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Chthonian Limericks

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Part One: Omnivore.

 .....

Sometimes, when the moon had fallen and the sunrise had not yet flung her arms skyward, Steve could pretend, just for a moment, that he was home.

This was hard, some days (most notably after he had helped defeat some technologically advanced monster or narrowly avoided some physics-induced death). Those days, no matter how he sat atop some taller-than-heaven building, and no matter how he stared above the skyline, he could not force away the sound of the life that passed below him. His sense of dates was hazy (a side effect, he was assured, of temporal displacement – whatever that meant), but he knew more than seventy years had passed. By anyone's count, he was an old, old man. His time was gone.

Those nights, he really, really wished he could get drunk.

But most nights (okay, rare nights), the cars quieted, and the sky was dark, and he could imagine he could see the constellations of his childhood in the orange haze above the city, and that he was a boy again, before Captain Rogers, before Captain America. Where all he had wanted was to serve, nothing more. Where his greatest fear was that he would never even get to sort scrap metal.

Well, his second greatest fear.

He knew the other Avengers worried about him, insomuch that they could spare the concern between the weekly (and even more frequent) attacks on the world, on S.H.I.E.L.D., on themselves and their loved ones. In the wake of Loki's attempt at world-domination, villains crawled out of the woodwork like silverfish, and many of their schemes were as clever as they were deadly. Steve had resigned himself to a soldier's post. Point. Shoot – well, in his case, Toss Shield. Follow Orders (when he wasn't giving His Own).

Even with all of the other things to focus on, there were still the side-long glances. No one, not even super-soldiers, should fight so expressionlessly, so silently. More than once Clint had opened his mouth to say something, or Natasha would stare at him narrowly when the fight had ended, or Banner would consider him not-unlike a specimen in post-battle debriefings.

But he could ignore all that, because, some nights, in the arms of a night-wrought illusion, he belonged here. They weren't often, though, and most of the time (like tonight) he was left to try and exorcise his own demons.

He always failed.

Cars sped by, bleeding halogen bulbs sweeping by him in vast currents of light, drowning out the constellations above as arrogantly as if they were small stars themselves. He hated the arrogance inherent in his beloved America – it shone through in the face of every person he passed, and, perhaps most brightly, it shone in Tony Stark's face during meetings, beyond far-off stars, a burning sun that gleamed irritatingly in his eyes. He didn't like that, of all people, Tony Stark represented America better than he did; wasn't America one of the few things he had left?

Steve leaned against the gritty wall of  brownstone, trying to look as if he was breathing hard, as if he was normal. Normalcy, these days, was all about striving for physical excellence, and bullying yourself when you couldn't reach it. He supposed that's why no one gave him a second look; a man his fitness level shouldn't have to push, but no one in America leaned back and enjoyed the fruits of their labours anymore.

Nothing was the same, anymore.

'Now I know – I know – heh, that isn't from – shit, what's the word – exertion,' a familiar voice said from behind. 'What's got you up, Cap?'

Steve did not tense, like he wanted to. He didn't even turn round. Silence was a damn good defence. He moved forward, trying to mentally block him out.

He recognised the drunken drawl in Stark's voice, honey sweet and whiskey sharp. If gold had a voice, natural gold, rough and knobbly and covered in grit, it would sound like Tony Stark.

His steps were all but drowned out in the loud rev of a passing car's engine, speeding by with lights and doo-dads enough to dazzle Steve, and the sound almost obscured Stark's call of, 'Cap? Hey, Cap!'

Steve ignored it, and after a minute, when the car had fishtailed the corner and sped out of sight, he heard the other man mutter, 'Must've been some other jacked guy...' Steve smiled, and started to jog away. The cars had slowed to a trickle by now, the halogen currents reduced to a dry riverbed of asphalt streets and blinking intersection lights. His mouth twitched, already tired, and he fought the urge to drop his grin.

The smile fell, though. It always did.

 .....

'You know, it's been three nights I've been sober, tryin' to find you, Cap.'

There was no liquid sound in Stark's voice tonight, and Steve cursed gently in his head as he turned. He should have known better than to go running through the city more than once a week, much less the same route.

