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Anthropos Polytropos, Chapter Three

Anthropos Polytropos
By: Memory Dragon
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers movie-verse, nor do I make any claim to.
Characters:  Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov, Bruce Banner, Thor, Amora the Enchantress, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Happy Hogan.
Warnings: PTSD. Mentions of past torture. Temporary character death that the characters are aware is (probably) only temporary, though it still takes it's mental toll on them.  Mentions of potential child abuse.  Mind fuckery.  Minor self-abuse.  Cliff hangers.  Implied bullying.  Generally dark fic, though there is a happy ending and no one actually dies.  Not Iron Man 3 compliant in the slightest.  If you have any questions about the warnings, I'd be more than happy to clarify as best I can.
Rating: I think I'm just going to leave this at an M due to how dark it gets and some of the themes.
Summary:  He doesn't remember much from before he woke up, but he does know two things.  He doesn't like being called Tony Stark, and he hates Captain America.
Thanks: Many thanks to narwhale_callin for putting up with me when I don't make sense, which is apparently a lot in this fic.  I blame being tired while typing it.  Also thanks to Kassie2q4u, Sunset Silver Flame, Salmastryon, Teyke, Redkenja, Wildmage of galla, shiro_tora, Chleom, and beizanten for reviewing and to everyone who left kudos.  You guys are making me feel loved.  <3
Important note about next week's update: It may not happen.  I'm really sorry, but I'm not really sure yet how much internet I'm going to have next week, if at all.  I'll try to get it up by Wednesday at the latest, but if you don't see it by then assume I'm skipping next week and expect an update on the following Monday.  Trust me, I'd much rather be updating fic than spending up to 60 hours round trip on a train with no interwebs, but one does what one must when visas are involved.  So like I said, I'll try to get this up next week, but if not, you'll have a two week wait with the next chapter.  I apologize for the wait, but life does happen.

Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two


Chapter Three:  I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man

Tony woke up sometime later. He was dry, and it felt like someone had bandaged his back, but Tony didn't care. He curled up against the post he was leaned against. He didn't have to look to know Clint was dead.

He didn't know how long he sat there, but after a while he stopped trembling. He felt a sharp peck on his neck.

Tony jumped, raising his palm in defense, looking around wildly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the red and gold on his hand again, but he spotted the bird before he could look down at his hand.

It was a swan, white and elegant, and completely unimpressed with him. Vaguely, Tony remembered something about how mean swans were.

That didn't mean he wanted to hurt it though. "You have to leave. I don't think I can put my arm down," he begged it.

Surprisingly enough, it did. The bird gave him one more stern look before taking off.

It was five minutes before he could lower his hand, and there was a darkened spot on the floor that looked like a burn mark. Tony couldn't account for when that happened or how.

By this time, Tony was able to look around, and he discovered he wasn't even near the ocean anymore. The thought of it made him shiver, and he curled his legs up to his chest. He remembered being pulled under and...


Surrounding: Boxing ring, in the middle of a field, over-cast sky. Slightly damp (had it been raining? Why was Tony dry?), on the edge of the woods. No Captain America.

Cap had been there, trying - no, not pushing him under, but holding him up. And... Tony honestly didn't remember too much after that. Had Cap brought him here? Where was he?

Tony didn't let himself think of the possibility that Cap had died as well. It would have been his fault and... Tony just wasn't ready to face that yet.

"Cap?" he called out hesitantly.


Relief flooded through him at the sound of Cap's voice. "I'm not Tony," he grumbled.

Cap looked almost out of breath when he pushed through the bushes. He looked... awful just about summed it up. Too pale, too... Tony felt a small shock. Captain America looked scared. Tony honestly didn't know how to respond to that.

Thankfully, he wasn't given a chance to. With his default setting of asshole, it probably wouldn't have been pretty. Cap jumped over the ring gracefully, walking towards him. "Are you alright?" Cap asked, not waiting for his answer as he knelled down in front of Tony. "You disappeared and I thought you were... You were struggling before and I thought I let go of you. I thought-"

"Hey, there, Blondy. I'm fi-" Tony started, cut off as Cap practically pulled him into his lap for a tight hug. "I'm fine," he finished, not sure what to do with over two hundred pounds of super-soldier trembling against him and burying his head on Tony's shoulder.

He hated this guy, right? Tony was sure he did, but he also couldn't push Cap away. He tried to convince himself he wanted the contact just as much after Clint... Well, he did want comfort after what happened, but it was a weak excuse for not pushing Cap away and he knew it. Tony had no idea what to do with these platonic touches, and it just made him feel more awkward.

But Cap was just a kid, really. It kind of broke his mechanical heart that Cap had to go through all of this, just to save Tony. He should be angry Cap didn't save Clint, but it was hard to be when the kid was practically sobbing against him.

