Typhlosis • Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Void / Touch
Day 103 of the Alien-Human War
Unyielding pressure squeezed his skull as the thin helmet closed around his head, from the base of his skull to the bridge of his nose, covering everything from his eyes to the tops of his cheeks and above.
The sensation wasn’t completely new to him: Iron Man’s helmet design was snug, not leaving a whole lot of wiggle room. It was a safety feature more than anything, because room to move left room for impact, and impact led to physical trauma. The fact that Tony hadn’t broken his nose in all the years of wearing the armor was saying something about his foresight on that front.
Tony would have preferred some wiggle room when the pieces locked into place and the pressure against the stitches and implants grew to an almost unbearable level; it felt like the implants were being pressed into his brain – which might have been actually happening, considering the nature of the operation he had just gone through.
It was too soon, he knew that. He was supposed to be resting instead of crawling around the lab; he was supposed to be in a drug-induced coma, recovering from invasive surgery – not jumping the gun before any actual tests could determine whether the implants were a success or not.
The helmet tightened a fraction more, then stilled, and Tony wasn’t certain what he had expected. A lightshow? The thought drove an insane laugh out of him in a helpless burst of emotion that would have moved him to tears if that were possible. The idea that something could actually penetrate the darkness he had been caught up in for almost two months was absurd.
That was why he was here, though, with his head stitched, implants connected to his brain, wearing a helmet that was starting to border on extremely painful.
He had hoped and prayed – and then he had trusted the others, allowing their faith to overcome his own judgment of what was possible. Tony had liked the math because he craved an end to the darkness more than anything. To be able to live his life – or at least choose how he would die if the war ended badly for mankind.
Had his desire to overcome this obstacle become so strong that he was willing to overlook what was essentially a leap of faith? Theory and practice were never the same – not unless he himself could prove otherwise. Tony had never allowed anyone to finish something he could finish himself…
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke in his ear, jarring him painfully out of his chaotic thoughts, “I am commencing remote calibration. I apologize in advance: it may feel unpleasant.”
“More than how it already feels?” Tony challenged and tensed, preparing for something worse.
As he waited, he grew aware of a trickle down the back of his neck. Whether it was sweat or blood, he didn’t know; he was feeling hot and cold all at once, dreading pain, wanting it to be over, but nothing was happening. Perhaps J.A.R.V.I.S.’s calculations were erroneous, starting from something small the AI couldn’t have comprehended and causing an anomaly in everything that followed it, rupturing the entire system –
Lights burst into life in front of him, making Tony actually yell in surprise – and in response to the hot stab of pain that followed. It was bright for one second before everything plummeted back to pitch-black the next. Shapes twisted, time and time again, as if he were watching a program load, arranging itself layer by layer on the screen, but it wasn’t a screen that he was seeing but an image directly fried into his brain, past his optic nerves. Tony hadn’t thought it would feel different but it did, and his hands shot out to the floor, fingers clenching, trying to hold on, to ground himself.
His brain was on fire. The longer it went on, the more a part of him hoped that whatever was happening would cause an uncontrolled bleed and he would die quickly, peacefully, not knowing it was happening.
There were moments when he wasn’t sure he felt the floor beneath him anymore; even longer seconds passed when he wasn’t certain he knew how much time was actually passing. He wanted to sag down to the floor but was afraid to move: J.A.R.V.I.S. was connecting to his brain, and any extra thought or command could disrupt what the AI was currently doing.
Including every thought, breath, heartbeat…
“Fuck,” Tony murmured, trying not to speak but needing to ground himself – to distract his mind from the inevitable panic. The burning sensation, like someone had just put extra pressure on every blood vessel in his head, continued on, and imminent death seemed all the more likely.
The twisted lightshow continued for a while, making his stomach twist. Finally, though, it eased up, dimming slightly, then began to take on more straightforward forms. It felt like someone was adjusting a camera, the image changing from simple lines to blurred areas that followed the same shapes. It seemed almost flat, as if looking at a screen again, which was making Tony’s stomach do a different kind of twisting knot.
He wanted to tell J.A.R.V.I.S. to turn it off – that he would rather be in the darkness – then suddenly the entire image pulsed, giving it a sudden 3D shape.
“The implants are online, sir: current versions of wire frame, infrared and sound propagation are all operational and functioning. The colors and shades are still far from desired optimums but fine-tuning must wait: we are losing the battle outside, and you must leave the premises.”
