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PARASITE

When Captain Steve Rogers come back to himself for what feels like an eternity, it is the cold, sterile walls of a cell designed to contain even the incredible Hulk or the mighty Thor. He blinks uncertainly against the blinding glare of industrial fluorescent lights and tries to grasp at some semblance of understanding of how he came to this place and this situation.

All Steve remembers is Tony. Tony lying broken and beaten before him, crying in silent sobs stifled in agony. Tony hugging his own pale, bruised, and painfully bony ribs. Tony’s blood on his own hands, scarlet and hot. Tony haunts his every thought, but there is no context to these memories, these horrifying stomach turning thoughts. He gags each time he thinks of Tony, but it is too awful to avoid.

He asks again and again.

A team of doctors Steve either does not recognize or actively ignores his questions, favoring those dry, clinical medical facts and charts in favor of ignoring the more uncomfortable, human elements. They tell him the worm – the parasite that has previously been inhabiting his limbic system, one last, awful gift of the Chitauri – is dead, that his immune system bolstered by the super-soldier serum has finally succeeded in eradicating the thing. They explain in their cold manner that he should slowly begin feeling more like himself, that the chemical components of the parasite’s control should fade as his body metabolizes or excretes any lingering compounds.

Steve Rogers could not give a damn for any of that information; he bears no memory of a parasite or its ill effects anyway. He just keeps asking for Tony.

For five days, his handlers – as Steve thinks of those nameless men and women beyond the confines of the transparent cell walls – tell him nothing. They merely tend to him as an animal in a zoo, a dangerous, predatory, perhaps even venomous beast. They offer him food and water through a tiny slot with a door on each side that only unlocks when the other is fully sealed. Aside from that, they rarely address Steve and keep their discussion purely professional, regarding only his physical health.

Steve passes the time as best he can with exercise. It seems the safest thing, when dwelling on the vast, seemingly impregnable gap in his memory yields only brief glimmers and flickers of thoughts – mostly of Tony suffering inexplicably at his own hands – proves too painful. Instead, he passes the time alternating between cardio and the limited yoga he had picked up from Pepper and Bruce in the all too brief time before everything in his universe just faded away. It keeps him occupied physically and mentally, but not enough to ease the pit steadily forming in his gut.

On the sixth day, Steve receives his first visitor; Director Fury. Steve is almost relieved to see the director, but Fury holds no such welcome or warmth for the captain. Before Steve can utter a single word, Fury cuts him off, informing Steve that as an officer if the United States military he will be summarily court-martialed for his crimes against the country.

Steve asks Fury about Tony. The director laughs humorlessly and shakes his head. He tells Steve that he cannot see Tony, that Tony is not ready to see him yet, that Tony might not ever be ready to see Steve ever again.

xxx

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis

xxx

The change is not immediate. It is a slow, insidious and creepy shift. It is the soft and gradually swelling crescendo that escapes notice until the inertia of the whole situation is too great and the tenor is deafening.

It starts, like most things do, as something small, only a tiny kernel or hint of the horrors to come.

It starts with an egg. Nothing more, nothing less. An egg so tiny as to not be seen. An egg sloughed off one of the Chitauri in what is now known to be the Battle of New York. It drifts from the Chitauri on the wind and the wing until it finds a suitable host not more than twenty feet away.

Nearly two years pass after that without notice.

Then, shortly after the incidents involving the Winter Soldier – Bucky Barnes – the first warning sign comes. Steve accompanies Tony to Iraq for a brief diplomatic mission. The second democratic election is swiftly approaching, and Tony Intends to demonstrate to the people of Iraq that he and the Avengers are committed to lasting peace and success in the region for its people. He has brought prototypes for new solar cells, regio-specific intellicrops, and condensation units for collecting vapor water (an avidly admitted personal homage to Luke Skywalker) to demonstrate each before turning them over to the people of Iraq.

Towards the end of a routine demonstration, something happens beyond belief. A man approaches him, speaking up. Tony cannot know if he has a question, a comment, a threat or what. It all happens too fast to be sure. He will try again and again to piece together the events of that fateful day, but it is all too fast. Steve is too fast. Before Tony can even blink, a man is dead, and all hell has broken loose.

The fight is nothing short of a massacre and over all too swiftly. In the end, five men are dead, and any hope of a diplomatic relationship between the Avengers and the people of Iraq has been shattered beyond repair.

Tony asks Steve what it was all about, and, for the first time, Steve has no answer, no reason, and no remorse to offer.

xxx

Spinochordodes tellinii

xxx

When she wakes, he is sleeping in the hallway on the hardwood floor. He always sleeps in the hall, tucked up in as small a ball as his body will allow and huddled against the wall. Tony prefers places in between. Halls, corridors, stairwells, anything in between actual rooms. Rooms mean people, and pain, and horrors beyond measure.

Pepper knows she should not be encouraging this behavior. Tony belongs in a bed, something soft, plush, oversized, and nestled between ludicrous thread-count sheets. Even the thick blankets wrapped about him are not nearly cushioning enough against joints and bones that press painfully out against his taunt skin from his emaciated body. However, he simply will not; she cannot even convince him to sit on a bed for more than a few seconds. She does not blame him after everything that has happened. Besides, she has only had him home for a few short weeks; she cannot begrudge him this miniscule comfort already. Instead, Pepper finds herself allowing the many nests of pillows and down duvets that have collected in the small pockets of the cabin that Tony finds inexplicably safe enough to rest.

To Pepper’s dismay, Tony has stripped himself in his sleep. He does this often, kicking off his cottony sweats and tearing off his shirt. It may be the product of irritation from the friction of the fabric against the multitude of raw but healing wounds. Bruce had suggested this after awkwardly reminding her that Tony has spent the better part of three years naked and may simply be unaccustomed to dress now. Pepper prefers not to think about either possibility.

He twitches in his sleep and balls up tighter. His brow knits, and his lip quivers in what must be a bad dream, perhaps a memory of his time at the hands of that sadistic bastard. Pepper frowns; Tony rarely sleeps soundly. His rest is often plagued by nightmares – not that it is not to be expected. His many medications tend to hold Tony down for the most part, swaddled and fettered by warm, fuzzy chemical constraint.

Pepper kneels beside him carefully and soundlessly. She does not wish to wake him, not yet, not even if he truly needs to be dressed to guard against the fall, mountain chill. However, the woman cannot resist the urge to touch him, to brush her fingertips across his brow in hopes of offering some mild comfort and reassurance.

Even as she does, Pepper knows that is a lie; she wants to touch him, needs to touch him to feel and know that Tony is alive and real. She spent three years dreaming of a day he would return, whole, hale, just as sharp, clever, mischievous, and loving as always. She had anticipated her lover returning to her, wrapping his arms about her, and making a crude or sarcastic comment before kissing her. The man Pepper got back is not the creature she expected. He is flighty and nervous, skittish at even the slightest touch; as such, Pepper cannot bring herself to even brush against her hand against his when he is conscious.

Her minor indulgence sated, Pepper pulls the duvet up to cover Tony more soundly. It is not that she intends to hide his scrawny, pale, scarred, bruised, and battered body, no. His imperfections and battle scars have never truly marred him in Pepper’s eyes, not even the arc reactor. She does this because he always seems so cold, shivering in even a warm room and ample dress. She cannot tell if this is due to the fear and utter panic still brewing behind his eyes or the malnutrition that continues to plague him.

Pepper leaves Tony there, continues down the short hall to the living room adjoining the kitchen, and frowns. Upon the old and rather musty couch, Bruce slumbers, snoring lightly as he breathes. He also should be sleeping in the bedroom upstairs, yet here he is.

She tiptoes past to the kitchen, but even the slightest of her footfalls disturbs Bruce. He is a light sleeper by nature, more so now with Tony safely home. It is a godsend. Bruce often hears Tony well before the nightmares truly begin; he is the only one who can touch Tony without inflicting a near panic attack, the only one who can safely rouse Tony from his dark dreams. Something about Bruce’s calm, unassuming nature puts Tony at ease in a way that Pepper cannot fathom.

Bruce blinks owlishly at Pepper and, then, smiles softly. He yawns, rises, and stretches while Pepper puts on the kettle on the aging gas stove before fiddling with the coffeepot. She always makes herbal tea for him in the morning – easier on the nerves – and coffee for herself.

Bruce sighs and shakes his head.

“Rough night?” Pepper whispers intuitively.

Bruce purses his lips together and nods. “Yeah.”

The physicist glances down the hall to the bare feet he can only just spy from the couch; last night had been rough indeed. Tony’s supper meds had kept him down for only an hour or two after Pepper retired for the night before the nightmares started in truth. Fortunately, his night meds had been enough to dampen those out.

“I’d better get him up, then.”

Pepper nods and tries not to think of what Bruce means. She owes him too much to ever repay. He had gotten her out of New York at Tony’s behest despite her protests and protected her through it all. He had taught her the secrets to staying hidden, keeping off the radar. And, when the unimaginable happened, Bruce had been there to hold her hand. Even now, he is there for Pepper and Tony. He helps Tony bathe, dress, and get around, makes sure he is safe and comfortable – or as comfortable as his condition allows. He does this all without complaint.

Pepper watches as Bruce strides towards the hall, before bobbing her head once more awkwardly. “I’d better get up the monster, then.”

“Yeah.”

Pepper leaves the kettle to boil and the coffee to percolate, walking to the far side of the house and slipping into a side room. She tries not to think of the many touches here that belong to Tony’s hand, even though he never helped build or decorate. She crosses the veritable minefield of colorful blocks, miniature robots, gleaming toy vehicles, and plastic animals frozen mid roar or howl to the small bed in the corner and the tiny form cuddled up amid a wild array of stuffy toys.

Only a shock of chocolate brown hair is visible above the blue and grey blanket with swirled patterns, but it is enough to know. She eases herself onto the bed beside that tuft of hair and touches the hill of fabric to the side of it, a shoulder. Pepper gently draws back to the edge of the blanket, revealing a small boy, and feels herself smiling despite herself. He is so perfect, so sweet, the only innocent and unspoiled thing left in her jumbled, chaotic life.

She had named him in a moment of pure desperation and misery. It had been shortly after the birth, in the dark, lonely mountains of Pennsylvania, far from Tony and quite removed from the horrors of New York. Pepper had been exhausted by a difficult labor and emotionally drained by the creepy, cloying realization that she might likely never seen Tony again in her natural life. She had wept then, for the first time in earnest since that towering, emerald monster behind Bruce’s eyes forcibly carried from her the city. Pepper had thought it would be cathartic, but, instead, it only seemed to whet the sorrow.

She places a chaste kiss upon the pale forehead and sings sweetly, “Anthony, honey. It’s time to get up.”

xxx

Toxoplasma gondii

xxx

After that first incident, smaller things begin to creep into focus. Quiet, yet insidious things. The way Steve behaves, how he postures himself. It is a slow, creeping change. He becomes more aggressive in battle, charging in forcefully and exerting excessive force.

It frightens Tony, but he says nothing for a time.

He does not even comment on the women, a countless stream of women appearing at all hours calling on Captain America. Tony knows better than to comment. He had been quite a playboy in his day. His own beddings rival that of Wilt Chamberlain’s myth. It concerns Tony when the women begin to leave bruised and solemn, but Tony tries to rationalize that it is simply a bit of rough, kinky fun, a private matter beyond comment. He simply cannot picture Captain America putting a hand on a woman violently; the mental image is just too incongruous with the downright obnoxiously wholesome Steve Rogers.

He does not say anything until Steve begins to show signs of truly unravelling. He begins to take measures into his own hands, acting without the approval of the Avengers or any other agency. He nearly kills several of his enemies, his opponents. When he actually does kill again, that is when Tony decides to say something.

Steve nearly chokes the life out of Tony when the inventor tries to confront him in the privacy of the Stark – no Avengers - Tower.

The soldier lets him go, but Tony is shaken by the incident. He begins to consider the last few months and finds a pattern that chills him to the bone. Steve is going bad or mad – Stark does not know which. His aggression has been steadily escalating, and there is no telling where or when it will end. Worse, when he checks archives and data, it appears that a number of supplies, weapons, and chemicals have been slowly appropriated by none other than Captain Steven Rogers over the last six months and never returned. It is enough to stockpile a small army, and enough to frighten even the fearless Tony Stark.

In the past, Tony might have let it go or ignored the glaring warning signs, but Tony Stark is not the same man he was. Pepper told him the night before. He is going to be a father on top of a super-hero, genius, inventor, millionaire, and philanthropist. Tony cannot take the chance that Steve will do something to hurt Pepper or the baby; he will not take that chance.

He has to get Pepper out of the Tower and out of the city that night, before Steve can realize that Tony knows something is wrong with him. He asks Bruce. Bruce has never let Tony down, never said no. Tony knows it is unfair of him to ask. He even tells the physicist this. However, Tony knows in his gut that something is unimaginably wrong with their fair Captain America, and the inventor knows he must put an end to it that night as well.

Bruce only agrees to smuggle Pepper out if Tony takes Clint and Natasha with him; it is a small concession that Tony readily makes.

Pepper is the only hitch in the plan. She refuses to leave him. She argues rather passionately against him, pointing out that she cannot raise a child of Tony Stark’s blood on her own. Pepper tearfully laments that she has already spent too much time without him, too much time thinking him dead. She begs him to find another to take his place. She offers him names upon names of other men and women to confront Steve instead of Tony.

