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The Labour Of My Love

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Tony was bitten two weeks after the virus hit New York.

One week after the virus hit, Steve, Natasha, Clint and Tony had fled the tower after the doors were broken down by a group of crazies. Half-way to full crazy, probably, because they usually work on their own. This group had enough human in them to work together.

They had run, Steve with his shield, Natasha with supplies, Tony with an arc reactor strapped to his chest and two gauntlets. Clint followed with a bow and a limited supply of arrows.

Bruce stays behind. He helps them escape.

And they never see him again.

 

Those first few days they try to recoup their losses, whatever that means. Clint and Steve hunt, and Tony breaks into computers in an attempt to contact some higher power.

Then the power goes dead full stop, higher or otherwise, and they're left in the stone ages.

Not entirely, because most people don't have Tony, and Tony has an arc reactor. He explains that it should run indefinitely, as long as they don't do something stupid, like use it to blow up the planet.

Tony stopped smiling after the first few days, when they still got news. When he heard that Stark Industries headquarters had been overrun. And that there were no survivors.

Clint had asked if Potts was there. Tony told him to figure it out himself, and went to sleep.

 

They had just made their way out of New York when it happened.

Steve had been hunting, Natasha cleaning the kill, Clint standing guard and Tony roasting meat with his repulsers.

A crazy, stronger than any they'd seen, had grabbed Tony's leg. Clint had sent an arrow through it's head, but the thing about crazies is that you really, really don't want to get too close.

Steve had returned before it ate Tony for it's dinner, but by then it had littered deep, dark bites up his left leg. He had decapitated it, because that's the only way to truly kill them apart from obliteration.

They cleaned Tony's wounds as best they could. Bandaged them. Held his hand, so he wasn't alone in his last moments.

But then Tony was gone. He didn't last the night.

 

They couldn't kill him, in the end. Or, kill him properly. They tied his hands behind his back with chain salvaged from a repair yard and tied the end to a tree. He snarls on his tether, tries to bite at them, and they stay back.

Natasha goes first. Tony's young enough that they can still shoot him. And Natasha stands with the gun in her hand, poised to go through his head.

But she couldn't. She couldn't forget who this man was. And so Clint was next.

The arrow hit the bark above his head.

Steve raises his shield. Tony whines, slightly. Whimpers. He makes a snuffling noise, clacks his tongue in the way that crazies do.

Steve can't.

Instead, they tie a dead dog to a stick. Lead him out, into the wilderness. He goes stumbling after, feet tripping over roots and logs and mud. And Steve throws the dog, runs, and doesn't look back.

 

After that, they move from place to place. Fill the days with old stories. Steve assumes that the virus kills you, after awhile, because more and more often they come across dead bodies.

Which is hopeful, in a way. They come across survivors too. Some violent, some bloody. Some just trying to get by.

Eventually, the crazies will die. And then there will be hope.

But until then, they walk.

 

They find a farm, out in Maine. It's by a lake. A week goes by, and then two. And then three.

They settle. There's the occasional attack, but apart from that they are safe. Steve doesn't know what happened to the last owners, but they were a family, because there are still pictures on the mantel shelf.

Steve finds good stock in the barn. Enough to grow fresh produce. Clint hunts the local deers, the other animals. Natasha, despite her reluctance, is able to clean and cook the food to an extent that they don't die.

And slowly they adjust. They find herbs and spices, and Clint, ever the scavenger, is able to find some of his own. Natasha is able to make sauces, is able to even season their food. Life is dedicated to survival, but survive they will.

 

Steve knows they're sleeping together. Natasha and Clint. It makes him ache. Ache for what he's lost, and ache for something new. But this is life now. There is no protest, no revolution. You can't fight against biology.

Maybe somewhere, things are better. Maybe somewhere, people still walk freely, hand in hand, without fear. Eat in restaurants and watch movies. Laugh.

Not here, though.

 

Steve tries not to cry over what has been lost. Not just what he's lost, personally. But the whole of humanity. Every piece of knowledge, everything great they ever achieved.

Gone.

Maybe the survivors will build it again. Maybe they'll do it right this time.

It's easier to just focus on the day to day, on what they've got here. It's not a bad life, considering. They play cards, talk. It could be so much harder.

 

Except one day, when Steve is cutting wood, air fogging with his breath, he sees a figure stumbling over the field.

He drags his left leg, slightly.

Steve moves for his shield. It's better to just kill them before they get too close, even if this one seems injured. They can attract others if you keep them round too long.

"Nat!" He calls, half sighing. "We've got another one."

Steve hefts his over his shoulder, shield propped up inside the house. It's inconvenient for decapitation when there's an axe handy.

