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A Tortured Soul

Chapter Text

The loud alarm blaring spoke of one thing, he had been found out.

Steve dodged an oncoming group of Enforcers. He had been so close! Just a few more days and he would have had all the information he needed to launch a full offensive.

He had been undercover at Sygma for almost three weeks, gathering intel and waiting for the right moment to strike. Everything had been going well. Then he had been called to the Examiners office and Steve knew one of two things. One, he was being promoted, or two, he had been compromised.

He had been headed to the Examiner's office, full of apprehension, when he noticed the number of Enforcers around. Enforcers were the best of the best. They were used sparingly and almost never around the base. The fact that they were following him meant that he was in trouble.

Steve had dodged out of the main corridor, weaving through lesser-used hallways. They had continued to follow. When he broke off into a run, the siren sounded. His cover had been blown.

He dodged into another hallway. He had no way to make contact with S.H.I.E.L.D. or the other of the Avengers. He had to get out of the underground bunker before any communication devices he had would work.

The Captain was without his precious shield, but he had a gun. He hoped that would be enough.

He was almost out, almost free when a gun fired behind him. A searing pain went through his knee and he fell to the ground. Cap turned the best he could and returned fire. It had only been one Enforcer and he was easily killed. He may have only been one man, but he was a good shot.

Steve tried to stand but found it completely impossible. The bullet had gone through his left kneecap. It was an intentional shot. They wanted him alive. Somehow, that was even more terrifying.

He closed his eyes, mustering all his strength to stand. As soon as he put any pressure on the injured leg, it gave out. He resorted to crawling. As humiliating as it was, he didn't have a choice.

When he reached a lonely side room, Steve breathed a sigh of relief. The small room held the only unmarked exit in what was essentially an elaborate bunker.

He entered the room, clumsily turning the door handle. He could take a hit and keep going. That's what he was, a human shield. But he had been shot completely through the kneecap. Not even a super soldier could operate under that concentrated of a wound.

The door shut automatically as he worked at moving the various boxes hiding the trap door. He was going to have to climb.  He'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

The Captain was almost done when he heard a hissing sound. He looked up to see a green, fog-like gas coming from the ceiling.

This was bad. Sygma had been experimenting, and was quite advanced, in chemical warfare. That's one of the reasons he had been assigned this mission. While Natasha and Clint were more experienced in undercover work, he had more resilience to poisons. S.H.I.E.L.D. knew this would come in handy if something were to go wrong.

Steve could see the door. He desperately pulled on the handle. It didn't open. He put all his strength into opening his only means of escape. It didn't budge.

It was getting hard to breathe. The gas was thick and smelled like something was burning. Cap took a deep breath into his Sygma issued t-shirt and held it. There was only one more escape route. The same way he'd come. Steeling himself for the inevitable, he shuffled over to the entrance. Then, standing on one leg, practically fell into the door.  It swung open and he was met by at least a two dozen Enforcers in gas masks.

The hall was full of the green mist. There was no way he could make it out. Steve pushed himself off the ground, no longer able to hold his breath. The Enforcers began to close in on him. The Captain managed to wobbly stand on one leg.

They attacked at once. Steve fought, but not even Captain America could take on a small army of highly trained soldiers while injured, on top of breathing poison gas, and come out on top.

He went down hard and barely even felt the blows coming down on him. His brain was muddled like it was in a fog.

He wanted to fight back. Really he did. But he couldn't. His eyes slipped closed with one question ringing in his mind.

How had they found out?

~A~

The Examiner smiled. "Well done agent, having Captain America in our possession will do great things for our cause."

"Thank you, sir." The young agent, clad in full S.H.I.E.L.D uniform responded from the large screen. "I've sent you a video I believe can be used to our advantage."

The Examiner pulled up the video on a second screen, smiling at what the scene entailed.

"Very good. This will be of great use to us. Continue to do your job and you will soon be up for promotion."

The agent was nearly bouncing with excitement, "I will, sir! Thank you, sir! Usque Gloria!" He said, giving a salute.

"Usque Gloria." The older man repeated as the video was disconnected.

Yes, this could prove very useful indeed.

Chapter Text

 

"Anyone heard from Capsicle?" Tony asked in an uncaring nature, popping another grape in his mouth. 

Clint shook his head, "He made his last check-in almost a week ago. Extraction is not for another two days."

"What's the point Of going undercover anyway? Why not just blast the base now and ask questions later." The billionaire shook his head. 

Natasha rolled her eyes, "The only way to find the base is through joining. And Sygma experiments with chemical warfare. Blowing it up may not be the best option." 

Tony shrugged, "Whatever makes the pirate happy." 

"Sir, you have a call from Director Fury." 

"Speak of the devil," Tony murmured, "put him through."

The one-eyed-man appeared on a screen. He didn't even wait for a hello. "We have a situation."

"And that would be...?" Tony motioned his hands in a circle.

"You should see this one for yourself. I'm sending over the video now. You'll know what to do." he said as he disappeared. 

Tony rolled his eyes, "Well that wasn't cryptic at all."

"Just play the video," Clint growled. 

The Avengers gathered around the TV as Tony cast it from his phone. 

A pale, balding man appeared in front of the camera. "Ah, hello. I am assuming this video will make it to the Avengers." The man's thick British accent sent a wave of unease through the billionaire, though he wasn't sure why. "I may be mistaken, but I believe you lost something!" 

He sounded almost gleeful as he turned the camera to show a very unconscious Captain America. 

There were whispered curses throughout the small group. 

"You see, he seems to have accidentally wandered into my little base here. I really don't appreciate that." He frowned. 

Steve looked bad. He was hanging by his wrists. His shirt had been removed, showing deep bruises. 

"But what's the fun if he sleeps through everything?" The man on the screen chuckled. 

He grabbed a large bucket of water and threw it on Cap's head. The Captain came sputtering awake, choking on the water. His eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment before gaining his composure. 

"It's rude for you to sleep while we have an audience." Mr British said shaking his finger. 

Steve's eyes wandered to the camera before they widened in understanding. The steely resolve in his face only hardened. 

"There, now that we're all awake, " the man on the screen clasped his hands together. "We can begin the fun!" 

He pointed to himself "I am the Examiner, high lord of Sygma and I have a very important message for you.

"As you can see, I have something I believe you may want back, though I suppose that is up for speculation." He said as he grabbed Cap's chin, turning his face from side to side. The Examiner gave a long thoughtful noise.

Steve jerked his face out of the man's grip. It wasn't until the man stepped away, that Tony could see that Steve was completely relying on his right leg. His left didn't seem to be bearing any weight at all.

"Well, let's not dwell on assumptions, hm? If you don't want him back, I'm sure I could find something to do with him."