Tony brushes her cheek with his hand and whispers, “You don’t understand, Pep. If this doesn’t play out right, Steve knows he can get to me through you. You have to go.”

It is among the last words shared between them before Tony bids Bruce to just take her.

xxx

Ampulex compressa

xxx

Weeks pass after Fury’s visit before Steve receives any real news or information. He spends his days as quietly and obediently as possible, ever mindful of Fury’s grim news. The words ring uncomfortably in his ears again and again, burning. “Court-martial.” It is an alien phrase that sends shivers down his spine, for Steve has no idea what he has done to merit such action.

His doctors, nurses, and other caretakers offer no clues. In truth, whenever Steve broaches the subject, they are careful to change it. It is almost too careful and too calculated of them, as though orchestrated in advance and executed with muddled phrases and choreographed scores produced by nameless, faceless handlers. Steve tries not to worry about it, reminding himself that Fury is the sort of man to predict, plot, and carry-out such maneuvers.

When Fury visits next, it is with a short, rat-faced man who is to be Steve’s representation in the case. Steve takes this to mean that a date for his impending doomsday has been set. He asks Fury.

Fury makes a noncommittal sound and shakes his head. “There is still debate as to whether it should be a private or public matter.”

“Public?” Steve swallows hard; that is a precedent he has never heard before.

Fury nods slowly, his cold, one-eyed gaze never leaving Steve. “Oh, yes. There’s been protests demanding it be public or at least televised.” He folds his arms across his chest. “There have been quite a few petitions to the President.”

Steve shakes his head uncomprehendingly. “Is it really that bad?”

Fury chuffs and gestures to the stranger. “I leave that to your counsel.”

With that, he leaves the short man to produce and explain the bill of particulars outlining the charges against Steve. Slowly, as the stranger reads the charges, Steve feels the weight of the world crashing down upon him. There are no chairs, nothing in his cell, so he finds himself slowly sinking to sit upon the floor, leaning against the side of his cell for support. So many charges against him. It sends his head spinning to calculate the many crimes.

The worst are the more personal matters. Kidnapping. Physical assault. Battery. Sexual assault. Murder. Manslaughter. These are crimes he is not capable of committing, not in this or any other life. Steve finds tears prickling at his eyes to think that he has done these things, especially when his defense begins to list the multiple counts.

He has been nothing short of a monster, and he remembers not a moment of it.

Steve asks softly what is to become of him, and his counsel takes a moment to muse over the options before making a recommendation. The evidence against him is massive. There are piles upon piles of evidence, including months of surveillance footage archived by Jarvis. However, there is not enough evidence to necessarily prove to a jury of his fellow officers that Steve was not entirely in command of his actions at the time.

Steve holds his head in his hands and weeps silently, whispering, “What have I done?”

xxx

Dicrocoelium dendriticum

xxx

The first time Steve fucks him, Tony fights with everything he’s got. The trouble is, Steve is stronger than he can ever be, and his muscles are infused with super-soldier serum and enhanced beyond the wildest imaginations of even the most die-hard body builders. Nothing Tony can do, not even when he fights dirty, is enough to outman Steve Rogers. Even if it were, Steve has more raw stamina than any other human alive, and his body heals at an accelerated pace, erasing any of the minor wounds Tony can inflict in short order.

At first, Steve – or whatever the thing is that is masquerading around in Steve’s body – seems to enjoy the fight, savoring Tony’s struggles. He sneers broadly and proudly from ear to ear. It frightens Tony how every little struggle, every punch or kick, only serves to widen that toothy and downright sinister grin.

In time, Steve either grows bored with or simply tired of Tony’s struggles. Then, he simply reaches out, snatches Tony’s right forearm in both hands, and snaps the bone with a deafening, sickening crack, barely audible beneath Tony’s keening howl. That takes the fight out of Tony while he hugs his broken arm close to his chest, cradling it with his other hands.

Still, as Steve forces himself upon Tony, the inventor sobs and pleads, begging Steve to stop, to just snap out of it. He does neither. Tony’s pleas and cries go unheeded as Steve pistons furiously into him. In time even that fades away until Tony can only whimper, cry, and take the abuse Steve has to inflict upon him.

Steve does, after all, have more raw stamina than any other human alive.

Steve makes Natasha and Clint watch as well. He forces them to watch, to bear witness of what has become to Tony and what will become of them. When he finally spills himself in Tony, it takes mere moments before he is hard and ready again, this time turning his lustful gaze upon Clint and Natasha in turn.

Damn that stamina.

xxx

Paragordius tricuspidatust

xxx

Clint likes the water. At least, this is what Natasha tells herself and has told herself ever since they arrived in the sleepy village on Florida’s Gulf coast. In truth, there is no way to be certain what Clint likes or does not like anymore. There is no way to know what he thinks or feels, really.

Yet, still, she dutifully takes him outside onto the porch overlooking the bay on every nice, warm, sunny morning such as this, to sit in the sun’s golden rays and the fresh air. He looks better in the sun – he always has. His skin is even starting to retake a healthy, golden glow. Sunlight in controlled quantities is supposed to do a person good for their physical and mental health anyway in controlled exposure – something about natural vitamin and melanin production and absorption. The fresh, salt air is reputed to do the something of the same. Natasha knows full well that these are wives’ tales, but she indulges herself in those thoughts anyway.

He can walk, just not far on his own; he has issues with balance. Clint stumbles along hesitantly at her side from the front door to the wide, sturdy rocking chair loaded down with pillows and such. He is unsure on his feet when left alone but more capable with her at his side. There, she settles him whenever possible, always careful to arrange Clint so that he faces the water. His features always seem to soften ever so slightly to Natasha once he is settled with that eerie, unfocused gaze turned out to the languid waves of the bay.

Natasha does not always sit with him. She prefers to allow Clint some time on his own, remaining within easy hearing in the house, but not so close at to be obvious to a man who was once a skilled spy. Natasha knows, if the situations were reversed, she would like some time to herself, some time to feel whole and human once more – to feel capable of being left to her own devices.

However, that will never be for Clint, not again. Natasha remembers that ghastly crack from his skull colliding with force against the marble tile of the Stark Tower penthouse. She remembers the blood that had dripped from his ears and nose while Clint had lain there, so impossibly still. She had hoped beyond measure that it had been simply a skull fracture, but that hope had been short lived.

It was, in truth, a curious and dubious mercy. After that moment, that thing masquerading as Steve Rogers lost interest in Clint. He found no reward in toying with the man he had reduced to an empty husk.

That thought gives Natasha no comfort.

xxx

Ophiocordyceps sinensis

xxx

Steve – or the damnable thing that dares call itself Steve – keeps Tony shackled and at his side when he fucks the women of the Stark Tower during the day. Sometimes, he forces Tony to participate, to touch him or to penetrate the women. When Tony refuses, Steve hurts both Tony and the woman in question in increasingly sickening manners, savagely beating Tony in particular for his insolence. When Tony tries to escape, to break back into his own computer system, Steve breaks each and every one of his fingers repeated until they bend unnaturally. In the beginning, Tony counts the women, compiling a list of ladies whom he hopes to repay somehow but knows he never can, but, when the numbers consistently near twenty in a day, Tony knows there is no way he can ever hope to salve these wounds.

At night, Steve only has eyes for Tony, Natasha, and Clint. They are his special prizes, treats saved for the long hours when he might explore his own seemingly limitless lust. Only once Steve has irreparably ruined Clint does he lose interest in the archer.

One evening, Tony catches the sight of Steve touching Natasha’s stomach. He runs his fingers over the pale, faded scars on her tummy, frowning at them. She says nothing as Steve traces them lightly. Instead, she fiercely and proudly holds her tongue, pressing her lips quite firmly together while her eyes burn with a fire that has already burnt out within Tony. Later, when Tony holds her against her agony, she explains in hushed whispers about the Winter Soldier and the damage left in his wake to her womb; Natashe admits with in a tight voice that she can bear no children.

From that day on, Steve has no interest in Natasha, only Tony.

 

xxx

Euphaplorchis californiensis

xxx

Anthony is the first to hear the bells, well before Pepper, Bruce, or even Tony. “Hothee!”

Pepper finds herself smiling despite herself. The ludicrously cheerful bells that jingle louder and louder with each passing moment can mean only herald a visit from their neighbor - Missy Saunders - and her great big behemoth of a horse, all too ironically dubbed ‘Bunny.’ Anthony utterly adores the monstrous, black and white Gyspy mare and its rider, who often brings small sweets and other treats from town. Bruce enjoys the offerings of books and Popular Science Missy often brings. Pepper just savors having a woman – any woman – to speak with other than herself.

“Mommy!” Anthony cries in delight from the window, jabbing his fingers at the cool glass.

Pepper presses a finger to her lips. “Shh…. Daddy’s sleeping.”

Anthony petulantly sighs with the sort of melodrama that only a toddler can produce. It is not fair, Pepper knows, not for Anthony to endure and certainly not for her to explain. The boy had not known his father until a few weeks ago, outside of Bruce’s elaborately detailed and decidedly exaggerated bedtime stories. The man Anthony has come to know to be his father is a disappointment at best. Tony is weak and easily frightened, sleeping for much of the day, nothing like the mighty hero that Bruce has so lavishly painted in Anthony’s mind even at this early age.

Before Coulson brought Tony to the cabin, Anthony’s days had been different. He had been free to yell, shout, jump, sing at will, and bang on the pots. Pepper and Bruce had both been rather lenient with the boy after so many months of uncomfortable silence brewing between them as her pregnancy progressed and during his infancy. The last year in particular has been filled with games and laughter. Now, the jarring sounds of naturally boisterous toddler play frequently rouse Tony to blind panic, forcing Anthony to curb himself in ways he has never known before.

“Looooooook!” the boy hisses, his finger still pressed to the window.

Sure enough, when Pepper glances out the window, she spots the familiar sight of the hulking, bay mare ambling along the path to the cabin with Missy astride. Bunny’s giant, black and white head bobs from side to side as she walks on, tossing her bi-colored mane; the mare is clearly in fine spirits, enjoying what might very well be the last days of autumn.

“Mommy? Go thee hothee?”

Pepper melts at Anthony’s wide eyes. “Put your coat and shoes on first.”

Anthony makes a soft whining sound, but he jumps off the musty old sofa by the window and dashes towards the door. He practically throws himself at the ground to pull on his garish red and blue shoes with their wide, Velcro straps. As Pepper dons her wool coat, Anthony struggles valiantly with his own jacket. She helps him only briefly when it is clear that the boy cannot reach his other sleeve, but only that. Even then, her tiny assistance is met with an adorably tiny scowl of irritation from her own son. Anthony is precisely as independent and stubborn as his father; the woman often wonders if it runs in the Stark blood.

The air outside the cozy cabin is crisp, sharp almost. The wind holds the dry, bitter snap that heralds snow on the way. Pepper knows this from the last two, cold and lonely mountain winters. She knows the feel and sound of near arctic air that cuts through the mountains and rips across the pathetic little pond and marsh behind the cabin.

“Halloooooooo there!” Missy calls in a friendly but dramatic tone, waving one arm wide over her head for what Pepper knows is Anthony’s benefit alone.

“Mithy!”

Missy reins in the monstrously sized horse just as Anthony bolts from Pepper’s side to run up to Bunny through his arms about one of those thick legs for a hug. The first time Anthony had done this, Pepper had been terrified beyond compare that Bunny’s tremendous hooves might crush the boy – her last, tangible tie to Tony. However, she has come to learn that the Gypsy Vanner is thoroughly placid beyond compare and utterly doting to the boy. Bunny moves with surprising care and caution whenever Anthony darts around her meaty legs, as though entirely cognizant of just how damaging one misstep might be for the tiny human.

“Why, good afternoon, Anthony,” Missy greets sweetly from atop Bunny. “Hey, Pepper. How’s mountain life treating you these days?”

Pepper laughs softly but earnest, flushing slightly. Her first days in the mountains had been nothing short of a disaster. The cabin has limited facilities for bathing, nothing for laundering clothes, and only an ancient wood-burning stove for heat. SHIELD had provided them with only the bare essentials – mostly MREs and some medical supplies, but not much else. It had seemed an impossible task to live there, worsened only by the lack of news or contact with the outside world and the terror of having to birth a child in such conditions. When her nerves had finally frayed seemingly beyond repair, Pepper had tromped off from the cabin, only to get lost on the old hunting trails and stumble across the small Saunders farm.

“Getting better day by day.”

It’s the truth. In those first two years, Pepper had floundered in the mountains. She had not known how to survive the rugged life living off the grid posed, nor had she been prepared to raise an infant in such a world. Bruce could provide, but there was only so much foraging and hunting could provide. After all this time, Pepper had finally thought she had been learning how to survive and thrive in the woods, at least until Coulson and Fury had brought her Tony and thrown her fragile existence into turmoil.

“Anthony?” Missy calls from atop Bunny; when his wide stare meets her chocolate eyes, she purrs, “Can you guess what I’ve got in my bag?”

“Story?”

Missy beams from ear to ear. “That’s right.” She reaches to her side and fishes around in the saddle bag before producing a colorful book. “Check it out. ‘Boy and Bot.’ It just came in this week.Miss Lily thought you might like it.”

Anthony clutches the book to his tiny chest and turns to run, but Pepper catches him gently and chides, “What do we say?”

