was in order, though he couldn’t stop himself from stealing the occasional glance toward the cockpit. Steve swallowed the lump in his throat. He hadn’t realized how much Tony’s presence at his side grounded him. The loss hurt. More than any of their arguments ever had.

There was an uncomfortable uncertainty among the other Avengers today. They seemed hesitant to look to Steve or Tony, unsure if they were supposed to be doing either. Nothing official had been decided, and they were all painfully aware of it.

That uncertainty would only hurt them. Steve needed to assert himself, or they’d all suffer in the battle ahead.

He promised himself he’d sit down with Tony later. Hash out some sort of agreement, but for now, Steve lifted his chin. Somebody had to do it, and Tony’s distant, steely-eyed expression told Steve the billionaire was determined for it not to be him.

Today’s crisis turned out to be Dr. Doom’s latest attempt at conquest. A veritable army of robots had descended on Manhattan. Nobody was sure how he’d managed that so fast, let alone how he’d built so many in such a short time, but they could worry about the particulars later.

“Look alive, guys!” Iron Man shouted on coms. Steve could hear his repulsor fire, whining in the distance. “They’re capable of sustained flight, but their altitude seems limited. They either can’t or won’t follow us up beyond a thousand feet. And something tells me they’re not staying close to admire the skyline.”

Steve tapped his earpiece as he sprinted down the city streets, dodging laser fire from above.

“Acknowledged, Iron Man. You and Falcon take them up as high as you can. Keep them occupied. Hawkeye! You find a nest?”

Their resident archer chuckled. “It’s like you don’t even know me.”

Steve allowed himself a smile as he spun on his heel, driving his shield into one robot’s face. “Good, stay there. Take out the snipers first. They’re lurking all over these rooftops. Widow, you’re with me. We’ll stay on the perimeter. Hulk, Thor, you’re at the epicenter. Keep as many of them there as you can. Let’s—"

The blow seemed to come out of nowhere. A shot in the dark in the middle of a firefight, and Steve really should have seen it, but he didn’t. The only indication anything had happened was a sudden pain in his gut.

Steve blinked, almost comically surprised. His legs seemed to liquefy beneath him, and he dropped like a stone in the middle of the street, stunned.

“Cap?”  Tony’s voice, tense. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

“I’m hit…I…” He coughed; hand pressed hard against his abdomen. Son of a bitch, that hurt. More than he thought it should.

Somebody cursed. “These snipers have some kind of weird energy weapons! No recoil! Completely silent!”  Hawkeye shouted, one of his exploding arrows detonating in the distance. “Working on taking them out.”

Widow was a short distance away from Steve, covering him as best she could, but formidable as she was, she was one soldier against an army of robots, and in over her head. She stole a glance over at him, red hair sticking to her forehead. “Cap is down! Holding them off, but I could use a little backup. And call in S.H.I.E.L.D. for med-evac!”

“No. I’m okay.” Steve had been shot more times than he could count. This was nothing. “I…”

He raised a shaking hand to finger the wound in his abdomen. A scorching, flaming hole where the laser fire had penetrated the armored material of his uniform. He tasted blood. Coughed again, raspy and wet. “I’m okay.”

Tony cursed. “Steve, I swear to God…”

Pain. White-hot, and agonizing. Spider-webbing outward from the hole in his side. He pressed a hand to it. Gritted his teeth. Blood was gushing from it at an alarming rate. And he tried to stand, but his legs were limp as noodles. Try as he might, he couldn’t find the strength.

What the hell was going on?

Steve braced one hand on the ground beneath him. Struggled to push himself up again. He needed to help Natasha. She couldn’t fight an army by herself. But it was all Steve could do to grab his shield and prop it up in front of him, never mind throw the damn thing.

“Cap?”

Steve wasn’t sure who said it. Could barely hear at all, through the ringing in his ears. But he was aware that he needed to answer them. Struggle to his feet and turn back the tide. He was in command of this mission, after all.

Steve Rogers wanted to lie down, but Captain America said no. Captain America needed to buck up and get his feet under him. But God almighty, the pain. He could feel the  wound tearing through his rib cage, like claws. Carving out his insides and gutting him, like a Thanksgiving turkey. Steve was sure if he looked down at it, it would be expanding inch by inch. Swallowing up his torso. Sucking him in, but it wasn't. It was still just a tiny, insignificant hole, and he didn’t understand.