So Tony stayed still, unsure of what to do as Cap held on to him so tightly that he shook Tony with all the force of his trembling. His shirt didn't feel damp, so Cap wasn't crying. For that, Tony counted his blessings. This was awkward enough without acknowledging Captain America was crying.

It was a few moments before Cap wrestled his control back enough to speak. "I'm sorry. I should be - I should be holding this in. This place..."

"Do you always hold things in?" Tony asked. He didn't get an answer other than a few more full body shudders. He supposed that was answer enough. If Tony ever got out of this place, he was going to put a stop to Cap's terrible coping mechanisms. He didn't know how, but he'd find a way.

Finally Cap stilled. Did that mean Tony could move away now? He wasn't opposed to enjoying sitting in someone's lap while being held down (Thirty-six: probably very kinky), but he also wasn't enough of a bastard to take advantage of that right now. "So, um... are you alright now?" Tony asked, forcing himself not to fidget.

"No," Cap said truthfully. "But we've wasted enough time because I..." Cap lifted his head from Tony's shoulder, his eyes widening slightly when he took in Tony's face.

"What?" Tony asked, feeling self-conscious. It was an entirely foreign feeling and he didn't like it.

Cap simply raised his hand to touch Tony's cheek, wiping under Tony's eyes. His fingers came away wet. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think of you when I..."

Cap's fingers were wet? After brushing under... Oh, hell no. Tony jerked away, wiping his eyes furiously. "I'm not crying. He said that he couldn't die, right. And you. Don't you dare tell him about this. He would be a smug idiot, and he already has some sort of black mail against me with that bow and arrow bit. It never happened. Rainbows happened instead. Rainbows and robots and pizza, because pizza is cool. I think. I can't picture it, but I'm sure pizzas are awesome."

Cap had his hand in front of his mouth, giving Tony no illusion that he was hiding a weak smile. Bastard. After Tony had sat there and let Cap cuddle with him too! Still, Tony didn't pull away immediately when Cap pulled him back into a hug, wondering if Cap was growing on him. "I won't tell," Cap promised, hugging Tony tight. "And he'll be... He'll be fine. He has to be."

When Tony pulled away this time, Cap let him go. Tony looked around the ring curiously, wondering why it felt so comforting. "Why is there a boxing ring in the middle of a meadow?" Tony asked. He got to his feet (thankfully without any wobbling), and touched the rope that cordoned the area off. He ran his fingers along it, trying to soak up its comfort.

"Don't know," Cap said, looking around as well.

"'The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown, the lion beat the unicorn all around the town'," Tony quoted absently. "But I don't see any lions. Or unicorns. Or a town for that matter. If there were any unicorns, they'd probably come running if they knew you were here, Spangles."

"Could you just call me Steve?" Cap asked, his voice soft and just a little pleading.

"I..." Tony looked at him, feeling slightly bewildered. "But you're Captain America," he pointed out. Cap, sure. He could call him that. He'd been calling him that in his head since they met. But Steve felt too personal.

"And you don't like Captain America," Cap said, looking a little sad. Then he reached out to touch Tony's arm. "But you didn't seem to mind me before you found out who I was. I'd rather you call me Steve."

Okay, that was legit weird. It felt a little like finding the man behind the curtain, calling a national hero by his first name. "Would Cap work?" Tony asked, fishing for a compromise.

Cap looked disappointed, but he managed a weak smile. "Guess that'll do for now."

That was almost worse than the thousands of kicked puppies, and Tony felt like an ass for not agreeing. He refused to back down now, but maybe... He'd try 'Steve' on strictly a trial basis for a little while, at least in his head.

"Come on," Cap said. "I think if we keep heading east, we could come to the edge of the shadows."

Tony paused as Cap jumped out of the ring, looking around once more. "Are you alright?" Cap... Steve asked.

"If you just found me, who patched up my back?" Tony asked, trying to look over his shoulder at the bandages he could feel.

"Turn around," Cap directed. When Tony did, he felt Cap's hands tracing the rips on his shirt. "Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing," he murmured. "Do you feel anything while you're here?"

Tony hesitated, torn between curiosity and not wanting to admit the feelings. If Cap knew about why he felt... Curiosity won out. "It feels safe. Comforting. Do you know why?"

"You might be thinking of Mr. Hogan?" Steve asked. Tony stared blandly, the name not ringing any bells. "He's your chauffeur. You told me that he was the one who taught you how to box."

Thirty-seven: He can box, and he was taught by his chauffeur. None of that sounded even vaguely familiar though, which was rather disconcerting. It also didn't explain who bandaged his back, but Tony decided to file that away for later. His wounds didn't even hurt any more, and he figured they should. One of the very few perks of this place.