The boy looks up to Missy just long enough to blurt out something resembling a thank-you before darting off. At least, Pepper thinks it might be a thank-you. She silently hopes it is as she looks to Missy with a sheepish smile.

“Please, thank Lilian for me,” Pepper covers politely for her own son. “She doesn’t have to keep doing that. None of you have to keep doing things like that.”

“She knows,” Missy assures her firmly. “We all do.”

The residents of Blooming Grove Township, the tiny mountain hamlet have been too kind to them, Pepper knows that, just as much as she knows that there is no way she can ever hope to repay them. Ever since Pepper accidentally walked right onto the Saunders property, the whole town has known about Pepper, Bruce, and little Anthony hiding in their mountains. However, instead of turning them over for the ample rewards offered by that thing masquerading as Steve, they shielded the refugees, kept their secret, and more. They provided for Pepper, Bruce, and Anthony, donating food, clothing, books, anything. Pepper knows she likely owes her sanity and her strength to the townspeople.

The two women exchange pleasantries for a few moments longer before Missy gets to the heart of her visit, plucking other offerings and gifts from her saddlebags. For Pepper, there are two paperback fictions from the little bookshop in town owned by Lilian. For Anthony, there are games and small trinkets, as well as fresh sweets from the local bakery. For Bruce, there is the latest issue of Popular Mechanics that Pepper knows Missy only subscribed to for the physicist. Then, Missy pauses uncertainly when her fingers find the newspaper tucked in the bag.

“What is it?”

Missy frowns. “You might not want the news.”

Pepper’s heart drops. “What is it?”

Missy pulls the newspaper from her bag – the nearest paper comes from the next largest town in Lake Wallenpaupack – wincing as she does. When Pepper’s eyes scan the headline, she understands. Captain America’s Day in Court to Come. Nestled between that and an older, rather flattering photograph of Steve Rogers in his full regalia, a smaller tagline announces that a date has been set for televised but closed hearings. She scowls at the bold print, mindful that this means they will be pressing for a deposition from Tony soon, as he is certainly not well enough to face the public, let alone face Rogers in a court of any manner.

Missy grimaces in sympathy. “I’m sorry, Pepper.” Pepper offers a noncommittal sound, and Missy breathes, “How is he?”

Missy is the only person other than SHIELD personnel to know that Tony is there. Pepper had to tell someone when he first arrived, had to vent to someone other than Bruce. In a way, she had needed a woman, a friend with a shoulder to cry on and a caring ear to listen. Missy had been understanding in a way Pepper had not known until then.

She shrugs. “He’s doing better.”

A part of her almost believes that.

xxx

Pseudocorynosoma constrictum

xxx

It is difficult caring for both Tony and Clint. Clint is no longer the capable man he once was. He cannot even care for himself anymore. He can still perform simple tasks when prompted and coached, but even the complexities of bathing and dressing are lost to him. Natasha tends to him the best she can, the best she knows; however, the spy knows that even her best is not nearly enough.

After that thing that calls its self “Steve Rogers” is through with Tony, Natasha tends to him as best she can. She cleans and binds his many wounds – all from Steve’s hands. She bits her lip and treats him without comment, mindful that nothing the spy can say will salve the hurts not physical. When Steve is too rough and fractures the fragile bones in Tony’s arms or legs, Natasha cobbles together makeshift splints with whatever is at her disposal and secretly prays against embolisms, infections, and other complications as Tony whimpers and moans beneath her ministrations. She can do nothing for his hands – once so nimble, graceful, and as skilled as a master violinist or surgeon - nor can she do anything for the bleeding between his legs save pray that Steve has not perforated Tony’s bowels. She holds him when the pain proves too much and he sobs against her, gripping her as though for dear life.

Worse, still, is when the spark begins to dim in his eyes. Natasha often finds Tony after Steve has used him, lying seemingly lifelessly, staring out with wide, dull eyes. She holds her breath each time, stealing herself against the unspoken terror that Steve has inflicted the same neurological damage upon Tony that he has upon Clint or that he has killed Tony. Natasha rouses him gently every time, but it takes longer and longer for Tony to come back to himself from wherever he has retreated into his mind. He begins to spend increasing lengths of time hugging himself against the agony of his wounds and the ravages of his own mind.

Then, one long, somnolent afternoon after Steve has left them to maintain the private kingdom that is Stark Tower under his command and control, Tony abruptly whispers with a shudder, “I can’t do this anymore.”

It takes her breath away with an arctic chill. Natasha blinks at the startling admission, but she knows better than to be surprised. He has held himself together admirably, but any man or woman would crumble as Tony has under the relentless abuse of what had once been a friend and partner. She has no words to comfort him, nothing to offer that would not feel sinfully trite. Natasha does the only thing she can do as the tear begin to spill down his cheeks once more; she encircles him with her long, slender arms and pulls him close to hug him fiercely. Tony melts into her embrace, sobbing as he buries himself into her arms.

Natasha tries to ignore how his vertebrae bump her hands as she rubs his back, how bony Tony has become. Steve feeds them but not well. She has often wondered as the pounds have melted from them if Steve has simply forgotten about Natasha and Clint based on the amount of sustenance provided or if he has just lost contact with the nutritional needs of a normal human being. Either are possible, but both notions disturb Natasha greatly when considering the man who had once been so courteous and thoughtful. Tony shares what Steve provides him with Natasha and Clint, but, sometimes, she knows it is because the once great inventor often cannot bring himself to eat.

Tony quivers as he cries against her, and, to her growing horror, he murmurs through the tears into her chest desperate and increasingly incoherent apologies. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t. I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Please don’t make me. I just…. can't. I’m sorry.”

She wants to shush him, to beg him to cease such heart-rending utterances, yet Natasha cannot bring herself to do so. The spy knows Tony has taken the abuse because he must. He endures the torture because none of them know what will happen if Steve loses his interest in all three of his prizes. And, so, Natasha does the only thing she can; she holds him until Tony exhausts himself from the crying jag and sags against her.

When Steve comes for them again, announcing his presence at the door, Natasha plants a chaste kiss upon Tony’s forehead before the super-soldier can steal him away once more. The brief vignette leaves Natasha shaken worse than she cares to admit. After Steve has sated himself, and as she tends to the wounds left in his wake, Natasha finds herself absently pondering captivity without Tony. She banishes the thoughts from her mind; it hurts too much to consider such notions.

A few days later, she finds Tony by himself, dragging a shard of what appears to be a broken mirror down the length of his arm, gouging a deep cut that oozes scarlet upon the marble floor below. Before he can react, Natasha snatches the thing from his hand, hardly cognizant of the cut it inflicts to her own pale flesh as she flings it aside. Tony stares up at her, his eyes brimming with tears as Natasha snatches a rumpled sheet to press against the wound.

And, then, the apologies spill once more from him, utterly unintelligible this time. Natasha recognizes it only from the tone and the pacing of the sounds that bubble up in his throat. This time, Natasha shushes him gently as she squeezes the makeshift bandage to keep pressure on the wound.

It takes time for him to settle, and, after that, it takes time to force him to finally meet her gaze. Yet, Natasha knows she must garner his full attention. There can be no mistaking her intention.

When his red-rimmed eyes finally meet hers, she orders sternly, “Don’t do this again.” He blinks at her, dumbfounded, and Natasha continues in a cold, authoritative tone that allows not room for misinterpretation, “Don’t you dare leave Clint or me with…. him.” He shivers, and Natasha squeezes his shoulder. “I can’t do this without you, Tony.”

It is true. She had not known any indication of this until quite recently, but there can be no mistaking this. Tony has given her strength in an odd way, and tending to him has given her a purpose, a reason to wake up every day. Without him, Natasha is not certain there is anything left in her to keep going without Tony.

When Tony tries to look away, Natasha begs, “Please. I need you, Tony.” She bites her lip briefly before adding, “Clint needs you.”

He nods but says nothing.

When Natasha requests a suture kit from Steve, the once hero roars in primal rage at the thought of losing his precious plaything. He vents his fury upon both of them. He is stronger than Natasha remembers, or, perhaps, it is because they are weaker now. It does not matter. When he is done with them, both Natasha and Tony are bloodied and bruised, but Steve does leave a suture kit. She lies upon the chilled, blood-splattered floor, not far from Tony, listening to both their harsh respirations and staring at the kit for some time before summoning the effort to crawl her way to the kit and, then, to Tony.

She rolls Tony over onto his back as gently as she can and slowly stitches his arm. Natasha’s hands shake, but there is nothing to be done for that. She apologizes repeatedly to Tony, mindful of his dead stare upon her.

After that, Natasha begins to wonder if she should have let him finish it.

xxx

Hymenoepimecis argraphaga

xxx

When the dreaded day finally arrives for Natasha Romanoff, it strangely brings curious visitors in the form of Maria Hill and Nick Fury to her doorstep. She smiles despite the anxiety that has been crippling her inwardly the last week and swelling to an awful, near manic pitch. Natasha invites them in, welcoming them in earnest. It has been months since she last spoke with either Hill or Fury, and it is somewhat comforting despite the ominous tone of the day. She wonders precisely what strings Fury has pulled to make this possible instead of sending strangers into their home.

As any good hostess would, Natasha makes a pot of tea while Hill sets up in the living room. From the still refuge of the kitchen, if she sits at just the right angle at the table, Natasha has a direct line of sight through the dining room and the front window to the sundrenched porch. There, Fury sits with Clint, speaking in tones too low for even her keen ears, words meant only for Clint. The sight of it alone puts her at ease. She watches for perhaps too long as Fury chuckles at whatever he has told Clint until the shrill whistle of the kettle demands her immediate attention.

Natasha prepares three, dainty, porcelain cups and one, chunky, plastic mug on a tray. In the mug, she adds a bit of honey and an ice cube. On the tray, she sets a miniature pitcher of milk, a petite bowl of sugar, and a plastic, bear-shaped bottle of honey that smiles ridiculously with its vacant stare. Natasha offers a cup to Hill in the living room, waiting for her guest to fix her tea to her liking as she sets a cup aside her herself. Then, she carries the tray out to the porch.

Fury snaps to attention as Natasha steps outside, and he takes the tray from her, setting it down on the table and announcing, “We were just talking about you, Agent Romanoff.”

She cocks a brow at the pair. “Oh, were you?”

“Nothing bad, I assure you,” Fury insists as he hands the mug to Clint. “I was just regaling Hawkeye here with the tale of the Columbian ambassador.”

Natasha blushes at the memory of better but much more embarrassing days. It had been one or her earlier missions for SHIELD. Natasha had been sent to get close to the ambassador and gather intel about potential ties to espionage granted his unusual behavior. It had been a trying mission, especially when none of Natasha’s usual charms and flirtations garnered any attention from the ambassador. She had practically thrown herself at him. In the end, she had discovered that the ambassador had not been hiding anything dangerous – just an exceedingly adorable relationship with a rather handsome, and quite doting young man.

“Try not to be too crude, okay fellas?” Natasha teases, her heart lightening ever so slightly. Then, she sobers. “Are you coming in for this?”

Fury shakes his head. “No.” He glances almost affectionately and fatherly at Clint. “I think us boys will stay out here. Shoot the shit, if you don’t mind. We’ve got some catching up to do.”

Natasha nods gratefully. Clint never has any visitors, any guests, outside of his physicians and therapists. He needs this sort of stimuli, even if Natasha cannot be certain that it does any good. In truth, she prefers this anyway; this will be difficult enough without Fury’s knowing gaze upon her. Fury waves her off before launching into yet another story of her past embarrassment and his own for Clint’s amusement.

Inside, Hill is waiting for her, the already set up. “Please, sit. Be comfortable.”

Natasha gives an uncertain nod and eases into the chair before the watchful lens of the camera. She draws a deep breath and holds it for a moment, desperate to still her own nerves. It serves little good, let alone when

“So, how does this work?” Natasha asks hesitantly.

Hill beams warmly at her. “It works however you want this to work. First, as acting court reporter, I’ll swear you in, but, after that, it’s up all up to you. You can tell us whatever you want, however you want. You can start or end whenever you want.”

Natasha closes her eyes. “Okay.”

Hill sits across from her on a chair borrowed from the dining room, takes out a notepad, turns on the camera, and narrates, “This is the testimony of Natasha Romanoff.” Hill lists the date and rattles off the oath for Natasha to agree to, and, then, she smiles once more. “When you’re ready.”

“Okay.”

It does not come out with anything resembling a coherent chronology, spilling from her lips as a fountain. It is a difficult and utterly draining task. Natasha is never certain she is saying the right thing as she lurches between horrifying details that have been permanently scored in her mind, but Maria just nods gently and encouragingly whenever Natasha stumbles. Hill is silently there for her behind the camera. Natasha does not even know she is crying until Maria hands her a tissue.

When Natasha has exhausted herself and has nothing more she can say on the matter, Maria Hill is there to offer, “Thank you.”

Something about her tone startles Natasha, and, when she looks back to Hill, Natasha is surprised to find something earnest, something downright vulnerable behind Maria’s usually strong, piercing gaze. Natasha starts to realize that Maria Hill is not merely thanking her for her testimony; Hill is thanking her for the suffering she, Clint, and Tony endured that kept Steve from turning his sights beyond his private kingdom of the occupied Stark Tower. Before Natasha can utter a word, Hill closes the distance between them to draw her into a warm embrace.