Tony tilted his head. The image had settled, but he could hardly call it ‘vision’ at this point because it made very little sense to him. “I don’t… I’m not sure it works,” he confessed.
“Nothing suggests a malfunction,” J.A.R.V.I.S. argued. “It may take some getting used to…”
“I don’t understand what I’m seeing!” Tony snapped, reaching out to see if that would help, and the moment he caught sight of what was possibly his hand, he froze. “J, the image is upside-down.” And, coming to realize that, it felt like his stomach tried to drop from its place in order to compensate for the immediate sensation of hanging upside-down – which he wasn’t, obviously, but fooling his brain into thinking that was another thing entirely.
“Ah,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said in his ear, and just like that the image righted itself – alongside Tony’s stomach.
He sagged a little on the floor, feeling strange relief course through him. His head still burned with waves of pain, but it was better now, making him assume the worst was over. Perhaps Extremis was taking over…
Knowing he should, technically, be able to see that now, Tony looked down at his hands. The implants adjusted the sight, from frames to a more accurate picture, and indeed, bright lights were traveling across him. He could even detect the lines beneath his clothing, and then saw something much darker, cooler, deep beneath him. He wanted to squint – which no longer had the actual effect of seeing better – and kept trying to figure out what it was…
“Sir,” the AI prompted again. “Please stay focused.”
Tony tore his gaze away from the floor and his own body, trying to map out the room instead. He saw objects, hundreds of them, his brain attempting to comprehend what they were from what it already knew of the world: walls, doors, tables, chairs, computers, a broken pipe dripping water that was significantly cooler than the temperature of the room, the shards of glass reflecting the light, small items here and there…
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. tried again. “Could you please try to stand up? It might take a while for your body to grow used to it.” Tony knew the AI didn’t mean standing in and of itself, but the fact that his inner ear and the sensory system of his body had to grow used to this new method of seeing.
It was entirely possible he was in a light state of shock when he pushed himself up on his knees, keeping his focus on the opposite wall, trying not to think too much about the fact that he automatically tried to see through the wall, into the pipes and wiring that ran inside it, the temperature changes giving him an unnaturally informed view on what lay in front of him. It was easy to get lost in it – so lost that when he finally managed to get upright, he ended up back on his knees, hard, because it felt like gravity was pulling him to the side and his body had no idea how to compensate. “Fuck,” he mused again, knees aching from the fall.
“Slowly, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. encouraged him.
“I realize that, thanks,” Tony replied with a sharp edge to his words as he knelt again, then carefully began to put his feet under him.
“Take your time.”
“I thought you said we’re in a hurry?” Tony remembered, vertigo nearly robbing his feet from under him again. He wanted to throw up.
“The battle is not going in our favor. I’m bringing Mark 50 towards you as we speak.”
Tony nodded, unsure whether J.A.R.V.I.S. could see it but knowing he didn’t need to respond verbally. His hips kept twitching from side to side, his arms wide, trying to keep him from falling. Finally, when he felt like he got it, he curled his fingers into tight fists and took a tentative step forward, knowing that could be a deal-breaker.
His balance was far from perfect, but he could actually see where he was going – like where the floor was in relation to the rest of the room, no matter how much his sight tried to slip past concrete and into whatever lay beyond it. His heart beat faster with excitement and a smile of triumph, relief and joy pulled at his lips, impossible to keep at bay. “I’m so proud of you,” Tony confessed.
“Thank you, sir. It was my pleasure.”
Tony didn’t doubt that, knowing what J.A.R.V.I.S.’s primary function was. Their teamwork had changed over the years, after Tony became Iron Man and J.A.R.V.I.S. followed him to the battlefields in the armor. After all this time, though, the AI hadn’t forgotten that the original purpose for his existence was to help Tony, and J.A.R.V.I.S. had pulled through in Tony’s greatest time of need. There were very few words that even came close to describing how that made Tony feel – and the beautiful part of it was that J.A.R.V.I.S. already knew.
Day 43 of the Alien-Human War
You chirped up ahead. Whether the sound signaled trouble, an encouragement or a simple status report, Tony didn’t know. His fingers remained clenched around Dummy’s arm, the continuous sound of the bot’s wheels rolling across the tunnel floor a thread he kept following with an iron determination.