Steve was glaring daggers into his captor. 

"Nothing to say?" The Examiner laughed at his captive, kicking at Cap's injured leg.

Steve jerked back, opening his mouth in pain. He didn't make a sound. 

"Oh, that right. You can't speak! Well, we'll just have to worry about that later." The sneer came as the man stepped away from his prisoner, angling himself directly in front of the camera. He didn't move fast enough to hide the brief look of distress that crossed the Captain's face.

"What did they do to him!" It was Clint's outburst. Tony was too in shock to say anything. Natasha had her lips pressed tightly together, a look of... Fear? On her face. The assassin and the soldier had been getting... Friendly in the months following New York. Tony wouldn't be surprised if something more was going on there. Still, seeing her looking scared was unnerving. Bruce left. Just walked out. No one tried to stop him. Thor was standing in stoic silence, but Tony noticed a rather severe thunderstorm had come out of nowhere.

This man, this Examiner, was doing this for a show. That's all it was. He was making a statement. He wasn't afraid to injure, maim, or kill. The Avengers better do what he said. 

"Now, as I said, you have a chance to get your precious Captain back. But first, I need a few things." The sneer was back. There was almost a gloating in his eyes. 

"For one, I would like three-hundred-million American dollars." He paused as if realizing something, "And no Monopoly money, please. That ended quite badly last time." He snickered at his own joke.

"That's ridiculous!" Tony found himself exclaiming. 

The man on the screen didn't stop. "I also need the release of a few of my friend from federal prison. Attached to this video is a list of the people and information on how to contact me when you are ready to comply." 

The Examiner walked back to his prisoner. "Until then, you and I shall have some fun, eh?" He ran a finger down the side if Cap's face. Steve flinched away. 

The captor laughed. Then, as if he had suddenly remembered something, he turned back to the camera and took a few steps closer.

"Oh, and I was hoping you could pass on a message to one of our mutual friends." The glee in the man's eyes made Tony's stomach turn. 

"Yes, tell Tony that I appreciate all his help. I never could have done it without him!" 

All eyes turned to the inventor. He didn't move. He was watching the look of shock register through Steve's face. 

A bloodthirsty smile showed on the Examiner's face. "I'll be in touch." The video ended. No one moved.

"Man of Iron, I suggest you explain yourself." Thor's voice rumbled breaking the silence and lower than the now outrageous thunder. 

Tony raised his hands, stepping away from the enraged Avengers. "I didn't. I swear. I don't know what he's talking about! I would never do that!"

"Really Stark?" Clint practically spat, "You and Rogers have never gotten along. And what was it you said the other day? 'Sometimes I wish he'd never come out of the ice. Would have made my life a lot simpler.' Sounds like this is something you've been planning."

"I was drunk, Barton! I can't be held accountable for what I say!" He turned to the only female Avenger, "Natasha?"

She had said nothing, only glaring at him. "I don't know," Her voice was a low growl, "but if it's true. You'll wish you never made it out of Afghanistan." 

She turned away. With one last glare, the other Avengers followed. 

~TH~

It was barely an hour later when Tony received another video call.

"Well, Stark?" Fury crossed his arms and glared menacingly with his one eye.

Tony matched the motion, "If you really thought I had anything to do with this, I would have already been arrested and we both know it. Cut to the chase, what do you want?"

"I've spoken with the government,"

Tony's heart sped up a little. "And?" The money he could supply. Sure, it would hurt, but he was a billionaire, he could spare a couple million.

"They've adamantly refused. Captain America or no, the list held some of the most volatile and dangerous men being held. A few of them are even in the Fridge, there's no way we will be able to convince the council to release them. "

The inventor sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Then what do you want me to do? I'm already trying to trace the video, but they're too smart to make it obvious! And if you want the other Avengers to do something, you'll have to tell them yourself. They're currently not speaking to me. In fact, if you ever can't get a hold of me, one of them has probably murdered me."

"Keep me updated on any developments." The director disappeared having not supplied anything useful.

Tony rubbed his face. He hated feeling helpless, but there was nothing he could do. 

 

Chapter Text

Everything hurt. He hadn't moved in what he was sure was well over an hour. He was hanging from his bound together wrists. His left leg couldn't hold any weight and his right had given out a long time ago. His arms ached from the constant strain and the bruises which had once been numb now ached with ferocity.

Steve attempted to push his right leg back under him. It immediately gave out, a strange weakness haven taken over. He knew they were drugging him. He couldn't see the mist this time, but he could still smell it.

Worse than any other pain was the burning in his throat and lungs. It reminded him of when he was a sick young kid. His head was pounding on top of everything.

And he still couldn't speak. He didn't know what that was about. He had tried. He tried when the Examiner was talking to the other Avengers. He tried when he was alone. It hurt to try.  Nearly unbearably bad.

And the video. He wouldn't believe. Tony did not betray him. He wouldn't. Sure, they had never gotten along, but not even Tony would sell him out to the enemy, right?

"Tony, that was Reckless!" Steve shouted. "What if someone had gotten hurt?"

The billionaire rolled his eyes. "Chill Spangles. No one did. Everyone's fine.'

"When I give you an order, I expect you to follow it!" Cap was angry. The mission could have gone a hundred different ways. It almost did.

Tony scoffed, "Even if it's a stupid order?"

"I don't-"

"Why don't you go crawl back into the ice? My life was bad enough before you rose from the dead, I don't need some stupid science experiment making it worse!"

"Ah, Grant, ah, I mean Steve." The Examiner's presence brought him out of the memory. That was just Tony being Tony, he didn't actually mean it.

The Captain only acknowledged the man's presence with a glare.

"Oh right, our little speaking problem. Don't worry, it should wear off soon. The gas we originally used to knock you out coats the vocal cords with a numbing agent. Believe it or not, the pain is a good sign." Then he laughed, "For you, though maybe not for my ears."

Steve didn't respond, couldn't respond.

"Well, let's get started, shall we?" The Examiner clasped his hands together and the room filled with Enforcers.

"I am so looking forward to this Captain! Though, I will miss your screams. Perhaps your voice will return during the fun, hm?" 

Steve locked eyes with his captor, anger radiating from his face. He hated bullies and this man was the king. 

"Well then, let's begin."

The first blow shouldn't have surprised him. His attention had been so focused on the leader, that he hadn't noticed the men gathering around him. They used mainly batons and rods but occasionally went for an electricity probe. The burnt smell of the gas was replaced with the burnt smell of skin.

It couldn't have lasted for more than half an hour. He had taken much longer than that with much less injury. Something was wrong. 

On the bright side, his voice had returned. It came out in a scream after a particularly violent blow. The Examiner had laughed.