Natasha stiffens, unaccustomed to the humanity Hill displays to her, but she softens when Maria whispers once more into her ear, “Thank you.”

Hill excuses herself primly to pack up her camera equipment, but Natasha knows this is merely a painfully obvious ruse to allow the former spy a moment to compose herself. Natasha refrains from comment. Instead, she gratefully takes the opportunity to retreat to humble half-bathroom beside the living room to daub her blotchy face with a damp tea-towel.

When Natasha returns to the living room, she finds that Maria is already packed up and gone. Upon closer examination, Hill and Fury are now sitting on the porch with Clint, both of them speaking to the once archer. Natasha hangs back for a moment, allowing Clint this time and necessary stimuli.

Eventually, though, Natasha reluctantly step into the afternoon sun and invites Fury and Hill to stay for dinner. They politely decline, but Fury swears he will visit. Natasha highly doubts he will keep such promises, but she says nothing.

She especially cannot say anything when Fury does show up a week later.

xxx

Mymeconema neotropicums

xxx

The revelation of Batman’s true identity beneath the cowl comes as a shock only to Col. James Rhodes and Sam Wilson – perhaps the only two so called “superheroes” to be utterly clueless to such a pathetic cover. They stare in stupefaction as Gotham’s dark knight appears from nowhere within the confines of the current location of the Avengers’ temporary base of operations, considering the base moves every three days to prevent Steve from locating the only humans who might actually be able to fight him. Then, they downright gape when the shadowed stranger peels the ebony cowl from his head to reveal the distinguished and absolutely unmistakable features of the noted billionaire.

“I’m sorry for the dramatics,” he admits with a heave.

Sam blinks and shakes his head in chagrin. “Don’t be. Not when you’ve got moves slick enough to get past Fury.”

Rhodes does not share Sam’s enthusiasm, and, instead, the soldier glares bitterly. “What do you want?”

“I’ve found a way into the Tower,” Wayne states quite flatly, his tone betraying what might otherwise seem an incredible announcement.

Rhodes’s eyes narrow impossibly more. “I’m sensing a ‘but.’”

The billionaire crime-fighter nods solemnly. “You’re not going to like it.”

“I’m still listening, aren’t I?” the colonel growls.

Wayne gives another small nod. “Something’s off with Rogers.”

Sam sniffs hotly and folds his arms across his chest. “I could have told you that.”

“No, not like that,” Wayne mutters. “I’ve been studying his movements ever since he took the Tower. His patterns are all off. He’s been growing increasingly erratic.” The detective eyes Rhodes knowingly. “He’s all over the place. And someone on the inside’s been sending me the intel to prove it.”

Rhodes hardly thinks twice. “Tell me more.”

xxx

Thyrinteina leucocerae

xxx

The day that Maria Hill and Nick Fury come to the cabin is nothing short of a disaster.

Bruce knows he cannot blame Anthony. Anthony is just a child. For as swiftly and easily that Anthony accepted the pitiable creature that is Tony Stark as his father, Anthony has no concept of the suffering Tony has endured. He has no understanding the psychological damage that has been inflicted upon Tony, nor how to navigate the veritable minefield that is the tattered remnants of Tony’s psyche.

Nor can Bruce blame Tony. The first weeks had been impossibly difficult. Tony had been barely coherent between the pain, the fear, and the meds, hardly aware that Anthony even existed. Pepper had tried on several occasions to gently explain, to introduce the boy, with little effect on Tony’s struggling mind. Then, one day, out of the blue, he had surfaced enough to understand and truly recognize Anthony as his own. To Bruce’s very great horror, Tony had begun to cry in tight, barely constrained sobs. Anthony had cried as well, but, while Pepper could console and distract the child, Bruce had been at an utter loss for what to do with Tony.

Since that day, Tony has tried – valiantly so. Pepper might not be able to see it, but Bruce does. He has grown quite keen at assessing even the tiniest of shifts in body language of the people around him over the years, a talent arisen from the need to avoid potentially tense situations. Bruce always spies the tightness to Tony’s jaws, the way his muscles tremble and clench when he tries to see or even speak with Anthony. The love is there, hidden beneath the almost palpable fear, and it drives Tony to continually push to be around his own son. Yet, most days, Anthony’s energy and life is simply too much for Tony. No matter how Tony tries, the panic always takes him, frequently requiring chemical intervention.

It is hard on both the Stark males. Anthony very often views his father’s all too frequent panic attacks as his fault. He is not mature enough to know any better. The panic attacks take their toll on Tony as well. When the once hero finally surfaces and the coherency settles fully, the depression dawns again and again. While Pepper coddles the toddler and whispers sweet nothings of maternal affection, Bruce speaks to Tony’s logical side and fruitlessly attempts to reason with his charge that there is no fault, no blame, and certainly no shame. It rarely works.

However, this week has been worse than others. The days leading up to their arrival have been cold, dreary, and utterly trying. Pepper has been unable to take Anthony out to play and burn off the boy’s naturally youthful energy and exuberance. As such, there has been a steady crescendo to his antics as the days have worn on, and that has been hard on Pepper, Bruce, and Tony most especially.

To make matters worse, Tony’s mood and mental state have oscillated wildly since Bruce told him about the planned deposition. Fury had contacted Bruce and Pepper the week prior to discuss the upcoming deposition, in the evening after Anthony had gone to bed and Tony’s dinner meds had him down for at least another few hours. Pepper had argued vehemently through angry, bitter tears, but Bruce had understood the necessity, no matter how it pained him. Bruce had volunteered to be the one to tell Tony, but it had taken two agonizing days to work up the courage. In the end, Bruce had blurted it out while helping Tony dress for bed. Since then, Tony has lurched violently between terror, quiet catatonia, and a deep sorrow that twisted the physicist’s heart in kind.

The morning of the scheduled deposition finds Tony shuddering, nude once more, and practically unresponsive in a corner of the hall, clearly driven there by his ever present nightmares. Fortunately for Pepper, it is Bruce who finds him, stirred by the strange scratching sound of Tony’s ragged nails rasping against the wood wall. He soundlessly crouches beside his friend and waits for Tony to seem to stir in a more conscious manner. It takes several moments, but Bruce has learned that Tony responds best to patience, silence, and a reassuringly still presence in his world. When Tony does come back to himself, it is to another small crying jag, shaking his head and rubbing in against the wood in a way that worries Bruce.

Eventually, Tony either tires himself out or simply exhausts his tears. When he sniffles, nods to himself, and stills, Bruce knows he can approach but only if he remains cautious. Bruce draws near in small increments, pausing just beside Tony for a long moment before finally reaching out a hand to touch his friend softly upon the shoulder. Tony stiffens beneath even his feather light touch briefly before sagging once more. After that, Tony remains pliant enough for Bruce to prod him through the morning routine of dressing and washing.

Breakfast is an unsettling affair. Missy had dropped off a delicate array of breakfast pastries the day before from an absolutely divine bakery in town, but none of the confections can tempt Tony as Anthony delightfully gobbles down the treats. In the end, Bruce even makes a small mug of oatmeal sweetened with a bit of honey from the local market and a dash of cinnamon. Tony lips at it slowly, and, for a moment, both Bruce and Pepper breathe a sigh of relief. However, that relief is short lived when Tony wretches up the practically miniscule amount of food. Anthony shrieks at the sight, and Tony instantly cringes away, spitting up on himself.

For once, Pepper is faster than Bruce. She swoops in and scoops Anthony up in her arms. Anthony’s screams fade as his mother carries him off to his room and muffle sharply when Pepper closes the door before her.

Tony shakes his head, his misshapen hands flapping oddly before him and the mess as he laments in a frail tone, “’m a fucking mess.”

Bruce can hear the threat of another outburst from Tony, but he can do nothing more than offer a sympathetic tone in return. “That’s what baths are for.” Bruce pauses for Tony to collect himself before sighing, “Let’s get your meds, and, then, we’ll get you cleaned up and changed.”

“Can’t even fucking take care of myself,” Tony mutters into his gnarled paws without looking up.

Bruce frowns deeply. Yet the physicist knows there is nothing he can say. Despite his psychological ails, Tony Stark remains one of the smartest individuals in the world. Tony is more than aware of his physical limitations. There is nothing Bruce can say that Tony will not see right through.

Instead, Bruce opts for the safer route of fetching morning meds. Tony takes them without comment or complain, going quiet even as Bruce guides him to the bathroom where he helps him strip and bathe. Bruce does most of the work while Tony sits stiffly in the tub, hugging himself and drifting in and out of memories. He tries not to stare at the scrawny, scarred body beneath his hands, but it is difficult to ignore the brutality written in human skin and taut muscle. However, Tony remains mercifully silent as Bruce cleans and dresses his friend. All through it, Tony’s eyelids are drooping, his movements languid and his gaze distant. Bruce knows this is to be expected; it’s the effect of the veritable chemical cocktail Tony takes sinking in.

By the time Bruce is finished, Tony can barely keep his eyes open; it is time for a nap. Bruce settles him into bed, but the physicist knows even as his friend drops off into a fitful doze that Tony will not stay cozied up beneath the warm blankets. He still holds hope.

When he emerges from Tony’s bedroom, Bruce is met by the wry, tired, and almost apologetic smile of Pepper. He waves her unspoken apologies off. There is nothing that requires such sentiment, nothing that could have been done to change any of this. She hugs him and whispers something about taking Anthony down to the Saunders’ farm, to which Bruce nods. Tony will need his rest before Fury comes, and it will not do Anthony any good to be around for the deposition.

About a half an hour after Pepper and Anthony amble out to the trail that will take them to the quaint little horse farm, a thump jars Bruce from an engrossing article in an old issue of WIRED. He jumps up, nerves of edge and ready to fight if necessary, but it is no threat. It is just Tony, predictably giving up on his bed and barely consciously hauling himself out to the hall, dragging a blanket behind him. He slumps to the ground not more than three feet from his door in a tangled heap. Bruce sighs and tiptoes to Tony’s side, only to cover him better with the blanket before leaving him to his slumber.

After a few hours, Bruce fixes a simple lunch for the two of them and rouses Tony. The inventor barely eats a thing before turning away. Bruce tries not to worry; Tony’s appetite fluctuates frequently with his moods and his medications. He leaves Tony be to rest, not even waking him for the limited physical therapy that has been prescribed.

When they arrive, Bruce welcomes them and offers them the living room in which to set up before returning to Tony’s side in the hall. He squeeze’s Tony’s bony shoulder and waits for the inventor to surface on his own. Tony blinks uncertainly.

“PT?” he murmurs, his voice thick and groggy from sleep.

Bruce gives a tiny shake of his head and explains, “No, Maria Hill and Nicky Fury are here.” He feels a stab of unease in his gut when Tony does not initially react, but he presses, “I told you they were coming. Do you remember?”

Tony’s face twists uncertainly for a moment. He swallows convulsively and gives a token nod, yet the once costumed hero says nothing. Bruce takes this as enough of consent to help Tony up and off the floor. First, the physicist assists Tony to the bathroom to tidy himself a bit, where he sits in silence with a disconcertingly dead gaze, allowing Bruce to do all the work. Then, he shoulders Tony’s weight a bit as his friend shambles down the hall to the living room. Tony is unsteady on his feet still, walking with a lurching gait stemming from the poorly healed breaks in his legs.

In the living room, Hill and Fury greet Tony warmly, as old friends, but Stark does not respond. Hill explains the procedure of the deposition, as well as her place as acting court reporter. She swears Tony in under the watchful eye of her camera lens, and Tony responds with flat, monosyllabic answers. After that, Hill attempts to prompt any sort of comments or answers from Tony, but he has drifted too far.

It hits as Hill first says Steve’s name muddled in an otherwise innocuous question; the start of an attack. As Hill and Fury stare in mute horror, Tony curls inwardly over himself, shuddering and protectively hunching over his soft abdomen in a way that Bruce has seen many times before. The physicist has often wondered if this is a posture Tony had frequently adopted to save himself from internal injury during his time with Steve. However, before Bruce can warn otherwise, Maria innocently jumps up to comfort Tony – sending the inventor into a blind panic.

Everything happens quite swiftly after that. A full blown panic attack. The frantic flight from the living room and the bone jarring tumble Tony takes when his feet get tangled up on each other. The dangerous hyperventilation and wild eyes darting about without seeing. The unreachable man and the requisite Haldol injected into his hip. Then, the impossibly long lull as the drug drags Tony down further and further into the questionable embrace of chemical sedation and unconsciousness.

Bruce apologizes to Hill right as she attempts to offer her own. He should have known this would not work. He scowls as he smooths Tony’s sweaty, rumpled hair, mentally chastising himself for not heeding his own misgivings. Fury is quick to assure Bruce that the fault is all theirs and that the recording will be destroyed; it lightens Bruce’s heart slightly to know the spy will make certain it never sees the light of day. Hill and Fury excuse themselves politely and promptly, allowing Bruce the privacy to lift Tony’s scrawny, light body bridal style and carry him back to bed.

When Pepper returns with a tired, yawning Anthony in tow, she knows by the look on Bruce’s face alone and hugs him before ambling to the kitchen to make dinner.

 

xxx

Leucochloridium paradoxum

xxx

‘He’s dying. He’s dying, and there is nothing I can do.’

