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Sunday, August 2nd, 2009 10:11 am
Title: Lethewards: Chapter Three: Wayfaring Stranger part IV
Rating: R
Fandom: Marvel - 616
Pairings: Primarily pre-slash Steve/Tony, but with several platonic relationships, as well as references to past relationships and a few minor relationships
Part word count: 8400
Genre: Drama, angst, hurt/comfort, character study
Warnings: These are warnings just this part, seeing as they may change from part to part. Please see this post for overall fic warnings Depiction and talk of mental illness, talk of suicide and self-harm, violence, depiction of institutionalization.
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, save Tomas McHale, and make no profit from them
Part Summary: Tony's stay in 42
Thanks: My beta [personal profile] autolobotomysuicide and being absolutely fantastic. [personal profile] jazzypom and [livejournal.com profile] pandanoai for their adivce and beta work, as well as cheer leading. And last but not least, [livejournal.com profile] oddwildflowers for being an amazing cheerleader.
Author's note: Please, please, please see this post for a list of overall fic warnings and for background information/changes from canon.
As always, thank you for all the kind comments. New parts Sunday and Tuesday.
Previous Parts: Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two part I part II Chapter Three part I part II part III



It was amazing how they seemed to be able to suck all flavor out of the food here. It was really quite impressive. Did the cooks have to take a special class that taught them how to make eating one of least enjoyable experiences in their costumers' day?

Tony pushed the supposed mashed potatoes around on his plate. They said they wanted him to get his weight up, but then they gave him this. It seemed counter-intuitive.

"How's the special?" Leonard asked, sitting down across from Tony at the cafeteria table.

"Oh, this is the special? Good to know it's a particularly horrific exception."

Leonard chuckled, "Well, the culinary budget was cut. Still, it has all the daily nutrients that you need. Plus you can use it as paste."

Tony snorted, pushing the food aside, "Feed us MREs then. At least those have some flavor."

"MREs aren't in the budget," the doctor shook his head and sighed, "Still, you didn't eat much."

"You're not my mother, Leonard."

"You want to talk about your mother?"

Tony rolled his eyes. Leonard grinned. Psychology jokes. He suspected he'd be hearing a lot of those during his stay in the psych unit.

"Really," Leonard looked at him seriously, "How have you been feeling? How's your day been so far?"

Tony shrugged. He took a sip from his glass -- even the water tasted especially bland.

"I got out of bed."

"Well that's a good step. Really."

"And I found a note stuffed under my door. Evidently word has gotten out that Tony Stark is in room one-two-eight."

Samson let out a long sigh. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, "What did the note say?"

"Oh you know, usual fanfare of wishing revenge and the likes. I guess this is what it's like for a former cop who somehow ends up in jail."

"I was afraid of this..." Leonard pulled out his Blackberry, "I need to talk to Osborn..." he let out a frustrated sigh, "No damn reception..."

"Well it is another dimension."

Samson gave him an unamused look, but then looked at him kindly, "If you're uncomfortable about this, I can arrange for your meals to be taken to your room."

"It's fine," Tony waved a hand, "What's the worst that could happen?"

"No offense, Tony, but that's not very convincing coming from a man whose need for self-preservation is close to zero."

Tony snorted, "Fair enough."

Leonard looked him straight in the eye, "If you even suspect something is going to happen, I want you to tell me, all right?"

Tony swallowed, "Yeah."

Leonard looked at him a moment longer, "All right. I'll see you at three."

Tony nodded and said goodbye as Samson rose and left. Tony looked around the cafeteria, full of super-villains he more likely than not had some hand in locking away. Some of them had been watching him since he had walked in, others didn't seem to care in the slightest. Tony knew he should be worried, frightened even, but he couldn't bring himself to care in the slightest.

He stood and headed toward the lounge area. Everything here had the sleek, futuristic look and feel to it, as did the rest of the prison, but the psyche unit still felt abysmally bleak. Maybe it was the ugly furniture, maybe it was the broken poker table, maybe it was all the other patients shuffling around in lace-less shoes, maybe it was the fact that all of them knew that if they were here, they were beyond help, despite what Samson or any of the other staff might say. Tony looked around at his fellow patients blankly. He recognized a few of them. Some of them strutted around like they weren't in prison, others looked utterly defeated. He wondered which one he looked like.

"Excuse me," a voice came from behind him.

Tony turned, and looked down. It was a kid -- teenage boy -- red hair, big green eyes looking up at him. Tony raised an eyebrow.

"Y-You're Tony Stark, right?"

Tony studied him for a moment, trying to figure out what the kid might be going at. "I am, yeah,"

The kid's face lit up. He grinned wide, "Oh wow-- I, uh, I don't want to sound creepy or anything, but you were always my favorite."

"Favorite?" Tony's brow furrowed.

"Yeah," he nodded quickly, "Of the Avengers. You and Wasp and the Scarlet Witch," he counted off on his fingers, apparently giddy.

"Thanks," Tony gave him a smile. The last thing he expected to find here was a fanboy.

"Sooo..." the kid seemed to be trying to think of reasons to keep talking to Tony. He wrung his hands, "Why, um, why are you here?"