"I believe it's time for another video!" The Examiner had called out orders throughout the little beating session. Laughing at times and simply smirking at others. Now, he looked absolutely gleeful.

The Enforcers had left, so it was just him and the Examiner when the camera clicked on. "Ah, hello Mr Stark."

Steve jerked his head up from its limp position. He was breathing heavy, gratefully accepting any oxygen he could get into his lungs. The burning had never left and his leg still wouldn't hold him up. He could feel the blood dripping down the side of his face and chest. 

His mind was muddled, but surely, surely not...

"I believe you will be quite relieved to know that your little plan worked. Some of the countering agents you suggested have been quite useful in combating the serum." Steve felt his heart plummet. So they were combating the serum, he wondered if that had something to do with the invisible gas that only seemed to affect him. 

"As you can see he is quite docile at the moment."

The super soldier couldn't help but blearily blink at his captor. He really wished his brain would focus. He should say something. Do something.

"You're a liar," Steve managed to rasp out. 

"Ah," The Enforcer laughed, "always looking for the best in people. I assure you, in this case, your trust is misplaced. Tony here informed me your little mission here. He told me how to capture you and what to do once I had you. He's been pulling the strings the whole time."

"No,"

"Yes," the gleeful smile was replaced by a bloodthirsty one, "he was tired of your constant heroics, 'it would be better if he just died. Then at least he'd stay out of my business,' was the exact quote if I'm not mistaken."

It was true. Steve had heard the entire conversation, though Tony didn't know it. The billionaire had been drinking with Bruce and Clint when Steve had been about to turn the corner. Tony had been complaining about him. Talking about all of the trouble Cap caused for him. It had hurt. It stung even now as he thought about it. But, he was probably drunk. He didn't actually mean it...

"You see Captain, it's better if you just accept it now."

Steve felt like all of the strength had fallen out of him. His head bowed of its own devices. He felt like had so little self-control. It unnerved him. 

"Today was just for my amusement, tomorrow we shall start on the agreed on experiments. Until tomorrow," The evil man waved at the camera before turning back to his captive. 

"Rest now Captain, tomorrow I hope to find some answers in your anatomy."

A hissing sound, followed by a new gas made sure he complied. 

Chapter Text

"Sir," Jarvis' voice pulled Tony out of his semi-sleep at his desk. "You have an incoming message."

Tony grumbled slightly, "Fury?" He questioned straightening his sore shoulders.

"No sir, it appears to be the cult leader known as the Examiner."

"Put it through and trace it." Tony said suddenly awake.

The screen in front of him clicked on.

"Ah, hello Mr Stark." The Examiner said, smiling through the screen. He could see Steve in the background. His head was laying on his chest. He was hanging from his wrists, both legs bent under the weight. And he was covered in blood.

"What do you want?" He hissed at the screen. There was no response. "J?"

"It appears it is a one-sided message. It is live, but you can not converse."

Steve was staring at the camera now, confusion lacing his features. Tony could now see the blood covering his face and the way his friend was gasping, like oxygen, was something precious he wasn't use to. It made Tony sick.

"I believe you will be quite relieved, " the madman continued, "to know that your little plan worked. Some of the countering agents you suggested have been quite useful in combating the serum." Tony's eyes widened in shock.

"Jarvis?" He breathed. If what he suspected was true...

"I will run full diagnostics on all files pertaining to the Super Soldier Serum." The AI promised.

"As you can see he is quite docile at the moment."

"You're a liar," Steve's voice barely made it through the speaker.

Tony felt a small amount of relief at the voice. Whatever had been done to the soldier's voice wasn't permanent. And he still believed in Tony. The inventor allowed himself a small smile. 

"Ah, always looking for the best in people. I assure you, in this case, your trust is misplaced. Tony here informed me your little mission here. He told me how to capture you and what to do once I had you. He's been pulling the strings the whole time."

"No,"

"Yeshe was tired of your constant heroics, 'it would be better if he just died. Then at least he'd stay out of my business,' was the exact quote if I'm not mistaken."

A look of recognition and hurt crossed Steve's face. But, only Clint and Bruce had been there. How...

"Jarvis, where was Cap when... You know."

"He was in the adjoining room, Sir."

He heard the whole thing. Steve heard every cruel, drunken word.

"You see Captain, it's better if you just accept it now."

Steve's head fell back against his chest, defeated. Tony thought he might throw up.

"Today was just for my amusement, " the madman continued, "tomorrow we shall start on the agreed on experiments. Until tomorrow," There was a small wave before the screen clicked off.

Tony collapsed further into his chair. Steve had only been gone for twenty-four hour and they had already counteracted the serum and beaten him severely. And tomorrow they were going to start full experimentation. They had to get him back. He needed to find the base yesterday. As it was, there was little he could do but sit and wait.

~A~

"Sir, the Avenger's are requiring your presence upstairs."

Tony had been deeply engrossed his project. If all things went accordingly, this radar would help him more accurately find where the video had come from.

The inventor pulled himself, feeling exhausted from only getting about twenty minutes of half sleep. This would give him a chance to get more coffee. He desperately needed coffee.

When he reached the conference room, everyone was there. Bruce sat fidgeting in an armchair. Thor was standing, arms crossed and his face grimly set. Clint sat on the couch, cleaning his bow with a tense expression. Natasha stood behind Clint, tightly gripping the back of the couch.

Tony gave a small glance before going to the kitchen. He needed coffee before he could deal with this.

"So, " he said when he finally made his way in the room. "Is this my trial?"

Natasha was first to speak, "How long have you been studying the Super Soldier Serum?"

So this was his trial, great. "I'm not. I worked on briefly before New York. Haven't opened it since."

"Then how'd Sygma get it?" Clint said in an icy tone.

"I don't know," Tony answers honestly.

Clint rolled his eyes, "You don't know. We read the file. You'd been working to neutralize the serum. You've even figured out him to counteract it."

"I didn't know if it would work."

"So you sent him to your cult friends to figure out?"

"No. I didn't. Do you really think I'd be stupid enough to let them contact me here if I did? Like I wouldn't know you'd watch the video. I'm not that stupid Barton and I'm pretty sure I'd be dead if you actually believed I turned him in."

Clint stood up and walked until he was toe-to-toe with the billionaire. "If it were up to me, you would be." Then he stormed out.

There was silence before Thor sighed, "I apologize for my precious accusations. I know you would not betray us. I was simply angered for out Captain."

Tony felt a tiny smile creep on his lips. At least someone believed him.

"The file was probably stolen. If we can look for ghost accounts we might be able to find something." It was Bruce. Calm, reassuring Bruce.