There must be something more to it. This pain. Something unnatural in the strength with which it crawled beneath his skin. Nausea churned in his gut, and the torment spread gradually. Hot, and cold. Burning until it consumed everything.

Steve thought it was strange, that he could want so much to cry over something so little. He bit his tongue against a whimper, squeezing his eyes shut. He must have made some sort of strangled noise anyway, because the Avengers were calling his name now, in increasingly frantic tones. Try as he might, he couldn't pick out the words.

Until Tony's words filtered through his brain, like a balm. His voice, adamantine.

“Widow, stay where you are. Thor, you’re the closest heavy hitter. Shield Steve. Bring those hunks of junk down. Hawkeye, take out those snipers already, and snag me one of their rifles. Hulk, stay at the epicenter. Falcon, ground their aerial forces, by any means necessary. They’re not live targets, so you incapacitate them, or you burn them to a cinder. I don’t care how. I’ll be finding Doom. Gluing my fist to his face. Any questions?

There wasn’t a trace of Tony’s usual teasing, almost casual, cadence. And the team’s stunned silence spoke volumes for that.

The Avengers responded to it. They rallied around Tony. Their spearhead, in everything but name. And they all but glided through their orders. As smoothly and efficiently as well-oiled machines.

Steve saw everything between bouts of unconsciousness. He saw fire, and steel, and its name was Tony Stark. Carving through robots like an avenging angel. They crumpled before him, like so much cannon fodder. And maybe it was the blood loss, but Steve thought legends were made of this. Not Captain America and his Howling Commandos. Not the Avengers. Just Tony Stark, planting his feet in front of Steve. Daring them to make him move.

The Avengers took the battlefield by storm. Kept at it until Steve could see nothing but charred, smoking remains, gathered in broken heaps beneath their feet.

Steve had to move. He had to help them. And he tried to stand, though his body felt like a bundle of raw, exposed nerves. And the agony was enough to bring tears to his eyes, but what else could he do? He tried again. Managed to claw his way to his feet, only to have his knees buckle.

Tony was there to catch him when he fell. He gazed down at Steve, face-plate retracted. Fear in his eyes.

And Steve was no poet. But he knew, falling into them -- almost amber in the light of the mid-day sun -- that he would launch a thousand ships for his face. Pull the stars from the sky, and find the cosmos wanting. Because Tony’s eyes were molten lava. The breath of life. The earth beneath his feet. They were beautiful. He was beautiful. And Steve told him so. Laying there, shattered on the ground.

Tony’s eyes widened. He held Steve tighter. Choked on a laugh that sounded more like a sob. “Are you coming onto me? Now?

“Maybe…” Steve choked. Tasted blood between his teeth.

Tony retracted his gauntlets. Pressed both hands to Steve’s wound. “Don't do it. Don’t you fucking dare, you son of a bitch. Who’s gonna be around to criticize my leadership skills if you’re dead?”

“Lack of, you mean.” Steve managed a smile. Small. Full of pain, but it was all he had. “You were amazing out there. I mean that, Tony.”

“God, don’t make it sound like an epitaph!” Tony snapped, eyes frantic. Face pinched, like he was trying not to cry. And that was horrible, because Steve didn’t want him to cry. He wanted to make him smile. He’d do almost anything for that. A real smile. Not that phony garbage he fed the press.

Steve cupped his cheek, and Tony reached up to take his hand, holding it there as if both of their lives depended on it. He was talking to him again. Eyes liquid and pleading.

Tony didn’t need to be upset. Everything was gonna be all right. Steve was gonna be all right. He tried to tell him. To speak, but despite his resolve, he couldn’t quite manage the words. His body was failing him, for reasons it didn’t understand. And as the fuzz obscuring the edges of his vision spread, dragging him under, he thought, there were worse ways to go.

Steve always assumed his life would end in ice, but this was as far from the frozen tundra as it could be.

Because Steve had fire. Right here, in the palm of his hand.

 


 

Steve woke in fits and starts.

He remembered pain. Sharp, agonizing. Strong, calloused hands, holding him tight. He remembered colors and sounds. Bustling doctors, and harried nurses. He remembered his team, hovering. Piled around his bed while he tossed and turned, dislodging the I.V. line in the crook of his elbow. He remembered being held down. A high pitched, whining screech. Inhuman, tearing itself from a throat that felt suspiciously like his.