Natasha comes to stand beside him, back up for if something goes wrong. The thing doesn't speed up at the sight of them, like most do, doesn't try to go in for the kill. It just continues to lumber forward.

Steve readies the axe, raises it above his head.

The things come closer.

Natasha's hand on his shoulder. "Stop."

Steve blinks. The crazy keeps walking. Closer and closer.

Eyes large, beard cut in a neat goatee, because hair doesn't grow when you're a crazy.

How --

"Tony?" Steve manages, and the thing stops, a few feet away.

He presses his palm to his chest. "Me," he says slowly "me Too-nee?"

The axe hits the ground with a thunk.

 

They chain his neck and tie it to a pole in the barn.

"He can just," Steve shakes his head "live here. For a while."

Clint blinks. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Clint, he found us. He came all this way, he tracked us."

"Yes," Clint agrees "yes he did, because that is what crazies do, they hook onto their food and they don't stop chasing until it's dead."

"Does he looks like a stone cold killer?" Steve snaps, pointing at Tony, who's currently rolling a large stack of hay.

Clint's face is closed off. "He'll kill you."

Natasha's hand slides onto Clint's shoulder. "It's okay," she murmurs "look. He just wants somewhere to stay."

"I know." Clint croaks. "I can see that. That's what hurts."

"We'll keep him here." Steve says. "He can stay in the barn. Eat our scraps. Look," Steve says "look at his leg. He'll never last in the wild."

"He's not a pet, Steve!" Clint manages "You don't get to keep him just because you're lonely!"

"No," Steve says "but he's our friend, or he was." Steve lowers his voice, as if Tony will hear and understand. "Clint, he'll be dead soon. They don't last long. Come on."

Clint looks at Tony again. And finally, his eyes soften. He nods.

 

Tony, for the most part, seems content to stay in the barn. It's warm, and the hay fascinates him. He lives behind a few large bales that block a little corner off, just for him.

At first, they're all apprehensive. Tony is -- Tony was a genius. And he was their friend. Possibly Steve's best friend. He didn't kill him when he had the chance and now he's paying for it.

He visits him, though. Tony seems friendly enough. Possibly more so than when he was alive, which is a little worrying. There's always a smile waiting for him when he sits on one of Tony's bales.

He never attacks. After awhile, the first week, Steve takes a risk, and frees his neck.

Nothing much changes. He's content to just sit in the barn, play in the hay. Natasha gives him some of the children's old toys, just to see, and although he seems interested enough for the first day, he quickly grows bored. The only thing of any real interest to him is the wrench, which he pokes the wall with as if from some kind of muscle memory.

It's enough to convince Steve that Tony's still in there, somewhere.

That night over dinner, he tries to sell to Clint and Natasha the idea of letting Tony move into the house. Absolutely not is the answer.

"I'm sure he's still him, somehow," Steve says "he came all this way, he must remember something."

"No," Natasha says "no. Maybe later, when we're sure he's not rabid. But not now, Steve."

"But it could help him."

Clint and Nat share a look. "Steve," Clint says carefully "Tony is dead. Don't forget that now."

"I'm not!" Steve says "I am acutely aware he's a crazy! That's why he needs help!"

But Steve loses that round.

 

Steve visits everyday, brings breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He never sticks around to watch Tony eat, obviously, because even now it upsets his stomach a little.

One day, he loops the chain round his neck. "Come on," he urges "come on. We're going for a walk."

Tony whines and sits adamantly on the floor, legs splayed and slumped.

"Tony," Steve warns "we're going for a walk."

Tony digs his fingers into a hay bale and Steve grabs at his hips. "Jesus you're stubborn."

Tony makes a noise of irritation and kicks a little with his good leg. When Steve wrenches him free, he's frowning, like a sulky child.

Steve laughs. "Come on." He tugs at the chain and Tony's goes stumbling after him.

"This is the farm," he says, looking out at the lake. "That's where I live," he says pointing "with Nat and Clint. You remember them, right?"

Tony grunts, and pulls on the edge of his chain, leaning forward.

"What is it?" Steve says "what do you want?"

Tony continues to tug until Steve follows him down the small slope to the water's edge. Tony drops to his knees, hand hovering over the surface.

"It's water, Tony," Steve says, crouching beside him "look." He runs his fingers through it, and Tony bats at the reflection, snarls.

"It's not real." Steve says softly. "Don't worry."

Tony doesn't seem to want to leave the water's edge, and he sits there for a while. When itripples clear, he growls at his reflection.

"That's you, Tony." Steve says again. "Tony," he says, getting his attention. He points at his chest. "Tony."

Tony blinks, and looks back at the water. "Tooo-nee." He garbles, pointing at the lake.