"I've been running diagnostics for it. I, uh, I could use a second pair of eyes."

Bruce smiled, "Let's not waste any time them."

They turned to leave.

"Stark."

 

The one word from Natasha made him involuntarily flinch.

"Barton's angry. He's not thinking clearly. He'll come around."

The relief he felt was so acute he thought he might pass out. "Thanks."

"Let me know if you find anything." The words were spoken softly and so, unlike the assassin that Tony turned around.

"I will."

He would find Steve. With his team behind him, he could do anything.

 

Chapter Text

When Steve awoke, he had finally begun to heal. He wasn't feeling wonderful, but he was able to focus on things besides the pain.

A few minutes later, when the door swung open, he had mentally prepared a plan.

"Well hello there, Captain." The Examiner strutted into the room with at least a dozen Enforcers. "As I said yesterday, we have a few, well, let's call them experiments, prepared for you today."

The Examiner motioned to the Enforcers who struck Steve in the stomach. The prisoner gasped and in the same moment was released from the hanging position.

He fell while he was still trying to catch his breath and was pulled up between two men.

Now was his time to strike. His left knee was still weak and to be honest, still hurt pretty bad, but it would suit his purposes. He kicked out with his injured leg, catching one of the men off guard. In the same moment, he jerked his right arm and knocked the second guard in the head.

The rest of the Enforcers charged at him. The battle was short, but Cap had managed to take out five of the twelve. Then his leg gave out and that was the end of it.

He found himself laying on the floor, half a dozen men mercilessly attacking him.

The Enforcers stepped away, pointing their guns at him. Steve didn't really feel like moving. He was sure he should be stronger than this. They had really messed up his serum somehow.

He heard a slow clapping coming towards him. The Examiner stood over him, a huge smile on his face. "Valient effort Captain. I suppose we'll have to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Another nod to the Enforcers and Cap was being firmly held down. Then his leg snapped and he screamed.

When the hands finally moved away, he could see his lower left leg was crooked. Blood was running from where white was sticking out. It was agonising. He felt like his bone had completely shattered.

While he was gasping for air through tears he wouldn't let fall, he was raised from the ground and dragged away.

~A~

Steve once again found himself hanging, this time from the ceiling. While before, he was able to take the pressure off of his aching shoulders, now he was too far above the ground. Gravity pulled at his broken leg. It hurt. It really hurt.

The Enforcers had left him in the pitch dark room for almost an hour. No one had come in since then, leaving him alone with his thoughts. That was dangerous in of itself.

The door swung open, temporarily blinding him.

"Well Captain, it is time for us to begin. I hope you enjoyed your little break, it's the only one you'll have for quite some time." The sadistic smile that followed the Examiner's statement was almost expected at this point.

"I really have no interest in telling you everything, but I will tell you this, it will not be pleasant for you. If your Avenger friends don't show up soon, well, I wouldn't expect to survive."

Steve's response was to spit in the man's face.

"I'm going to enjoy this." The captor hissed. Them Steve was plunged back into blackness.

~A~

It wasn't much later that lights flickered on and gas began to fill the room.

It made Steve's brain feel fuzzy. Every time he tried to focus on something, his brain went numb.

Then the voice started.

It took him a moment to realize what was going on.

"Everything special about you came from a bottle."

He knew that voice, those words.

"I wonder if I could pay him to find an ice block to crawl into."

Tony. It was Tony.

"I honestly can't stand that guy. How's he even alive? It would've been better for everyone if he died back when he was supposed to."

The words stung and they didn't stop.

As the insults kept playing Steve found himself becoming weaker. His head hurt and his lungs stung with every breath. The words hurt most of all.

~A~

Every day it was the same. A new gas, the same words. His condition was worsening. He could feel it. And the Enforcers didn't help. They seemed to gain great pleasure in beating him at his weakest.

The only time he left what he affectionately named "the gas chamber" was when he was brought in for another video.

They hadn't fed him since his initial capture. He was given water once a day. His metabolism required much more than that. Sygma didn't seen to care.

By the fifth day, he couldn't even hold his head up.

No one ever came for him. There was no talk of negotiations.

Tony's voice continued to spew out hatred.

Every day Steve found himself coming closer to believing every cruel word.

~A~

"Peggy?" He mumbled. "Peggy, h-how are you here?"

Bright red lips moved into a smile, "It's been a long time Steve."

"T-too long. I-I'v missed ya Peg. Missed ya s-so much."

"I've missed you too." A light kiss brushed against his cheek.

There was calming laughter, "What about me punk?"

"B-Bucky? H-how."

"Don't worry about it. You always think too much. Just enjoy it while it's happening."

"The others left you." Peggy's smile faded into disgust. "The people you thought were your friends left you here without so much as a word."

"N-no. N-not the-there fault."

Bucky scoffed, "Not there fault? Then whose fault is it?"

"It's mine." Howard seemed to appear out of nowhere. "It's mine for not finding you in time."

"Not that you didn't spend enough time looking." Tony appeared, looking angrier than Steve ever remembered seeing him.

"T-Tony, why? Wh-what did I do to make you h-hate me s-so much?" He hadn't meant for it to come out in a sob.

"Simple enough Cap, you were born. Your existence has never brought me anything but pain. I wanted you to realize just how weak, how worthless you were. It gives me the satisfaction of you realizing what I already know. That you don't matter. Everything special about you came from a bottle."

"Don't listen to him, Steve."

"N-Natasha?"

"I'm here."

"Natasha," Peggy smiled, "I'm glad he has someone in this time."

"Me too." the Russian smiled back.

"Oh, look at that Captain America falling for a Russian and a Brit. The irony."

Howard turned to his son, "Just because you hate me doesn't mean you should go after my friends!"

"Howard, Tony, mind your manners."

"Maybe I would if I wasn't looking at the biggest loser in history. I can't believe I lost my childhood for this guy!"

"You better watch your mouth, Stark or not, no one talks about Steve that way."

The voices kept arguing. Tony's words cut Steve deeply. His friends tried to defend him, but what was the point? The young Stark was right.

"Sleep, любить," Natasha whispered in his ear. "Sleep."

So he did.

~A~

The Examiner watched the great Captain America struggle on the screen. The Captain's inner demons seemed to grow stronger with every day.

"Are we ready to introduce the next gas?" He asked the young scientist who had just entered.

"That's what I came to talk to you about, sir. I believe it may be dangerous to continue at this time."

"Don't tell me you're growing a conscience." The man rolled his eyes.

"N-no, sir." The scientist stuttered. "But no one had survived this particular gas before. In his, " he motioned towards the screen, "current condition it's very unlikely."