Two hours ago the partially destroyed Mark 48 had pulled itself up from the floor and blasted the three armored aliens with all the artillery it had. What Tony remembered of the brief battle, aside from his own screams of pain, was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s command in his ears to get out.
Tony hadn’t been able to move – not even when the bots came back out and dragged him to the exit tunnel in the basement. He had stopped screaming by then, and Dummy had brought him a strip of fabric that he had tied tightly over his eyes, to resist the urge to touch the injury he couldn’t see or assess.
Above them, Mark 48 had self-destructed and taken out the enemies – alongside with half the building, which J.A.R.V.I.S. apologized for when the door was firmly sealed behind them, leaving only the tunnel, the bots, and the AI’s soothing voice in his ears. “The Avengers have been alerted to your situation, sir,” the AI had said. “They are on their way.”
After almost two hours of walking, depending on Dummy to guide him and to carry half his weight whenever Tony felt like giving up and collapsing to the floor, he wasn’t certain whether anyone was coming for him. He wasn’t sure he cared.
“Are you sure she’s gone?” Tony finally asked, refusing to take another step before he knew for sure. They had to be close to the other end of the tunnel by now, which meant he would lose his connection to J.A.R.V.I.S. because he had lost his earpiece somewhere in the middle of the fight.
“Yes, sir,” the AI responded, sounding truly sorry. “She was knocked unconscious during the first blast, and the second killed her instantly.” Silence followed the statement, only soft whirs from the bots audible in between Tony’s shaky breaths. “It wasn’t your fault, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. finally dared to say.
“Let’s… not go there.”
If his eyes hadn’t felt like they had just been melted right out of his skull – which was entirely possible, and Tony didn’t want to think about that – he would have cried.
He wanted to shout, but his lungs were too busy supplying his body with oxygen in order to keep him moving.
So, he sat down instead, hugging his knees, hearing Dummy move now and then next to him. He envisioned the bot’s hesitant movements, the urge to touch him, to comfort him, and finally Tony gave in and reached out, finding the bot’s body, holding onto it desperately. A sob escaped him, and in between the crushing guilt, disbelief and pain, he wished things had ended differently today – even if it had meant no one walking out of his home.
“Sir, you should keep moving. You are almost out of the tunnel.” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice was filled with patience but no pity. The AI could strip any such emotions and focus on what was important.
“Next time I build a safety tunnel, remind me to make it shorter,” Tony groused, not getting up just yet.
“The length of the tunnel was calculated for the maximized safety of those using it to evacuate from the premises.”
Tony knew that – knew the math, because he had spent hours at it while debating how to make things better the next time he got attacked in his own home. None of it had mattered: Pepper had been gone in a blink of an eye, taken from him before he could even realize the danger they were in.
They had both believed they were safe.
Tony should have known better: he should have been able to protect her, to get her in the suit and off the premises.
She shouldn’t have just died like that…
“Sir, please,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pleaded again, trying to prompt him into action.
Tony rested his head back against the smooth, cool wall behind him. The sudden tilt made him feel like acid was being poured down his nasal cavity and into his throat, and he wished that were true – that his insides would melt and leave nothing for anyone to find when they finally came looking for him.
Dummy shifted, the three claws curling around Tony’s arm at the elbow, tugging at him; the bot would have had enough strength to drag him forward, away from the wall, and Tony let out an angry breath, striking out blindly. The bot let go.
For a few seconds Tony just breathed, hard, seething and trembling. Once the moment passed, he seemed to realize for the first time that the darkness was overwhelming, all-encompassing and impenetrable. There was nothing but the void, sucking him in, reminding him of outer space.
A panic attack was the last thing he needed, but then he heard the bots, both of them, coming closer and touching him, a physical thing in the darkness – something for him to grab onto and not let go, to keep him from drifting away and sinking in too deep.
The bots moved, eventually, and Tony moved with him: up to his feet, stumbling and swaying, a throbbing pain trapped inside his skull. A bite of acid still splashed around his eye-sockets. If Extremis was doing something about the damage, it wasn’t working.
Tony denied the wave of fear the thought brought with it, telling himself not to think of it now.
He thought of Pepper instead; the last feel of her body against his, the comforting touch; a request to find a few mementos to take with them… All the things she had collected were still there, in the house. Scattered and broken after the explosion, left behind just like her body.