Tony jumped out of the ring, giving it one last look before he took off in the direction of the shadows. They walked in relative silence for a while, Tony only breaking it to mutter about the engine or to tap the arc reactor. He was trying very hard not to tap at the arc reactor, as it might draw Cap's attention to it. And if his worries on the arc reactor looking dimmer were correct, he'd rather Cap... He'd rather Steve not worry about it.

It was easier said than done, however, because tapping the reactor appeared to be a nervous tick. Thirty-eight.

"You keep doing that," Steve said, startling Tony out of his thoughts.

"Doing what?" Tony asked.

"You keep saying numbers, sometimes with a statement. Like just now you said 'tapping the reactor, Thirty-eight.' Not five minutes before that, you said Twenty-five: revision, lots of babbling."

"Have I been saying those out loud?" Tony asked, before dismissing it. No big deal, he supposed. "It's a list," Tony said, nodding to himself. "It's all the things I'm finding out about myself. I'm currently up to Thirty-eight and... Cap? Are you alright?"

Cap had stopped walking, looking very pale under the cowl. "Number Five," Cap said. "You... you were muttering about it after Clint... You were adding data to number Five: He does not like himself."

Oh. Well, that was... kind of not good. Pretty damning, actually. He could either be terribly embarrassed and mortified by this, or he could take it in stride and brush it off. Tony chose the latter. "Yeah, Tony doesn't. But hey, I'm not Tony, so I don't have to like him." Tony nearly added that Cap still had a chance because he hated Tony more than Captain America, but he figured that would go over about as well as the first statement had. Namely, not at all well.

"That's why you don't like being called Tony," Steve said.

"I don't like being called that because I'm not him," Tony corrected, though he supposed the former was true enough as well.

Cap didn't look convinced. If anything, he looked like Tony had personally kicked every single one of the thousand puppies. Which was just wrong, because if Tony was kicking something, he wanted to at least have the satisfaction of actually doing the kicking before facing those eyes. "I never thought..." Cap started.

"Yeah, no. Remember Twenty-three? I don't do feelings, so you can keep them to yourself before you give me hives, Cap." Cap still... Steve still looked like puppies were being kicked, which was an unacceptable outcome of this conversation. So Tony decided to fall back on the one thing that never failed him. Twenty-four: He's an asshole.

Tony walked over to Cap and puled the cowl off with a sharp yank. "Hey! Tony, what are you-"

"Not Tony," he snapped, eying the rather impressive cowl head. Steve was still as handsome and all-American under the cowl despite it. Not fair. Tony leaned up on the balls of his feet and ruffled the ever-living hell out of Steve's already mussed hair.

"Stop that!" Steve commanded, grabbing hold of Tony's wrists and glaring.

Tony, for his part, grinned madly at him. "Looks like even Mr. Perfect America can have a bad hair day. Will wonders never cease?"

"Tony, it's your life in danger! Can't you ever take anything seriously, or do you hate yourself so much that you don't even care?" Steve said, still not letting go of Tony's wrists. In fact, his grip was just a little painful. Was Steve always this easy to rile up? Tony was a little curious as to why he hated Cap and not the other way around if that were the case.

"You got it in one, Blondy," Tony said, refusing to wince as Cap's grip turned bruising. "Why should I take this seriously? I mean, who wants a giant stick up his ass? Oh, wait. I forgot how much you seem to enjoy the one in yours. Did that come in a bottle too, or-"

A very loud squawk was the only warning they had before a winged death dropped down on top of them. Tony may have let out an embarrassing yelp as Steve pushed him down and - Oh, no. Cap was not trying to hover over Tony to protect him. Anger coiled around Tony as he curled tight, considering the leverage he'd need to knock Captain America off him. It was then he caught sight of their attacker.

You know what? Tony had no problem letting Steve take the fall for him while being attacked by a swan. Because that was hilarious.

He watched in growing amusement as the swan pecked at Steve's head, making his hair even worse. "Why, Cap. I didn't realize you were so good at ruffling feathers. I thought that was my job," Tony said, then had to duck as the swan made to peck him instead.

Steve was trying to push the bird away, failing as the bird gracefully dodged under his arm and avoided the shield. Finally, the swan backed off in a flurry of feathers. Swans were mean bastards.

"Are you alright?" Steve asked.

"I might swoon," Tony sighed. "Watching you heroically defeat a swan is just too much for me. Be still my mechanical heart."

Steve's earlier fury was returning full force, but another loud squawk made both of them flinch. Steve raised his shield again, warily staring down at the bird.

It glared at both of them in return. "What did you do to piss off our fine feathered friend, Cap?" Tony asked finally. Because until Tony had spoken, it'd definitely been going after Steve.

"I don't know," Steve answered, sounding a little baffled. "It was attacking me earlier. It wouldn't let me go." Steve paused, thoughtful. "I think it was heading me off, actually. It was driving me, and it stopped attacking when I heard you."