Natasha cannot bring herself to speak the words, but they ring in her head again and again as she tends to Tony. Steve’s aggression – already high – has been steadily ramping up the last few weeks. His behavior has grown increasingly erratic and maddeningly volatile. He has vented his temper, his fury upon Tony in the most savage of ways, inflicting horrifying injuries upon his captive. His brutality has known no bounds in the past few weeks.

Natasha has tried her best to care for Tony, but her skills are limited. Her training has always leaned towards field medicine and nothing more. She can triage a wound and stabilize a patient, but Natasha is no doctor or nurse. Her knowledge and skills have only ever been meant to suffice in an emergency until her charge can be seen by medical professionals. The damage Steve has dealt lies well beyond her capabilities.

A few days ago – how many, she has lost count through her long vigil – Tony had crawled back from Steve, blood oozing profusely from between his legs. The white hot agony of it had stolen his coherency along with the blood loss. Natasha had tried her best, she had.

Fortunately, Steve leaves them be for the time, too busy with the rest of his kingdom to care about his three prizes. Unfortunately, whatever injuries lie unseen within Tony draw out a fever within the first twenty four hours of this uncertain respite. This allows Natasha the time to sit by Tony’s side as he slumbers restlessly while Clint stares on. She bathes Tony’s brow to mop away the fevered sweat as he shivers through the chills and moans beneath her ministrations. She spoons tiny sips of water into his mouth, just miniscule drams in a desperate bid to keep him hydrated.

Tony is barely lucid through it. He speaks in incoherent ramblings. When the inventor does form intelligible words, it is to beg her to kill him. He pleads with her in ragged breaths let him die, although the woman often wonders if he is begging with his own body to finally give out. When she refuses and shushes him, he sobs until unconsciousness takes him once more.

Natasha tries not to consider the mercy it would be to end his suffering. Her years in the espionage world have taught her countless manners of death, many of which would be swift and clean. Steve has left her limited tools at her disposal, but she can be resourceful. However, Natasha knows she cannot bring herself to kill him, no matter how merciful the act might prove. Later, when rescue finally comes just a few days later, Natasha will think back on this moment of temptation and frailty, and she will be sick with shame.

When the fever finally breaks, Tony drops into a still, dreamless sleep that is short lived as Steve comes for him once more. However, he does not fight, does not balk. Instead, Tony wordless follows, his gaze distant and lost, as though a part of him died during the sickness. Natasha watches him as he does for her sake, and she aches at the sight of him, a piece of her dying as well.

xxx

Cordyceps militaris

xxx

Steve listens carefully as his representation outlines his defense plans. He has not seen the short, rat-faced man in many weeks, but the lawyer has been quite busy in that time strategizing while Steve has been left alone to consider the matter. Steve holds his tongue as the man primly prescribes his plot, painting Steve as a victim as well in the matter, having been enslaved by the parasite. The lawyer makes it resolutely clear that the doctors and scientists all have substantial evidence to prove this. The little rat man further asserts he believes in Steve’s innocence.

Only once the lawyer has finished – which is after a considerable length of time – does Steve speak, for the first time in many weeks. “I’m going to plead guilty.”

The lawyer gulps, “Guilty?!?” He shakes his head incredulously. “You can’t be serious, Captain Ro-“

Before he can finish, Steve interjects, “Please, don’t call me that.” He looks down as the burn of his shame licks at his cheeks. “I’m not a captain anymore.”

The lawyer pauses, clearly taken back, and he swallows awkwardly while his mind scrambles for the right words. “Mr. Rogers, you can’t.” When Steve says nothing, the lawyer inches closer to the thick, clear wall of Steve’s prison and breathes, “You can’t do this. You have to give me the chance….”

Steve shakes his head tersely. “It’s my decision.”

“Please,” the lawyer practically begs. When Steve does not look up, his lawyer presses once more, “You have to let me try, for my father.” The lawyer rubs his brow. “He always told me stories about you, about how you were there. He said you were there, that you saved him.” When Steve does not react, the lawyer adds, “You wouldn’t remember him. Just another nameless soldier in some backwater German town, but he never forgot you.”

Steve gives another shake of his head. “It doesn’t change what I did.”

“But, but you didn’t do it!” the lawyer blurts out. “The scientists, they all say the same thing. It was the worm, not you. Some sort of a neural parasitological reproduction drive.”

Steve grits his teeth together and says nothing more, even as his representation begs and pleads.

xxx

Caenocholax sp.

xxx

It is strange in a way; Wayne’s intelligence is surprisingly more accurate, detailed, and fruitful than Fury’s, so much so that each on the infiltration team begins to wonder if Wayne’s inside source is setting them up for a trap. Yet, it is Wayne’s plan that gets them into the Tower through a service entrance, just a foothold. That is all they need for Hill to get started while Sam and Rhodes neutralize any of Steve’s lackeys.

While Wayne and Fury stand guard, Hill patches into the system in a disused server node. It takes a nerve wracking hour for her to get into the system. Once she is in, Wayne relaxes slightly, but Fury is quick to remind him that this is but a small victory. There are any number of digital and physical security features between them and their quarry in the uppermost levels of the Tower. Hill only lifts her brow but continues to labor for another three hours to override Rogers’s control of Jarvis and lock out his security codes.

As soon as she has, Fury can almost hear the relief and gratitude in Jarvis’s voice. “Thank you, Miss Hill.”

“Glad to have you back, Jarvis,” Fury greets the artificial intelligence.

Jarvis practically purrs, “It is good to be back, Director Fury.”

“Let’s stow the pleasantries, ladies,” Hill pipes up, quite professionally. “Jarvis, where is Rogers now?”

“The penthouse.”

“Can you be a dear and clear a path?” Hill requests primly.

Jarvis sounds pleased to comply. “I can indeed. If you would please hurry.”

“Wait,” Wayne cuts in. “What about the other hostages?”

“I’ll go,” Fury states.

Hill nods. “I’ll go with him.”

Wayne peels away from the others to ascend the Tower to the penthouse.

xxx

Leuchloridium paradoxum

xxx

The penthouse is deathly silent, a troubling sign. Wayne moves easily in the quiet, but the customary void to which he has become accustomed to and trained to embrace holds no comfort. This is not the absence of his own design, a careful concealing. No, this is the stillness of a tomb, of death.

The penthouse lies in shambles. Wayne recalls having visited the place shortly after the original construction completion for a party of some kind. He had slipped between models and heroes, grinning and smiling, congratulating the super hero Ironman and insipidly requesting autographs and public appearances of the Avengers. It had been a bitter mask to wear, to pretend to adore these heroes while simultaneously concealing his own, true identity. Yet, Alfred had insisted he attend, citing the appearances of a billionaire playboy that required cultivation and maintenance.

The penthouse of the Stark Tower of Wayne’s memory had been a glittering, gaudy affair. His family’s tastes had lain in more traditional design, favoring hardwoods and intricate carvings. Stark’s home had been lavishly modern and sleek, touched with hints of gold amid the expensive, polished stone. This is a shadow of the penthouse’s former glory and previously impeccable maintenance. The marble is stained and filthy, the floor littered with broken glass and shredded linens. The furniture lies in disarray, some pieces broken while others are displaced or completely overturned.

He finds the hostages Romanov and Barton in a side room. Romanov huddles over Barton, shielding him with her body while remaining poised to strike. Her eyes initially glare up at Wayne as a deadly viper, an asp coiled to strike. Fury has briefed Wayne on her varied and entirely fatal skillset, and Wayne knows she would be quite capable of dispatching him as easily as she might a fly. Mindful of this fact, he slowly, gracefully kneels down two meters from her, his hands open and empty for her to see. He allows her several moments to study him and assess the threat of his presence. In time, Romanov relaxes enough for Wayne to see the seemingly vacant Clint Barton behind her.

Only once he is certain the spy is aware that he is no danger to them does Wayne ask, “Rogers?”

She nods towards the other side of the penthouse, to the master suite.

“Stark?”

Romanov jerks her head in the same direction.

“Stay here.”

Romanov says nothing but presses protectively over Barton. Against his better judgment, Wayne reaches into his belt and retrieves a small, flat black throwing knife. He holds it up to her, displaying the weapon plainly. Romanov stiffens, but she allows him to place the knife on the floor and slide it to her. She snatches it up in a pale, dirty palm and swiftly conceals the blade. He knows her mental state is likely questionable at best granted the length and nature of her captivity and abuse, but it reassures Bruce to know Romanov has some means to defend herself should anything go wrong.

Somewhere, in the dark recesses of his mind, it also offers the strangely limited comfort of knowing that Romanov has a means to end both herself and Clint should she need. Wayne knows there is no way to be certain who exactly has been feeding him intelligence directly from the Tower. It could be an entirely elaborate trap. Wayne forces down these unwelcome, unsavory thoughts as he leaves Barton and Romanov.

The detective braces himself at the door to the master for whatever he might find, mindful that Steve Rogers vastly outclasses him for all his training. Yet, his keen ears catch not a sound from the room beyond. Wayne presses his back against the wall and nudges the door open with a toe. Nothing stirs. He checks his corners, but there appears no threat. Wayne slips into the room without a sound.

The master suite lies in an impossibly worse state than the rest of the penthouse. Whereas the penthouse can be easily set to rights, Wayne thinks it might be easier to rip the place down to bare studs and start over. The furniture is just as ruined, but the walls are destroyed as well. Fist-prints stab into the wall, deeply. Blood and other stains mar the walls, the floors, and just about everything.

On the other side of the rumpled, ruined bed is the infamous Steven Rogers. Wayne jerks to the ready, but there is strangely no threat. Rogers lies sprawled upon the floor, seemingly where he dropped. He is nude, but Wayne knows better than to mistake nudity for weakness. He springs for Rogers and expertly binds his thick, muscular wrists behind his back with manacles designed to contain the Hulk. Wayne pauses and elects to bind Rogers by the ankles as well. He has learned better than to take any chances with even a seemingly incapacitated enemy.

Wayne does not bother to check for a pulse; monsters such as Steven Rogers fall quite low among his priorities compared to his victims. He has still not located Stark yet. Even had he, Wayne knows it never fails that creatures and villains like Rogers to survive the seeming impossible again and again.

Eventually, he finds Stark bloodied, battered, and huddled in a closet no far from where Rogers fell, curled up in a pile of fallen and tattered clothing that must have once been a glorious collection of elegant suits, ties, and shirts. When Wayne first eases open the closet, Stark presses himself deeper into the corner, a low, keening whine slipping from him as he trembles violently and hugs himself tighter. The general words of reassurance and comfort that Wayne has grown so accustomed to offering a victim stick in Wayne’s throat when he notes Stark’s nudity and the decidedly sexual nature of his injuries. Wayne swallows the lump steadily forming in his throat and tries to reach for Stark, only to have the inventor cringe away and whimper.

Wayne crouches down and waits, forcing himself to speak softly to Stark, abandoning the drawling growl he employs while donning the cowl. He allows the meaningless drivel to spill from him on and on. The detective knows it amounts to nothing more than empty platitudes to a man who has suffered as Stark has. However, in time, it serves its purpose. Stark quiets and stills slightly, possibly out of recognition but more likely out of exhaustion, slumping against the corner as though accepting his fate.

The clothes that litter the closet and the bed linens in the room behind him are unfit for use. Wayne unclasps the cloak from his uniform and creeps to Stark. The man twitches and sniffles as tears stream down his cheeks, but no fight remains. He tenses as Wayne drapes the ebony cloak about his shoulders. Then, Stark blinks oddly, turning his glossy gaze to Wayne and seeing him for the first time in earnest before his eyes slide shut.

Carefully, Wayne snakes his arms under Stark and lifts him up. Stark hangs limply in his arms, and, so, Wayne cradles him close to his chest. Strangely, at that moment, all the caped crusader can think of is a photograph he had seen once of Stark in his own workshop, a seemingly powerful man carved of muscle. This is not the same man. This is a shade of that man, scrawny and bony, appallingly easy to carry.

As he leaves, Wayne pauses to spare a glance at Rogers but nothing more; Steve Rogers deserves nothing more than that.

xxx

Shistocephalus solidus

xxx

To Steve’s surprise, his physical presence at the trial is not apparently necessary or safe. Instead, he attends the proceedings through a camera and video monitor that stands just outside his cell beyond the apparent safety of the clear wall. His representative, however, is physically present in the crowded courtroom to face Steve’s accusers in person; Steve almost pities him.

Despite his physical absence, Steve wishes he would be given something more to better dress himself. Fury and his jailors have only ever provided him with simple, coarse scrubs and nothing more. It seems inappropriate to attend a court matter in such a state of dress – like standing before the judge in pajamas. However, he understands the need, the concern that Steve might turn anything else into a weapon against himself or others. That knowledge does nothing to mitigate the humiliation that burns at Steve’s cheeks.

Rogers listens as the court officers bicker, shout, and otherwise struggle to maintain control of the room. Although only the media and those directly involved have been allotted attendance, there are frequent outbursts as the introductory comments are made. They list the crimes to which Steven Rogers stands accused, each count a lash to his heart, each crime another weight for him to carry with him until whatever time his body and Erskine’s formula should give out.

When they ask for his plea, Steve closes his eyes and breathes, “Guilty.”

The courtroom erupts, but Steve hears none of it.

xxx

Heterorhabditis bacteriophora

xxx

Coulson warns Pepper and Bruce quite clearly; the damage is….. extensive. That is the word that the agent uses. Extensive. It makes Tony sound less like a human and more like a machine to be repaired or catalogued for an insurance claim. However, Pepper knows that this is the only word behind which Coulson can hide his own cumbersome and conflicting emotions.