"Hm, what do you suggest?" The Examiner's finger tightened around the small gun he kept in his pocket.

"I suggest moving on to phase two. It would be the most resourceful. If he survives that, we can test the gas."

The leader dropped the gun back into his pocket. "Very good. Prepare for surgery."

"Yes, sir."

Chapter Text

A week. Steve had been gone a full week. The team was starting to get desperate. The last video hadn't been very encouraging.

Tony watched for the hundredth time as the Examiner taunted and accused. The Captain appeared to be unresponsive, never even lifting his head.

"We've got to do something!" The billionaire slammed his hand down on the counter in front of him.

Bruce rubbed his face tiredly, "We've done everything we can! I don't know what else to try."

"Well, there has to be something!" There was aggravated silence. None of the other Avengers spoke, all feeling the same helplessness. Clint was the only Avenger not present. He still refused to be in the same room as Stark.

"You know what? That's it!" Tony called out in anger, "I'm doing it and no one can stop me!"

"Tony-" Natasha started.

"Too late, it's done."

The video disappeared, being replaced by something similar to a Skype call.

There was complete silence as it rang. Then someone answered.

"Well, Mr Stark, I was beginning to wonder when you would call." On the screen was the Examiner wearing a white lab coat. Well, it used to be white. At present, it was covered in dark red blood. Steve wasn't anywhere to be seen.

"Drop the act, no one here believes your lies. Now, where's Steve?"

"No one?" The Examiner mocked, "Even Mr Barton? It seems he's been quite untrusting."

"Where's Steve!?" He practically yelled.

An angry sneer from the man, "He's being dealt with. Now," his voice took on a business tone, "I do hope you have called me for a purpose. I most certainly do not like being interrupted for petty things."

"Is he alive?" Tony said ignoring most of what the Sygma leader had just said.

An annoyed growl was the answer, "For the moment. Now I advise you say whatever it is you called me for. I have... Business to attend to."

"We have the money." There was a sharp intake of breath from behind him. This was a last resort. They were getting desperate.

"Hm," the Examiner sighed, "I see. And what of the other part?"

"We're working on it." Actually, the government had flat out said no. But maybe...

"Half a ransom? Would you be content if I returned to you half a Captain, hm?"

The very thought sent chills down Tony's spine.

A distant, but still loud, scream was heard through the screen.

"Oh, those incompetent...!" The Examiner seemed to regain his composure, "This will be our last contact until you have BOTH the money and the releases. Contact me before then and the deal is off."

The connection was lost before anyone had time to respond.

Tony leaned back in his chair, covering his eyes with his hands. "That went well."

"He made a mistake." Natasha's monotone voice caught him off guard.

"And that would be...?"

"How did he know Clint didn't trust you?"

There was a moment of realization.

"There's a spy," Bruce stated quietly.

"A spy in S.H.I.E.L.D." The Russian nodded.

"Someone call Fury."

Tony was already dialling the number.

~A~

"We got him." Fury said over the phone, a little over an hour later.

Tony immediately felt relief flood over him. "Who is he?"

"James Decker, from what we can tell he's a junior operative. We grabbed him when he tried to leave. He had a transmitter but he destroyed it when he realized what was happening."

That was only a minor setback, "What's next? What can we do now?"

"You and Banner need to start working on tracing his transmitter. I want Romanoff and Barton here to question the operative."

That would be fun. Tony didn't even feel bad for him. "Anything for Thor?" The god of thunder had seemed even more helpless than the rest of them.

"You can send him with Romanoff. I just don't want to kill Decker before we get what we need."

Tony noticed the underlying growl. "Right, three interrogators coming right up."

~A~

"Barton,"

"Stark."

"Fury needs you at S.H.I.E.L.D." He leaned against the doorframe to Clint's bedroom. The archer was somewhere above him as his voice was coming through the air vent.

"Tell Fury I'm busy."

"With what?" Tony scoffed, "Sulking? Hating my guts? You can do that just as well at S.H.I.E.L.D."

"What does he want and why are you the one telling me? Is this another trap?" The words were hatefully spat out.

"I didn't...! You know what, it doesn't matter, just get over to S.H.I.E.L.D."

The archer came down from the air vents. "Are you going to tell me what Fury wants? Or are you just going to stand there fueling my suspicions?"

"They found a Sygma spy in S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury wants you to find out where they're keeping Cap."

Clint shoved past Tony and sprinted out of the room.

~A~

The small white room held only two chairs and a small table, neither occupants seemed to notice.

"I know that you know where he is. You better tell me where that is or I'm not responsible for what's done to you." Clint hissed directly into his prisoner's face.

The man laughed, a snarky British accent made thick with anger. "I've been through worse. You should hear the things Sygma does to people."

The boy's neck whipped to the side as the archer's hand collided with Jthe operative.

"What I want to hear is where they're keeping him."

"Who?" The mock innocence resulted in a hard punch to the mouth. The prisoner spit out blood mingled with saliva, then smiled.

"How did you get into S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"Simple, I walked through the front doors."

"Listen here," Clint leaned in until he was nearly nose to nose with the man, "I'm not in a good mood. I'd be very careful about what you say next. If you don't answer my questions soon, I know some techniques that would make the leaders of Sygma gasp in horror."

"Then you would what? Turn down your hearing aids so you can't hear me scream? Is that how you work around your conscious? Hm?"

The next punch knocked him unconscious.

"Clint," Natasha said from the doorway.

The archer turned, breathing heavy.

She inclined her head into the hall. He reluctantly followed.

"What?" He growled crossing his arms.

"You knocked him out."

"He had it coming."

"It's been ten minutes."

"You should be proud I held out that long."

Natasha pressed her lips together. "I know you're upset about-"

"Upset?" He scoffed. "No upset doesn't even cover it, Nat. If I could, I'd personally kill everyone in Sygma in the same slow ways they've been killing Cap." His voice took on a tired note, rubbing his face with his hands, "It's bad Nat. He's bad. And with every video they've sent... He should have been able to hold out longer. Whatever it is..."

"I know," she said quietly. "But we can't kill our only lead. He's trying to make you angry. You know that. And he knows he can't say anything when he's unconscious."

"You're right." Clint sighed. "I just can't stop thinking, stop seeing..."

"I know, Clint. Trust me, I know."

In a rare act of affection, the two assassins leaned into each other. Drawing strength from the others touch.

Chapter Text

He awoke to excruciating pain. Hands everywhere held him down. A mask was put over his face.

People were yelling, calling for more drugs.

His brain wouldn't function. Someone was cutting into him. He could feel the blade slipping deeper into his flesh. Fingers pressed inside of him.

He let out a scream, jerking away in a fevered haze. He couldn't raise his arms or legs, they were met with cold metal.