Tony laughed a bit more bitterly than he expected himself to, "A lot of reasons," he raised an eyebrow, looking the kid over again. He put his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants, "What about you?"

"Oh, me?" he looked surprised, as if there were plenty of other people Tony could be talking to, "My parents wouldn't let me register."

"So they put you in the psych ward?"

"What?" he looked startled, "Oh, no. They put me in the psych ward because I tell them I think I'm a Skrull."

"You think you're a Skrull?"

"No," the kid looked smug, "but that's what I tell them."

Tony found himself smiling, "Why would you want to be put in the psych unit?"

"Have you ever been to the juvee unit?"

"Well, no," Tony shook his head, still smiling, "What's your name?"

"Tomas McHale," he answered happily, "It's great to meet you, Mister Stark."

Tomas held out a hand. Tony hesitated a moment, but eventually took it. Tomas seemed happy.

"All right, well, I've got a meeting with my shrink in ten minutes," the kid seemed amused by this, "I'll see you around, yeah?"

Tony nodded and watched the teenager scurry off chipperly. Tony sighed -- there were all kinds, he guessed. There was nothing here to keep his attention now. Tony wondered back to his room, though he knew it would hold nothing as well. At least there he could sleep until his session with Samson.


---


"The Committee won't hear it," Normal said feigned interest as he spoke into the phone, "They want Stark in Forty-Two. Trying to make a statement, I suspect." He smiled to himself.

"The purpose of his hospitalization is to help him recover," Samson was saying, "and that is nearly impossible to do while he's being threatened by his fellow patients."

"Well try bringing it up with them once they've calmed down," Norman rolled his eyes.

"Commander Osborn," Hand's voice came through the inter-comm on his desk, "You, um, have a visitor, sir."

"Have to go, Samson. We'll talk later," he hung up on the doctor without waiting for a response. He pressed the button on the inter-comm, about to tell Victoria to send them in when the door to his office swung open.

Norman raised an eyebrow, looking over the red and silver, armor-clad figure standing in his doorway. It was a different suit, but Iron Man unmistakably.

"Can I help you?"

"Take me to see Tony Stark," the voice had the same filter as always, giving nothing away.

"And you are...?"

"Iron Man."

Norman gave an amused smile, "Tony Stark is Iron Man."

"Not any more."

"Evidently..." Norman walked from behind his desk and over to the armored figure, "You're registered, I assume. Let me see your ID."

"I'm here as a diplomat," the voice was steady, "I have immunity from the SHRA and you have no right to demand my identity."

"Diplomat?" Norman scowled, "For what country?"

"Germany. The German government considers Tony Stark's well-being a matter of international security."

"Where were you when he went missing then?"

There was a long pause. Norman smirked, apparently having struck something.

"We've decided that your handling of his disappearance was not satisfactory, thus we are offering our assistance."

"Your 'assistance' is not needed."

"We disagree."

Norman felt a vein in his forehead pound, "It'll take time to get everything in place to see him. A day at least."

"You're the head of H.A.M.M.E.R. Make it go faster."



---



Pepper couldn't bring herself to watch the news any more, especially when the reporters were standing outside her apartment building speculating on Tony's motives, sanity, and whether or not he was working with the Skrulls. Beyond being rude, it was tasteless, thoughtless, and it hurt far too much for her to even think about any more.

She lay on her bed, sheets pulled up around her shoulders. She couldn't concentrate enough to work. She didn't feel like watching a movie or reading a book or something else. Everyone else was preoccupied -- Rhodey was clearing his mind by hitting something, Maria was fighting for visitation, the Avengers were avenging she supposed, and Pepper was laying here feeling useless. So the only thing she could do was lay in bed until she fell asleep, even if it was five o'clock in the evening.

She wrapped herself tighter and buried her head into the pillow. She had run out of tears days ago. Two weeks. It had been two weeks since Tony...resurfaced. Almost five months since she had seen him last. She felt like she had failed him. She should have been there. She should have been able to prevent whatever had happened to him. They were stupid thoughts, but they kept streaming through her mind. She was the only one he had left and she failed him.

Her phone rang. It was probably Henry again -- he had called her every day since Tony had gone off the map, updating her, making sure she was okay. She wrestled with the sheets to get an arm free, then reached for her phone on the bedside table. Number unknown. Her brow furrowed. She pressed the button and put the phone to her ear.

"Hello?"

"Hello, Miss Potts," came a voice that was so formal it sounded almost British, "My name is Sydney. I am an AI constructed by Mister Stark to help the pilot of the Iron Man armor." Pepper shot up in bed, listening, "I'm calling to inform you that the pilot and myself have arranged to meet with Mister Stark in an hour and a half. We invite you to join us."

Pepper opened her mouth, but only a small noise came out. She closed it again, swallowed, and tried again.

"Yes," the words came spilling out now, "Yes, I'll be there -- meet you at the entrance, yes."

"We'll see you there then," the voice sounded almost amused.

The line went silent. Pepper sat there a moment, waiting in case there was more. When nothing else came, she pressed the 'end' button, tossed the phone aside on the bed, and scrambled to get up.