Coulson informs them of this in person the night after the liberation of the Tower. It is a blessing in a way. Although Pepper does not know Coulson well, she knows he speaks the truth to her; Coulson has always spoken truthfully to her where it has mattered. He will not tread delicately or skirt the subject to spare her; the agent never has. He is brutally honest, and, in a way, Pepper immensely prefers his nearly shockingly cavalier attitude and delivery to the awkward bumbling of any other, well-meaning agent.

When Anthony hears Coulson’s voice, he comes running from the living to throw a wild hug about the agent’s knees. Coulson responds with a tender smile that betrays his occupation as a spy. When Anthony lets him loose and begins to babble in hardly intelligible excitement, the agent kneels down for him and listens with an earnest ear and encouraging nod here and there.

“I brought you something,” Coulson tells the boy before pulling something from the inside pocket of his perfectly pressed and starched jacket.

To Pepper’s surprise, it is an Ironman action figure. She did not even know any still existed outside of the clutches of a few collectors. They had only been produced in an exceedingly limited quantity after Tony publicly came out as Ironman. Tony had been initially startled and flattered, but, then, discomfort had quickly followed. He had confided in Pepper that, aside from the initial ego boost, the concept disturbed him. He had built the Ironman suit to end violence in the world, not encourage a new generation towards aggression. Pepper had understood immediately and threatened suit; the toys had swiftly vanished from store shelves followed a hasty product withdrawal and apology from the manufacturer.

Anthony blurts something out to Coulson that might be akin to a thank-you, and Coulson nods before addressing Pepper in a whisper, “We should speak in private.”

“Anthony,” his mother purrs with a wistful smile. “Why don’t you go show Uncle Bruce what Mr. Coulson gave you?”

The boy nods enthusiastically and trots off; Pepper watches him vanish down the hall before letting her face fall. “We can talk out on the porch.”

Coulson steps out onto the humble porch into the fading light of the summer evening at her lead; the ancient wood beneath his feet creaks with his weight. The air holds a gentle crispness to it, but it pales by compare to the chills that play Pepper’s spine. She folds her arms across her chest against the cold inside her and turns away; she is not certain she can face Coulson for this.

“How bad?” Coulson shifts his weight with another creak of the floorboards, and Pepper laughs mirthlessly. “That bad, huh?” Coulson sighs; Pepper shivers as she breathes, “It is.”

“Mr. Stark has suffered prolonged and extreme abuse physically, mentally, and sexually during his captivity,” Coulson reports in an entirely perfunctory tone. Then, in perhaps the most candid moment that Pepper has seen from the agent, he admits in a hush, “He’s in bad shape.” Coulson pauses briefly before quickly adding, “But he’s in good hands.”

Pepper nods slowly and asks, “When can he come home?”

As soon as the word passes her lips, her heart quivers. Pepper had not meant to call the mountain cabin ‘home,’ but, now, the woman know this to be the truth. She warms as her mind turns the word about with increasingly pleasure. The Tower will never be her home, not after what little the woman knows Steve did to adulterate Tony’s vision of the skyscraper. Besides, this is where Anthony was born. This is where the people of Blooming Grove embraced them. This is where they belong now. This is home.

Coulson’s voice takes a weary edge. “Soon.”

His feet scuff against the wood with a rasp, as though Coulson fidgets before continuing. Pepper listens half-heartedly as the agent explains Tony’s many injuries and the challenges he will face in his recovery – if there is to be anything that can truly be called “recovery.” She wants to cry when Coulson lists his many ailments, but Pepper knows she must be strong now more than ever for Tony.

Later, after Coulson has left, Pepper tells Anthony as she tucks him into bed. “Anthony, I’ve got something important to tell you.” She smooths the blanket over him and announces, “Your daddy is going to be coming home soon.”

“Daddy?” Anthony asks in a small voice. Then, he plucks up Coulson’s present and holds it up to her, declaring, “Daddy!”

Pepper’s heart breaks. Bruce has clearly been telling him tales of his father’s exploits as a hero, but it obviously means nothing to a toddler. Anthony doesn’t understand now, but he will.

 

xxx

Heterorhabditis bacteriophora

xxx

During the day, Natasha carefully avoids the television and the radio. She does not want Clint to hear anything of the trial. He does not need to hear any of their secret and too intimate suffering laid bare before the audience of the general public. At least, this is what Natasha tells herself, and it is an all too convenient lie to avoid the grizzly truth of her own shame.

Only in the dark of the night, long after she has helped Clint to bed, does Natasha give in to her own burning temptation. She curls up in her own bed with her mobile and filters through the news and various videos available. The testimonies of scientists, doctors, criminologists, and psychologists all twist through her gut, but she cannot look away. A part of her needs to see this, despite the masochistic agony of it all. She needs to know what will become of Steven Rogers in a weird way, especially after he admits to his guilt.

The hearings persist for months on end. For each oath against Steven Rogers, another stands up to his defense. For each tale of misery and torture, there is a story of almost biblical salvation. The scientists and doctors argue to his defense, citing scores of parasitic species that hijack their host and alter their behavior to benefit the parasite. The psychologists point out the severe degree of damage done to his victims. It is a veritable mess.

Through it all, Rogers maintains a solemn silence, as though holding vigil to himself. He seems certain that he is to blame for everything that has happened. His eyes twitch occasionally as though fighting back his own tears. Natasha wonders if he thinks he is undeserving of tears, if he thinks it inappropriate or shameful. She cannot know.

As she waits for the verdict, Natasha begins to question her own certainty of his guilt. The days wear upon her resolve, allowing her the time and space to consider the matter. She muses upon her years of training and the various techniques of manipulation and mental coercion. There are so many ways to break a mind, to bend it against one’s natural inclinations, all in which Natasha is well versed. As the proceedings drag on, the doubt begins to gnaw at her until Natasha cannot bear to look upon Steve’s face, even beyond the camera.

When the day comes, Natasha cannot bring herself to watch; she already knows what the verdict will be.

xxx

Pomphorhynchus laevis

xxx

When things finally settle enough for Wayne to slink away, the billionaire finds he cannot so simply slip away and retreat to the relative safety and predictable darkness of Gotham’s nights. Instead, his path is quite honestly blocked by one Nick Fury. The detective knows better than to sigh at the dramatics of the spy, but he does anyway. The days have just been too trying upon him.

“Looking to just drift away into the night?” Fury asks in coy mockery.

Wayne shrugs, biting back a snide remark. “Something like that.”

The billionaire attempts to sidestep about Fury, but the spy is too quick. “You know, somethings been bothering me.” When Wayne merely grits his teeth and says nothing, Fury presses, “We interrogated Rogers’s men and have questioned several of the hostages. Your insider. We never found him. So, where’d your expert intel come from precisely?”

There is a hint of something behind Fury’s question, something that tugs at Wayne. When he meets Fury’s dark eyes, the spy seems to be looking right through him, peering right down to the core. It unsettles him. It is as though Fury thinks that he is the source of the information that led to the successful liberation of the Tower and the rescue of its captives.

When Wayne realizes this, he laughs and shakes his head ruefully. “You don’t know?”

Fury folds his arms across his broad chest. “Enlighten me.”

“Rogers had a prisoner not on your list,” Wayne answers bluntly. Fury only raises a brow, and Wayne smirks sadly. “Jarvis was never a willing accomplice to Rogers. His override codes locked even Jarvis out, but that didn’t mean Jarvis wasn’t watching in the background, looking for a way out.” Wayne shakes his head. “I thought Jarvis was a pseudonym. I didn’t know who or what he was until Hill broke into the servers.”

Fury nods in slow, measured movement before extending a hand to Wayne. “Thank you.”

Wayne grips his hand firmly, and he says, “Don’t thank me. Thank Jarvis.”

xxx

Schistosoma mansoni

xxx

“Tell me about the last two weeks,” Dr. Leonard Samson prompts almost casually as he takes a seat across from his patient. “How have you been since our last session?”

Tony shrugs oddly, his gaze fixed on some distant point decidedly burrowed beneath the floor boards before the psychiatrist’s smart, leather shoes. Bruce winces sympathetically at Dr. Samson but finds himself resolutely ignored by both parties. However, he knows that Tony is not the psychiatrist’s first difficult patient, and this is not Samson’s first session with Tony. Dr. Samson has been to the cabin no less than a dozen times, enough to be familiar with Tony’s behavior and traumas.

Even if he had not already held a few sessions with Tony, Bruce knows Dr. Samson can handle himself. Dr. Leonard Samson is an accomplished therapist, his work with the so-called superhero community is world renowned and utterly unparalleled by any other. He has distinguished himself as the man to see, which is really saying something considering how secretive and paranoid the community can be. Even Bruce himself once called upon Samson’s help to contain his own uncertain and occasionally volatile emotions in hope of containing the beast within.

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Samson is the world’s leading authority on the complex matters of the superhero psyche. After all, Leo Samson is the only psychiatrist who is also a superhero. At least, this is to the knowledge of Bruce Banner. Outwardly, one would not necessarily notice this; aside from the unusual, deeply emerald sheen to his dark hair, Samson just looks like a fit, young, American male. Only someone on the receiving end of his fists would understand the utterly inhuman strength that hides behind it – not quite the measure of the Hulk, but certainly more than a normal human could impart. As such, Dr. Leonard Samson understands the intricate world of the superhero mind more than any other doctor.

It is strange, though, when Bruce considers the matter. Bruce knows that Tony adamantly refused the professional help he so desperately needed after Afghanistan. He also knows that Tony fiercely avoided counseling following his brush with palladium poisoning, no matter how Pepper had begged. Even the Battle of New York could not prompt Tony to seek help despite his floundering until after the events of Extremis. Still, Tony would only speak to Bruce, despite the physicist’s protests.

Upon his return, for the first weeks to months, Tony had been barely functional. He had struggled immensely with his weighty emotions and mental trauma, as well as the limitations of his own damaged body. Bruce had proudly watched as Tony desperately grasped at cobbling himself back together, only to stumble frequently. Then, out of the blue, the inventor had asked for help. Bruce had been startled by the request to say the least, but Coulson had been swift to furnish them with Samson’s contact information.

“Have you been practicing the exercises we discussed last time?” Dr. Samson inquires flatly as he produces a pen and notepad from his bag.

Tony nods solemnly, refusing to lift his gaze to the psychiatrist. He has. Bruce had not expected Tony to be so compliant in the matter. Dr. Samson had appealed to Tony’s more rational side, citing the complex psychological and biochemical reactions that fed his panic attacks in a positive feedback loop, but Bruce often wonders how much of Tony’s obedience stems from his captivity and abuse. Each night, Tony faithfully goes through the routine of cognitive behavioral therapy that Samson had recommended with Bruce’s assistance. He breathes heavily, clenches his muscles, breathes through a straw, all the seemingly silly things Samson had suggested in order to desensitize himself to the sensations of a panic attack.

“How has that been going for you?”

Tony shrugs flatly.

Dr. Samson scribbles a tiny note on the pad. “And the medications I prescribed?”

Tony says nothing for a long, awkward pause, but Dr. Samson simply waits. He knows Tony will answer in his own time. Both Bruce and Samson know Tony wants to better more than he wants to avoid the difficult questions – if only for Pepper and Anthony.

Finally, Tony sighs, sagging as he does in the chair and shaking his head. “Don’t like them.”

Dr. Samson’s pen scritches on the paper. “Have they been working?”

“I guess,” Tony says with a shrug.

Samson turns his knowing gaze upon Bruce, mindful of the physicist’s role as primary caregiver and confidant to Tony. “What would you say, Dr. Banner? Do you think they’re working?”

Bruce feels abruptly dirty. It is an underhanded move that Dr. Samson has employed at least once a session when Tony has difficulty speaking. The psychiatrist is playing Tony’s ego, mindful that a man as once proud as Tony Stark does not appreciate being spoken about as a child. To Bruce’s chagrin, it often works, but that does not mean the physicist appreciates being used. As Pepper occupies Anthony during these sessions, she is always spared this tactic.

“There has been a slight decrease in the frequency and severity of his attacks,” Banner responds in monotone. Then, he blurts out, “And he pulled himself back from a full attack yesterday.”

Dr. Samson smirks smugly and returns his attention to his patient. “They’re working.” When Tony says nothing, the psychiatrist sets his pen down and asks candidly, “What don’t you like about them?”

Tony shakes his head. “I don’t know.” He gestures vaguely to his head. “Feels fuzzy.” Tony scowls at the floor. “Like I’m lagging a cycle.”

“It’s going to take time to dial in a precise dosage and for your body to adjust,” Samson explains primly as he jots another note. “You might feel a little bit off for a while. Have you experienced any other side effects? Nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, anything like that?” When Tony swiftly and timidly shakes his head, Dr. Samson beams warmly at his charge. “That’s good. It means that we’re looking at a viable option for the time.”

Tony frowns deeply. “I don’t feel any better.”

Samson chortles. “I said ‘for the time,’ Tony. Think of it like being a computer booted in safe mode. There’s some kind of a system error, but you don’t know where. Safe mode lets you hone in on the issue and deal with the problem without the interference of non-core components. This is safe mode for you right now.”

“Don’t,” the inventor breathes with a wag of his finger. “Don’t lecture the engineer on computers.”

