Steve winced as he put pressure on his bad leg, gritting his teeth as the muscle trembled beneath layers of dirt and dried blood. The fabric was ripped from mid-thigh all the way down to his calf and there was a deep, ugly gash marring the surface of his skin and dying the blue material a dark maroon color. He'd lost his cowl somewhere in the battle, the protective hood falling back and exposing his face, and he could feel the deep swell of bruises that were lining the outline of his jaw and cheekbones. His lip was split, left eye attempting to swell closed but only making it about halfway, and there was a thick plaster of dried blood sticking to his hair and forehead. Yeah…he wasn't really sure what happened there.
The lab was empty save for rows of cabinets and drawers and Steve managed to limp his way over to the nearest rolling chair before falling gracelessly into it. The chair slid back a few feet but Steve barely seemed to notice. The fight had been successful on one hand because they'd won but disastrous on the other because nearly everyone had taken at least one critical hit. He was pretty sure Clint had a broken collar bone, Natasha more than likely had some cracked ribs, and Tony's shoulder had been dislocated at one point during the battle. He wasn't really sure where Bruce had ended up but he knew the doctor always took a bit to regain his senses after the "other guy" came out. Their team was a member short with Thor being back in Asgard and while his loss hadn't seemed that devastating at first, it was proving pretty noticeable now.
Steve sighed, wincing painfully as the low hiss of breath caused a burn in his side. Hell, he probably had some cracked ribs as well. He knew he should go down to medical and get checked over by one of the S.H.I.E.L.D medics but he wanted them to clear his teammates first. His team came first, always, and Steve was more than content to wait until their injuries had been treated before he went seeking treatment for his own. Besides, his injuries weren't that severe, just a few bumps and bruises here and there…
The room tilted awkwardly for a second and Steve found himself clutching the sides of the chair tightly with both hands in order to steady himself. He felt a bit light-headed, a wave of dizziness sweeping through him like a breeze through a wheat field, and a few prickles of nausea began to churn in his stomach. It wasn't an uncommon sensation, he'd experienced it before when the adrenaline began to wear off, but it still managed to take him by surprise every time. He felt hot and cold all at once, sweat clinging to feverishly chilled skin, and he wondered if he'd feel better taking off his suit in order to get some fresh air.
One arm reached back over the opposite shoulder and Steve had to bite back the hiss of pain as it jarred his injured ribs. He could feel sweat (or maybe it was blood?) trickling down his chest and sides beneath the stretchy blue material, the fabric is dyed dark and different as it came in contact with the fluid though Steve can't really tell what color it is beneath. He grasped fruitlessly at the back of his suit for a minute, his fingers gaining no purchase and slipping off the fabric of his suit like it was covered in oil. It might be actually; Steve had a very vague recollection of bouncing off the hood of burning car and landing in a dark puddle of something beside it. It could have been gasoline or oil or it could have been ditch water for all he knew; he wasn't really sure, he was trying too hard not to die at the moment to really take notice.
He tried to grab at the back of the suit again but gave up as the pain in his side grew so intense it made him dizzy. He let his hand fall back uselessly and closed his eyes, trying to breathe past the stabbing burn in his ribs.
"Looks like you could use a hand," a voice commented from the doorway and Steve didn't have the energy to feel startled. He turned his head in the direction of the voice and found Tony leaning against the door frame, left arm tucked in a sling and a string of butterfly bandages above his eyebrow but other than that looking mostly unharmed. The other man was dressed in a pair of clean jeans and a t-shirt, his suit having been deconstructed and put away mere minutes after they'd returned to base. Steve had watched the process once and had been utterly fascinated by the whole thing. He'd heard Clint make an offhanded comment to Tony about building a system of machines that would help all the Avengers with their outfits and Tony had just laughed. There was no telling if he'd ever actually do it or not; Steve kind of wished he had the help now though.
"How are the others?" He asked by way of answer, a bit surprised by the fatigue in his own voice. He really hadn't thought the battle had been that taxing, no worse than some of the other ones they'd all been engaged in. Still, he hadn't really been thrown into that many buildings in the past couple fights they'd been in, nor had he had a car thrown on top of him. In this fight alone he'd counted two buildings and at least one car. It might have been more than that but his head was a bit foggy and he had a hard time remembering small details like how many buildings he played human wrecking ball for before bouncing across the ground like a star-spangled beach ball.