"That's just a little creepy," Tony said, looking at the bird. It was probably the same one he'd seen earlier. He hadn't exactly been in the frame of mind to give it a positive ID though. "And aggressive. She could have just asked, after all. It's not like - Ow!"

Tony would never, not to his dying day, admit that he hid behind Captain America when the bird started to peck at him. Thankfully, Steve's shield was much more effective from this position.

"I don't like swans," Tony said with a glare. He wasn't sure if it was worth a number, but it was currently very true.

"Is there somewhere else you want us to go?" Steve asked the swan, not looking at Tony. He could see the twitch in Steve's mouth though as he tried not to laugh at Tony. So not cool. He liked it better when Steve was mad at him. But that would require losing Steve as his human shield against the bird, and Tony wasn't willing to give that up just yet.

The swan leveled them with a stare reserved for only the most idiotic before flying off to the north-east. "So who votes we ignore the psychotic swan and keep heading towards the Shadows?"

"If we don't follow it, it'll get vicious again," Steve said, shaking his head. "Probably won't let us leave until we do what it wants."

Tony considered the pros and cons of angry swans versus fed up ones. They probably could leave if they really wanted, but it would take longer since he doubted Steve would want to hurt the swan, even in self-defense. They'd make better time checking the swan's nest first.

"You can come out from behind me now," Steve said, not really managing to hide his amusement.

"You have just lost your talking privileges," Tony said, quickly following the swan so that Steve couldn't see his face. He didn't trust himself not to have a faint blush in this weird place of feelings. "You are no longer allowed to talk to me. I'd rather talk to homicidal swans. At least they don't have the nerve to laugh at me. They just want to peck my eyes out. Honest animosity is worth millions, ya know. At least then you know where people stand."

A hand on his arm made him look back to see Steve's questioning blue eyes. They flickered down to Tony's wrists for a brief moment, and Tony swore he could feel the bruises forming. "About earlier-"

"Just don't, Cap," Tony said, turning back around.

He heard Steve's soft sigh. "You'll drive me crazy one of these days," Cap said, letting go of him. "I still can't tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

"Embrace insanity, Cap. Way less stressful," Tony called over his shoulder. He could have said something about the stick Steve liked to sit on, but he had promised to try not to hate him and play nice. At least when there was no real reason to antagonize Steve. And, okay, maybe he shouldn't lashed out quite that much, but Steve's anger was so much better than kicked puppies.

It was a short walk to where the swan flew off to. They came to a beautiful clearing in the woods with a small lake and... was that a castle? Tony hadn't seen that of in the distance when they'd been at the boxing ring. And he should have.

Tony thought that if he had, he'd never have followed the swan, threatening or no. The Castle was cold, unfeeling... judging. It had hard, sharp lines of stone, and its shadow was long. Tony had stepped into it without realizing as the air cooled around him him in the absence of sunlight, and Tony had to fight the urge to step back and get out of it. As it was, he stopped short when he saw it, Steve nearly running into him.

"Is something wrong?" Steve asked. Tony looked back at him for the first time since he started walking, a little disappointed to see Steve's hair was (mostly) all in place again. He was kind of glad that Steve had kept the cowl off though, perhaps hoping it would help set Steve and Cap apart. And it was a bit easier, to keep from actively disliking him like that.

That didn't stop the unnerving feeling, especially not seeing Steve in the sunlight behind him while Tony was in the shadow. "The Castle," Tony said, fighting the urge to inch back into the trees. It was just a shadow, for crying out loud. Not even The Shadows.

Steve took one look at the Castle and stepped between it and Tony. Tony wondered if Steve even knew he was doing it. At least he was now in the shadows too, so Tony didn't argue. "I don't like the look of this place," Steve said, raising his shield in front of them.

Before Tony could suggest they get out of here and as far away from that Castle as possible, the swan flew in, landing on the lake with a graceful arc of its wings. If Tony hadn't seen it attacking earlier, he wouldn't have known that it was psychotic and homicidal.

After a few seconds, the swan shimmered and... transformed? Where there was once a white swan, now there stood a woman dressed in a black form-fitting jumpsuit with short red hair. Tony searched for the taser in his pocket but didn't find it. It must have been lost during the attack of the Chitauri Moby Dick. Tony pushed away the pang of loss that reminder brought. "Fourteen still holds true. I hate magic," Tony grumbled.

"Agent Romanov!" Steve said, rushing forward into the water to hug her. "You were the swan?" He pulled back, blushing slightly, as the woman raised her eyebrows.

"Stark, when we get out of here, you and I are having words," the woman said, walking out of the water with a frightening glare. Steve trailed behind her.

"I'm not Stark!" he said sharply, his hands balled into fists as he tried not to yell, tried not to think of the Castle that was setting him on edge.