More voices.

Pressure everywhere.

"Knock him out?"

"Can't operate-"

"Going to damage something-"

"Not be happy if-"

"We need the organs- "

"Keep him down!"

The air became thick and Steve began to choke on it. Then blessed darkness.

~A~

"How was that Captain?" The voice said from over him. "Are we still having fun, hm?"

Steve blearily blinked his eyes open. Everything hurt. His mind didn't seem to want to focus.

"Wha-?" He jerked up, realizing a moment too late that large chains held down his arms. It pulled him back against the hard table. He gasped feeling the pain multiply.

The Examiner laughed, "Certainly not your smartest idea."

"I-I don't understand," Steve whispered

"Of course you don't. You're too stupid," the man spat out, "you've been in surgery. It should have been fairly quick, but you had to wake up in the middle of it!"

Screams.
Shouts.
Pain.

The Captain shuttered at the memory.

"Ah, I see you are remembering. Very good. We needed to see how your body worked. There's nothing special. You're much like the frog I dissected in the eighth grade. Unfortunately, I couldn't have as much fun as I wished. Some organs need to remain intact if you are to survive. My initial thought was just to let you bleed out on the table. Then it occurred to me, you have one more thing that is useful to me."

Steve was struggling to stay awake. He felt like he should be angry. He didn't. He felt oddly detached. Maybe it was the realization that no one was coming. There was no more talk of Avengers or ransom. No more videos. That part was over. Sygma was having fun with its prize.

"Your blood." The two words snapped him back into awareness.

"B-blood?" He hated how week he sounded. Hated it.

"Mmm," the leader smiled, "your blood holds the secret to the serum. Not even the great Tony Stark has been able to figure it out for us!"

Steve flinched involuntarily.

"But since you survived your little surgery, there is one more thing we'd like to try. We stopped counteracting the serum, so it should bring you back to full healing capacities. Heal tonight, we'll begin tomorrow."

Even as the Examiner left, the strange apathy was still there. Steve drifted off to sleep.

~A~

When he awoke again, he was already in the "gas chamber." This time was probably more painful than any of the others. Hanging from his wrists pulled at all of his injuries, especially the new ones. Someone had been messing around inside him. It still didn't feel right.

The only reason he was conscious, or even alive, was because his healing had been restored. And the IV. He'd be dead without the nutrients.

"This is the last one, Captain. After this our science division wishes to study you and your blood more adeptly."

More adeptly? What had they been doing before?

He didn't ask as he was once again left alone.

~A~

They were the same words. He'd heard them who knew how many times. They still left a searing mark on his already frayed mind.

This gas was different. This one hurt. It burned at his skin, making his ears ring and his eyes ache.

The gas seemed to always mess with his mind. This one focused more on physical pain. He didn't know which was worse.

It took him a couple of hours to realize what was happening. At first, he thought it was just the mist. Just the gas messing with his eye. It wasn't. The world was getting dimmer and dimmer as his eyes refused to see even the most basic of things. Then it went completely black. Not even the light was hinted at.

What was worse was the ever-growing quietness. The once loud voice of Tony Stark was now barely a whisper.

Steve found himself flinching at particularly nasty words, then that was it. He couldn't hear anything. He tested his own voice, feeling the vibrations but not hearing a sound.

That was the last straw for the super soldier. Captain America stepped away and let Steve Rogers take over.

And Steve Roger cried.

~A~

Everything blurred together after that.

Hands took him places. IVs were placed and removed. Blood was taken out something else was put in.

His body grew weaker and weaker.

They stopped restraining him, opting to just throw him in a room. A dark, silent room. A dark, silent life. He didn't fight back.

He could feel now that his leg had healed. It had healed in the same way it was broken, a mangled mess.

He had no control over what they did to him. No explanation was given.

He was nothing more than a plaything to be taken apart and put back together. He was nothing but a science experiment gone right. Now science decided to take him back apart again.

Tony said something like that at one point. That he was "nothing but a science experiment who needed to get off his high horse." Well, he was off it. He was off it and falling through an endless abyss of nothing. Tony had gotten what he wanted.

Tony had gotten what he wanted, and the others had gone along with it. They had seen an opportunity to be rid of him and had taken it.

As more and more experiments were conducted, as more and more unbearable pain was being enacted, there was one thing that hurt the most. One thing that caused him to lose all hope.

No one was coming. 
Nobody cared.

Chapter Text

"You've had this guy for two weeks, Barton! You're telling me you haven't gotten anything from him?"

"He's not a computer, Stark. I can't just punch in a few numbers and have him tell me everything! Speaking of that, how's your project going?"

"It's not that simple!"

"Well, neither is-!"

"Stop!" Bruce shouted. "Both of you stop." He said more quietly. "Everyone's doing their best."

The anger dissipated, leaving behind exhaustion.

"We don't even know if he's still alive," Clint whispered dejectedly.

Sygma had been true to its word. No contact had been made sense the video call two weeks ago.

The depressing silence in the Tower was broken by the sound of a phone ringing.

They all stared for a moment before Tony picked up his cellphone.

"Stark." The voice said and.

"Romanoff." He had no idea what was going on.

"The operative is the Examiner's son."

A small smile formed on his lips. They were finally getting somewhere.

~A~

"Are we sure we want to try this?" Bruce said with apprehension.

Tony shrugged, hiding his own, "What choice do we have?"

"He said not to contact him." Clint supplied with a gruff voice.

"It is the only option that has presented itself." Thor crossed his arms.

Natasha's voice was tense when she supplied, "They won't release the prisoners. It's our only option."

Who exactly "they" was didn't matter. If Black Widow couldn't convince them, no one would.

The video call started up. It rang once, twice, "Well hello Mr Stark. Did you call to make a deal or to announce I can keep him permanently?"

"We have your spy." Tony spat out. "And we know who he is."

The Examiner's reaction was so subtle it was barely visible. "I suppose you want a new deal, hm?"

"If you want your son back alive," Clint growled.

At this, the man's face lit up, "Ah! Mr Barton! So good to finally meet you. We haven't had the pleasure."

"We want him back. Now."

"Well, we'll have to see about that." The man on the screen appeared to be deep in thought. "I can't just give him back to you. Even the boy isn't quite enough to relinquish the one and only Captain America."

"He's your son!" Clint shouted.

Tony gave him a brief look before turning back to the screen, "What else do you want?"

"The money. Give me the money and the boy and I'll give you back your Captain."

"When?" The one word from Natasha sent ice down the billionaire's spine.

"Tonight. Just Iron Man. No tags, no S.H.I.E.L.D, no Avengers. Just me and my dear friend Mr Stark. I'll send the coordinates."