He remembered—a pair of dark, pleading eyes.

When he truly woke, in earnest, he was warm. Wrapped in soft blankets of an unfamiliar texture. He thought he should be worried about that. And he should probably open his eyes now. Investigate the where, and the why.

But Steve was tired. In a way he couldn’t remember feeling for a very long time. He wanted to sink back down into the abyss. He wanted to sleep.

Then, he heard a voice.

Despite the bone-deep weariness, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to respond to it, because Steve knew this voice. Knew it better than his own name. And when the world finally shimmered into a dizzying sort of focus, he found the source.

Tony.

Slumped in a chair beside the bed, looking as shattered as Steve felt. The billionaire’s face was turned away. His shoulders, tense. His hair was unstyled and sticking up at the top, like it always was when he’d been running his fingers through it. And Steve itched to smooth it down. To soothe away the worry drawing his brows together in a thin, tight line.

Steve could tell he was agitated. He was clenching his jaw, drumming his fingers on the leg of his jeans.

“Why the hell are you calling me?” The billionaire was talking on his cell phone. His tone, harsh. Venomous. “I’m a little fucking busy right now.”

Tony paused to listen to their reply, tapping his foot.

“I’ve already had Widow debrief you. You’ll get my report when I’m sure Steve’s all right. Until then, you can shove your deadlines. I don’t give a shit.”

Another pause. Longer, this time.

Whatever the person on the other end said, it seemed to placate Tony. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“I need to study those guns they had. They packed a hell of a punch. He lost over half his blood volume. I’ve got Bruce and Sam in the lab, trying to analyze the data we have. If it fucked with Cap, of all people, I wanna know why. I’ll keep you posted. Now fuck off.”

The billionaire hung up the phone and all but threw it on the bedside table, gripping his head in his hands. He looked so tired. How long had Steve been out? Had Tony slept at all? Steve wanted to reach out to him. Struggled to push himself up to do just that.

Tony startled, jerking his head toward him. His face lit up, and he beamed at Steve. The expression looked raw, somehow. Brittle. Frayed around the edges. “Hey! You look loads better! How you feelin’?”

If this was loads better, Steve must really have been in a bad way. He tried on a smile for Tony. It felt forced and probably looked it, but it had to be better than nothing.

“Like I got trampled by a heard of elephants,” he winced, shifting uncomfortably. He was lying flat on the mattress. And he struggled to push himself up again, blowing a breath between his lips.

“Hey, whoa!” Tony eased him gently back down. He scoffed, pressing a button on a remote. It raised the head of the bed for Steve, eliminating the need for movement entirely, and taking the strain off his side. “Twenty-first century, Cap, remember?”

"You know me." Steve shrugged, grinning sheepishly. "Over achiever."

Tony rolled his eyes, though his smile was fond. “What am I gonna do with you?” His voice was rough, almost grating. Abruptly, he looked away, fiddling with a scuff mark on his shoe. “Look. I know you just woke up, and this might be kinda heavy and all, but I almost didn't get to say it, and I really need to, so…” He groaned, tugging on his hair. “God, I suck at this…”

“Tony…”

“Aah!” He made a quick slashing motion with his hand. “Shut up, just…give me a second, okay?”

Steve could only blink, nodding mutely.

“Look. You were right.” Tony blew a long, frustrated breath between his lips. “I was a dick about it, but…I don’t know how to do this leader thing. The Avengers are better off with you.”

“No, Tony…” Steve sighed. Tried not to wince as the movement pulled at his healing wound. That it wasn’t healed yet spoke volumes. “I’m sorry. I meant what I said, but I should have handled it better. I shouldn’t have attacked you like that. You’re a good leader. When you apply yourself, you just…”

“Don’t?” Tony smirked. There was something bitter, almost cowed in his posture. And he flatly refused to look at Steve. The super-soldier really wasn’t sure which of those things alarmed him more.

When Tony did speak again, it was in a soft voice. Almost vulnerable beneath its rigidity.

“I’m not alone. I know that. But I see an option, and I make it happen. I jump into things without telling you I’m doing it. I don’t know if I can fix that, and I’m not gonna put our team at risk because I can’t remember to talk to them.” There was a measure of self-deprecation there, frighteningly close to the surface. A good indication of just how frayed the edges of Tony’s control really were.

Steve reached for his hand.