Romanov (too scary for nicknames, but given time, Tony was sure he'd slip up and give her some anyway) regarded him critically, before raising an eyebrow at Steve. "He doesn't remember anything, except for strong feelings and quotes from books. He..." Steve stumbled over the words, and Tony's eyes narrowed as he knew what was coming. If Cap was going to go on about feelings again... but Steve didn't, continuing on with only a brief glance at Tony as he kept his voice level. "He doesn't like his name very much."

Romanov nodded, not betraying any surprise she might have felt at the information, though her eyes softened a fraction when they returned to Tony. For being in a place where it was harder to hide emotions, she had amazing control. Tony almost envied it. "That makes sense," she said. "Amora is probably repressing his memories, but some are still bleeding through. Everything is fitting into archetypes or stories, since it's the only things he knows."

So somehow, Tony was having a large effect on the environment. Considering the parts he'd found in the desk and the engine on the ship, the hypothesis was fairly sound, though further testing would be needed. But if that was true, then... "Then what happened to Clint was my fault?" Tony asked, wondering if the Castle was right to be judging him. If he had killed Clint because he had no memories, and he'd felt threatened... Tony should have been trying to find out more, instead of cowardly wanting to hide under the desk. If he'd just-

"Tony, no," Steve said, one hand on Tony's shoulder and the other tilting his chin up. "Look at me, Tony. That wasn't you. You protected Clint, remember? The Enchantress is influencing things here too, so it wasn't your fault."

"He's telling the truth, Tony. I saw some of the battle while I was flying around. If the Chitauri leviathan really was reacting to your fear, it would have backed off when you tried to protect him. Besides, Clint will be fine in the outside world," Romanov said, though she didn't try to touch him like Steve or Clint had. She'd moved near enough that she was out of the water, but she didn't reach out. Romanov was... She was like him, not knowing what to do with physical affection, he realized. He also wasn't sure he trusted her.

Tony took a step back, pushing Steve's hands away. "I don't even know who you are," he told her, the guilt still trying to choke him. Overhead, the sky grew darker as a bigger cloud passed over the sun.

Romanov looked up, her face expressionless as she considered the weather. "I'm Natasha Romanov of SHIELD, code name Black Widow. We work together on a first response team called the Avengers."

"And what do I call you, sweetheart? Nat? Tasha? Hot stuff?" Tony asked, ignoring Steve's frown.

"You call me many inadvisable things, Stark," Romanov said, her smile the wrong side of terrifying. "I suggest you call me Natasha for now if you value your continued existence."

"Yeah, that's the thing," Tony said, shoving his hands in his pockets as he smiled up at her. She was terrifying, no doubt about that, but he wasn't intimidated. She had nothing on the Castle. "Apparently, I'm not too keen on self-preservation. That was number thirteen, actually. Probably a bad number for it, but why change what works?"

"Stark..." Natasha said, her face unreadable.

"Not Stark. Not Tony either. What is with you guys forgetting that? I'm not Anthony Stark. He has memories. I don't." Tony stared back at her, resisting the urge to tap at the arc reactor by keeping his hands in his pockets. "I don't trust you, do I? Well, Tony doesn't. I guess I don't either. Why is that anyway?"

Natasha was silent for a while, while Steve looked torn between the two of them. Finally, Natasha spoke. "You've never trusted me. I was a plant put in place by SHIELD, which you allowed because you didn't think you would be alive much longer anyway and you wanted to know who I worked for. The only thing you didn't get right was that I worked for SHIELD rather than one of your competitors. I don't regret doing it, or what I put in my report on you."

"But?" Tony asked, sensing there was more. It was hard to get a read on her, but he could tell that much.

Natasha snorted. "This place sucks, just so you know," she said dryly.

"You're doing better than the rest of us so far in withholding information and feelings," Steve said with a small smile.

"Fine," Natasha said. "There's a but. I don't regret my job. But I wish I'd had a chance to have your trust. It's slow work, earning it back from you."

"Fair enough," Tony said, relaxing a little. She wasn't lying. She might be hard to read, but he was confident he could catch her in a lie here. And that meant the comment about her wanting to earn it back was probably true as well. Though why she would bother was beyond him. Maybe it had to do with the stuff he made for the team?

He glanced towards the Castle again, this time unable to keep his hand still. Tap-tap-tap. "Can we get away from here? I'm seriously ready to blow this popsicle stand. Vamoose."

"I can only keep human form for a short time the further I get from the lake," Natasha said, glancing between Tony and the Castle. "But on the other side of the lake, we won't be in the castle's shadow. For all the good it does when the weather is like this."

Tony looked at the Castle again, shivering at its impassive and unnerving walls. His throat felt tight as he looked at it. "Yeah, that's... Let's start walking."