Stark leaned against the wall of an alley, his clothes in a state of dishevelment, the light in his chest glowing dully through his black shirt. Steve had seen it glowing ferociously today, flaring in bright bursts as he flew, twisting left and right and dodging the RPGs that the would-be-terrorists had tried to use to gain entrance to S.H.I.E.L.D. That light in the middle of his chest was what had driven Steve out here tonight, had so reminded him of his not-belonging, the idea that a machine (something like an 'arch reaction') could not only keep a man alive in this day and age, but could power at the same time a massive full-metal exoskeleton. How heavy did that thing have to be, he thought idly, waiting for Stark to speak again, and how strong a man did he have to be in order to wield it?

If physics hadn't also changed in the years Steve had spent on ice.

'That's a hell of a dry streak for me, you know,' Stark commented, 'and one I intend to break. Christ, Cap, what are you doing?'

Steve arched his eyebrow at him, stealing one of his expressions. Stark's grimace showed that he knew it.

'Running.'

'And breathing and seeing and hearing, yeah, yeah, yeah,' Stark said dismissively. 'Let's leave the kiddie-come-backs on the playground. After all,' Stark gestured a hand clearly intended to encompass the night, the city, the far-off clock tolling once, twice. 'Kids aren't allowed out after dark.'

Steve wasn't in the mood for Stark's sense of humour. 'Can I help you, or are you going to talk at me until dawn?'

'You aren't liberal enough for the stories I'd tell,' Stark said, chuckling. His eyes narrowed slightly, despite the remaining smile, and he looked to be bracing himself. 'Are you alright, Cap?'

'Just fine,' Steve replied, and watched curiously as Stark scowled slowly. 'Is something wrong?'

'You're off,' he said, frowning at Steve as if trying to solve a new puzzle. 'Like a turkey on Easter. And too neutral. I thought good-boy-patriot would have been thrilled with today's result. A home-run for Team Red White and Blue, and all that.' His eyes narrowed further. 'Or that you'd be angry they almost blew holes in you with rockets.'

'Maybe I'm not as volatile as you,' Steve said mildly.

Stark's expression failed, his face an abrupt blank.

Steve slowly jogged away, building up to a run, then to what others would have called a full-on sprint.

He called it satisfaction.

 .....

Stark didn't look at him once when next trouble struck that called for the Avengers. Not much of an interval (two days? Two hours?) but it still counted. The villains grew ever more clever, proving to him time and time again that he was fast becoming obsolete in a world that no longer needed a Captain America, much less wanted one. Not that he blamed them; the America he had signed on for, the America that he had lived and breathed and believed in and fought for, was an idea almost as obsolete as he was. An idea that Stark would have cast aside as easily as a failed blueprint – though when Stark had become his measuring stick for his own inadequacies, Steve had no idea.

What they fought this time, though... something about the name had made everyone laugh (the Cruxis Crystal), but the laughter had crashed like a two ton pile of bricks when a single blast knocked Romanov out of commission. (She wouldn't wake up for four days, and when she did, she never spoke of the Cruxis Crystal again. Steve had recognised the new lines under her eyes, though; the coma she had been in was not what could be described as 'peaceful'.) Most of Steve's attention had gone towards that – and, well, staying alive – but enough remained to see that Stark said goodbye to everyone in Romanov's hospital room after the mess except him.

Steve had shrugged it off; who even knew what went on in Stark's alcohol-fuelled mind? He went back to the apartment to relish being alive, being alone, even if he was out of place.

It was one of the rare nights that he could pretend he was home where he belonged, and so he did, staying in and reading a sample of the seventy years of poetry he'd missed. There was nothing wrong with a little escapism.

 .....

'This is the second time you've forced me to go dry, Captain. I hope it doesn't become a habit.'

Steve didn't pause, just kept jogging. He'd gone out of his way to avoid any part of the city that Stark might appear in, but a three night streak was too much to ask for. Footsteps caught up to him, and there was Stark, keeping pace and looking pissed.

'You could always stop bothering me,' Steve offered politely.

'So you can run yourself to death and I can get blamed? Please,' Stark scoffed. 'Might as well hand you the keys to a shuttle and be done with it.' Steve didn't bother to look confused, but Stark clearly picked up on it, anyway. 'Nah, you need someone to press your buttons 'til you blow. How many nights do you go running a week?'

'I fail to see how –'

'Six? Seven if we didn't just fight something,' Stark mused. 'Someone could start thinking you were running away from something.'

'If they felt they were entitled to my private thoughts,' Steve said, teeth gritted. 'Which they're not.' It was one thing to be on edge around Stark, quite another to know the man was doing it on purpose.