It was worth noting that the billionaire didn’t put up even a token protest. He just let Steve thread their fingers together, gazing determinedly at a spot above his head.

“I was in and out of consciousness, sure, but I saw what you did. You led them like a pro. They listened to you. Everybody had an objective, and they stuck to it. You did that. Not me. I was busy trying not to lose my lunch. And possibly my spleen.”

“Yeah, well…” Tony’s lips twitched. He met Steve’s gaze, looking up at him through those obscenely long, dark eyelashes. “They hurt you. No better motivation in the world, Cap.”

They stared at each other; the air charged between them. Steve knew Tony could feel it too. And he hesitated, unsure if he should say more. Unsure if he should acknowledge this nameless thing between them.

What was the worst that could happen?

Steve swallowed hard, hoping the universe wouldn’t take that as a challenge, and threw himself into the deep end.

“It was worth it. Seeing you defend poor, helpless, little old me.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah. You’re a regular damsel in distress.”

“Where’s my kiss then?” Steve batted his eyelashes. “All the other dames get one from their knight in shining armor.”

Tony blinked.

Steve just leered at him and hoped to God he wasn’t blushing.

Luckily for Steve, Tony seemed to like whatever it was he saw. He grinned lasciviously, studying him with something akin to wonder. “Why, Captain America.” He pressed a hand to his chest, mock scandalized. “Was that another come on?”

"Maybe," Steve hummed. “And, as long as we're being honest...I don’t want you to step down.”

Tony's expression shuttered so quickly, it was enough to give Steve whiplash.

“Hold on. Hear me out.” He held up a hand, placating. “Our people are good, Tony. They know what they’re doing. But even good soldiers fall without someone up top to keep things running. People need leaders. They need direction. They need us, to tell them which way is up when they’re not sure what the answer is. I know you can do that. I’ve seen it! Even half-dead on the ground, I could see it. Our team? They would have followed you anywhere.”

Tony pulled away from him, refusing to meet his eyes yet again. Though Steve could tell he was listening, and that was good enough for him.

“You think you have all the answers, Tony. And sometimes, that might even be true. But being a leader…it means you need to tell us what those answers are. Let us help you. We can’t be a team if you’re still running a one-man show.”

“Run a one-man show is all I’ve ever done, Cap.” Tony’s voice was flat. Nonchalant. “It’s what I do.”

Steve saw right through it. He reached for Tony’s hand again, grasping it tightly with both of his.

“Well, now you don’t have to. You have us.”

His voice was small. Bitter. “Do I?”

Steve’s grip on Tony’s hand tightened. “Yes.”

Tony’s eyes were tired. Pained. As if he wasn’t sure he believed him and didn’t have the energy to fight it out. “What do you want from me, Steve?” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Where do we go from here?”

Steve stroked a finger across his knuckles. “Seems to me we might benefit from combining our skill sets. Who says one of us has to lead? I’ll keep you in line when you need it. You’ll loosen me up, with that ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ method of yours.”

Tony picked at the fabric on the chair with his free hand. “I don’t know, Steve.”

Steve reached out, suppressing a wince when it pulled at his wound, and tilted the billionaire’s chin up. “You still want to lead the Avengers. Don’t you?”

"I..." There was something heartbreaking in the way Tony’s face crumpled. “Well, yeah. But...”

“Then we’ll figure it out.”

"Steve, God damn it." Tony released a frustrated growl. "I am trying to be the bigger person here. This isn't amateur hour. My poor little feelings don't matter. If I can't do it, I can't do it."

"Who says you can't? Give it a chance. We can figure this out together, I know we can. And the team will be even stronger for it."

Tony bit his lip. There was still a stubborn set to his jaw, but Steve could tell his resolve was wavering.

"Come on, Shellhead.” Steve shook him a bit. "How about it? What do you have to lose?"

Tony gave another frustrated little squeak. He sputtered incoherently for a few moments more, but in the end, threw up his hands, exasperated.

"Okay, okay. Fine. You don't have to beg."  Slowly, tentatively, he smiled. "You're on, Winghead. And if the whole thing crashes and burns? I'm blaming you."

Clint – who had evidently been out on a coffee run – reentered the room just in time to see the two of them, clinging to each other. He scoffed. “God, even when one of you is half dead, you’re still gross.”

“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Steve questioned, fighting to keep the smile from his lips. He pointed toward Clint, voice deadpan.