The screen shut off and a single address appeared.

Clint was the first to protest. "You're not going."

"I'm pretty sure that psycho's instructions were pretty clear."

"You're the last person who should go. Especially alone."

"Really Barton, you're still hung up on that? We have the spy. I'm cleared."

"That doesn't mean I have to trust you."

"No one goes alone." The Black Widow's words were calm and held no room for disagreement "Sygma is not getting away with this."

There was no more argument.

~A~

The small inconspicuous warehouse made Tony feel apprehensive.

He went it, holding the handcuffed boy tightly by the arm. His Iron Man suit as the only thing hiding his terror.

When he entered, he could barely keep himself from completely losing it. Steve was on his knees, thick chains bound his wrists in front of him. His head was bowed and Tony was pretty sure a piece of paper had more colour. The super soldier was trembling and looked utterly defeated. Iron Man had never seen that before.

"Ah, took you long enough. I thought you had actually given him over to me!" The man in the dark cloak said.

The billionaire glared at the Examiner. "What? No lies, no 'thanks for collecting him I expect you to bring him back.'?"

"What's the use?" The man gloated, eyes shining with pure joy, "He can't hear you."

Tony felt like he was going to throw up. "What do you mean he can't hear?"

"Just that. An experiment went wrong. His inner ear was damaged beyond repair."

He was definitely going to throw up. "You're a monster."

"I'm aware." The Examiner laughed.

"Steve, Steve look at me."

The Captain didn't move.

"Steve." Tony pleaded.

The robed man shook his head. Grabbing Steve by the hair he yanked up so that Tony could see his face. The first thing he saw was the black muzzle latched tightly around Steve's mouth. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was his eyes. Tony found himself gasping. The eyes were misted over and empty looking. There was no recognition whatsoever.

"Oh yes, did I forget to mention he lost his sight in the same accident? Hm? No? Well, here you are."

Tony found himself unable to breathe. No, no, they were too late.

"I told you we were experimenting. I told you to hurry and agree to the deal, but no. You had to wait and plan and do whatever it is you Avengers do. You left him to me. And now, what do you have? A blind, deaf, Captain who will never walk again. Oh yes, you can add that one to your list."

Not now. Not now. He couldn't have a panic attack now.

His hand involuntarily clenched his hands causing a muffled cry to his right. He released his hold, to in shock to say much of anything. The boy disappeared to stand beside his father.

"And you know my favourite part?" The Examiner didn't even seem to acknowledge his son. "He thinks you did this to him! He actually blames you for everything! Go! Take him!" He threw the chains on the floor, wrapping an arm around his son and taking a few steps backwards. "Have fun with your Captain."

Tony found himself kneeling at his friend's side. Steve didn't respond except to occasionally flinch at his touch. "Wh-where are the keys?" Everything needed a key. Even the muzzle needed a key.

"You can have it as soon as I get what we agreed upon."

Tony growled, "Jarvis!"

"Transaction complete, sir."

"There you go. Now give me the keys."

The madman laughed, "Well, as much as I'd love to stay and help I have other business to attend to."

"No!" Enraged, Tony pressed the button on his gauntlet. The room flooded with S.H.I.E.L.D agents.

"That was a mistake." The Examiner spat, backing up against the onslaught of agents The boy's eyes took on a wild look that would have made him feel guilty on any other day.

Then Steve started choking. It was clear the soldier couldn't breathe.

"Tony?" It was Natasha leaning over their Captain with him. She gasped, "What did they do?"

"Natasha," Tony whimpered.

"Go, take him to medical, hurry!"

Iron Man obeyed without a second thought.

~A~

"It looks to be some form of mustard gas," the doctor informed Iron Man.

"But he'll be okay?" Was the only thing Tony could say.

There was silence. "I-," he sighed, "I don't know. Were we only dealing with the gas, I'd say yes. But there are... Other things."

"Like?" He knew, he'd seen, but he had to know exactly what happened.

"It appears they... Cut him open, messed with some organs. Parts of some of them have been scraped off. His serum has been so preoccupied with other things it hasn't completely healed. He's been beaten, that much is clear. His knee was shot through with a bullet, it's mostly healed but..." He paused taking another breath, "They broke his leg. Bad. Then it healed, we had to break it again to set it. I can't be sure it will heal right or fully. Even with his healing properties. And... He's missing a lot of blood. It appears they've been removing large quantities and giving him just enough time in between to keep him alive. He's been stuck with an IV multiple times. Probably with nutrients. So we can assume he hasn't eaten anything since he was taken."

Tony wanted to cry. Scratch that, he was crying. "What about, about..."

"His ears and eyes are very damaged. I don't think there's anything we can do. I'm sorry." The voice was sympathetic. "He's stable for now, but nowhere near healed. We're giving him a blood transfusion as well as nutrients through an IV. It's the best we can do right now." Neither of them spoke for a moment, "Would you like to go in and see him?"

"No," Tony said it before he could even register. "No, I-I can't. I can't."  He backed away. "I, uh, I need to-to-"

He turned and sprinted away.

Chapter Text

He awoke to dark silence. He wasn't even sure he was awake. He had no idea how long he'd been in this blackness. He wasn't sure how long ago he entered Sygma, thinking it was a normal mission. He wasn't sure of anything.

There was an IV. He could feel the cool liquid entering his veins. More tests. Why didn't they just kill him and get it over with? It'd be easier than keeping him alive.

Steve tried to sit up, to move, maybe even offer some resistance. His mind hadn't been this clear since he was first captured. He was in control of himself and he was relishing it. He didn't know how long it would last.

A hand grabbed his arm, pushing him back down. He tensed under the touch. He wanted to jerk away, but the hand was so smooth and small. It wasn't the Examiner's or one of the dozens of Enforcers or scientists who had been with him over the weeks. He knew this touch.

Both of his hands were taken in the smaller ones. His fingers were brought up and lightly brushed against smooth skin. This person was letting him feel their face, her face. It was a woman. He let his fingers run across the face and eventually falling to run through her hair.

He knew her. He knew her. But if he was right then...

"Natasha?" He wasn't sure if any sound came out. He hadn't tried to communicate in such a long time. There had been no point. But if she was here... If he was home...

His right hand still tangled in the woman's hair, his left was turned palm up. Then he felt a finger run across it, then it was poked once, two more lines. Y. It was Morse code. There was a pause before a single dot. Then another three dots.

Yes.

It was Natasha. He felt tears running from his sightless eyes.

"Came for me?" He wasn't sure how much made it past his lips, but apparently enough.

Course. Friends.

Did they come for him? They actually... "Home?" He could only imagine how horrible he must sound. But it didn't matter, it didn't matter because...