She knew she shouldn't be so trusting -- she didn't even know who this 'pilot' was or even if they existed really -- but she didn't care at this point. She had an in with Tony, and she would take it.


---


Pepper wasn't surprised that Tony had a back up plan. She was slightly surprised that he had chosen a new Iron Man, so to speak, without telling her, but however Tony's mind had been working in the past few months, it was understandable that he hadn't. She was immensely surprised by the armor itself. It was new, or at the very least a model she hadn't seen before -- almost like the Extremis armor, but sleeker and silver rather than gold. It was Tony's work, no doubt about it; she could see his hand in it. But when had he made it?

Iron Man nodded as they met eyes in the station. Pepper smoothed her blouse, squared her shoulders.

"Hello, Pepper," she recognized the voice filter as the one Tony had used, "I'll explain everything once we're in."

Pepper nodded in return and they began towards to gate that led to 42. It was a strange sensation, going through to the negative zone, like taking a bath in Alka-Seltzer after a long day, drifting in that not quite asleep state where you couldn't really feel your body. It was over in less than a minute, but the feeling lingered on her skin and in her mind.

The prison was far more massive that Pepper had imagined. She had expected for something that had been built in another dimension to have been small and conservative, but then she remembered that Reed Richards and Tony Stark were the designers and that explained away the city-like feeling from it - towering walls, white and stainless steel with no real ceiling in sight.

Doctor Samson was waiting for them in the apparent reception area when they got there. He smiled.

"I'm glad you could come," he turned to Iron Man, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to take off the armor before you can go in. Precaution. You can step over here to change."

He motioned to what Pepper assumed was a superhero coat room. Iron Man stepped in and the sound of the armor disassembling itself could be heard.

"Keep it safe, Sydney," a female voice came.

"Yes, ma'am."

Pepper blinked as a red-haired woman stepped out, dressed in slim-fitting, silver under armor. She noticed Doctor Samson raise an eyebrow. Neither commented on it. The woman smiled.

"All right, let's go."

The doctor nodded and started to lead the two women into the prison. They stopped to get visitor passes, then passed through three different security checks. Pepper's bag was searched and the two women went through metal detectors, magic detectors, x-rays. None of them spoke until they were standing in what Pepper would have called a freight elevator.

"I can't tell you much," Doctor Samson started, "Confidentiality. He doesn't know you're coming, so I haven't gotten a chance to clear the details with him." He paused to show his ID to a guard. He opened a thick door for the woman and waited until they were both through, "To give you the short version, he suffered a schizophrenic break that I believe was brought on by the reemergence of the Extremis enhancile. We've been able to control the symptoms with a dampening anklet, and we have Reed Richards and the woman who designed the Extremis working on a more permanent solution, however we still have to work with Tony's underline depression and guilt issues, plus the added trauma of his recent experience. It'll be slow progress," he turned to look at them, "but it will be progress."

Pepper smiled weakly, the news having unnerved her. The other woman's expression was solemn, brow creased, mouth turned down, but she said nothing.

"He's lost a lot of weight," he went on, "So don't be startled. He also seems to have a few issues with physical contact."

"'Issues'?" Pepper looked to him, confused.

Doctor Samson took a moment, as if trying to consider the best way to phrase it.

"He had trouble knowing who was real for such a long time, he became suspicious of everything."

Pepper swallowed, trying to calm her stomach. She nodded, sparing a glance at the woman beside her -- still looking straight ahead. Pepper suspected she was bracing herself.

"All right," the doctor stopped in front of a room, "Let me go in first, just to let him know what's going on."

He knocked, then opened the door and entered. Pepper could hear the two men speaking.

"I'm Beth, by the way," the other woman spoke finally.

Pepper blinked, "Beth Cabe?"

She smiled, "He talks about me, I guess?"

"Him and the entire Stark security staff," Pepper smiled, relieved to see that Tony still had someone besides herself and Maria, "You're like a legend down there."

Beth's smiled widened, but Doctor Samson called them in before she could say anything else. Beth motioned for Pepper to go first. She took a breath, then went into the room.

He looked slightly better than Pepper had been expecting, but then again she had been expecting famine-sickened kids in Africa. In all honestly, he looked in the same way as a cancer patient, except with all his hair -- it was obvious that he had lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time, and he had a grayish hue to his coloring. His hair was shaggy and far longer than he normally wore it and his clothes were much too big.

It reminded her of when he had come back from Afghanistan. She swallowed and smiled gently.

"Hey, Tony."

Tony seemed to have been sleeping before they came in. He had been rubbing his eyes when she called to him. His head shot up when he heard her voice. He blinked a couple times, looking thoroughly surprised.

"Pepper!" it was more of a yelp than a name. He sat up straighter, "Hi."

Pepper couldn't help but laugh, "Hi."

She walked in further. She wanted to hug him, but what Doctor Samson had cautioned made her settle with a hand on the shoulder instead. She felt Tony flinch and tense beneath her hand, but he didn't pull away. He smiled, though it looked like it pained him. She sat down next to him on the bed, putting her hands in her lap.

She knew the moment Tony had spotted Beth. His smiled faded and the surprise returned to his features.

"Beth..." he breathed.

