Typhlosis • Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Serenity / Grief
Day 104 of the Alien-Human War
Tony was positively vibrating in the aftermath of the battle. However, when several hours had passed and the adrenaline rush had transformed into regular twitches and prolonged episodes of shivering, there began to be cause for concern.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Rhodey asked him. He was standing in front of Tony, who was seated on top of a sturdy table. All around them people were moving hastily, hauling gear and guiding the last of the people towards the remaining transports. The rest of the battle had been hard-fought and could be barely counted as a win, but they were alive and managing a fairly organized retreat while the aliens had taken off for the time being.
Tony cocked his head. He was out of the armor but still wearing the thin helmet. His mind had taken its sweet time to adjust from the HUD-view back to helmet mode, but he was starting to visually comprehend the things that happened around him. Regardless of that, the twitching and shivering bothered him somewhat – not to mention a steady burn increasing in his head once again.
“I’m fine,” Tony shrugged.
“Actually, you’re not,” Bruce’s voice chimed in and Tony turned his head instinctively although his wider-than-usual vision had already tracked his approach. “J.A.R.V.I.S. just handed me a new batch of calculations. You need to take the helmet off immediately.”
“Why?” Tony asked and jumped to his feet, forcing Rhodey to retreat a couple steps. “You’re not serious,” he added, because they had all waited for this day for so fucking long it physically hurt him to think of it, and… “I won’t go back to the darkness!” he snapped, in case it wasn’t clear.
Bruce gave him a look. His body heat rose briefly, then lowered again. “The helmet is placing extra stress on your brain,” the scientist started, showing him something – a tablet. Tony squinted at the screen – an automatic reaction he had almost gotten rid of when it hadn’t done him any good for the last few hours, but he could see again even if it wasn’t with his own eyes…
It took the vision implants a moment to adjust to seeing what the screen was showing him. He noted an image of his brain, probably live-feed, and beside it some diagrams of recent activity. They were alarmingly high.
The sound that escaped him wasn’t a whine or a sob but cut pretty close. “Fuck,” he finally decided and closed his eyes beneath the helmet.
“Prolonged usage of the current version of the implants will lead to an overload,” Bruce supplied unnecessarily – or maybe he was explaining it to Rhodey, who was taking a look at the tablet’s screen as well.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Rhodey mused and laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Take it off. It’s not worth it, at this point.”
Tony nodded and reached up, slowly unlocking the helmet from around his head. He felt the disconnection instantly and darkness swallowed him up without a warning. Of course he had expected it, but it was still a shocking change after the last few hours.
“Let me take it,” Bruce offered, and Tony let go of the helmet when he felt someone tugging on it. He was reluctant to let it go, fearing the others wouldn’t let him use it again, knowing the risks. However, he had been doing just fine while in the fight, so with regulated periods of usage, it should be okay. All he needed to do was run some tests with J.A.R.V.I.S., maybe look into making some improvements…
“Hey,” Rhodey murmured, nudging him lightly. “This was a big step forward, right?”
“Yeah,” Tony said, then grinned because as brief as it had felt like and as hard as it had been to comprehend the implants’ feed, he was so happy words could barely describe it.
“Let’s get cleaned up,” Rhodey suggested, placing his hand next to Tony’s as a hint. “We’re moving out soon, and who knows when’s the next time we get to enjoy running water.”
“Did Bruce leave?” Tony asked, sliding his hand along Rhodey’s forearm and to his elbow, allowing the other man to take the lead as they started walking. Most people had made a habit of announcing their entrance to whatever room Tony was occupying, and telling him when they were leaving, just to let him know who was around.
“Yeah,” Rhodey replied, his voice suggesting he was amused. “He’s a bit disoriented after the fight.”
“He gets that way.”
“I’m sure he’s going to take good care of your helmet.”
“He’d better,” Tony threatened lightly. His legs felt a bit shaky as they walked, but Rhodey moved slowly instead of his usual brisk pace, making it easy for Tony to follow him. It was a vast improvement over their first tries at Rhodey guiding him, and Tony appreciated the effort his oldest friend had put into accommodating Tony’s needs.
His fingers unconsciously tightened on Rhodey’s arm, gratitude washing over him as he once again pondered the things his team and friends had done for him…
Rhodey slowed down even more, then stopped. “You okay?”
“Nothing. I just thought…”
Tony relaxed his hold on his arm a little. “I’m just… I guess being able to see, however strangely, reminds me that I wouldn’t have made it this far without you guys.”