"Tony." Steve agrees. "You're Tony."

Steve stares as he looks at his reflection, apparently enraptured. He raises a hand, presses it to his hair, just to see the person in the lake do the same.

"Me Too-nee?" He says, looking at Steve.

"Yeah," Steve says "that's you."

 

Steve has an idea. He gets scissors from the house and finds some old clothes in the main bedroom. They'll be a bit big, but somehow he doesn't think Tony will mind.

"Bath time." He says, and he pushes Tony off the little pier where there's a boat docked and into the lake.

Tony splutters, coming up for air, but his feet find the ground easily. He makes a noise of irritation, splashes his hands in the water.

Steve dives in after him, retrieves the scissors from his belt. "Turn around." He says.

Tony's hair hasn't grown since he was killed, but it was already pretty long to begin with. It's matted heavily in places, filled with leaves and other things that Steve doesn't want to think about.

He chops a straight line down the back, and then cuts the rest, closer to his head. He works carefully, because he doesn't want Tony to be stuck with an uneven haircut for the rest of his life, however long that may be.

When he's finished, Steve takes a small bowl and just dips it over his head. Takes a sponge and wipes at Tony's face, gets every bit of dirt out from the lines there. Tony's nose crinkles but he endures it.

Then, Steve takes his scissors and cuts at the rags Tony wears.

The same clothes he died in.

For some reason, there are tears on his cheeks, but he swipes them away. It's fine. Tony's here now. Kinda.

"Here," Steve says, and he hands him soap. "Do you know what to do with this?"

Tony blinks, and makes a grab for it.

"Ah ah." Steve says. "Do you know what it's for?"

"Too-nee." Tony says, fingers grabbing as Steve holds him at arm's length.

"You wash yourself."

Tony makes a 'hrrmph' noise and his hands splash back into the water. Steve demonstrates, rubbing the bar on the palm of his hand.

Tony blinks, and picks it up. Takes a bite.

"Oh, Jesus," Steve says "spit that out."

Tony closes his lips resolutely.

"Tony," Steve warns "spit that out -- Tony. Tony!"

Tony spits the soap out into the water, groans.

Steve tsks and grabs the sponge. He uses the remaining shower gel to rub the dirt from Tony's body instead.

Tony shivers. "I didn't know you guys could get cold." Steve says.

Tony crosses his arms and Steve turns him round, does his back. Crazies don't sweat, so most of it is dried dirt from his escapades.

He helps Tony to shore. "I want to see your leg." He says, delicately, and he cuts away Tony's pants, or what's left of them.

Tony has no concept of self-consciousness. He lets Steve look up his leg, at the bites in his calf and his thigh. Steve remembers they weren't sure he was going to change at all, they thought he might just die, because the blood loss was so severe.

Steve pushes it from his mind and he gently soaps the wound. He ignores Tony's whimpers.

"There." He says when Tony's clean. "Nearly done."

He doesn't want to, but he takes a razor and shaves Tony's beard clean off. He'll never be able to grow one again, but right now it's crusted with blood, and it's just better gone.

He helps Tony into the clothes, the underwear, the jeans, the plaid shirt that's five sizes too big. He puts him in socks, and even sturdy boots. Completes the look with a big jacket, warm and snug, the same one Steve's used on occasion to go hunting.

He steps back to admire his handiwork.

Tony looks almost human, like this. His skin is still pale, his eyes still empty. They don't know what the virus is exactly or how it affects them, they just say that when someone is turned, they 'die', because they might as well be dead. But it's probably something neurological.

Tony just follows Steve now. He doesn't need a leash. So when Steve leads him back to the barn, he follows.

"Look," Steve says "we've made it like a proper room."

What they've really done is stick two bales together to make a bed and covered it with a sheet and pillow. They have a pile of hay for Tony to play with, because it still seems to fascinate him, and some lego too. When they ran, Tony carried with him a small plastic bag of personal belongings. Now, Steve sits him down, takes them out.

"Look," he says "that's you."

Tony blinks, and points with an unsteady finger. "Me," he says slowly "Too-neee."

"Yeah," Steve says softly "that's right. That's when -- before. And do you know who that is?"

Tony blinks at the photo. He takes it from Steve's hand.

"That's Pepper, Tony." Steve says quietly. "Remember her?"

Tony throws the paper to the ground. He howls.

"Tony," Steve says "hey it's okay, it's okay. Calm down, I won't -- "

Tony howls, standing and slamming his palms into a wall of hay. He wails, knocks his body against the wall.

"Tony!" Steve gets out, tugging him back, "It's okay! It's -- "

Tony's palm swings, his nails cutting down his face. Steve staggers, feeling the blood wet his cheek. He blinks.