"They're fine," Tony answered simply, walking across the room and opening one of the cabinets with his good hand and pulling something off one of the shelves. "I think Clint's more pissed about not being able to use his arm for a couple of weeks than he is about his bow."
His bow…that's right, it had been broken in the fight. Steve tried to remember how that had happened, who had broken it, when it happened at all, but all he drew was a blank. "Natasha?"
"She's fine, still snippy as ever," Tony replied, keeping his back to Steve as he proceeded unpack more items from the shelves. He laid everything out on the countertop in front of him with a skilled hand and practiced precision. Steve had no idea what he was doing. "And before you ask, Banner is fine too. He's unconscious in the medical wing but that's pretty normal after he turns into the Jolly Green Giant and destroys four blocks of the city. So he's fine, Natasha's fine, Clint's fine, everyone is well and accounted for."
"What about you?" Steve asked and he had just enough time to grip the chair as another wave of dizziness washed through him. Damn, he needs to get this suit off…
"I'm fine, Steve," Tony said and there was a hint of something in his voice that he wasn't able to hide. It sounded like part annoyance, part exasperation, all wrapped into a hearty sigh. "I didn't get hurt that bad."
"You got shot-"
"Yeah, but the suit blocked that."
"Out of a window-"
"It was only the second floor, the fall wasn't that bad."
"With a missile!" Steve tried to sound more animated about the exclamation but he found that the louder he spoke, the more his head throbbed and the dizzier he got so he settled with something a little louder than a normal speaking voice. It didn't help much but it was a start.
"Okay, technically it was a hollow point but that's not the issue. The issue, Steve Rogers, is why you're sitting in here asking about our teammate's wellbeing when you should have your ass down in medical and more than likely strapped to a gurney right now."
"I'm fine," Steve insisted, knowing deep down that he was most assuredly not fine but refusing to pursue that matter any further until he was certain his teammates had been taken care of.
"Sure you are," Tony countered, finally turning to face him and carrying an armload of bandages and gauze from an open First Aid kit on the counter. "I know of plenty of healthy adults who haven't been injected with super soldier serum who bleed from the ears on a regular basis." He snagged a chair from across the room and collapsed into it, dropping the medical supplies into his lap as he wheeled over to face Steve. Even with one arm in a sling, Tony was good with his free hand and managed to soak a clean cloth in peroxide before taking it to the clumps of dried blood sticking to Steve's forehead and face. "Mind telling me why you're not downstairs being swarmed by doctors right now?"
Steve shook his head and immediately regretted the decision as tiny black dots began to dance across his vision. "I've been swarmed by enough doctors in my life. Not really eager for more."
"Well, you may not have a choice in this one. You got hit in the head with a building. And a Volkswagen. And I'm pretty sure I saw you get run over at one point."
"Details, details," Steve muttered with what he had hoped was a dismissive wave of his hand. It actually looked more like some kind of spasm but Tony didn't say anything regarding the matter and simply continued to wash away the dried blood. There were scrapes and bruises all over Steve's face, some barely noticeable, some dark and hard to miss. A dark, plum-colored bruise was beginning to form at his hairline and an ugly gash extending down from it indicated where all the blood had come from. It was a nasty wound, more than enough to render a normal person unconscious or possibly even dead given the right circumstances, but Steve was still conscious and functional at least to a certain extent. He'd always been an overachiever that way.
"Hey," Steve jerked a bit when he felt his shoulders being shaken. He blinked blearily and focused in on Tony. "Eyes open, super soldier. I definitely don't want to be the one to go explain to Fury that you slipped into a happy coma under my watch. Keep 'em open," he said again, reaching out to tap Steve very gently on the bridge between his eyes.
Funny, he hadn't remembered closing his eyes. Really all he remembered was the cold cloth on his face and gentle yet firm scrubbing that worked across his skin to remove the dried blood. Had he and Tony been talking? He tried to remember if they were in the middle of a conversation because it would have been really rude to doze off in the middle of it if they were…
"Hey, talk to me," Tony said and his fingers tap against the Steve's forehead again. "You're starting to get that thousand yard, Linda Blair stare again and I'm not sure if I need to drag you down to medical or call the Vatican."
"Where'd you learn First Aid?" Steve asked and immediately frowned at the slurred quality in his voice. He sounded drunk, or at least he thought he did. He'd seen enough other people get drunk but it had only ever happened to him once and that had been over seventy years ago. What an odd day.