Tony stopped. The bots followed his lead too slowly and he let go of them, even though that left him with nothing but the floor beneath his feet. “We need to go back,” he said. “We need to get her – get Pepper.”
“Sir, you need to keep moving forward.”
“I can’t leave her!” he shouted, angry and afraid. Alone.
“You have to. She wouldn’t want you to go back there.”
He hated J.A.R.V.I.S.’s cold logic. He hated how he hadn’t taken more time to teach the AI the concept of loss and love – or maybe he had, but J.A.R.V.I.S. knew better than to deploy them now.
Or maybe the AI was responding with all the cold reason and love the situation deserved, for there was no way Tony would actually find his way back, much less find her body in the ruins of the building. He could dig around until his hands bled, and it was entirely possible she was no longer there…
“Once the Avengers arrive, I will request that they go look for her body.”
Tony supposed that had to be good enough.
Dummy moved over to him so that Tony could once more find the bot’s body and allow it to lead him on. After a short while, he began to experience a cool breeze against his face, and although he heard nothing but their own movements for the time being, he knew they were getting close.
You led them out of the tunnel, chirping loudly.
“Sir…” J.A.R.V.I.S. started, voice fading a little already. “The bots will keep you safe until the Avengers arrive.” It wasn’t a goodbye, but it felt like one.
Tony’s legs shook as he felt the terrain change from smooth floor to uneven earth. His steps shortened, dragging more, and he wished Dummy could somehow tell him if he was going to walk into a tree or a puddle.
You rolled closer after a bit, the sound different in the short grass Tony thought he was feeling beneath his feet. A dry stick snapped under the bot’s wheel, and then a cool metal arm brushed against Tony’s hand, making him jump a little before he felt out You’s body and used it as additional guidance to keep himself from tripping over anything.
He stumbled an embarrassingly high number of times, no matter how slowly the bots went. A few times Tony attempted to resume a normal walking pace, hoping that would keep him from hesitating so much, but he ended up falling down, hitting his knee on a rock and almost getting run-over by Dummy.
Slow and steady it was, then.
The wind began to pick up, making it harder to hear what was happening around him. Every little sound threw him off, his mind trying to conjure its origin. In the open space, he could no longer hear his own breaths – a sound that had become almost like a comfort in the confined space of the tunnel. He hadn’t thought he would miss the labored sound; at each noise around them he expected the aliens to come back, to attack, and there wasn’t a single thing he could do to fend them off.
Perhaps it could have been counted as a mercy killing…
The aliens didn’t come, though.
Tony thought he heard a few restless birds taking off, and the ground turned less grassy and solid: he heard trees in the wind and knew the bots were taking him into the woods, which wasn’t a bad idea, seeing as trees would provide them with shelter and cover from possible enemies.
It also made Tony’s blind steps more hesitant as roots tried to trap his feet and gave even the bots some trouble.
“We should stop,” Tony suggested after a bit. “We’re far enough. The others won’t find us if we get lost in the woods.”
The bots beeped and stopped. Either they believed him, or they didn’t know what to do, either.
Tony crouched down, feeling around and finding himself a relatively comfortable place to sit. The bots settled near him, making sounds every now and then. The wind picked up for a while, and when it stilled, Tony could hear the ocean, far away. He imagined the faint itches on his hands and ankles were ants and other insects crawling up his skin, but the warm waves that passed through him suggested that Extremis was hard at work. How the heat wasn’t centered in his head, he didn’t know, and it filled him with a quiet despair he tried to suffocate before it got a chance to grow.
He tried to think of nothing, which never worked for him; ‘nothing’ came with a craving to drink, which was also impossible, giving the circumstances.
He felt like an animal, bound to a pole at the end of a short rope, circling the pole over and over again until he felt dizzy, never allowed to stray far from it – not allowed to burrow too deeply into why his eyes and head wouldn’t stop burning with a pain that seemed almost dull after all this time, or to think of losing Pepper. A short leash ensured that his fears and regrets didn’t take over and push him over the edge.
It had to be hours later when he heard the wind pick up more violently, shortly followed by the sound of familiar Quinjet engines. Not for a second did he mistake it for an enemy aircraft, and he was proud of himself for making that distinction.
The sound dragged on longer than he thought necessary. Weren’t they going to land? Were they going to leave, assuming that the destroyed house meant he was dead?