The barn doors swing open. "What did he do?" Clint growls, rifle in hand.

"Don't," Steve says "I'm fine, I'm okay."

"Where did he bite you?" Natasha says, taking his face in her hands "Oh, Steve."

He bats her away. "He didn't bite me, he slapped me, it's okay. Stop."

Clint presses the gun and Tony shuffles into the corner, swiping weakly. "Stop, Clint," Steve says "don't, he doesn't understand."

"What did the fucker do to you?" Clint says fiercely, punctuating with another push of the rifle "You goddamn idiot, why have you got him here?"

Tony falls to his knees and presses back into the wall. He looks at Steve with fearful eyes.

"Clint," Steve soothes "it's okay. He didn't mean to."

Tony slides forward slightly, fingers reaching for the photo. Clint hits his shoulder with the rifle. "Stay back." He hisses.

"Clint!" Steve says "Let him take it, it's okay!"

"Okay?" Clint spits "Okay? He could have killed you, Steve."

"But he didn't." Steve presses. "Look, he's just scared. Look at him, Clint, just look."

Tony has the photo pressed to his chest, his head ducked, hidden behind his knees, trying to scramble back into the wood.

Clint lowers his rifle. "It was too close." He says.

"It was an accident." Natasha soothes, rubbing his neck.

"No," Clint says "we've lost too many people, Cap. Too many. If losing one who we thought was gone is what it takes to keep us safe, then I'll do it. I swear."

"It's okay," Natasha says "it's fine. We're all a bit stressed. It's okay. Come on, both of you. We'll eat something and get an early night. Steve let me disinfect that cut."

"Hold on," Steve says "hold on."

He moves to the bag, picks it up. Crouches by Tony, who's still huddled in the corner, as if trying to disappear.

"Don't go near him." Clint warns, holding up the rifle.

"Hey," he whispers "hey, are you okay?"

Tony''s holding the photo to his chest and his eyes are full of fear. "Me Tooo-nee." He says, trembling. "Me Too-nee, To-nee."

"Yeah." Steve says, brushing his hair. "That's right. You're Tony. Here."

He rifles through the bag, picks up the shining blue light.

"Are you out of your mind, Cap?" Clint hisses "We need that."

"Just for tonight," Steve calls back "right Tony?"

Tony stares at the arc reactor with absolute wonderment. His eyes widen and he twists, moving forward as Steve walks backwards, holding it out like a trophy.

Tony stumbles forward, raptured, hands moving forward of their own accord, trying to grab at it.

Steve places it on the floor, in the hay. Tony dives.

Quietly, he takes the chain and slides it over Tony's neck. Gives him room to breathe, and then moves away.

Tony blinks, stares at him, and tries to follow, only to be caught short by the chain. He gives a whine but is unable to figure out, or lacks the coordination, to take the chain from his neck. He cries out as Steve leaves, and Natasha places a hand on the small of his back.

"He'll still be there tomorrow." She says. "It's okay."

At least he has the light, Steve reasons. At least he's not in the dark.

 

"You're in too deep." Natasha remarks that night as they sit by the fire.

"I'm not in anywhere." Steve says, watching the flames. "I'm helping a friend."

"Tony's dead, Steve. Cutting his hair isn't going to bring him back."

Steve turns. "Then why does he know his name? Why did he cry when he saw Pepper?"

Natasha shakes her head. "Old memories, things he can't quite remember. That doesn't make him human, it makes him dangerous."

"You need to let go, Steve." Clint says softly, appearing in the doorway. "I know it's difficult, and I know you're lonely. But go to the next settlement, find a girl. Don't do this. It's only going to hurt worse when he dies."

Steve frowns with frustration. "It's not like that," he says "he's our friend. He came to us, he searched for us."

"That may be," Clint says "but the next time that happens, I'm going to kill him. End of the line."

 

It takes a few weeks to start trusting Tony again, but when he does, he takes him out with him. Mostly, they go scouting, search the area for crazies. Steve will pack a lunch, and Tony will find something to eat out there, although mostly Steve has to catch it for him because Tony is now the crazy equivalent of a domesticated animal. Steve doesn't know how he survived for so long in the wild anyway. Maybe he was feeding off their leftovers, or other crazies leftovers.

He doesn't want to think that Tony ever --

Over lunch, Steve will try to teach him words. Hello, goodbye, my name is, and Steve. He's able to remember for a short period of time, but is likely to forget unless repeating the word constantly.

A word a day. A word a day keeps the doctor away.

When they're not scouting, they work the field. Steve is the strongest, which is why it's fallen to him, but Tony likes to help. He'll carry Steve's tools for him in both arms, and he always sets them out neatly.