"I didn't," Tony muttered, opening a bandage with his teeth and applying it loosely over the gash on Steve's forehead. The medical team would want to look at that but it would at least control the bleeding for now. "Pepper did. I had a lot of malfunctions with my suit when I first started working on it and she got really good at patching me up afterwards. I picked up a few things from her."
"She's good," Steve mumbled and he had the sudden urge to hug Pepper the next time he saw her. She acted like the team Mom and Steve hadn't had a mom around in a long, long time.
"She's the best. That's why I hired her." The cloth was dropped to the floor and for a minute Tony just sat there, eyeing Steve up and down like he couldn't really figure out what to do with him. He knew there were more injuries hidden beneath the suit, injuries that could be serious, but he wasn't exactly sure how to get him out of the suit one-handed. Tony silently cursed himself for not taking Clint up on that offer of building robotic arms to help each of them with their suits. Still, Steve's suit was ripped in some places, burned in others, and honestly, there was really no saving it now. With this conclusion in mind, Tony did the next most logical thing he could think of and grabbed a pair of trauma scissors from the First Aid kit, sliding the blades down the back of Steve's suit and slicing the material away with a bit of effort. The fabric was strong and built to resist such abuse but Tony was nothing if not stubborn and he finally managed to get the back of the suit cut open after a few minutes.
Steve, for his part, didn't even attempt to stop the butchering of his suit which was a perfect indication of how terrible he felt. Instead he just let his head hang forward, eyes closed slightly, and enjoyed the feeling of cool air against his sweat and blood smeared back. "Fury's gonna be pissed that we cut the suit."
Tony had the decency to shrug as he placed the scissors back in the kit. "He has a whole wardrobe full of spare suits for us. He's worse than those sci-fi nerds that live in their parent's basements." He walked back over to Steve, wincing sympathetically as he took a particularly nasty bruise forming along one shoulder blade. He'd done enough reading over the super soldier serum to know that in all likelihood Steve would be completely healed in about two days but that didn't mean he wasn't feeling the pain now.
He reached out, fingers ghosting just barely over the crimson and violet skin and feeling the swelling beneath. Steve tried to hide a wince but his body reacted before he could stop it and the battered muscles in his shoulder twitched beneath Tony's hand. Tony frowned and removed his hand, realizing that even gentle hurt in Steve's current state. "Sorry."
"S'okay…" Steve mumbled in response and he was so relieved to be out of the suit that the pain and soreness that seemed to settle in every fiber of his body began to dissipate and he was left feeling drowsy and leaden. He could feel Tony's hand moving across his back, carefully and with more gentleness than he would have given the billionaire credit for. He pulled at the suit cautiously, careful not to badger any underlying injuries that he couldn't see, and Steve helped where he could but it didn't do much. It took both of their efforts, Tony with his one hand and Steve with his battered body, to peel the suit away and leave Steve sitting bare-chested and clad in nothing but the shredded blue pants to cover him.
One side of his chest was a colorful myriad of reds, blues, and purples, and Tony didn't even have to guess at the possibility of broken ribs. There were a few other scrapes and bruises here and there, one looking suspiciously like the emblem for a Volkswagen, but none seemed as serious as the bruises over his ribs. He knew that was beyond his level of expertise but he carefully wet another cloth with peroxide and carefully cleaned away the blood and sweat that covered Steve's chest and torso.
At this distance, close as they were, it took no effort at all for Steve's head to fall forward a bit and rest his forehead against Tony's uninjured shoulder. His breathing was slow and steady enough to not cause alarm but Tony still found himself frowning at the other man's sudden drop in posture. "Do I need to call someone?"
Steve shook his head as much as he was able to and kept his forehead rested against Tony's shoulder. "No…I'm alright."
"Yeah, you look it," Tony muttered because Steve looked about as opposite from "alright" as one could be. He'd seen week old road kill that looked better than Steve did right now. And it irritated him because it was genuine. Steve wasn't trying to look strong, he wasn't trying to be all noble and heroic; he said he was fine because he honestly believed that he was. Tony briefly considered the possibility of hypovolemic shock being a reason behind the total lack of concern but he brushed it off because he'd seen Steve act like this before. It happened right after their first battle as a team after they'd successfully detained Loki. Everyone had hovered around Tony because he'd literally dropped out of the sky like a red and gold meteor and had essentially crash landed into the Hulk on his way down. That was enough to cause any amount of concern. Clint and Natasha had been whisked away pretty quickly to be examined seeing as how they were the only two actual humans on the team and Bruce and Thor had been evaluated by a whole team that was set up specifically for them. But Tony distinctly remembered Steve holding back, waiting until everyone else was taken care of before he would accept any kind of help. It was almost like he felt he didn't deserve it or was afraid to accept it. Almost like accepting it would make him look inferior. It had irked the hell out of Tony then and it didn't sit any better now.