Bruce feels his heart lighten. Tony has not shown any signs of his old, barbed wit until now. He tries not to be too excited, but it is a welcome sign of improvement.

Samson offers a shrug. “Well, it’s true.” He sets aside the notepad and leans forward, speaking candidly. “Look, I know it’s hard to accept it, but the meds are helping. They’re just not the magical cure-all you see in commercials or in movies. They don’t work instantly, and, even then, they don’t do the job themselves. It’s going to take work, Tony, real work to make a meaningful recovery. The meds are just there to lend you a hand managing your symptoms, and you’re already making progress.”

“I guess.” Tony sounds less like a grown man and more like a small, uncertain child; something about that smothers the hope slowly building in Bruce.

“You guess?” the psychiatrist teases with a cocked brow.

Tony does not say a word, but Bruce can see the answer written painfully in his features. The inventor has always worn his emotions rather plainly for the entire world to see. When he curls inwardly on himself, Bruce knows that Tony harbors serious doubts to any of Samson’s claims – despite how unfounded they may be. The first few sessions, Tony had been barely communicative, incapable of responding to Dr. Samson’s gentle probing and guiding. Now, he can actually think critically about himself and respond as such, even if it is in limited bursts.

Dr. Samson chortles and shakes his head. “If you’re still unhappy with the meds, we can try a different course, but, Tony, you are making progress. It just takes time.” When Tony frowns, Dr. Samson continues, “You’re an engineer. You’re used to projects having a deadlines and structure, but the human mind isn’t a machine. There is no deadline to recovery, no set pattern or planned checkpoints.”

Tony does not look so certain.

xxx

Plasmodium mexicanum

xxx

The weeks after the liberation of the Tower should be anti-climactic, Pepper knows. The villain – Steve, she reminds herself – has been vanquished. His captives – Tony, Natasha, Clint, friends, coworkers, and members of the Stark Industries and Avengers families – have been rescued and brought to the medical and psychological care they need. Yet, she feels herself holding her breath as the weeks wear on in painful waiting.

Then, Coulson visits once more after dinner. He sits with Bruce and Pepper in the kitchen after Anthony has been put to bed, whispering like a conspirator in the shadows. He explains Tony’s condition and his medical and psychological needs, which are numerous. The agent tells them of the difficulties facing Tony. The entire time, it seems as though Coulson is asking a question without outwardly saying it, tiptoeing about the subject the entire time, as though he is trying to talk her out of this.

When she finally tires of the charade, Pepper ends it quite swiftly and firmly. “He’s coming home, Phil.” The agent starts at her abruptness, but the businesswoman merely asserts once more, “He’s coming home.”

Coulson makes the arrangements for the end of the week with Tony’s physicians and with security personnel while Pepper crafts her own plan. In the morning, she tramps down the path to the Saunders farm and asks Missy and her father – Gray – if they can watch Anthony for a few days. They heartily agree, especially Gray as he rather plainly guilt trips Missy about giving him any grandchildren. On Friday morning, Missy rides up the trail on Bunny and rides back down with Anthony seated in front of her atop the monstrous horse. Pepper bites her lip and waves at Anthony as Missy tells him all about the exciting things she has planned for his visit, the games they will play, the movies they will watch, and the sugary treats they will eat – all of which Anthony knows his mother disapproves.

That afternoon, Coulson returns with Tony. Pepper knows better than to expect anything more than the scrawny, battered, barely conscious man that Coulson brings her. She knows that the trip would have been exceedingly difficult for Tony and that his physicians would likely prescribe anxiety medications to make him more pliant for the journey. She knows she should have expected the wasted, withered body that Coulson brings her in place of her athletic, muscular, heroic lover. Pepper says nothing of the matter as Bruce scoops his limp body up from the armored transport and caries him bridal style into the cabin, no matter how she knows it would humiliate Tony unless he mocked Bruce for it first.

Tony does not wake until late that night from a fitful, nightmare plagued sleep. Bruce and Pepper are there to calm him, but he barely recognizes them in his panic. Pepper tries to remind herself that this was always a possibility.

Bruce and Pepper spend the weekend navigating the treacherous field that is life with this severely altered Tony Stark, learning his triggers and his warning signs. They grow accustomed to the near constant reassurance he requires. They learn the low, almost murmured tones he needs to transition from the panic to something more amenable. To Pepper’s dismay, they also discover the edge of his limits, where the fear pushes him into dangerous territory and demands chemical intervention. Grotesquely, they train themselves not to react when they find Tony out of bed or out of his clothes.

After one such attack, lulled by the drugs and glossy eyed, Tony stares at Pepper. She thinks it a listless gesture until he reaches for her with a long, gnarled finger. She freezes under his gaze and allows this shattered, hollow man to trace her cheek and jawline. He utters her name once before curling in on himself to cry. It is somehow worse to see him cry than to see him freak out. Pepper tries to wrap her arms about him, but Tony jerks away from her in fright.

At the end of the weekend, when Tony seems to at least have an vague understanding of his setting while conscious, Missy ambles back up the trail with Anthony astride Bunny. Pepper greets her outside. Anthony practically flings himself at his mother from the back of the horse, launching into a barely intelligible chatter of all the things he did during his “vacation” at the Saunders farm. She hugs him fiercely, abruptly protective of her son before looking to Missy and mouthing her silent thanks.

As Missy turns her mount back down the trail, Pepper sets Anthony down on the ground and tries to explain. Yet, he is just so young. He barely has a concept of sharing. There is no explaining to a child of his age what has happened to his father. He cannot understand such appalling things or the destruction of one’s psyche as a result. She tries, though. She tells him about his father and how he will need to act about him. Pepper practically begs her son to behave, to be quiet and still, even though she knows it is against his nature and his age.

It takes some time for Anthony to settle enough for Pepper to feel ready to introduce them; it also takes time for Tony to come to something resembling lucidity as well. Once Pepper feels brave enough, she takes Anthony by the hand and leads him to Tony’s side while Bruce stands at the ready. Tony stares wide eyed and confused at the small boy at Pepper’s side with the dark hair and chocolate eyes.

Pepper draws a deep breath to still her racing heart before she introduces, “Tony, this is Anthony.” As Tony gapes widely, the woman sweeps a hand over the boy’s mussy hair and smiles hopefully. “Anthony, this is your Daddy.”

xxx

Leucochloridium variae

xxx

The weeks following the verdict are paradoxically uncertain for Steve. The verdict has only served to confirm his own opinions on the matter of his actions, but, after that, there seems to be some debate as to what is to become of the former Captain Steven Rogers. There are those who wish him to be put to death for his crimes, a sentiment that Steve understands intimately. There are those who wish him to be incarcerated.

It takes weeks before Steve is told what is to be his fate; incarceration for life – whatever is life for a man so enhanced as Steven Rogers. His service prior to the infection had been enough to spare him, but the court officers could not allow Rogers to go free for fear of lingering traces of the parasite. He breathes a shaky sigh, unsure if it is out of relief or disappointment. A part of him had almost hoped for a death sentence after these months with nothing to do but think of his horrific crimes and the risk of hurting another living soul again should there be any lingering traces of the worm.

His legal representative – his lawyer – assures him his sentence will be carried out ethically, offering a myriad of meaningless promises to Steve for the entirety of his now barren existence. He will not be tortured or harmed. He will not be executed. He will not be deprived of the basic necessities for human existence – food, drink, clothes, rest, any laughable medical attention, even physical and mental stimuli. Steve bites his tongue to keep from gritting out that these are all things he kept from his victims. His lawyer tells him this is a good thing, the best outcome considering the complete lack of defense Steve had mounted or allowed his own representative to construct one.

So it is; Steve is to be maintained. He wonders for how long. Steve knows his body does not age or wear like that of any other human due to Erskine’s serum. As a result, the former soldier has no concept of how long his life will persist. A hundred years? Two hundred years? There is no way to know until his body finally expires.

A month or so after the sentence is given, Steve’s accommodations change. He is transferred in hefty manacles that Steve doubts would buckle or break under even the fury of the Hulk to a much more spacious cell. It still bears the long, clear windowed front as his old cell, but it is far larger. There is a small, somewhat private commode and shower tucked in a corner. There is no door to the modest restroom, but it is angled to keep prying eyes from spying unnecessarily. There is a bed, no more than a bunk, as well as a small bedside table and a desk, all firmly bolted to the floor. There are no decorations to speak of, but the new cell is a luxury of which Steve feels acutely undeserving.

The additional space does offer one small benefit; Steve can work out more. He spends countless hours losing himself in his routine of jogging the perimeter of the cell, of push-ups, of other exercises until he practically passes out. A part of Steve knows his work-outs last more than days granted his enhanced strength and stamina, but it is necessary. Only once he is thoroughly exhausted can Steve sleep dreamlessly. Otherwise, he is plagued by nightmares of crimes and atrocities only half remembered, waking frequently to wracking, painful sobs.

His handlers – or zookeepers, as Steve has come to think of them – offer him various diversions. Books. Movies. Art supplies. Therapists. All sorts of frivolous distractions. Steve refuses them all. He deserves none of the things they offer. He ignores them as the days bleed one into the other.

Then, out of the blue, there she is. Natasha. He stands and gawks at her, mindless of the manners his mother taught him all those years ago. She stands beyond the glass partition, her arms folded across her chest in what should be a familiar image. Yet, there is nothing familiar about her. Everything has changed. She appears hesitant before him, her once certain gaze unsure and clouded. It is as though the confidence and grace that was once so integral to her persona have evaporated entirely.

Steve’s legs buckle beneath him at the sight of her, and he crashes to his knees. Natasha starts with a tiny gasp, stepping away from him despite the protective barrier between them. He shudders at the naked fear all too apparent in her eyes, his eyes blurring. He blinks desperately to bite back the tears; he has no right to cry in front of Natasha. The once hero knows this as his heart rends at the sight and thought of her and what he has done to her.

The woman opens her mouth to speak, but no sound escapes her lips.

Before she can try once more, Steve swiftly blurts, “I’m sorry.”

He almost spits the words at her, terrified for a second that they might stick in his mouth. Natasha’s mouth falls open in a small ‘o’ of surprise as Steve stares up at her stupidly from his knees. His body jerks uncomfortably as he strains to contain the sobs steadily rising in him. Steve tries once more to apologize, to explain, to say something, anything, but nothing comes out, nothing intelligible.

And, then, he shatters. Nothing can stop it, nothing can stem the tide that has slowly swelled over his time in this prison. The man crumples forward against the glass, grinding his forehead into it as the tears spill down his cheeks. Only then do the words come to him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t…. I couldn’t. I’m so sorry, Nat. I just…. I didn’t know…. I’m sorry….” He shakes his head as he babbles on between sobs, “I couldn’t have known. I wasn’t….. I’m sorry. I should have fought it. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I did to you.”

Steve is not certain how long he cries or how many apologies fall from him. In time, however, when his tears run dry and his skull aches, the former soldier sits back on his heels, his head spinning and his heart heaving painfully. Steve struggles to pull himself together, to drag something resembling consciousness and coherency back to himself.

When he opens his eyes, Steve starts. Beyond the glass, Natasha is kneeling at his eye level. Her palms are pressed to the window, as though reaching to comfort him. Her eyes are red and glossy, as though she has inexplicably cried for him. He marvels at her sorrow and at the courage it must be taking Natasha to be there before him, to feel so for him.

“I know,” Natasha whispers. When Steve just stares with wide eyes, Natasha nods and repeats, “I know.” Natasha fixes a knowing gaze upon him as she explains slowly and carefully, “In the Red Room, I met a man who had no past. They… they made him do unspeakable things. They made him kill children. He tried to fight it, I know he did, but he couldn’t.” Natasha purses her lips, “Sometimes, I wonder if they made me do things like that. Things I can’t remember.”

Steve sags against the glass, unable to hold himself upright any longer. The window feels refreshingly cool against his cheek as he slumps there. He rests there, listening as Natasha tells again and again that she understands.

When it is time for her to leave, Natasha sniffles, composes herself, and promises to visit next week. Steve doubt she will. He does not expect anything of her, nothing save the contempt he has anticipated all these long months of his imprisonment. He spends the next seven days hugging himself against the sorrow. Yet, on the seventh day, she is there once more.

Her presence is a treasure he does not deserve but cannot deny himself.

xxx

Dinocampus coccinellae

xxx

Pepper holds her breath and watches in wonder. Tony and Anthony. They are sitting in the living room silently by the fireplace, each working in utter silence amid a rainbow of plastic building blocks. Anthony had dumped out the box of blocks before Tony where he napped on the couch just a few minutes earlier with a terrible crash that would have normally sent Tony into a wild panic attack. However, instead, Tony had simply sat up, yawned, rubbing his eyes, and slid off the couch the start building with his son. She cannot see their constructions, but every few moments, one of her boys will pause studiously, pluck a piece from the pile, and offer it to the other.

“Hey, I just finished….” Bruce announces from the door as he stomps the snow from his boots before trailing off at the sight in awe.

Neither Tony nor Anthony even look up from their construction project. Bruce peels off his boots and snow covered jacket as silently as possible before sliding into the kitchen beside Pepper to stare in amusement. There is something beautiful about this moment, the first real bonding moment when Tony has not had to struggle against his own fear. It is also quite surreal to see Tony with an almost miniature version of himself hunched over a project together, as though this was always meant to be.