Yes.

Because he was home.

In a quick change, ice gripped his heart. What if it was a trick? Another illusion?

Then he didn't care.

He didn't.

He wasn't drugged. The air was clear. He could breathe normally. There was no smell. And Sygma wouldn't waste their time with an act.

No, he was home.

He didn't know exactly what that meant. But he was home. Home with Natasha.

He laced his fingers with the ones resting on top of his. Then slowly, shakily, brought it up to his mouth and gave it a small kiss.

He was home.

~A~

Steve woke up several more times, gasping awake. The hand in his own tightened reassuring manner. He would always squeeze back, relieved to be home.

One time he awoke and the hand was gone. He forgot where he was. Panicking, he jerked his body up and felt a tearing sensation in his stomach.

He gasped out in pain and suddenly hand were on him, pressing him down. Steve fought against them, not sure what was going on.

A hand grabbed his own, frantically typing on it.

Calm.

Home.

His body stilled as he took the hand in his own. The pain in his stomach was growing and he could feel a shout passing his lips.

There were hands. So many hands. So many people were touching him.

But Natasha's was there too. He slowly slipped back into unconsciousness.

He didn't wake alone again.

~A~

He had been asleep longer than usual. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he could feel it. And he wasn't in so much pain. He didn't feel completely healed, but he felt better.

His eyes blinked open slowly, quickly shutting at the sudden brightness of it all.

Wait.

He squeezed his eyes shut then slowly opened them. It was blurry and bright, but he could see!

He turned his head to the right. Natasha was sitting there, her head resting on his bed.

His right hand claimed, Steve brought his left and up to Nat's face.

She stirred slightly opening her eyes. When she saw the soldier looking at her, she jerked awake.

"Steve!" He saw her lips move.

"Hi," the captain whispered.

She tried to say something, but it looked distorted. At his confusion, she grabbed his hand and tapped, See?

He nodded, but immediately regretted it. "Some."

Hear? She tapped, though she had to already know the answer.

He squeezed her hand and shook his head. 

She squeezed back.

"How long?" He asked, almost thankful for the silence. His head was pounding and the light was piercing his brain.

Last awake five days ago.

Oh. "Before that?"

Back for twelve days. Gone three weeks.

"Oh,"

Another tight squeeze.

Sleep. He felt the warm fingers tap out.

And he did.

Chapter Text


Tony stood in the doorway of the hospital room, watching. Natasha was sitting beside the sleeping Captain, running her fingers through his hair. She had barely left Steve's side in the almost two weeks he had been back. The one time she had left hadn't ended well.

He'd kept his distance. The guilt he felt every time he saw him was acute. It had already woken him up on several occasions. He couldn't help but feel responsible. The Examiner had put the blame upon Tony. He couldn't help but except it.

"Hey, Tony,"

The billionaire jumped at the voice. He had been so wrapped up in his own thought that he hadn't noticed Natasha turn toward him.

"How is he?" was all he could manage to say.

She gave a tired smile. "Alive. Recovering. Here. It's more than we had before."

"Hm," he gave a noncommittal grunt.

"You know it's not your fault." She said, still running her fingers through the blonde hair.

"They-"

"Blamed you to get in everyone's heads."

Tony gave a hesitant nod. "Has he... Said anything, about, you know."

"No," she said cautiously.

Not coherently. Tony silently acknowledged.

He heard a gasp come from the bed. Tony's eyes shot to Steve. The Captain had a death grip on Natasha's hand, his eyes wide with fear. The soldier's terrified gaze was directly on him.

Tony watched, frozen in place, as Natasha began tapping something on his hand.

Steve's only response was to shake his head. The shaking got more intense until he said something to her.

The assassin turned back to Tony with apologetic eyes. "I think you need to leave."

He turned and left without a word. He had caused enough trouble as it was.

~A~

Steve got better. Physically at least. Natasha kept Tony updated. He wasn't going to risk another incident.

Thanks to the super-soldier serum, Steve's mutilated knee eas healing. Not as fast as usual, but better than it would have under normal "human" circumstances. His eyes were slowly making a full comeback, his hearing had yet to make any improvement. The doctors didn't think he would.

Eating was the biggest concern at the moment. The soldier had stated hooked up to different IV drips and occasionally even feeding tubes. The fee times Natasha had been able to coax any food into him, he had thrown it up within the hour. His stomach had shrunk. That they were sure of. Whether there was other, unseen damage would be made known with time.

Bruce had spoken to Tony about. The doctor was fairly convinced that it was mostly psychological at this point.

Steve had gotten up once, according to Natasha. He had a heavy limp but made it all the way to the bathroom by himself.

Small victories.

It seemed insane to be celebrating fifty steps when there was a time that Cap could benchpress a helicopter.

Even as physical improvements were made, Tony still heard the worried whispers between Nat and Bruce. Every time he asked, he would always be given all the ways Steve was improving. He knew there was more going on.

There was only one person in the loop who would be completely unafraid to tell Tony the bitter truth.

"Barton!" Tony pounded on Clint's door. "Let me in, I need to talk to you!"

The door opened with an annoyed grumble. "Whadya want, Stark?" He looked only half awake.

"The truth. I know you're spying in on Steve. Natasha and Bruce won't tell me what's going on. Too afraid to hurt my feeling or something. I'm sick of it. I want the truth."

Clint crossed his arms. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." Tony said with no hesitation.

"The truth?"

"Yes." He confirmed again.

"The truth is that Steve's lost it. He doesn't sleep unless he's making contact with someone. He's paranoid when he's awake, his eyes always darting around the room. He spends more time in a state of delirium. The word 'conscious' is probably an exaggeration. Don't get me wrong. He has good moments, but as a whole, it's better for everyone when he's asleep. At least when he's not having nightmares. Those are downright torture. I'm surprised you don't hear the screams. And id you're wondering if he blames you?"

Tony held his breath, hoping, but already knowing the answer.

"He does. I don't think it's hate so much as fear. He's scared of you. The very mention of your name had him tensing."

That was what Tony had been afraid of.

"Listen," Clint kept talking, "Back when Steve was gone, I said some things I probably shouldn't have. I know you had nothing to do with him being taken, but we both know that I believed it for a bit. That was my bad. I let my anger take control. But you have to remember, Steve wasn't here. He was being told st his weakest points that you betrayed him. It's going to take time. But Steve is strong, he'll pull through."

Tony nodded, as he turned to walk away.

"Tony!" He turned back around, "It's not your fault. None of it was. Don't let them get you too. One is bad enough."

The billionaire hesitated a minute before nodding. "I'll be in the workshop if anyone needs me."

Tony needed to get away before he made things worse.