"So what's with you, man?" Tony asked suddenly, unable to keep the question to himself any longer. "You think you're too good to ask for help or that it will make you look weak? Were you just going to sit in this lab and quietly pass out while everyone else was being taken care of?"
Steve frowned then, lifting his head as much as he was able to and looking at him. He might have been trying to glare but it was hard to determine from the bruises around his eyes. "What? No, that's not-"
"Then what is it, Steve?" Tony asked, stepping back and forcing the other man to look at him. "I've seen you do this before and at first I thought it was all bravado, some annoying characteristic you developed with your Captain America persona, which was bad enough, but now you're doing it again and we're alone with a medical team literally right down the hall. This isn't an act, it isn't some game you're trying to play, I'm nearly certain of that. It would take nothing to walk, or in your case, limp down there and get them to fix it," Tony said, regarding the wound on Steve's leg with a frown. It was bleeding heavily, a very small puddle forming beneath the edge of Steve's foot, and Tony knew there was no way he'd be able to fix a wound like that without help. "But you're not; you're sitting in here staring at the cabinets like they're about to come to life with what probably amounts to a concussion and broken ribs and you're letting them take care of everyone else first, even the ones who only have paper cuts and cold sores. What's the deal?"
Steve was silent for a second, eyes trained on the ground and slumped back rigid. "It's my job," he finally said simply, meeting Tony's gaze for a hard second before dropping it back down to the ground.
"This. You. Everything," Steve gestured around the room with one hand but it was a weak, uncoordinated movement that looked more like a spastic wave. "Our team, this ship, the people who follow us…it's my job to protect them, to keep them safe. It's what I was made for. And today I failed…I let them get hurt, I let you get hurt, we re-destroyed a good portion of the city…I'm supposed to protect you guys and I didn't…I failed one team already, I'm not too ready to do it again…"
Tony was silent for a few minutes, registering everything Steve had said. It made sense in a really twisted, backward kind of way. Steve felt responsible for all of them because he'd been handed the title of leader like it was a Jury summons. He'd been defrosted and re-awakened in the 21st century for only a short time before he was literally thrust back into duty in a foreign time period he wasn't familiar with. Even for only working with him for a short period of time, Tony got the feeling that Steve would literally throw himself headfirst into whatever role he was placed in and if he felt it was his job to protect his teammates then he was going to by God protect his teammates. It made sense why Steve kept drawing attention to himself during the fight to draw their enemies away from his other injured team members. Too bad they used him as a patriotic punching bag in the process. "Wow, you hit your head a bit harder than I thought if you're starting to get all sentimental on me now. It's kinda weirding me out."
"No," Tony said, effectively cutting off whatever Steve was about to say. "This whole self-sacrificing martyrdom bullshit stops here, alright? It's not your job to protect us, Steve; it's your job to lead us. We're a team, no matter how dysfunctional we all are behind closed doors, and we all watch each other's backs. It's a symbiotic, beneficial relationship to have out on the battlefield and it works best when we all work together. I don't care what Fury or anyone else told you; you're a part of this team as much as any of the rest of us and it's not your job to take the hits so we don't have to."
"Tony, that's not-"
"Nope, don't care. Whatever was about to come out of your mouth just let it go because I'm not going to listen to any excuse you have." Seeing Steve's slumped posture and bruised, battered features, Tony sighed and softened his voice. "Look, I don't know what happened with your previous team and I'm not about to break down and play Dr. Phil here but you need to realize that things are different now. You don't have to always play human shield because there's no one else to do it; maybe you did before but not anymore. We're stronger now, more equipped for these kinds of things," Tony halted and shrugged his good shoulder. "Well, sort of. The point is you're our leader; not our buffer, not cannon fodder, not the one who takes the hits so the rest of us can be safe and sound. We work together to protect each other, not alone, and that means getting your patriotic ass down to medical and letting them patch you up before you pass out and I have to drag you out of here on this rolling chair."