Finally the engines slowed down and grew silent, signaling a safe landing.
He didn’t hear the ramp being lowered, but there was some distance between him and the Quinjet, or so he thought, and he wasn’t sure where exactly they had landed in relation to the house, the tunnel exit and Tony’s current whereabouts.
“Tony!” Thor’s voice bellowed, loud enough to scare several birds into flight. It startled Tony, too, even though he had half-expected the call.
Another voice snapped something, less distinct, and Thor didn’t shout again. Fear filled Tony suddenly, imagining how he would be left here, alone. He didn’t think it would happen, but once the thought entered his mind, it was hard to get rid of it. So, he scrambled to his feet, scraping his back against the tree he had been leaning against, then desperately sought out one of the bots for support when he almost tipped over and fell down.
Staying upright was hard. He wanted to call out to the others but couldn’t, feeling small and fragile all of a sudden – and completely lost. While he had just recently been confident that he knew which way he had come, the struggle to get to his feet had drained him and he had suddenly lost all sense of direction.
Desperately, he tried to regain his bearings. The fact that he couldn’t see with or without the strip of fabric tied over his eyes was messing with his brain in the worst possible way.
He swallowed, trembling, and took a step. Half his foot landed on solid ground, while the rest was unbalanced by something that could have been a rock. It threatened to twist his ankle, and although he had already walked this far, he suddenly felt surrounded by obstacles – all of which lay between him and his team.
“Tony!” Another call rang out. A gust of wind tried to rob it from his ears, amplifying the terrors in his mind.
“Here!” he finally called out, the sound weak even to his own ears, and he wished, again, that he could cry. It was perhaps better he could not, but he was past caring – past being brave and strong.
Dummy let out a sharp whistle, and Tony heard something coming towards him. He prayed it was one of the Avengers, but either way his fingers tightened around You’s arm and he braced himself for a fight, because obviously flight wouldn’t work very well in his current situation.
“Found him!” someone – Clint, it had to be Clint – called loudly. Even with the wind and the rustle of leaves and twigs, Tony was convinced it was the archer. Still, his posture didn’t relax, fearing something worse.
“I’ve got J.A.R.V.I.S. on the line,” Bruce’s voice chimed in, coming closer as he spoke.
“About time,” Clint stated, closing in on Tony as well.
“The destruction of the house must have knocked out some of his servers,” the scientist replied.
Tony supposed that was possible, although J.A.R.V.I.S. had still been functioning in the exit tunnel. The AI was capable of prioritizing, though.
“Where’s Pepper?” Natasha’s voice called out of the darkness, making Tony jump at the suddenness of it: he hadn’t heard a third set of steps – not that he would have expected to, normally, but normally he could at least see her approach.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. is requesting that you not ask that question right now,” Bruce mused. The connections had to be failing if only he was talking to the AI, and Tony grew frustrated at not knowing what was happening.
“You okay, Stark?” Clint asked, moving closer still. “You, uh…”
Tony waited, but the archer didn’t go on.
“Let me see,” Bruce stated, too quickly for it to come totally out of the blue: if he was talking to J.A.R.V.I.S., he must have just been informed of the extent of Tony’s injuries. “I’m just going to step over and take a look, okay?” he went on, and Tony wondered to whom Bruce was talking, him or the bots.
“Are the aliens gone?” Tony asked, just to be sure.
“Thor and Cap went to check on that,” Natasha replied.
Tony nodded, then jumped as he felt fingers on his skin, cool as ice. He brought his hands up, to keep them from touching him, and the bots let out a series of sounds, clearly picking up on his distress.
“It’s okay,” Bruce said, voice tight but calm. “It’s me. It’s just me, touching your face. Can I remove the cloth from your eyes?”
Tony stilled, breathing hard. “Yeah,” he finally agreed, forcing his hands to move down and let Bruce reach behind his head to undo the knot. “Your fingers are fucking cold,” he complained.
“That’s because you’re burning up,” Bruce replied. He started to tug off the fabric and it caught a little at the corners of Tony’s eyes. Bruce stilled, or at least stopped tugging. “Clint, give me some extra light here,” he ordered.
While it shouldn’t have surprised him, Tony didn’t see the light. He saw nothing at all.
Bruce slowly pried the fabric loose from his skin, and Tony heard someone suck in a breath suddenly.