"Hey there," she smiled.

"What are you doing here?"

Beth laughed. She threw out her arms, showing off the silver under-armor, "I got the package you sent me."

Tony seemed like he suddenly remembered, "Right," he gave her an apologetic look, "Sorry about that."

Beth's brow wrinkled, "Sorry?" she pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed.

"For putting that burden on you," Tony sighed, rubbed his eyes again, "I wasn't thinking. It was selfish of me."

"Selfish?" Beth raised an eyebrow, "For having a back up plan?"

Tony gave one of those smiles where you could tell he knew you were right, but still thought otherwise.

"Is it all running okay? The armor, I mean."

Beth nodded, "Sydney's handling the technical end of it all. He...he's got quite the personality, you know."

"Does he? I never got to see him develop..."

Pepper felt like a spectator, but not in the sense that she felt awkward. She hadn't been working for Tony then he and Beth were dating, but she had heard plenty of stories and knew Beth was the one that finally opened his eyes to his drinking. It was utterly refreshing to see Tony so relaxed around her -- around anyone really, because it had been so long since Tony could actually breath deep.

They talked about nothing in particular. Pepper told him about things he had missed, Beth about what she had been doing in the years since they parted ways. Tony listened, nodded, though commented sparsely. By the time Doctor Samson came back to get them, the three had been chatting for nearly three hours. They began to wind down their conversation, knowing they'd have to leave soon.

Beth stood, "Is...is there anything you want me to do? Iron Man-wise."

Tony shook his head, "Not in particular. Maria might have something for you to do," he paused, looking far off at that moment, "Just...be better at it than I was."

Beth gave him a kind smile, "That's a tall order, Tony Stark."

He gave another one of those smiles. Beth looked to Pepper now.

"I..." Pepper swallowed and gave her a smile, trying to think of a polite way to phrase what she wanted to say, "I'll be out in a minute."

Beth nodded, understanding that Pepper wanted to be alone for a moment. She gave a small wave to Tony, then went into the hallway.

Pepper turned back to Tony. He looked at her gently, like she was the one that was ill, not him. She couldn't hold herself together any more. The tears came all at once, coming from the very core of her body. She covered he face, embarrassed by herself.

"I'm sorry," she choked out, "I'm so sorry, Tony."

"Pep..." he said softly. She could feel him place a hesitant hand on her back, "This isn't your fault. None of this is your fault."

"I know," she laughed bitterly at herself, "I know, I just...could have done more."

Tony pulled her close, though she could still feel he was uncomfortable and tense from the contact. His lips were rough as he kissed her forehead.

"You were perfect, beyond perfect. You did everything right. It's me that's broken."

Pepper let out noise that was half-sob, half-laugh.

"We're working on it," Tony offered, attempting to make light of the entire thing.

Pepper smiled into Tony's chest. She sat back up and dried her eyes on the back of her hand. She sat there a moment, feeling foolish. Tony looked like he was in pain to see her like this. She felt horrible for making him see her this way. She gathered herself, taking a few deep breaths.

"I'll," she cleared her throat, "I'll try to visit as often as they'll allow, okay?"

Tony smiled, a real smile this time, "Okay."

Pepper nodded. She lingered a moment more, then got up. She said a final good bye, then went out to join Beth in the hall.

The other woman was leaning against the wall, Doctor Samson waiting with her. Pepper tried to make herself look like she hadn't just been crying, but she knew they could tell anyway. Beth placed a hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle smile as they began their way back to the entrance.

"So," Beth said after a moment, "Who's Maria?"


---


"Cabe?" Maria raised an eyebrow, looking the armor-clad woman over. That name sounded familiar. She tried to place it.

"She and Tony dated a few years back," Pepper offered, looking somewhat nervously between the other two women.

And then Maria placed the name -- Tony's emergency contact list, the disconnected number. Maria's eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest.

"So why are you showing up now?" she looked the woman in the eye, "Where were you before?"

"Maria..." Pepper tried to step in, but Cabe put up a hand.

"Tony and I...didn't end it on the best terms," Cabe returned Maria's look, "He was...going through something bad, something bigger than him, bigger than us. And I..." she made some kind of half-hearted gesture, "got scared."

Maria said nothing. She kept her gaze on Cabe, not wanting to be the first to back down.

"I love Tony," Cabe went on, "I always will. And it was stupid of me for not coming sooner, but that's what happened."

Maria raised an eyebrow. "So he gave you the armor?"

Cabe smiled, "If you want it, you can take it."

Maria faltered, "I don't want it!" she waved a hand, "I just don't understand why he would give to someone he hadn't spoken to in, what? Six years?"

Cabe kept the same smile on her face, "I suppose there's a lot of things about Tony you don't understand. Now, he said you'd probably have a mission or something for me, so let's try to get along."



---



"Let's talk about Steve."

"Aren't we supposed to talk about my mother?"

"If you want to, we certainly can."

Tony sighed, looking at Samson, unamused, "Why Steve?"

"You tell me, why Steve?" when that wasn't enough to prompt Tony to speak, Samson added, "You seem to have some kind of obsession with him at the very least."

Tony's face soured, "That's a bit of a strong word, isn't it?"