As they started off, both Natasha and Steve put themselves between Tony and the Castle. He couldn't have said why exactly, but it made him feel better. Warmer. Tony decided to blame the sun for that, which was attempting to peek through the overcast sky. Even though they were still in the Castle's shadow, it made him feel a little better. Only Natasha looked up at the sky when it changed, then glanced at Tony with a relieved smile. What was that about? You know what? He didn't want to know. Time to change the subject. "So this first response team, or whatever. It's you, me, Clint..."

"The Captain, Dr. Banner, and Thor," Natasha supplied. "There's six of us, all together, though there's been some talk recently of adding more to the roster. We save the world."

"'When the Dark comes rising, Six shall hold it back. Three from the circle, three from the track'," Tony quoted absently, trying to get his head around the fact that he apparently saves the world for a living. It didn't feel like he had any super powers. Or maybe he just makes things for the team? Being Q probably wasn't too bad.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Steve said, looking at Tony with a slightly bewildered expression.

"Q is from James Bond, get Clint to show you the movies. And you do more than just give us tech, Tony," Natasha said, looking thoughtful. Did he say that bit out loud, or was it just this place and the link? "I didn't catch the first quote though. It's not one I know."

"That's a shame. Absolute tragedy," Tony said, feeling slightly offended that the reference wasn't recognized by either of them. "I don't remember the name of the book, but when I do, you're both getting a copy. I remember it being good."

"Never pegged you for much of a reader," Cap said, smiling lightly. "Guess I was wrong in thinking we had nothing in common."

"Nothing in common with Tony, not me," Tony insisted, since he honestly had no idea why he was a fountain of quotes.

"Right," Cap said, his voice indulgent. Tony focused on that rather than the towering castle. "So if I was Robinson Crusoe, stranded from my time, Mr. Hogan got a nursery rhyme, and Clint was... Clint was Captain Ahab, still angry with the Chitauri and Loki for what they did to him." Steve faltered, before visibly rallying himself. "What does that make Natasha?"

"Swan Lake," Natasha said, rolling her eyes. "That's stereotyping, To-" She cut herself off on the name at Tony's glare, shrugging. "Just because I'm Russian doesn't mean you have to make me the Swan Princess. You should know better. Though I guess I can't complain if you chose Swan Lake over the Spider and the Fly. You're more creative than the average idiots who try and make fun of my name. I'm surprised I'm a white swan, considering."

"Is it that far off base?" Tony asked, really looking at her. He could see the swan out of the corner of his eye, despite Natasha standing in front of him. He paused, and for a moment it was like he could almost see through her, which was a little terrifying. "Who are you anyway? The swan or Natasha?" he asked quietly. "'Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.' I can't tell which one you are."

Natasha stopped walking, looking completely impassive as she returned his gaze. That didn't stop him from hearing what she didn't say, however. "You don't know either, do you?" he asked.

"No, not always," Natasha admitted, still not breaking eye contact. He could feel it, how she didn't know who she actually was half the time. How she was afraid of searching for her true self, only to find that nothing remained of it beyond the constructs they had made her into.

Steve took a step closer to her, touching her arm gently. Tony wished he knew how to react to that statement, to... comfort her, maybe? Which was odd, since he still didn't trust her, not really. He still wanted to do something, though. But all he could do was stand there while Steve seemed to know exactly what to do.

One more failure, unable to live up to Captain America. All in front of the Castle's watchful shadow too.

Natasha laid a hand on top of Steve's, before pulling away from him and walking over to Tony. He tensed as she pulled him into a hug, both unsure of her and how he should react. This wasn't like with Amora when she was flirting. This was different, like the hugs Steve and Clint gave him. "Are you trying to manipulate me?" he asked uncertainly. Because he didn't think Natasha would reach out like this on her own.

"Maybe," Natasha said, wrapping her arms tighter around his neck and pressing against him. Tony glanced at Steve, who just nodded as he hesitantly wrapped his arms around Natasha's back. "It's not like I know how to turn it off," Natasha continued. "I had to learn normal interactions, just like you did. But if I am manipulating you, it's because I want you to be happier. You aren't disappointing me, Tony. You aren't disappointing either of us."

Tony felt his eyes go wide, and it was a sudden struggle to breathe normally, though he didn't feel like he was drowning. She... Natasha wasn't lying. He'd have been able to tell, but this...

They were both swept up in a Cap-hug (like a bear hug, but better and with less fur) before he could find a response to that. Nestled between Natasha and Cap's biceps, Tony couldn't even see the Castle any more, even if he was still in its shadow. He let out a shaky breath, burrowing his face against Natasha's neck after a moment's indecision. If that was too intimate, she'd find a way to let him know. Probably painfully.

When she carded her hand through his hair, Tony figured that was a good sign. So hey, maybe he was starting to get the hang of this.