“Not a clue.” Tony detached himself from Steve, making grabby hands at the second cup of coffee Clint was toting. “Gimme! I have a caffeine headache the size of Brazil.”

“Here, don’t say I never give you anything.” Clint rolled his eyes, though he did shoot Steve a relieved look. He placed a hand on his shoulder, scrutinizing his face. “You okay?”

Steve nodded tiredly. “I will be.”

That seemed to satisfy Clint. His shoulders slumped; relief written into every line of his face. His voice was light. “Forgive me if I don’t stay for the make-up sex, then. You two lovebirds have fun. I’ll be back with the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Losers later.”

He squeezed Steve’s shoulder one last time, sauntering out of the room.

“You know, I’m starting to think he’s got the wrong idea about us.” Tony fluffed up Steve’s pillows, offering him a drink of water. Steve accepted eagerly. He hadn’t realized how dry his mouth was until the prospect of fixing it presented itself. He must have guzzled down half the cup before Tony pulled it away again.

Maybe it was the soft morning light, filtering through the window. The lingering sleepiness, or the dull ache in his side. But Steve thought Tony had never looked more beautiful. All mussed up, with half-lidded eyes and a cup of coffee, clutched against his chest like the holy grail.

“Not if we make it a right one.” Steve grinned at him, ambiguously enough that it could be taken as a joke. Or not.

He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with this. Yet. But Tony seemed to be responding well enough. The billionaire chuckled, eyes crinkling with delight. “Heal up that hole in your side, Casanova. Then we’ll talk.”

Steve hummed, settling down on the mattress. “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Get some rest, Cap. I’ll be here.” Tony gave him a tired grin, snatching a laptop from the bedside drawer.

“How long was I out, anyway?”

Tony pursed his lips. “Three days. They really did a number on you.”

“And you haven’t slept this whole time.” It wasn’t a question. Steve wasn’t blind. He already knew the answer.

The genius shrugged, rubbing his eyes. “Sleep is overrated.” He must have felt Steve’s gaze on him, because he looked back up at him above the screen, raising an eyebrow. “What?”

“Tony, you need to sleep.”

“I will.” He powered the laptop on. Typed something on the keyboard. “Later. Right now, I need to get this report to Fury, before he hurts himself.”

It wasn’t like Tony to put filing reports above...well. Literally anything else. Steve frowned. He must really be taking this leader thing to heart. Normally, Steve would have been pleased about that, but not now. His friend looked like he was the one who needed to be laid up in this hospital bed, not Steve.

Decided, he braced one hand against his side, reaching over to snatch the laptop from Tony with the other.

“Hey!” Tony made a very undignified screech, flailing his arms. “I was using that.”

And, now you’re not.” Steve placed the laptop on the floor beside his bed, patting the mattress. “Come on. Plenty of room for one more.”

Tony shot him a slow, lecherous grin.   

“What?” Steve asked. “Can’t two fellas sleep in the same bed without it being gay?”

Tony snorted. “A lot of people have wanted to sleep with me over the years, but never like this. Fine, fine. Shove over. I’m exhausted.”

Steve chuckled, pulling the covers down so Tony could slip inside. He shifted to give him more room, grunting when the movement jarred his wound.

“You okay?” Tony was alert in an instant, already halfway off the bed again. “I’ve had Bruce working on a concoction to manage your pain. Better late than never, right? It’s not really tested yet, but…”

Steve gripped his wrist, pulling him back. “I’m fine. I just moved wrong.” Truthfully, the pain was still something akin to a pickaxe chipping away at a rockface, but still an improvement over the millions of tiny piranha teeth, gnawing away at his gut before. “Come back to bed.”

Tony tilted his head at him, bemused. “That an order, mon capitaine?”

“I can make it one, if it tickles your fancy.”

“’Tickles your fancy,’  he says.” Tony actually giggled, lying on his side facing Steve. “Tickles your fancy!”

“Cut the chatter,” Steve fired back, lips twitching, voice mock serious. “Bed. Now.”

“Sir yes sir.”

Tony settled in beside him. This time, it was the billionaire who reached for Steve’s hand. He threaded their fingers together, eyes half-lidded.

Steve wasn’t sure what that meant. What they were to each other, beyond what they’d always been. But, like so many things, he couldn’t wait to figure it out. Right here. With his best fella at his side.