'Well, maybe not,' Stark conceded, 'But national treasures shouldn't be so obvious about their thoughts, then.'

'I'm not.' Stark stared at him askance, but Steve knew the sharp tone, heavy and venomous, was right. He would not apologise. Stark sighed.

'Look, Cap, I'm not any good at this 'counselling' shit,' Stark began. 'Because, seriously, genius though I may be, I suck at this. But everyone's so certain that you're okay, I'm okay, we're all okay that Banner and I, as the scientists, have to be the dissidents.'

'Because the majority is never right,' Steve said, looking at Stark, finally, and trying to ignore the glint of genuineness beneath all of the sarcasm. He would never say it aloud (not since Clint had told him stories of what Stark had done to people who mentioned it), but he looked a lot like Howard in that moment. 'Because democracy doesn't work, the majority shouldn't rule.'

'Democracy is like the scientific community,' Stark said, eyes dancing madly under passing street-lights (how fast were they running?) as he warmed up to his subject. 'The dissidents are necessary for progress, because without them there wouldn't be new ideas, debate, innovation.'

'Sorry,' Steve said, and endured another askance look. 'When you said “everyone” I assumed you meant the Avengers, not the continental United States.'

Stark laughed, but stopped abruptly with a little intake of breath, as if shocked that anyone but him could induce laughter. Steve took the opportunity to subtly pour on the speed, but Stark, almost absent-mindedly, kept pace. Steve could hear his breath grow uneven, though; they'd been running for twelve blocks, while talking, without showing signs of slowing down.

'You don't do sarcasm,' Stark said, sounding for the first time in recent memory awed. 'You don't do sarcasm, you don't do clever conversation –'

Steve glared, but let it slide for the sake of hearing where he was going.

'– Christ, if you start swearing I'll have to test you to see if you're m – the Cap I know.'

Steve stopped mid-stride, and watched as Stark overshot him by twenty feet before skidding to a stop and turning around.

'Cap?'

'Why are you here, Stark?' Steve asked clearly into the twenty feet of silence between them. 'Go home. Go see Ms. Potts, go drinking, go design a new suit. Leave. Just because I run doesn't mean there's something behind me.'

Stark stood, looking thunderstruck, as if there was a variable he hadn't even known how to name suddenly staring him in the face.

'You don't belong here,' he said, mid-thought before Steve turned, and ran, because now there was something to run from.

 .....

He spoke when spoken to. He fought. He ate. He slept. He ran. But no more than that. He could even manage to do most of these around Mr. Stark (the mister helped put some distance between them). But he wasn't living, and he knew it.

No one else noticed. Maybe he had slid so far into the annals of apathy that no one noticed the difference any more. The rare nights he so cherished blurred to a distant memory as the months rolled past and the villains grew fiercer but more subtle. The Avengers were needed less often, though they kept in touch. Well, they kept in touch with him. Steve would have been content to fade away into the normalcy of the city.

That wasn't to say that they, as a group, didn't spend any time at S.H.I.E.L.D.; it was on one of those afternoons, between one crisis and the next, that Steve was wandering the halls, looking for something, anything, to occupy his time. When he heard raised voices echoing down a deserted hallway, he only thought it a good way to spend his afternoon.

'What the hell do you mean, no one's explained it to him?!'

Steve froze in place at hearing Stark's voice. Short of barbed quips on the battlefield and comments during debriefings, he hadn't heard Stark really speak in four months (God, had it really been so long since he'd been slapped in the face with his own unimportance?) His voice sounded less like gold and more like iron pyrite – sharp, unforgiving, shining in anger.

'How would you explain something like that, Mr. Stark?' Fury answered, low, thick tones hiding his thoughts like a ski mask. 'At this point we're relieved he hasn't collapsed from the effects of temporal displacement, like others we've found or unfrozen ourselves.'

Steve flinched. They were talking about him. And the conversation didn't sound pleasant. Collapse? Explained? He crept closer to the door.

'The other turkeys you've defrosted weren't changed into super-soldiers and forced to fight on some of the nastiest battlefields in human history, much less expected to continue beating the ever-loving shit out of your mistakes afterwards!' Stark sounded furious. 'If he wasn't so pigheaded about being the hero, he would have done so long before now!'