“Fucking hell,” Clint hissed in obvious sympathy. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Hold it in and hold the light steady,” Bruce snapped. Tony wondered if he was going to go green because this wasn’t a good time for it. Tony slowly reached out and tried to locate Bruce’s arm with his hand in order to give him a reassuring pat. He landed on the man’s chest instead, which was a little awkward, but one of Bruce’s hands covered his almost instantly, squeezing hard. “It’s going to be okay, Tony,” he promised. “Extremis is working, I can see it is.”
“Yeah?” Tony asked, voice small again, like someone was squeezing his throat. He couldn’t feel it, not really – just the lingering burn of the acid.
No verbal answer came at first, but it was followed by a weird breath on Bruce’s part. “Yes,” he said, resolutely. Tony guessed he must have just given him a reassuring look, maybe a nod – only to realize Tony couldn’t see it.
“What did they do to you?” Natasha asked. She sounded odd, like it wasn’t really her.
“Poured something into my eyes,” Tony replied. It didn’t bother him or put him in a bad place. That, strangely, hadn’t been the worst of it; the continuous darkness was what was getting to him, and the helplessness that came with it. “They killed Pepper,” he added, in case J.A.R.V.I.S. hadn’t told them that yet. “She… We didn’t…” He swallowed, feeling faint. “I couldn’t save her,” Tony admitted, and it was like they had just lost the entire war. He didn’t care about that right now. If he couldn’t save Pepper, how did they expect him to save the whole goddamn world?
Natasha murmured something, her words unintelligible as if she had turned away from him and was doing it on purpose.
“They’re looking for her,” Bruce translated, most likely meaning Thor and Steve – and let go of Tony’s hand and turned slightly away from him, prompting Tony to remove his hand from Bruce’s person.
Tony nodded in agreement to Bruce’s statement, thankful as he stood there, then heard something open – a bag – and something like plastic being torn.
“I’m going to cover your eyes again,” Bruce warned just before he did, and this time Tony was prepared for the touch. It wasn’t soothing, but he let it happen.
“Let’s move,” Clint suggested after Bruce had fastened the new blindfold in place.
“We should get him to medical as quickly as possible,” Bruce decided.
No one disagreed, even when Bruce had suggested he could see Extremis was trying to repair Tony’s injury. Tony tried to force himself to not read too much into it; at this point, it would do him no good to speculate. He had kept his fears on a short leash until now, and he could keep doing that a bit longer.
“Let’s go,” Bruce said before his voice dropped, implying hesitation. “How do you want to do this?” he asked, clearly directing his words at Tony.
“What?” Tony asked. “Walking?” he guessed. “One foot in front of the other seems to work.” The joke was weak, devoid of energy.
“Do you need someone to guide you?” Clint asked, voice crisp.
“You’d better guide yourself back to the Quinjet and get it prepped for take-off,” Tony snapped back at him, feeling like he was finally getting some of the acid out of his system by flaring his temper. “I got this far,” he added. “I’ll be fine.”
No one replied, but he heard at least two people taking off. He suspected it was Clint and Natasha, but he had no way of knowing it, and since he hadn’t heard Natasha arrive, it was possible the second pair of footfalls was Bruce’s.
He felt alone, all of a sudden; left behind and abandoned. It was nothing less than what he deserved, but it filled him with uncertainty. “Dummy, You,” he called out, and instantly heard the rustle of their approach. They hadn’t gone far, and both brushed against his hands, to make it easier for him to locate their arms and grip them for support. Of course, no path in any forest was wide enough for that, so You moved up ahead after Tony had barely taken two steps, selecting the route while Dummy kept guiding Tony along.
Tony’s ears picked up the words of Clint talking to someone else: “Are you sure he doesn’t need any help?”
“Let him do it his way,” Natasha replied.
“He’s slowing us down,” Clint retorted.
“Prep the Quinjet,” Bruce ordered, sharper than was necessary – also letting Tony know that he hadn’t left his side with the others. The sudden appearance of his voice alarmed him somewhat, but Tony tried not to show it, focusing on staying upright.
If he had stumbled on his way into the forest, it seemed You had selected an even more difficult path this time. It was also possible Tony’s focus was off, or that he was getting tired of the shuffle-collide-lift-shuffle routine, doing a lot more tripping than was necessary.