Was this his life? Cuddle piles and group hugs with his team? Tony was pretty okay with that, actually. He really was, even if he didn't know how to respond to it. Though, they were kind of on a time limit right now... "We should - I mean, we need to get going?"

Steve let go reluctantly, allowing both Tony and Natasha to step apart. Well, that was a little awkward, and it didn't help that he was sort of missing the warmth. How do you react after a group hug like that?

"You never said what archetype you fit into," Natasha said with a soft smile that felt surprisingly real for her. It was even weirder to know it was directed at him.

"Odysseus," Steve supplied, meeting her gaze shyly. "A man of many twists and turns, he said, looking for a way home."

"It fits," Natasha said, resuming their walk.

They walked silently for a while, Steve and Natasha acting as a barrier between him and the Castle. No matter how far they walked though, there was no end to the Castle's shadow. It was like it followed them, even though the sun didn't change its position fast enough to make the difference. Tony couldn't help glancing at the imposing structure nervously, wishing it didn't tower over everything.

"Is the sun moving?" Steve asked, also glancing up at the Castle suspiciously.

"I don't think so," Natasha said, looking at the sky and then back at Tony. "It seems a bit more complicated than that."

"Have you scouted the castle?" Steve asked. Tony trailed behind, trying to relax instead of tensing when Steve mentioned it out right.

"No one lives there that I could see. It's completely empty, except for the rats and the smell of alcohol," Natasha said. She watched Tony carefully as she spoke, and he couldn't help tapping on the arc reactor. Empty. That shouldn't surprise him. "How does it make you feel?"

Tony really didn't want to answer that question, but he doubted he could bluff any better than Natasha in this place. He was pretty sure they could both feel it from the Castle as well, anyway. "Small," Tony said, trying to keep his voice blank. "Cold. It... It really doesn't care, does it? Which is stupid, because of course a building doesn't care, it's not sentient. Except it does care a little. Enough to feel... disappointed. Or anger. Both at me, so maybe's sentient after all and holds a grudge? Did Tony blow it up?"

"Steve mentioned Happy Hogan got a nursery rhyme, which means your memories of him are bleeding through the barrier," Natasha said. "How did they manifest?"

"A boxing ring?" Tony asked, not entirely convinced that it had 'manifested' just for Tony's sake.

"Places then," Natasha said, glancing back up at the Castle. "Objects. This castle probably represents someone you know. Or knew. Given how it makes you feel, I'd assume it's your father, Howard Stark."

Tony stopped dead, though he couldn't have said if it was because of the name or the word 'father'. Either way, number Thirty-nine was a definite 'He doesn't like Howard Stark.'

"Howard?" Steve asked, looking back at the Castle in confusion. Then he looked back at Tony in surprise. "But he was-"

Tony must have blinked, because one second he was facing Steve, and the next he was staring at Natasha's back. "Don't," she said, her voice as cold as steel.

He looked between the two of them, because looking at the Castle was... Well, he didn't want to, now that he knew why he felt the way he did about it. Okay, no he didn't know, but giving it a name for some reason made it worse. At least Cap looked as baffled as he felt.

"Natasha?" Tony asked. She was standing in front of him like she was protecting him from Steve. Which, sure, he didn't like the guy, but Tony hardly needed protection from Captain America, right?

Natasha ignored him, though, not taking her eyes off Steve. "You know where we are, and Tony has no memories right now. If you talk about Howard, he'll believe you."

"I'm not going to lie to him," Steve said, now officially more confused than Tony. "I know the file said not to mention Howard, but he was-"

"Not the same person who raised Tony as the one you knew."

Tony blinked. Because that made sense. "There are two Howard Starks?" Tony asked. The thought was enough to make him sick to his stomach.

"No," Natasha said, still not looking at him. "But the man Cap knew changed a lot before you were born."

Tony had no idea how to classify that information. If Steve knew his - knew Howard Stark, then why did Steve look younger? Were the dates in this place as screwed up as the rest of it? Fourteen: He really hated magic. Tony missed logic.

"I still don't see why it's a bad thing to tell him now," Steve said stubbornly. "Maybe this time he'll actually listen."

Whatever expression was on Natasha's face, it was enough to make Captain America take a step back. "He has no memories," she said. "If you tell him Howard Stark was a good man, he'll know you're not lying. But look at the castle, Captain. You feel it just the same as I do, and we're only getting the residue of it from Tony. Disappointment, small, and angry, is what he said, but Tony didn't tell the whole truth. There's fear there too, and desperation and shame. It's oppressive. He made Tony feel that way, strong enough for it to bleed through when his memories are being repressed and we can't even move out of the damn thing's shadow." Tony felt like he should be protesting this, but the slight tremble in Natasha's shoulders kept him from saying anything. Besides, they were talking about Tony, not him, and it was kind of hard to deny when even catching the Castle out of the corner of his eye made him want to look at the ground and duck his head to get away from it.