'Stark, I understand your concern –'

'You'll give Clint combat-counselling after being controlled by the Norse Freakazoid, but you can't even spare Prozac – hell, some St. John's Wort tea to help his obvious depression? What the hell is your game?'

'There is no game,' Fury said, sounding sharp. 'We value the lives of all our men –'

'Clearly not enough to spare them the flashbacks and depression of PTSD, much less temporal displacement.'

PTSD?

'You're out of line.'

'And you,' Stark said, voice suddenly louder, 'Are abusing one of your –' the door opened before Steve could step away, and Stark froze. Behind him, Fury looked impassive as always, but there was a tinge of tension in his jawline. 'Steve,' Stark said, eyes wide. His face was unshaven, his clothes rumpled, the lines on his face deeper than ever.

Steve did the responsible thing. He nodded, and turned, and walked away. Behind him, there was nothing but silence.

 .....

Steve marvelled at computers when he wasn't busy being bewildered. It took a while of poking at the buttons on the board until he had opened the internet, and a little while longer until he figured out Google. But when he did, he had more than an eyeful.

PTSD was shell shock, he learned. Devastating mentally, it could result in flashbacks, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and insomnia. In certain cases, the patient became violent and withdrawn, losing faith in humanity.

Temporal displacement was a similar story. Depression, anxiety, and most notably, a sense of not belonging. It was... strange, to think that all he had been suffering for the past few months was something that could be fixed. But then...

In a perverse sense, he didn't want it to. He liked his midnight runs, he liked the nights of solitude and quiet contentment, he liked the way no one asked him to do more than he was truly capable of. It was a simple existence, and he wasn't certain he wanted to give it up. But a large part of him questioned his own motives, and asked if he was taking the easy way out.

Probably.

Still, anyone who had a problem with that could go, in Stark's immortal words, fuck a tree. Besides; no matter how pissed Stark had sounded, he didn't actually give a damn.

Steve blinked and looked at himself. He never swore like that. Maybe... maybe he really wasn't Captain America anymore.

Or maybe America had changed.

 .....

'That's three times, you patriotic bastard, and I'm making you cover my next tab in revenge.'

Steve just kept going. He was walking, tonight, because in a weird way, he felt like his running was over.  Fury had removed him from active duty until he was “mentally fit to carry out his duties”. Now he wandered aimlessly, uncertain of what to do with himself – and blessedly relieved. At last, he was no longer Captain America; Steve Rogers felt like an old suit he hadn't been able to wear in years, and finally fit into again. It was a feeling he wasn't yet sure he liked.

Obsolescence, perhaps, had a pleasant up-side. He kept walking.

'Hey. HEY! Oh, for fuck's sake –'

A hand on his shoulder, but he rolled them like liquid, and the hand fell away with a hiss. A second later, Stark fell into step beside him; Steve stared ahead, refusing to look to the side. He had places to go.

First, the park. He had spent one or two nights perched in the highest branches of the tallest tree, pretending the city lights didn't haunt the edges of his vision, horrible ghosts of lives he had never known, living as if he was never there. He placed a hand on the bark, and bowed his head; they stood there for ten minutes, the silence of the park leeching away the sounds of the city until he could pretend, for the span of a few seconds, that it was the country, and the sky stretched effortlessly into the hand of God. He wasn't sure he believed in God, anymore, but for those few seconds, he believed in Him like there was nothing else in the universe.

He pulled away, and turned, and that sense of belief remained imprinted on the tree; he had no need of it anymore.

Stark followed him to the next three destinations: the tall-as-Heaven building he had sat on and tried to forget the world below, the bar in which he had once tried his damndest to get drunk and forget it all, and finally, the bridge, the only place he had ever slowed down during his midnight sprints, because the water only reflected the sky, and he could pretend he was floating.

It was here they stopped, and he leaned against the rail, studying the water beneath them as avidly as he would have the skies. Stark had not spoken once, and to the east, a slip of periwinkle was starting to show beneath the velvet skirt of darkness. Soon, her hands would lift up into the sky, palms a brilliant white, and Steve didn't know when he'd become so poetic.

'I'm an idiot.'

Steve looked at Stark for the first time that night; his face was still turned to the water, and his profile was scrunched up, looking physically pained at the admission. 'An explosive-grade idiot,' he repeated, and Steve shook his head – not necessarily in denial, but in companionship.

'We're all idiots,' he said slowly, turning back to the water even as Stark (Tony, his mind whispered traitorously) turned to look at him. 'Everyone. But idiots can have the best intentions.'

'Intentions get you nowhere,' Stark argued; Steve could feel his dark eyes on the side of his face, piercing and absorbing. That was why he didn't look back. 'Good intentions sound noble, but they don't get anything done.'

'There,' Steve said, and he was surprised to find his voice pleasant to hear, instead of the rough sound he had expected from his throat. 'I finally found a place where you're wrong.' He turned, and faced Stark, and smiled, and watched as Stark's pupils contracted unexpectedly in the lights of an oncoming car. 'They give hope.'

'Hope is useless in any real situation,' Stark said, looking disinterested again. That look dropped to bare shock when Steve shrugged, turned back to the water, and said simply,

'It kept me from jumping.'

Silence. An audible swallow, shuffling feet; the rasp of Stark's hands twisting over and over. Steve could see the shadow on the lip of pavement, right before it dropped off in the thick blackness of the water.

'You mean –'

'Right here, too,' Steve said, continuing on conversationally despite the break.. Stark was looking at him with a different gaze; Steve could feel it on his face. 'It would be so easy, wouldn't it. To just fall over, and let go, and breathe water for a moment.' He glanced over, but had to look away again from the intensity waiting for him. 'But I didn't. Because Fury had good intentions. And Dr. Banner. And Coulson. And Romanov. And you.' He paused. 'And me.'

Stark still stared at him, silence flavouring the air cold, and Steve scoffed. 'You can't tell me that you've never thought about getting it over with.' He turned, and this time he held the gaze, matching blink for blink, breath for breath. 'Better to die a martyr than to grow old and obsolete, to not matter.' Stark wasn't blinking anymore. 'But you see...'

Steve pulled a quarter from his pocket, balanced it on his thumbnail, braced as it was against his forefinger. 'I grew old without knowing it. I'm already obsolete. I didn't have time to become a martyr. So I have no choice but to keep fighting a war I was drafted into, that I don't believe in.'

He flipped the coin. Stark's eyes followed the mercurial movement of nickel through the air, until it was caught in Steve's wide palm. Without looking to see how it landed, Steve settled it on his thumb again. 'What America is this? I asked myself that a couple hundred times.'

'Cap –' Stark started, but Steve held up his free hand.

'You called me Steve once. I'd like to leave it on that note.' He flipped the coin again, caught it, balanced it on his nail. Stark winced sharply at his last statement, even as Steve readied the coin for another flip. It was comforting, hypnotic. 'The America I knew was humble and proud at the same time. We took what we got, and gave everything we had. When we had what we needed, we were happy. At least, it felt like that to me. But now...' He shrugged, flipped the coin a final time, slapped it down on the back of his hand, kept his hands clasped like that. 'Is America dead, Tony?'

Stark flinched at his name.

'I don't know,' he said, and without looking he flung the quarter into the water. It whistled for a long time before the small, tinny splash reached his ears. 'I just don't know. And I can't be Captain if I don't know what I'm captain of.'

'You don't belong here,' Stark said, and Steve jerked, the flechette of truth as undeniable as Stark himself.

'I know. You mentioned that. But I can't –'

'No, you idiot,' Stark said, slipping easily into the space between Steve's words. 'You don't belong here. Haven't you ever left this city? This is not the entire country, even if it's practically the size of Rhode Island. America's probably had the shit beaten out of her, but she isn't KO'd yet. Vermont's like that. Maine's like that.' He laughed after a moment, shakily tried to dig out a cigarette, dropped two in the water before he managed to hold one long enough to light it. 'I sound like a goddamn travel brochure.'

He dragged in slowly, and when he held one out to Steve, he took one gladly. The nicotine may no longer have an effect on his body, he thought darkly, but old habits died hard. Smoking was common when he was – around – and the scent of tobacco was still a familiar one, even if America had decided it was an unhealthy vice now.

Stark looked a bit surprised, but lent him a light, anyway. They stood smoking on the bridge, silent but for the occasional passing car, until Stark said,

'It's late. Or early. We're closer to my place – you can crash for the night. Morning. Whatever.'

It was an unprecedented offer, but not one Steve took to be as light and casual as Stark's voice made it out to be. No one was really invited to the Tower, except on business. Steve finished the cigarette, rubbed it out on the rail, and exhaled as he tossed the butt into the water.

'Thanks, Stark.'

'Tony.'

'Tony.'

 .....