Samson looked at him over his glasses, "You had a reoccurring dream in which you shot him down and killed him, you brought him back from the dead, and you begged him and only him to kill you. Not to mention you twitch whenever I say his name."

Tony sighed again. He thought a moment, knowing Samson was right (even about the twitch).

"I look at him and I see all my failures. Everything I've ever done wrong."

Samson made a note, "The Registration Act?"

"Not just that," Tony's brow furrowed and he shook his head, "It's everything. My drinking, the Armor Wars, the Extremis, the destruction of the original Avengers, the break up of the New Avengers...He was there for all of that. And..." Tony hesitated.

"And?"

Tony let out a small, bitter laugh, "I just remember my father putting one of those old Captain America propaganda posters up on my wall. He pointed at it and looked me straight in the eye and said 'That's what real men are like.'"

Tony ran a hand over his face, "And, you know, I really did want to be like Captain America, or at least what I thought he was like. I thought I had done okay. I had become the man my father wanted me to be, and it wasn't until years later when I actually met him that I realized that man wasn't Steve.

"I'm nothing like him," Tony couldn't help but laugh, "He was everything I wasn't. I'd like to say the reality check made me better for it, but I think it just made me realize that I was every bit the failure my father always said I was."

"What do you mean he's everything you're not?"

"You look at him and you see everything good and pure and right. You look at me and see immorality and sin and failure..."

He paused for a moment before saying quietly, "The world has too many people like me. It needs more people like Steve."

"Is that why you brought him back?"

Tony paused, considering how much he wanted to say. It probably didn't matter; Samson would find a way to draw it all out of him eventually. But still, Tony chose his words carefully.

"One of the reasons, yes. He...he's my antithesis. He...helped keep me grounded. I lost sight of things after he died. I didn't have anyone to talk me down any more."

Samson looked at him for a moment. He raised an eyebrow, "He's your better half?"

Damn it, was he really that easy to read? Or was it just because Samson was trained to seek out and bring to light repressed emotions and aspects of character? Whichever, Tony felt damned stupid for trying to hide it.

"Yes, he was my better half."

Samson nodded, made another note, "So you felt this way before his death?"

Tony wasn't sure exactly what 'this' referred to -- the mythology of sorts he had created around Steve or his feelings for the other man. It didn't really matter because the answer for both was the same:

"Yes, though his death...intensified it."

Samson nodded again, wrote something again. He was writing still when he spoke next.

"Does Steve know how you feel about him?"

"No," Tony looked away from Samson, not liking the idea that his life could be so easily jotted down on legal ruled, "Not to my knowledge."

"Have you ever thought about telling him?"

Tony smiled humorlessly, "Once, but I advised myself against it."

"Why's that?"

"Because...because it changes things. You say that to anyone and they look at you differently, change the way they act around you. I just...I was okay with the way things were. I didn't want things to change."

"This is of course assuming that Steve didn't return your feelings."

Tony snorted, "Well, yeah, and chances are..."

"Are you always this pessimistic when it comes to your love life? Or is it just when you're attracted to another man?"

Tony blinked. He opened, then closed his mouth.

"I've...learned to put my guard up. In regards to various aspects of my love life."


---


Tony was honestly surprised when he was finally jumped. It happened when he was walking back from the lounge to his room. Three thugs Tony vaguely recalled busting a few months back; apparently they had some unresolved issued with him. They had managed to throw him to the ground and land a few hard kicks and punches to his torso and head before the orderlies ripped them off him. At least, he thought it was the orderlies until he opened his eyes and looked up dizzily to find a beautiful dark-haired woman in a golden mask looking down at him, blood on her knuckles.

"Hey, Whitney," he said hoarsely.

She offered him a hand up as security ran in, late as always. He took her offer of help and got stiffly to his feet, feeling bruises already forming.

"Fancy meeting you here," he smiled and could feel that his lip was slip.

As ever, she was hard to read. "You should be more careful," She said coolly, voice as smooth as that gold.

"Bah," Tony waved her off, though he felt the wounded and delicate skin on his shoulder tear as he did so, "My father always said getting beat up was a good way to build character."

He could tell she considered him a moment behind that mask, "And look where that's landed you."

Tony laughed though the comment struck as hard as one of those kicks. By now Samson had arrived and was trying to whisk Tony away to someplace theoretically safe. Everything had become fuzzy, he wasn't sure if it was the pain or because he had had some kind of insight at that moment. As he stumbled down the hall, Leonard's arm firmly around his waist to keep him standing, Tony couldn't help but think the three men had been somewhat justified in their actions, that Tony had deserved it. By the strict order of things, Tony had locked them away, and their revenge was understandable, reasonable. Tony couldn't hold it against them.

Samson sat him down on a bed and Tony realized he was back in his own room. A nurse had followed them, cotton swabs and bandages at the ready. Samson said something Tony couldn't hear -- ruptured eardrum? -- and rushed off somewhere looking angry. The nurse cooed soothing words and Tony tried not to flinch, not from pain but from contact.