Steve spends more and more time in the barn. He gives Tony a blanket and a portable light so he's not in the dark for too long. More games, since the lego went down so well. Paper and pens prove invaluable.

Every night, without fail, he'll go through the photos and Tony will recite names.

"Pep-parr."

"Good," Steve says warmly "hey, that's good. What about this one?"

It's harder for Tony's lips to make the shape. "Boo," he tries "Boo-ruce."

"Bruce," Steve says "Bruce, but you're close."

Tony points. "Four."

"Thor."

"Four."

"Thor."

"Four."

"Close enough."

 

Tony picks up numbers quickly. By the end of the week, he can add and subtract numbers up to 100.

They mystify him, and one day, he doesn't move when Steve calls him for work. He just sits on the barn floor and pours over the math book, pencil gripped tight in his hand.

Steve smiles, leaves for the day, and when he comes back he's still there. Tony looks up, and lumbers over, hands him the book.

"Check." He says in his slow, drawling way.

Steve puts neat ticks next to every box, and then hands Tony his food. When he's finished, they look over yesterday's lego.

"What's this, Tony?" Steve asks.

"Tower." Tony answers.

Steve blinks. He hasn't taught Tony the word for tower. There's no point, out here. He stares at him.

"Which tower, Tony?"

Tony stares at him. "Me Tonee." He says in response, the words he falls back on when he doesn't know what to say.

Steve nods. "No, yeah." He says quickly. "Yeah. You Tony."

 

One night, Steve sneaks Tony into the house.

"It's a surprise," he says "it's your birthday."

Tony stumbles after him. "Burth-day?"

Steve shushes him and shoves him through the door into the kitchen. "Just sit." He says.

He opens a pot of coffee and dumps it in the pre-boiled water. "Don't tell Clint," he says quietly "he'll kill me if he finds out I wasted coffee."

Tony blinks down at the hot drink. Stares back at Steve. "Me Tony?" He says.

"You drink it." Steve says, and he mimes blowing on the mug. "Cool it down."

"Coowfee." Tony drags.

"Yeah," Steve smiles "yeah that's right. Coffee."

Tony leans down and inhales the smell deeply. "Cowfee." He sighs.

Steve laughs as quietly as he can. "Drink it."

Tony hasn't drunk anything other that water in months. He hasn't eaten anything other than raw meat. When his lips sip at the rim, his eyes widen, his face twists with the bitter taste. "Cowfee," he says, and he flaps his hands "h-hard?"

"Hot."

Tony nods. "Cowfee hot."

"Finish it?"

Tony continues to drink until the whole mug is drained. He pushes it slightly, toward Steve. "More?" He asks in his stilted way.

"No more," Steve says, apologetic "we need to make it last out the month before we go scouting."

Tony frowns and crosses his arms. Pouts a little bit.

"I'm sorry, Tony. I wouldn't have let you have it if I knew you were gonna get so upset."

Tony buries his head in his hands. "Cowfee!" He moans. "Cowfee!"

"Shh!" Steve hisses, grabbing his arm. "Come on, you're gonna wake them up."

"Cowfee!" Tony laments as Steve steers him out to the barn. "Cowf -- "

Steve slaps his hand over Tony's mouth. "Shh."

He sits Tony on his hay-bed. "No more." He says sternly. Tony looks up at him, half angry, half simpering.

"Look," Steve says "I got you these. For your birthday."

Tony shifts slightly, tries to grab at what's behind Steve's back.

"Wait!" He says "Hold on. You gotta be patient."

Tony's hands slap back onto the hay and he sits stock still, waiting.

Steve laughs. "Here," he says "do you know what this is?"

Tony shakes his head, grabbing at the shield.

"This is mine." He says, and he crouches so Tony can touch the surface. "My shield."

Tony blinks. "Shee-eld."

"Yeah," Steve says softly "It's my shield. Your dad made it for me."

"Cap." Tony says, popping the 'p'. He presses his hand to Steve's forehead. "Cap."

Steve blinks. "Yeah, Tony." He whispers. "Yeah I'm Cap."

"Me Tony." He says.

Tony looks so real, in the warm light of the barn. It's dark outside, but in here he looks so human.

"Uh," Steve says, and he clears his throat around the block there "I made you this, too."

He takes out a piece of paper folded to resemble a card. "Look," he says "that's you, there. And, well you've got a beard in this one because that's just how I -- here." He says. "Take it. Happy birthday."

Tony's fingers play with the delicate paper. He peers inside.

"Har-ppy," he manages "har-ppy berth-day?"

Steve takes his head in his hands and presses a kiss the the centre of his forehead. "Yeah, Tony." He says softly "Happy birthday."