“Tony…” Bruce started after a bit, keeping up with him – or rather, lingering, because he could have walked circles around Tony at the pace he was going.
“I’m fine,” Tony told him.
“You’re not, and as well as you’re doing on your own, it’s not necessary.”
“What are you suggesting?” Tony asked. “Want to carry me?”
“No, but I think Steve’s debating it.”
Tony stopped, swaying on the spot. Dummy kept rolling for a few inches before stopping and rolling back to his side, letting out a questioning beep. “Steve?” Tony asked, uncertain whether he had heard right.
“You’re injured,” a familiar voice joined their discussion, from somewhere ahead of him. “Badly,” Steve added, as if the situation called for it.
Tony felt like telling him not to sneak up on a blind person, as he had just done, but his heart wasn’t in the accusation. “I’m healing as we speak. Ask Bruce,” he motioned in the general direction of where Bruce possibly was, according to his hearing, then realized his pointing might have been totally off regardless of that. “Wherever he is,” he muttered.
“Doesn’t mean you have to stumble around in the dark,” Steve dismissed flatly.
“I can’t see, so what difference does it make to me that it’s dark outside?!” Tony snapped – yelled, probably, because he scared a few more birds into flight from the trees above. Why they kept coming back in between an alien attack, explosions and Thor bellowing into the night, he didn’t know.
Steve didn’t answer. Tony hoped he’d left, gone back to the Quinjet to sulk, but then he could smell him, the uniform and an aftershave Tony had picked out for him last Christmas. “I’m sorry,” Steve apologized. He had to know it was a better tactical approach not to argue with Tony right now, especially when Tony was right – which he usually was; no point arguing otherwise.
“Did you find her?” Tony asked, wanting to change the subject. Of course, the jump from I can’t see to I failed to protect her wasn’t exactly ideal.
“Yes,” Steve replied, not needing to explain whom he meant. “Thor wrapped her in his cape, took her to the Quinjet. We’ll… take her home,” he finished, hesitating a little, as if wondering where Pepper would want to be buried.
Tony nodded, the motion hard-wired into him even when he couldn’t see if there was someone watching him do it, and his legs felt weak, suddenly. “Okay. I’ll just… I think I need a break,” he said and sagged to the forest floor. Dummy let out a beep, then suddenly moved away. “Hey!” Tony called after the bot. “I just need a break, not a…”
A hand pressed down on his shoulder, suddenly. He knew it was Steve – had to be Steve, because the touch was firm and certain in a way Bruce’s would have been hesitant, and they were the only other two around. “I’m sorry,” Steve murmured, then maneuvered his arm under Tony’s armpits and his other arm beneath Tony’s legs, lifting him up before Tony could so much as shift and realize he was actually being picked up.
“We didn’t agree to this,” Tony argued, trying to get down, but he still felt weak and his body was relaxing into Steve’s hold despite his best efforts to protest.
“I’ll take full responsibility,” Steve replied, and if it was meant as a joke, no one laughed. Tony felt him walk, navigating them past trees so that not a single branch touched Tony on the way out into the open. He smelled fuel once they neared the Quinjet, and a new fear bloomed in his chest.
His hand tightened on Steve’s shoulder – or, well, he aimed for his shoulder but ended up squeezing him way closer to his neck. “We have to take the bots with us,” Tony said quickly, straining to hear if they were rolling in the grass near him.
“You is already boarding the Quinjet,” Bruce informed him from somewhere to his right. “Apparently he likes driving up and down the ramp.” The fact that Bruce said ‘he’ made Tony’s chest clench in gratitude. “Dummy is beside us; I think he’s giving Cap the evil eye, just in case it looks like he’s going to drop you.”
“I won’t,” Steve promised.
Dummy let out a sound that could only be described as skeptical.
“He’s a national hero; he won’t drop an injured person,” Tony told his bot.
Steve chuckled, the sound hollow, and for the first time Tony took a moment to notice that the hold the super soldier had on his body was desperate rather than overly cautious. Not because he was going to drop him, probably, but…
Tony didn’t know why, but the way that Steve breathed out when Tony laid his head against his shoulder, dead-tired all of a sudden, had hidden messages written all over it. Problem was, Tony couldn’t see – or read – them right now, and all he could do was wait this out and perhaps bring it up later.
Not that he was sure he wanted to.
to be continued…