It was troubling that he couldn't stand being touched any more. He hadn't even really realized how bad it was until he had tried to comfort Pepper that day. He wanted to hold her, to make her stop crying but he couldn't. He tried but it hurt him and he knew she could tell, only making it worse. He had screwed up on that too. But every time someone brushed against him, put a hand on his shoulder, he was reminded of Carol and Rumiko and Tiberius and how the hallucinations had touched, beat on him during those months, and he couldn't stand the contact any more.

The nurse asked him to remove his shirt, having to use hand motions since she assumed he couldn't hear her, and he did so. She made a small stifled noise when he peeled the fabric from himself. He looked down and saw ripening bruises in the shape of shoes and blood trickling down over the ribs that were made so prominent by his weight-loss. He looked at himself blankly, not even feeling like it was his own body he was staring at. He was numb, unable to feel his wounds, unable to care.

Samson was back. He saw Tony and made some angry cursing sound at no one. His Blackberry was still in hand, apparently having come from someplace where he got signal. It seemed like he was speaking to him, but Tony wasn't listening, couldn't hear, didn't care.

Tony had never really been able to stand the sight of himself, using mirrors out of necessity, to keep that sparkling playboy persona intact. He hated that there were images of himself everywhere and one of the few things he was grateful for after the invasion was that all those posters came down and those magazine covers disappeared. But now, he couldn't look away from himself as the nurse dabbed him with a warm wet cloth. It was something horrific to see but something real, something right.

"Tony?" Samson's voice was finally getting through to him, though it was muffled. He was leaning close to him, bracing himself on the wall behind Tony's head. Tony's eyes lazily drifted up to meet Leonard's.

"He might have a concussion," he said to the nurse. She nodded in agreement. Samson turned back to him, "Tony, we're going to have to take you for x-rays, all right?"

Tony nodded. It made his head swim, the thought that his eardrum was ruptured might not be far off. Samson nodded in return, looking more angry and frustrated than concerned at the moment.

The rush of everything began to fade off. He could feel himself again, feel the pain, feel the discomfort from the nurse's loving touch. He knew he should be scared or angry or outraged, like Leonard, but he couldn't bring himself to because he knew he deserved this. He deserved this and that was the part that frightened him.




---


"You're parents wouldn't let you register?"

"Right."

Tony pushed around his mashed potatoes again, wondering how the teenager managed to keep them down.

"Why not?"

Tomas swallowed a large bite before answering.

"Because they didn't want the neighbors to know their son was a freak." Tony raised an eyebrow, but the boy kept smiling, "It was bad enough I turned out the way I did, meta on top of that and they'd be shunned for the rest of their lives."

Tony looked at him in curiosity, "How'd you turn out?"

"Gay," Tomas stated bluntly before taking another bite. He swallowed before continuing, "And I listen to music other than country."

Tony snorted a laugh, "Where did they go wrong?" He let out a small sigh before continuing, "So, what do you do? Your powers."

Tomas seemed to think for a moment. In a split second, all the cabinets in the kitchen area swung open, startling the staffers and Tony. He raised an eyebrow, then looked back at Tomas.

"I can't really control it that well, so I try not to use it."

Tony nodded, "That's probably best." He watched the kitchen staff recover, "Anything else?"

"I can sort of...tell what people are feeling. Not thinking, but feeling. But it doesn't really work all the time."

"You're an empath."

Tony could tell there was excitement brewing under the surface in the boy.

"Is that what it's called?"

Tony nodded. This kid really didn't understand his own powers. He should be at Camp Hammond, not 42...if Camp Hammond existed any more.

"My parents always told me it was in my head," Tomas suddenly looked much older than he was and it startled Tony, "They denied it, told me to stop talking about it. Then I made the dog float," he grinned but it faded, "but that made them think I was possessed or something." He let out a quick sigh, then smiled once again, "But then I got arrested."

"I've never heard someone say that phrase so happily before."

"Well, it means that I get to register and go to the Initiative when I get out, right?"

Tony felt his stomach sink for the kid, "The Initiative was put to an end after the invasion. It was part of the Skrull's plans."

Tony watched as the boy's expression fell. It was like watching him deflate.

"Oh," Tomas said after a moment, smiling weakly, "Well...at least I get to register."

Tony sighed, looking away from the disheartened teenager. He ran a hand through his hair, brushing passed the lump he still had from when he had gotten jumped. He tried to think of something to say.

"Well, they're probably going to start something like it back up again. To comply with the Registration Act."

This didn't seem to cheer Tomas much. Tony sighed again, pushing his plate aside.

"How much longer are you in here?"

"Two years," Tomas said unhappily.

Tony wrinkled his nose. That seemed entirely too long for a kid who would have enthusiastically registered if given the chance.

"Well, in two years, I'll see if I can't get you an in with this psychic I know and she can help you develop your powers."

Tomas looked at him sceptically, "Really? You could do that?"

Assuming anyone would actually bother to speak to him when he got out. If he got out.

"Yeah, sure. I'm Tony Stark," as if that meant anything any more.

Tomas gave him a smile that told the kid wasn't buying a word of it.

"Thanks,"

"Yeah, no problem."


---


Leonard had told him Pepper was going to visit. Tony couldn't decided if he was excited or scared.