 

Steve is awoken the next morning by a crash.

He snatches his rifle from next to his bed, moves silently down the corridor, the stairs. Aims through the kitchen door.

And he sighs. Obviously.

Tony is sitting at the table, mouth smothered in brown powder. He smiles when Steve walks in.

The room smells of coffee. Steve hears the bubbling of boiling water.

Clint looks up. "I found him eating the stuff raw."

"Damn," Steve says weakly "I wonder why."

Clint shoots him a look and takes the water off the hob, pours it into a mug. "Here," he says to Tony "there's your coffee."

"Cow-fee."

Clint sits in the chair opposite him, sips from his own mug. "We're going hunting today."

"Both of you?"

"Yeah."

"Is that a good idea?"

"I'm gonna teach him how to shoot."

Steve says nothing, and that's the end of that.

 

One night, some weeks later, Steve is awoken by a howling.

"Crazies." He grits, and he, Clint, and Natasha stock up, head downstairs.

"Easy," Steve says "easy -- oh God."

It's coming from the barn. The doors are smashed, broken through, and they can hear the moans from within.

"Tony?" Steve calls, throwing caution to the wind "Tony are you okay?"

Tony is rocking, face scrunched, and Steve realises, he realises that he is crying.

He throws down his gun. "Tony?" He says "hey, are you hur -- "

There's a body in his arms.

It's a crazy, alright. Her hair mangled, one eye gone. Lips cracked, skin white, red veins spreading down it's neck.

"Sick," Tony sobs "sick."

"Oh Tony," Steve says "she's not sick anymore. Here, let us take her."

"H-help," he says, jolting the body, gesturing. "Help."

"Tony, she's gone."

Tony wails, curls his legs beneath himself, rocks back and forth. "Help," he says again "help!"

"Get gloves." Steve says "And a shovel."

 

The bury the unnamed crazy right there, that night, just as the first light of dawn spreads over the field.

"Take him to the house," Clint says "he can have the spare room."

 

The house fascinates Tony. The books, the toys, the fire. Everything is new to him, everything special. He ups his one word a day to five, and then to ten, and then to twenty.

And then, something strange happens.

Steve hadn't noticed, at first, but Tony's hair is getting longer. One day, he stares at him and sees a ghosting of stubble on his jaw.

At first, they just assume that maybe crazies grow hair more slowly than humans. But when Steve shaves him, it grows back. And then again. And then again.

"A fluke." Natasha says. "Don't... we shouldn't get our hopes up."

Life continues.

 

They're visited, one day, by someone from a nearby settlement.

"Hi," he says, and he looks young, barely twenty. "I've come to talk to you about our saviour?"

Steve snorts. "Whatever you're selling, kid, we're not buying."

The man sighs. "I've been travelling from settlement to settlement. You're the furthest out this side of the state."

"There's no room for God here, kid."

"Not God," the boy says "I'm here to talk to you about our lord, Charles Darwin. Master of evolution."

Natasha and Steve share a look. "What do you mean by that, exactly?"

"Evolution. The human race. Change. We're going round, spreading the word. Humanities greatest hour has come."

This is when Tony pokes his head past Steve's shoulder. He's nervous. He's never seen another person before.

The boy takes a step back. "You've got one." He says. "That's a crazy. They're not pets, you know."

"He's not a crazy. He's," Steve considers "not crazy."

"Har-lo." Tony says cautiously.

The boy jerks. "Oh my God. Oh my -- you're those Avengers!"

"Not anymore." Clint says.

"That's, but that's Tony Stark!" The boy rifles through his satchel. "He's the seventh master! Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Darwin, Da Vinci, Tesla, Stark. You -- you have to show people this!"

Tony ducks his head onto Steve's shoulder. "Kid, leave us alone. He isn't your master, he's sick."

"But he's getting better, right? Everywhere, people are recovering. If you didn't die in the first onslaught, then you are reborn! A fresh slate, better, faster, more advanced than any other human. It's evolution, it's Darwin's -- "

"Kid," Clint says, cocking his shotgun. "Leave."

 

"He's getting better," Natasha says "just like any other virus. He's recovering."

Today, Tony is sleeping. It's the first time he's slept in months.

"It's a miracle." Steve says.

"It's science." Clint replies.

"It was an illness," Natasha says "like any other. And I think," she smiles, she actually smiles "I think he's going to be okay."

Clint takes her hand. Steve smoothes Tony's hair.

 

"Check." Tony says, edging the paper towards Steve.

On days like this, when it's raining and there's no work to be done, Tony has lessons.

Steve shakes his head. "Tony, I'm not clever enough for this."