Steve was silent for a minute, not sure of what to say. Tony's words were true and he knew they were but he still had a hard time wrapping his mind around it. Right after the serum, when he first became stronger, he was put at the forefront of every battle because he could take the hits and blows that no one else could. His shield could block the weapons and his body would heal from injuries faster than any of the other soldiers so it just seemed natural to put him in the lead to protect those following him. He'd been given one simple order before each mission and he took it to heart every time: stay safe and make sure our boys come back home. Steve took that order seriously and if that meant walking into the middle of machine gun fire so the rest of his soldiers could make it to safety then he would gladly do it.
But then he went down into those frigid waters and he was lost from the world. He didn't know how many of his men had been killed in action after his disappearance or how many had been lost forever in the fields of battle. There were probably some that were never found. All of that sat like a cold weight in his chest, heavy and hard as lead. Yes, he'd saved the country and countless lives from Red Skull's weapon by going down with that ship but he couldn't save everyone. He'd had friends in his unit, people who'd looked up to him and would follow him into even the harshest of battles. He didn't know how many he'd lost, how many he'd failed because he wasn't there. He'd already lost Bucky before then and now…
"Steve." The sound of his name brought him out of his reverie and he looked up to find Tony staring down at him, his expression a mixture of half exasperation and half something else. Concern maybe? Steve couldn't really be sure; his vision was still a little bit inky around the edges.
"Wherever you are right now, whatever dark places of your mind you're trapped in? Let it go." Tony was looking directly at him, his eyes dark and sincere as he spoke, and he held Steve's gaze as he continued. "Like I said, I don't know what happened to your previous team but that was seventy years ago, you can't change it now. We all have regrets, some more than others, but there's nothing you can do to change the past. You're here now, in the 21st century, and it's time to accept that." Tony's words sounded a little bit harsher than he meant them to but he didn't mean it that way. He'd seen people pull away like this, their minds locked in a dark prison that they couldn't escape from, and most of the time it ended up destroying them. He'd watched it happen to his father when he was younger. And now Steve was teetering just on that edge of "what ifs" and Tony wasn't about to watch that downward spiral again.
He'd half expected Steve to put up some kind of fight against his statement, protest or argue or…something. Instead, Steve just sighed, his shoulders slumping even further down by his sides and his head hanging forward like a rag doll. "You're right…" His voice was tired, far away and strained like it was being filtered through cellophane. "You're right. I know you're right…it's just hard to let go, you know?" Steve looked up at him then, all the fight drained from his features, looking years younger than the age he held now. For a minute it was easy for Tony to forget that Steve was technically easily in his 80s or 90s; for a minute all he saw was a lost kid who had woken up in the wrong century with no idea what to do with himself or the life he'd returned to. For a minute he wasn't the leader, the Captain of the Avengers and one of the strongest members of their team. For a minute he was just Steve and he was looking at Tony as a friend and a companion. For a minute Tony didn't know what else to say.
Finally, he found the words and cleared his throat awkwardly, knowing full well that both of them just had a moment even if neither would admit to it. "I know, and I'm not saying it will be easy but you have us now. We're a team and we look out for each other…it's kind of in the job description."
Steve smiled then, the first real smile Tony had seen from him in probably two or three days, and he found himself smiling back. "Come on, gramps. Up." He reached around and slipped one of Steve's arms around his shoulders, helping him stand and straighten away from the chair slowly. Steve's knee buckled about halfway up, a surge of dizziness and nausea sweeping through him, and he would have toppled over had it not been for Tony right next to him. The billionaire just shifted both of their weights a bit to compensate for the fact that he was essentially the only thing holding Steve up and carefully moved both of them toward the door. "If that leg gets any worse they're going to stick you with a walker for sure."
"I'm sure you'll love that…" Steve laughed breathlessly, his face alarmingly pale, but he managed to stay upright and take slow, measured steps next to Tony.
"Are you kidding? I would post it on Youtube in a heartbeat."
"Youtube?" Steve turned his head to look at Tony and missed the small step over the threshold that led into the lab. He stumbled, jerking them both forward, and Tony's arm tightened around him, keeping them from tumbling to the floor.
"Easy. I've got you." The words were soft, barely more than a mumble, but Steve heard them loud and clear. He felt a tired, pain-filled smile cross his features and his fingers tightened on Tony's arm very briefly just as the billionaire's tightened on his own.