He wanted to see Pepper. He missed Pepper and Jarvis and everyone else and he wanted to see them and be with them badly, but he didn't want them to see him. He was still horribly underweight, making him look ghoulish. He still had bruises and cuts from the scuffle. His hair was frustratingly long because he couldn't get anyone to cut it for him (the only reason he didn't have a full beard was because they gave him a safety razor and stood there as he shaved then took the razor back). He felt truly like he hadn't made the slightest bit of 'progress' (their word) and he felt that if Pepper saw him like this still after all these weeks, it would only reinforce in her mind how pathetic he was. Or worse, she might give up on him and he'd never see her again.

Tony usually tried to avoid looking at himself in the mirror when he got out of the shower, but he had to make himself as presentable as he could -- lemonade out of lemons. He combed back his hair, annoyed how the tips curled at the base of his neck because of its length. He rubbed at a cut over his eyebrow, tried to get the crimson scab off but stopped when he realized it still wasn't healed completely. He looked over the rest of himself, bruised and skeletal. He wished the clothes they gave him here actually fit, then he might be able to look remotely decent; that way he could hide the fading greenish-yellow mark across his collarbone, that way he could maybe not look like a child that had gone rummaging through his father's horrifically bland closet.

He sighed, no longer able to stand the sight. He dried off a little more, throw on his robe, and went back to his room to get dressed.

Pepper arrived an hour and change later carrying a plain cardboard box. She looked amazing as ever, that simple beauty that was so uncommon, making her one of a kind in his eyes. Tony wanted to hug her, but he found that he still couldn't bring himself to. It was awkward and he cursed at himself mentally for not just getting over it. She set the box down on the table and Tony looked at it a minute.

"What's that for?"

Pepper giggled, "You of course."

"What? Is it a custom-made straight jacket or something?" he meant it as a joke. Pepper gave him a worried smiled.

"It's your birthday, Tony."

Tony blinked. He felt his stomach leap and his pulse speed-up as some form of embarrassment flooded over him.

"It is?"

"Yes," she laughed a little, though she looked more worried than before.

"I..." Tony swallowed. He had completely lost track of time in here -- not just the day of the month, but day and night as well. He did the math quickly in his head - he'd been admitted mid-September and his birthday was in the last week of October. He had been in here a month and a half and hadn't even realized, "Well, happy birthday to me."

This seemed to lighten Pepper a bit. She relaxed some, but he found he could not.

"It's from all of us," she explained, "Doctor Samson...limited us and I wasn't allowed to wrap any of them. But, you know, it's something."

Tony looked at it a moment more. Pepper laughed again.

"Well, go on, open it."

Tony blinked again, as if suddenly remembering that was one he was supposed to do with presents. He opened the flaps of the box. Inside was a stack of books, sticky notes labeling who they were from. He raised an uncertain eyebrow, looking to Pepper. She encouraged him to go on.

From Maria, there was a copy of Ben Urich's book, Legacy of Evil, a picture of Norman Osborn looking up from the cover. A book about women in politics from Beth. A sudoku workbook from Pepper. A copy of the complete Hitchhiker's Guide from Jarvis with a note commenting on the usefulness of the Guide while on the Skrull ship. An old, beat up high school science text book from the 70s that Peter must have stolen on his way out the door, labeled "Pure awesome" on the note. From Carol there was a history of female fighter pilots from World War II, complete with a few plane schematics. A book on the California club scene from Henry that would no doubt bring back memories both good and bad. He was surprised to find books from both Clint and Hank on hot rods and insect colonies respectively. Lastly, Tony pulled out an ancient, leather-bound copy of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur from Steve.

Tony didn't realize he was grinning until he looked back up at Pepper. And of the previous worry and tension had left them both completely.

"This," Tony look back at the stack of books, "This is fantastic, Pep. Thank you. Tell them all thank you for me."

Pepper nodded, smiling gently, "Of course. Beth was going to be here, but some mission came up. Maria and Jarvis are on some watch list. Henry's got his thing and I haven't heard from Rhodey and everyone else is unregistered..."

Tony shook his head, "It's okay. This is great. It'll actually give me something to do other than play poker for extra pudding cups."

Pepper laughed and he realized how much he missed that noise.

"It's be funnier if it wasn't true," he smiled, glad to see Pepper happy again.



---


"I realized something the other day."

Samson stopped taking notes. He looked up at Tony, interested.

"What's that?"

"I did this to myself," Tony punctuated it with a short laugh, "This is no one's fault but my own."

"Tony, I don't think that's a fair--"

"This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't injected myself with the Extremis," Tony said somewhat hysterically, "If I didn't have the Extremis, I...I could have actually been useful in the fight with the Skrulls. I could," he swallowed, "I could have been more reasonable with the Registration Act..."

"You'd also be dead," Samson said in an emotionless, matter of fact tone, "Maya told me the circumstances under which you injected yourself. It was the right choice given the situation. It helped you save lives, including your own."

Tony laughed a little, shaking his head.

"All right then," Samson adjusted himself in the chair, "Let's look at the good things the Extremis as done. It, evidently, ensures you a long life, it keeps you in...relative good health, it helps you operate the armor..."