It's the math that gets him. Steve was just never taught math to a high level, and anyway, he preferred art. He could keep up when Tony was just adding and subtracting, but now it's complex equations and numbers to the power of infinity and it just passes him by.

Steve says this every time, and every time Tony still asks him to check.

So they read instead. Right now, it's 'Of Mice And Men' because it's small and easy to manage and Steve, in some twisted way, can relate.

Tony can read. He knows what sounds the letters make. It's just about speeding it up a little.

"The, the," he frowns "the jab-ee-lan mount-taynes."

"Gabilan mountains." Steve says. "The Gabilan mountains."

"What, uh." Tony holds up a hand, tells Steve to wait, let him articulate "What are, uh, what the Gabilan mountains?"

Steve pauses. "You know the mountains outside?"

Tony nods.

"Well, the Gabilan mountains are all the way on the other side of the country."

Tony pauses. "West." He says slowly.

"Yeah, the west coast. In California."

"Malibu?"

"Kinda near there, I guess."

"I, I live, Malibu?"

"You used to live in Malibu."

"With Pep-parr -- Pepper."

"Yeah. With Pepper. Tony," Steve asks "do you remember? Before?"

Tony frowns, taps his head. "I," he starts "I always remember." He shakes his head. "Like, I am always," he makes a noise of frustration "I always remembered?" He says "Uh, before, at start. Like, with the barn, before that. I, I follow? I remember. I look for you."

Steve blinks. "You," he swallows "you knew we were, who we were? You searched for us?"

"I want -- wanted, I wanted, you. Wanted you. Was, was scared, couldn't, couldn't think, couldn't -- my team? My team. Cap, and my team."

Steve breathes softly. "We left you."

"After attack, I, you hold, you hold my hand." He demonstrates, taking Steve's hand in his. "You say 'it's okay', or, you said? Uh." Tony shakes his head. "You hold my hand and say it will be okay."

"We thought you were dying."

"And, after it's harder to think? Was scared, didn't, didn't understand. Didn't, the word," he says, patting his head "when your head twisting, it's, I was, was, was confused. Can't remember well. Got lost. Couldn't find you. And you say, you said, everything would be okay. So I follow."

"Oh, Tony," Steve says, squeezing. "We thought -- we thought you, we left you. I'm so sorry."

"I walk, I smell you, and Nat and Clint. Follow your feet. Sometimes I see you and try to run, but leg, the leg is broken, or." He thinks "Hurting, so can't. Try to, to speak? Not making words. I try to say 'Tony' because I remember, don't remember other things. Just know I need Cap and being okay."

Steve is crying, and he doesn't know why.

"Find other, other group. They not nice, not -- they tie me, and keep me for long time. Say I'm Stark and I don't know what that meaning. I bite at them and, and kinda," he makes a growling noise "do that."

"Another group?" Steve says, wiping his cheeks.

"They keep lot's of us in the metal boxes. With the, the windows? Like you can put your fingers through the squares."

"Cages."

"Cages. They burn us, lot's of us. I try making words but head isn't working, they don't understand."

"How did you get out?"

"I more cleverer than other. Open cages. Lot's of us run. I get out. Look for Cap and Nat and Clint."

"And you find us."

Tony grins. "And I find team. I get bed, and straw, and lego, and food, and coffee. Better with team."

"Yeah, well." Steve wipes his eyes. "Yeah. Well, I'm glad you're happy."

Tony's head cocks to the side. "Why," he searches for the word "cry? Crying?"

Steve pats his hand. "Because I'm glad you're happy."

"Sad."

"People cry when they're happy, too."

Tony nods, as if this is important information.

 

There's a crowd at their door.

"We know he's in there!" They scream "You don't get to keep him, you know! He's not just for you!"

"Steve," Tony says fearfully "what, what they want?"

There's a shake as someone runs into the side of their rickety farm house. A heavy banging noise as they slam at the door.

Tony crouches, fearful. "Steve!" He says again.

"Here," Steve says "out the back. Natasha, take him."

"No," Tony moans "no, Steve."

"Tony, I'll join you. Just go with them, let me talk to the crowd."

"They want me!" Tony says "I hear them! Not deaf!"

"Tony." Steve growls. "Go."

"They burn me?" Tony whispers.

"No one's going to burn you," Steve says quietly, pressing a kiss to Tony's forehead "I swear. You just need to run as best you can, okay? Natasha, Clint, go."

Steve turns, makes his way to the door. "Back up!" He shouts "Back the fuck up or I swear to God I will kill you all."

"We'd like to see you try!" Comes a young voice.

"I'm Captain America, son. I took down Gods before this, I can take down you."

The mob moves back, away from the door. Steve slings his shield on his arm. Braces it, and opens the door.