In time, however, Pepper must call their building session to an end. “Boys, dinner’s ready.”

After dinner, both Tony and Anthony return to their place at the floor by the warm fire to continue with the blocks. Pepper and Bruce clear the table and wash the dishes, each checking over their shoulder to see Tony and his son still there, still playing in their own way. This goes on until both Anthony and Tony are yawning, their eyelids growing heavier and heavier. Pepper scoops up Anthony to take him to bed while Bruce helps Tony to bed.

In the morning, both Anthony and Tony are back at the blocks almost immediately.

xxx

Sacculina carcini

xxx

The lack of human contact is wearing on Steve. His keepers maintain a distance from him at all times. They do not address Steve, hardly acknowledge him even as they tend to his needs or bring his food. The guards and keepers always keep themselves behind protective barriers, funneling Steve when they need to move him as though a tiger through caged chutes.

He feels himself drifting further and further from anything resembling sanity, his mind starting to wander increasingly. Steve sometimes wakes from something akin to a fugue state to a mild shock and occasionally panic. He finds himself pacing until he drops, unaware of the time that has passed. A part of Steve knows he is deteriorating, but he still will not allow himself the luxury of the counseling his keepers so frequently offer.

The only minute balm in his world is Natasha’s visits. The woman appear faithfully every week for Steve. She brings with her small trinkets and tokens, books and drawing tools. Each tiny offering means the world to Steve, for each proves her forgiveness and understand, something he craves but does not believe he should ever see.

Her visits follow a precise formula. She inquires about his week, his activities, and his health. She comments on the weather. She relays the latest information about sports and popular media. She suggests a book or two and leaves them behind. Steve listlessly tries to follow her words and offer appropriate responses where social propriety demands. At the close of her visits, the woman promises to return a week later.

It does not escape Steve’s notice that Natasha never mentions Tony or Clint. He often wonders about his once friends and colleagues. Steve still only bears fragmented memories that haunt him of the pair, but no one has ever told him how they have fared in his awful wake. Natasha is quite delicate about the matter, discretely avoiding any topic which might turn back towards the fate of any of Steve’s victims during her brief visits. It is only after several visits that Steve dares ask about Clint or Tony.

Her answer leaves much to be desired. “I don’t know how Tony’s doing. I haven’t seen him in months.” She shrugs. “I guess he’s still living with Pepper and Bruce.”

Steve’s voice hitches uncomfortably as he hugs himself tightly and presses, “And Clint?”

Natasha pauses, sending a shiver down his spine. Her eyes take on a strange quality, a mistiness that only serves to distress Steve further from his place beyond the glass wall. He desperately wants to hug her, to hold her and to be held in return, but the man knows he can never have that again.

“Nat?”

The woman sighs oddly, a faint smile crossing her lips. “I like to think there’s progress. The doctors are less than optimistic, but it’s important to maintain a positive mental outlook.”

It breaks Steve’s heart to realize that she means he has irreparable ruined the sharpshooter.

xxx

Stichotrema dallatorreanurn

xxx

To Pepper’s surprise, Tony does not retire to his room at the end of the day. Instead, to her wonder, Tony shuffles towards her bedroom – the master bedroom. She waits and holds her breath as he walks. His gait is still somewhat awkward but improving day by day, but Tony shrugs off assistance from Bruce. She follows him from a cautious distance and slips into the bedroom with him as he climbs into bed.

For a brief moment, Pepper considers her options before deciding that Tony must want to be in bed with her if he has made this choice. She changes in the bathroom into warm pajamas and whispers a quick good night to Bruce before returning to the bedroom. There, Tony is already beneath the covers, his back to the door and to her. The woman nods to herself, confident now that her once lover must want this now, must be ready to try.

Pepper eases under the covers beside him, creeping like a spider to keep from startling him. It does not matter. He already trembles with fright before she even lies down. When she settles fully, Tony tenses, burying his face in the pillow. Pepper dares not breathe, dares not move until he lets out a shuddered breath and relaxes slightly. After that, it takes her a long time lying in the dark to fall asleep.

Pepper is woken in the middle of the night by thud. She jumps awake and blinks rapidly to adjust her eyes to the darkness. It takes her a moment to realize it is Tony as he scrambles away from the bed and into the corner. There, the man huddles up in a small ball as he struggles to bring himself back from the edge. She waits for him, until his respiration slows and he swallows reflexively as he steadies himself. Then, Pepper wordlessly rises long enough to wrap a blanket about Tony’s shoulders and set a pillow beside him before returning to bed.

The woman does not comment on it in the morning. It is not worth dredging up again and again, particularly when Pepper knows that Tony is still a proud man beneath it all. Although Pepper does not speak of it, she does wonder through the day what the night will bring.

She swallows her surprise when Tony retires to the master bedroom once more, still shaking and tense as he lies down. It is as though he is forcing himself into this. Pepper smooths her features over, concealing any expression of doubt; she does not want him questioning her thoughts or worrying himself over the concern the woman bears. Pepper will move at his pace and follow his lead for as long as Tony makes these strides.

Nor does the woman dare utter a word when he flies from the bed in the middle of the night, rousing her from her slumber. No. Instead, she waits once more for him to calm before rising and offering him a blanket and pillow. The woman tells herself this is progress as she tiptoes back to bed and falls back asleep listening to the rustling of Tony cuddling up in the corner once more.

This goes on again and again for a week or so before a loud noise in the afternoon draws Bruce and Pepper to the master in the middle of Anthony’s nap. There, they find Tony desperately shoving at the heavy bed. His strength still fails him frequently, having never fully returned following his rescue. He shoves hard, but his feet slip out beneath him, sending him slumping to the floor. Bruce approaches soundlessly and whispers with Tony as Pepper stares from the door. Then, he nods and helps Tony to his feet before pushing the bed with Tony. Pepper knows Bruce could easily toss the bed aside, but he hold back his strength to leave his friend to do some of the work. The bed slides easily across the floor and into the corner.

That night, when Tony wakes from his nightmares and flees to the corner, he finds it closer than before. Pepper sits up in the darkness and stares curiously from her side of the bed. He claws at the wall, his fingers rubbing over the logs and catching on the wood grain, an alien texture compared to the cool, slick tile and stone of his nightmares. Tony stills slowly and presses his head to the logs, rubbing against it briefly. Then, he turns to Pepper and gives a single, shaky nod before snuggling down and into the blankets once more.

This goes on for weeks until, out of the blue, after a panic attack, Tony grabs for her. Pepper yields into him, allowing herself to be pulled into a tight embrace, spooning himself up against her back. He nuzzles against the nape of her neck, cuddling up with her. It has been so very long since Tony has touched her that it startles Pepper, but it is too comforting, too warm for her to do anything but luxuriate in the sensation. She has missed this. Pepper does not realize this until she feels the warmth of a tear sliding down her cheek. In her shock, Pepper bites back the tears, but the woman cannot stem them as Tony presses a chaste kiss to her neck, the first kiss to grace her skin or her lips in years outside of those from her son.

As she cries, the woman realizes that Tony is whispering behind her and into her ear a thousand apologies. It sends her reeling. Tony has done nothing to demand an apology. She squirms around in his arms and hugs him tightly, drawing him close to her. Pepper holds him through the night after that, and, surprising, Tony sleeps soundly through the night after that.

The next night, Pepper reaches for Tony before he can fall asleep, pulling him close to her. He sleeps well once more. She continues to do this every night from then on. It eases her heart as much as it holds the nightmares at bay.

xxx

ATCV-1 chlorovirus

xxx

There is a horrific yet poetic symmetry at work, Natasha feels. Just a little more than a year ago, the former spy had been watching helplessly as Tony fell apart before her very eyes. Now, she stands before Steve’s cell, watching equally in vain as the once soldier continues to inexorably slide further and further into dangerous, uncertain psychological ground. Natasha cannot even touch him or hold him to bring even the illusion of comfort that the woman had once offered to Tony.

He appears elated at each visit, surprised each time. Steve smiles and converses, but it is with tremendous effort. It is also a paltry charade. His smile never reaches his sunken, dark eyes. Nor does it bring any color to his paling cheeks. Nor can his act conceal the trembling of his hands.

Finally, one day, Natasha announces, “You can’t blame yourself for all of this.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve ruined…. everything.”

Natasha is not certain what to say after that to bring Steve back from the edge of his grief.

xxx

Glyptapanteles

xxx

It’s a mess.

Tony sighs heavily as he stares into the battered engine of the aging tractor – little more than an immobile hunk of scrap metal at this stage. Bruce hums studiously over his shoulder, each scrutinizing every inch of the engine in hope of finding the issue. Neither wants to be the one to state the obvious; the Saunders’ tractor has finally huffed its last way around the farm.

Just a few days ago, Missy Saunders had come up the trail on her ludicrous black and white horse to ask for a hand. It seemed the tractor had broken down beyond the mechanical skills of Missy or her elderly father – Gray. She had asked Bruce if he could take a peek at the tractor and nearly fallen off her horse when Tony had volunteered his assistance. Tony had not left sight of the cabin before that day, and Missy had not expected him to want to leave. Yet Tony had shrugged on a thick coat and a pair of warm boots to join Bruce and Missy on the trail down to the farm.

Since then, Bruce and Tony have spent three days scouring the engine for signs of the issue, testing, cleaning, and repairing where possible. The tractor is easily older than either of them, held together by sheer force of will and at least a few rolls of electrical and duct tape. It is laughably patch work of refurbished pieces and newer parts bludgeoned to work where replacement parts have been lost to obsolescence. Occasionally, Tony surprises Bruce by chuckling at some ridiculous repair and pointing it out to share in the joke.

Eventually, Tony sighs and rubs the back of his neck, mindless of the grease he accidentally smears there. It is too like the Tony Stark he knew years ago, years before his captivity in his own home. Bruce watches with a reverence as his friend shrugs at the engine, afraid of shattering the impossibly nostalgic vignette.

“I think I know what to do,” Tony declares, putting his hands on his hips.

Bruce feels the hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Enlighten me.”

“Take it out back and put it out of its misery Old Yeller style,” Tony states seriously despite the grin spread from ear to ear. He chucks down his wrench and shakes his head as he laments, “This thing is older than Ste….”

Bruce winces as Tony trails off. Tony has never said Steve’s name. He does not speak of Steve outside of his sessions with Dr. Samson. Even then, Tony avoids the subject rather pointedly. Dr. Samson has assured Bruce this is alright, promising that Stark will broach the subject when he is ready and that there is no rush. However, Dr. Samson has offered no insight as to how anyone should handle it should Tony cross the subject himself.

Tony slowly and mechanically sets down his wrench and stares at the straw littered floor of the Saunders barn before asking, “How is he?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce admits heavily. “He’s supposedly well beyond the effects of the worm, but incarcerated for his and everyone’s safety.”

Tony grits his teeth. “No. How is he?”

Bruce stammers hesitantly, “I don’t…. I don’t know, Tony.”

Tony nods and looks up to the hulk of a tractor. “We’re buying the Saunders a new one.” He turns and levels a stern gaze upon Bruce. “And I want to see him.”

Bruce cannot bring himself to argue with either sentiment.

xxx

Rabies virus

xxx

“Steve?”

It can’t be; it simply can’t.

“Steve,” he calls again, steadier this time.

Steve blinks slowly, untrusting of his own eyes, for there is no way possible that Tony Stark would ever visit him. Yet, there he stands beyond the glass, shaking like a leaf. At first, Steve thinks it is a hallucination, a byproduct of his own depressive state and lengthy confinement with limited human contact. However, Steve somehow knows this is the real Tony Stark. He knows. He remembers. This Tony is a frail shadow of the man he knew before the Battle of New York, thin and worn, and there is something too earnest about that to be a trick of his own mind.

Steve licks his dry, cracked lips and forces himself to return the greeting. “Tony.”

The man tenses slightly, as though struck. Steve aches at the sight of it, but he can do nothing. He cannot even bring himself to move from his place on the floor. Steve worries that if he does, either Tony will flee or Steve himself will just fly apart at the seams.

“Long time,” Tony breathes, his voice unsteady and odd.

Steve swallows and nods. “Yeah.”

Tony trembles slightly. “I know you…..” Tony shakes his head, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and starts anew. “They showed me your files. I read about the thing. The worm or whatever.”

Steve looks down in his shame. “Oh.”

“I get it, you know,” Tony says.

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve sighs softly. “I’m sorry, you know.”

Tony slides down the wall across from the window. “Me, too.” Steve quakes inside, but Tony speaks before he can say anything. “I saw it. I knew it was coming. I could have stopped it.”

There is something profoundly sad to the admission, but Steve gives a fierce shake of his head, “No. No. You did nothing wrong. You couldn’t fight this.”

“I know.” Tony fixes a stern gaze upon Steve. “But neither could you.”

Something stirs in Steve, something like hope. It tickles at him, this eerie sensation that Steve has not felt since before he woke up the first time in the cell with a glaring gap in his memory. It is the same queer hope that pulled at him when Dr. Erskine made his offer in that tiny examining room all those decades ago.

“I get that. I always did.” As Steve gaps, Tony just keeps going, “I knew it wasn’t you. You’re not that.”

“I still did it,” Steve whimpers solemnly.

Tony nods. “I know.” A frown mars his face briefly before melting away. “Can’t change it, though. Got to just keep moving forward.”

And though neither can know it, this is the first step to moving forward and putting the worm behind them.