"I don't think I want any of that any more," Tony's voice was quiet and he was looking past Samson.

"Why not?"

"Because I..." Tony paused, considering his words, uncertain if he really wanted to say them, "I feel like I haven't really been living the way I've wanted to live. I mean, I enjoy running the company even with all the troubles it's given me over the years, but it's not really what I wanted to do. Same with all of the parties and everything like that."

"The what is it you want to do?"

"I..." there was a big pause. Tony somehow felt stupid, childish, "I want to help people."

"That shrapnel in my heart was the best thing that's ever happened to me. It made me realize that there was more to life than just parties and drinking away my parent's money. Iron Man...Iron Man was my own personal savior, though I may have denied it at times. It really was the best thing that's ever happened in my life."

"And," Tony laughed bitterly, "and I even managed to screw that up. It became less about helping people and more about living up to some impossible ideal I had set for myself, about meeting the expectations others had for me. I...I lost sight of myself, of what Iron Man started out as. It all just spiralled out of my control."

"You can still help people, Tony," Samson said as he wrote something down. He looked up at him now, "It's not an unreasonable goal in life. You just need to help yourself first."

Tony laughed, smiling weakly, "Easier said than done."

"I don't think so. You're not beyond hope. It may seem...unreachable at this point, but it's really not. You've been shaken to your core and you may feel like you'll never gather yourself again, but you will. You've proven in the past that you're a die hard, no reason you aren't now.

"Now don't get me wrong: This will take time -- years possibly. It's not something that can be rushed and frankly it's dangerous to try to rush it. But it is possible for you to get to that point."

Tony said nothing. He gave another weak smile to Leonard, hoping he was right because Tony couldn't see it.


---


Tony stood up from the table, his fellow players throwing down their cards in disgust as he collected his winnings. He walked away with four extra pudding cups -- the only decent thing they served here, probably because they didn't make it themselves -- and headed over to a well-used couch. He tossed two of the cups to Tomas, who sat reading the copy of Hitchhiker's Guide Jarvis had given him. Tomas made a little happy noise when the cups landed in his lap.

"You're really good at poker," Tomas commented as Tony sat down next to him.

"Naw, I've just gotten really good at lying."

Tony noticed something green out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head and found Samson coming towards him.

"Afternoon, gentlemen," the doctor smiled at the both of them.

Tomas looked up from his book and blinked. He looked at Samson wide-eyed. Leonard seemed to notice. He held out a hand to the boy.

"I don't believe we've met. I'm Doctor Samson."

Tomas shook it, a look of wonder on his face, "You work here? That's awesome. I wish my therapist had rock star hair."

Tony laughed. Samson looked a little confused, but kept a smile on his face. He turned to Tony now.

"Can I speak with you a moment?"

"Yeah sure," Tony got up. He tossed the other two pudding cups at Tomas and started to walk with Leonard.

"How have you been?" Samson always started with that question, like he was testing the waters.

"All right," was Tony's general, noncommittal answer, "Not any worse."

"Well, I have some good news," Samson had lead him back to his room, motioning Tony to go in first.

"Actual good news or just like I"m finally getting a haircut good news?" Tony went and sat on his cot.

"Actual good news," Samson shut the door a bit. He came into the room, but didn't sit, "You're going home."

Tony stopped. He blinked, "I'm getting discharged?"

"No, you're going for...outpatient care, in a sense," Samson smiled at him, "I managed to argue to the board that you did immensely well after Pepper's visits, added to the fact that you're been under constant threat of bodily harm since you've gotten here. The board then argued to the Committee and the Committee has decided to make you a deal."

Tony was sitting up straight, full attention on Leonard, "What is it?"

"They are willing to let you continue the rest of your recover under house arrest provided three things," Samson paused, as if letting Tony brace himself, "You leave the state of New York, you continue at least twice weekly sessions with myself, and you agree to cease your work as Iron Man."

Tony swallowed, still watching the man standing before him. His mind churned over the information.

"Yeah," he nodded, "Yeah, okay."

"I know it's not the most ideal of conditions," Samson looked at him sympathetically, "But I do think you'll do better outside of here."

"Yeah, yeah," Tony nodded again, rubbing the back of his neck, "No, I," he cleared his throat, remembering how boyishly giddy he was when he sat down to flip trough the old science textbook after Pepper left, "I agree completely."

Samson nodded as well, "All right, I'll get in touch with Pepper and we can start making the arrangements. Do you have a place outside of New York where you can stay?"

"I've still got the place near Arlington," where he had lived while working as Secretary of Defense. It was the only personal property he held outside of New York any more, all the others having been destroyed by super-villains or sold during the collapse of the company. Only reason he kept it was because he'd been making frequent trips to Washington in the past few years.

"All right, anything else you want me to tell her? Special instructions?"

Tony shook his head, "She can do whatever she feels is necessary. I trust her."

"Okay," Samson smiled, "We'll try to get you out of here by the end of the week then."

Tony nodded. Tony thanked him and they said their parting words. Tony was left alone in his room. He let out a deep sigh. He could deal with those 'conditions' if it meant he'd be able to get himself together quicker. It was just a city. Just a suit of armor. Right?