"You want to tell him Howard Stark was a good man when he makes Tony feel like this?" Natasha asked, her voice cold.

Steve's eyes got wide at that, and he looked at Tony with a wounded expression full of guilt. Tony had to step up and say something, because even he didn't want to be that much of an asshole if Steve kept that up. "Look, it's fine, really," Tony said, keeping his eyes firmly away from the Castle. "If... If Howard changed since Cap met him, from a good guy to rats, alcohol, and disappointment, I can accept that. That's..." Tony swallowed and took a deep breath, because part of him didn't want to accept that at all. But it wasn't like he had much choice. "That's okay. I get it. Well, maybe not, considering Cap is younger than me and apparently knew my father who I can't even remember, which doesn't make sense at all, but that's not the weirdest thing that's happened here, right? Can we just get away from it?"

He fell under Natasha's scrutiny again, but this time she nodded. She may have seen the slight tremble in his hands, but if she didn't say anything about it, he wouldn't mention the worry he'd felt from her. He also decided not to mention the way she still put herself between him and Steve when Steve stepped forward, as though she was helpless to protect Tony from the Castle, but she was determined to do the next best thing.

"I'd like to apologize," Steve told her, hands up in surrender.

Finally, Natasha stepped aside, and Steve hesitantly walked up to him. "I wasn't thinking, and..." Steve sighed, then smiled weakly. "I guess I was being a little selfish. I don't know how - I still can't believe he would do this to you. Which isn't to say he didn't," the latter bit was added with a glance to Natasha. "But I've just... I wanted some connection to the past. I was frozen for 70 years-" Okay, that explained the time issues. Sort of. Still not the weirdest thing that happened in this place. "-and then I woke up, and I wanted to see him instead of you. That wasn't right, and I'm sorry."

Number Twenty: He hated Captain America. Possible cause: Cap preferred Howard Stark to Tony. That sucked. That sucked a lot, especially considering Tony wasn't sure if he could really blame Cap for preferring anyone to Tony.

But Tony smiled, patting Cap's biceps with a casualness that Tony mimicked from Clint. "No problem, Cap. Water under the bridge. I don't even remember it, so no biggie. Let's just keep moving."

Natasha and Cap traded baffled glances, and it took Tony a moment to realize what he'd done. He'd lied, and successfully, by cutting off whatever it was that connected them all in this place. Neither of them were convinced, but they had nothing from Tony to back up those suspicions.

Tony filed that information away with a star and several underlines. That was the first good thing he'd found out about this place. They started walking again, this time with Natasha and Cap conferring quietly while Tony resolutely ignored the Castle. He tapped at the arc reactor, mentally trying to focus on that new engine, though his mind was too distracted. He trashed several revisions because they weren't good enough, and he could feel the disappointment growing no matter how he kept his eyes down on the path.

"Is your arc reactor getting dimmer?" Natasha asked, breaking him from his thoughts.

She knew.


Memory: So there you have it.  I swear, Tony's issues have issues.  Anyway, I'm pretty sure that's the worst of the implied child abuse, so you should be good to go on that one.  It's certainly not the last of the warnings we'll go through.  If you want a hint of what's to come next week, the chapter title is one of the more well known Emily Dickenson poems.  I'll leave you to figure out which one it might be from the warnings.  It's weird to think this fic is now half finished...

Anyway, make sure to check out the note on next week's update before you start complaining about the next chapter being late.  At least the cliff hanger isn't too bad on this one.

Quote of the Chapter:

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction."
-Zhuangzi, translated by Lin Yutang


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2013 07:39 pm (UTC)
This really great, you updated so fast! I love how Tony memory is show in places and object. This is a deep meaningin all of them, and it help them all understand Tony better! Love that this place help Tony and Steve find out about each other. I feel sorry for Steve but I understand how Tony feel he can't live up to his father idea that Captain America is the ideal hero and can't help resent Steve for it. I got the hunch that the swan must be Natash and is happy that I am right the poem about who you really are and Natasha being the black swan really fit. IN the play black Swan is dangerous and Seductive.

May. 27th, 2013 11:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I wanted something for the people who couldn't be in this world to represent the ones Tony is closest too, because they'd definitely be there to help him.

Steve and Tony's relationship in movie verse is so delightfully complicated. I think that's why I end up always writing for it, even when I want to write for the cartoon.

Natasha was not to pleased to be the swan, but I'm glad you were happy with it. She's actually the white swan, because while Tony doesn't trust her, he doesn't actually consider her one of the bad guys. She was pretty surprised by the white color too, not that she'd tell him that.

Thanks again for the comments!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )