I'm not sure I like this chapter and some of you are certain not to but after months of eyeballing it's not changing, so:
Undone (bonus chapter)
The thing is, SHIELD thinks that Steve doesn't know.
It's not their fault, even dedicated professionals can fall prey to ingrained beliefs. Even though they've had access to his files from the war. Even though they know precisely how little training he had back then, leadership or otherwise…
Because they grew up knowing that Captain America was the ultimate soldier. A 'real world' tactician, on the field and in the thick of things. Smart, brave, quick - the perfect man, the perfect American.
It's natural that he lead the Avengers. Obvious, even. Without question. And so people don't question it.
Those that do but support him anyway, support him for entirely less savoury reasons. They support him as leader because he was a soldier. A soldier they were careful to never formally release from duty. A soldier who was trained as soldiers are, to obey without question. To jump on command. To trust.
He's useful, in the end. He's their tether. The one man they think Bruce (Hulk) might follow. The one man Thor might respect.
Natasha and Clint are already part of SHIELD, already have their own tethers. Thor, too, has connections with SHIELD. Bruce has an uneasy, suspicious truce with them.
Which leads to the number one reason Steve Rogers, Captain America, was put in charge of the Avengers.
He was the only man Tony Stark might stand a chance of heeding. The connection to his family and Steve's own genuine nature, gambled against Tony's allergy to any authority - perceived or otherwise - over him.
SHIELD thought they'd gambled and won. Tony snarked, he argued, he occasionally ignored but he never once rebelled. Tony Stark, Iron Man, fell into line as easy as breathing. SHIELD thought him tethered.
Tony tethered him.
Because, he was tired. Tired of the world, too-fast and sometimes unforgivably stupid when he'd thought by now they'd know better. His country, lost in its own reputation, detractors within and without trying to tear it down in a mostly well-meaning but blind sort of way.
He was tired of fighting. When SHIELD turned out to be just as muddled as the rest of the world, liars and manipulators almost by habit rather than necessity… he'd almost given up right then and there. Almost laid down Captain America to lie with Peggy, Bucky and the Commandos, in the past where it belonged.
But, Tony had happened. Had pushed, challenged, goaded. Had, with razor tongue and quicksilver intellect, stripped SHIELD to the bone, seen what they wanted unseen, and had risen to challenge them too.
Fearless. Stubborn. Determined. Coldly brilliant, but with that genuine warmth that kept him human. Tony Stark was everything people would have idolised back in the 30s and 40s. Industrialist, rich, the head of a huge company that employed thousands and took care of them. His hands were weathered with work, his tongue gilded with infinite charm.
He was brash like everything else in the world, brash and burning and bold - but it was never a weapon. It was a shield.
Tony Stark protected. Protected himself, his loved ones, his employees and his fellow man.
He proved to Steve, that good was still in the world. That it might look a little different, might swear and mock and think privacy was only a theoretical concept, but it still existed.
The world was different, but at their core, people were the same.
Captain America remained active because of one man, a man who was smarter than he was strong. A man who stood up for himself and others, who mouthed off first and met what came of that without flinching, no matter how outmatched he was.
A man who, in short, he felt a connection with. A sense of kinship.
To be fair, he couldn't blame anyone for not realising the reality of their perceived Captain America/Iron Man tether. After all, the first time they'd met? They'd nearly turned infighting into an art form.
What was the expression? Like calls to like?
He and Tony were back-to-back mirror images of the same core values, a complimentary yin and yang that looked violently opposed at first glance but in truth…
In truth, neither could exist without some small measure of the other.
It was the kernel of rebellion and cynicism in Steve that had him laughing at Tony's abrasive nature. It was Tony's kernel of appreciation for values and honesty that had him support Steve when the world would have dismissed him as hopelessly naive.
And besides, Tony was a genius of more than just machines. He was the man who could become an expert of thermo-whatever overnight. He was the man who played his investors and the press like an orchestra, swanning through life despite behaviour so out of control that anyone else would have drowned under it.
He was the man who had made it clear to Steve that Captain America made the Avengers stronger. Gave them more authority, more weight. Gave them a foothold with the conservatives who had grown up using him as a yardstick of American Values. Gave them more of an edge should the day ever come when The Avengers said 'no', and bit the hand that fed because the hand's counterpart was also feeding the enemy.
He was the man who Steve would follow without hesitation, but led because the man asked it of him.
And slowly, day by day, he was adapting. He went over battles on Tony's couch, with both genius man and genius AI machine picking apart and rebuilding their team better, teaching Steve as they went how tactics had evolved over the years, teaching him to be more than just a spangly suit and a reputation.
Steve already knew how to be a Hero. Tony Stark - and Iron Man - taught him how to be human at the same time.
All these thoughts ran through his mind when Nick Fury joined him in his cab home from the hospital to glare at him.
Steve just let his kernel of rebellious mischief shine through his smile and gently parried the man's insistent enquiries.
"Why does your team follow Stark?"
Because even professional chess pieces want to be valued. Because even adults and spies can crave safety and comfort. Because Tony's the real leader of the Avengers and every one of us knows it. Because Iron Man is a hero and Tony Stark is his flip side, a man whose ruthlessness would shame any villain, any day of the week.
Because he's ours, and we're his and that's how we like it.
"I couldn't possibly say, sir." He answered with a smile learned straight from his number one fan, the man he and every other Avenger knew was alive and almost-well down in SHIELD's medical six, because Tony was a genius and SHIELD didn't have him pegged even half so well as he had them pegged.
"You'd have to ask them."
Fury scowled. No-one could scowl quite like Fury.
"I did." The head of an international security agency groused. "I didn't like their answers."
Steve shrugged, gentle and amused and utterly unapologetic. Fury eyeballed him for four whole blocks before sighing and slumping back against his seat.
"Just… try to remember that he's made every psychiatrist on staff refuse to work with him."The director said eventually. "He's a melting pot of narcissism and insecurity, he's not always right no matter how often he says he is." He held up a hand to stall Steve's automatic argument.
"He needs people to challenge him. To make him reconsider his own convictions and actions. Even just every other day."
One dark brown eye bored into his.
"Nobody's perfect, Rogers. Just… try to remember that and we'll all sleep a little better."
The cab was pulling up so Steve just smiled and nodded, USO training coming in handy. He wasn't an idiot, he knew Tony wasn't perfect. But, who was? God and nobody else. You couldn't trust perfection when it came to humans because it was always masking something.
Just look at Natasha.
Tony was imperfect and he wasn't always right but he listened - really listened - to every member of the team and could comprehend and adjust plans so fast that it sometimes seemed like he was. He sure liked to act like he was always right, another shield Steve had learned about and he was kind of surprised that Nick Fury of all people didn't seem to get it.
The man gave him a final dark eyeballing.
"Good." He grunted then, hand on the door, smirked at him.
Then he was out and gone, the door swinging shut on Steve's startled expression.
Okay. Maybe Director Fury got it a little.
End (for real).