There's twenty, maybe. Some with torches, flames flickering dangerously near to their wood. Steve swings, and they swerve back.

"We don't want any trouble." Steve grits. "Leave now and we won't kill you."

"We want Stark."

"He doesn't want you."

"It's not safe having a crazy out here."

"He's not a crazy, he's just sick. He's getting better."

An old man, the leader most likely, steps forward. "Stark is one of the seven masters. The only one left alive."

"You can't have him."

"He's the next step in human evolution."

"Leave him alone!" Steve swings the shield, knocking a line of them back.

"If you don't let us have him, we will kill him. Bring equilibrium to the universe."

Steve shakes his head. "You're insane. That's insane, he's not your leader, he just wants to get better. Leave us alone and we won't hurt you."

"We found him!" Someone screeches from the other side of the house, and the man grins.

"Here we go," he says, and someone hands him a bag. Two men drag a kicking Tony round to the front, and Steve raises his shield.

They put a machete to his throat.

"You can't." Steve croaks. "You need him."

"No," the man says "all the masters are dead. We will kill the final one so he can take his place -- "

"Stop!" Clint screams, running across the wet grass. "What do you think you're doing? He's not a crazy -- he's human!"

The man opens the bag, and Steve feels his insides clench with disgust. That's flesh. Human flesh, and meat, and blood, and he turns away.

The crouches, clicks his tongue. "Come on, Stark. Come on. There's food here."

Tony turns away. He hasn't eaten raw meat in months.

"You're not hungry?" The man coaxes "Not even a little bit?"

"He doesn't eat humans, you idiots, he eats food. He's a human being."

Tony squirms. "Stop," he says "stop."

Clint fires his shotgun into the air. "Get away!" He says "Or I swear to God -- "

"You swear what?" The man says, turning. "We'll kill him before you even -- "

Tony twists, and bites down on the hands holding him.

The man screams. "He bit me! Oh God, he bit me!"

After that, everyone is screaming. Steve slices the head off him, and some of the younger ones flee. The run, out into the forest, while Clint shoots after them.

"STAY AWAY!" He roars.

Steve pushes Tony up to his knees. "Hey," he says "hey, you okay?"

"Good."

"Okay," Steve says, folding him close into a hug "that was very brave, what you did. Very very brave."

"They wanted me."

"We didn't let them."

"They want me, they hurt you."

"Tony," Steve says quietly "no, Tony. It's not like that."

Tony stands, and Steve follows. "They want me so they hurt you. They hurt you."

"No one hurt me."

"They were going to."

"That doesn't matter."

Tony shakes his head. "No," he says "no no no. It does. Does. I, me, me Tony."

"Enough," Clint says "bed. Bed, and we'll talk about it in the morning."

Natasha slides up besides him. "Steve," she murmurs "lock his door tonight. If it's the Tony I remember, he'll try to run."

 

In the end, they decide it's not safe for Tony anymore.

"They'll be back." Steve says. "We need to leave."

Clint and Natasha share a look.

"We're..." Natasha shakes her head. "We're content, Steve."

Steve blinks. "What?"

"We don't," Clint looks at her "we don't want to leave."

"No but," Steve shakes his head "you have to. Otherwise -- "

"We don't," Natasha says carefully. "It's... it's Tony they want."

"You want to kick him out? Now?" Steve demands.

"No," Natasha says "but I'm not going to skirt around this. We don't want to leave. We can't. We're happy, and," Natasha's hand circles her belly "and I'm pregnant."

Steve stares. "What."

"She can't leave, now." Clint says. "We both can't."

They hold hands, and in that moment, Steve sees very clearly that it's time for him to go.

 

They wait until the next spring. Natasha's due any day now, and Steve has spent the past nine months preparing for the new arrival.

The night before they leave, Tony collects his things. He straps on his arc reactor, puts on his gauntlets. Tests them.

"You ready?" Steve murmurs.

"Than I'll ever be."

They kiss, small, and tender. "Don't want to say goodbye." Steve admits.

"Yeah," Tony says "it's. It's difficult. Twice over."

"There's a future out there, now. There's a future."

"And we'll be a part of it."

Steve clasps his hand. "And we'll be a part of it."

 

"Goodbye." Natasha says, and she presses a kiss to Steve's cheek. Clint cries, and hugs Tony close.

"Be safe." They say. "Be safe. If -- when the power comes back, I want you to find us, you understand?"

"Crystal." Tony says. "Steve?"

"Yeah," he says "you'll be the first on our list."

Tony smiles, and his hair dapples in the sun. "Who knows, maybe one day we'll all be living back in our tower."

"One day." Natasha says, and she kisses his cheek.

They set off at dawn.