“You would have done just fine,” Rhodey objected and resumed walking, guiding them around something that smelled of metal and oil before they got to a more silent hallway.
Tony knew he would waste his breath arguing Rhodey’s statement. However, they both knew that had it not been for Rhodey and the Avengers, Tony would have been long gone, lost in his own head, surrounded by strangers in some facility overcrowded with people who couldn’t fend for themselves anymore.
Today, Tony had proven to himself and everyone else that he still had the will to fight; and with the major obstacle removed – or at least reduced to something manageable – he was back to fight on the front line. If the implants kept working and didn’t fry his brain, it would all work out.
“Stairs, going down,” Rhodey said in a low voice – which suggested other people were nearby. Tony slowed down then stopped as Rhodey did, found the wall with his free hand and then located the first stair with his foot, taking them one at a time. Rhodey kept one step ahead of him, not hesitating even when a group of people moved past them at a brisk pace. Tony felt like calling out to them, to tell them not to sweat it now that the battle was over, but he refrained from doing that.
“Hi,” a husky female tone greeted them – Natasha, voice half-gone after the fight.
“We’ll get cleaned up, then we’re ready to go,” Rhodey stated.
“Good.” She didn’t ask why Tony was no longer wearing the helmet, which meant she probably knew, guessed, or took it in stride. “I’ll see you at the cars.”
“All the Quinjets took off?” Tony asked. He had been busy during the fight, getting accustomed to his new HUD-to-brain overview of the situation, and hadn’t had time to actually observe the evacuation proceedings.
“Most of the aircraft left at the first sign of trouble,” she replied. “Three Quinjets got shot down by enemy fire.”
Tony cringed; they had too few versatile aircraft as it was. In between fighting, retreating and their dwindling resources, there had been barely any time for manufacturing anything new that wasn’t directly tied to their survival and thusly a priority.
“You know you bought us a win today, right?” Natasha asked. It was her way of being polite; of commending Tony on his decision to join the battle instead of getting in the armor and flying to safety.
“Hardly,” Tony scoffed – and meant it. “I can’t see why Cap didn’t just order a direct assault on the ship in the first place.”
“Because at the time, it wasn’t smart,” she replied.
“But it was smart when I showed up?”
“You didn’t give him a choice and it paid off, despite the risk of getting three of us killed.” He could hear a shadow of strange pride in her words. “We’ve played it cautious for way too long, trying to save ourselves for the final fight and not get killed before it. The change of pace was something we needed.”
Tony felt a bit bad, suddenly. He had been on the sidelines for the last few months, ever since he got blinded, and while he knew how hard the others had battled, it wasn’t the same when he wasn’t there with them. Steve had been thinking of the long-term effect of their every move; they couldn’t win the war if they ended up dead or badly injured. Tony getting hurt had been a reminder to all of them that they could be taken out way too easily. So far the war didn’t seem to be ending, even after all this time, and Tony needed to remember that.
“We did good today,” Rhodey told him, clearly agreeing with Natasha. “We got crazy, kicked some alien ass, and sent them running.”
Well, not exactly, but they were still here while the aliens had withdrawn, and that was good enough for today.
“They want us to move out as soon as possible,” Natasha mused after a brief silence. “Get cleaned up. God knows when we’ll have a proper shower again.”
It seemed all of them were looking forward to very simple things. Tony smiled and tugged on Rhodey’s hand, indicating that they should get going.
If he was lucky, he could get J.A.R.V.I.S. working on a tablet or a laptop while they were on the road and could start solving the problems related to the implants. He wasn’t planning on ending up brain-dead just because he wanted to see, so working out the kinks was on top of his list of priorities right now.
For the time being, though, the brief moments of non-darkness were more than enough, even though they might be better spent on fighting rather than working. All of that required extensive tests and finding out the proper balance in between the periods of usage and rest. It would keep Tony’s mind sufficiently busy for weeks to come and keep him from sinking into darker, murkier waters of depression that had threatened his existence ever since his world was plunged into darkness and uncertainty.
Day 47 of the Alien-Human War
Going blind was probably most people’s worst nightmare – if they took a moment to think about it.
Tony had never given into such pointless fears – even when Pepper and Rhodey told him the ‘stuff he was drinking was going to blind him’. That hadn’t happened – or he had just dodged a bullet; either way, when actual blindness took over his life, it was a paralyzing event.
First, he tried doing things the way he had always done them, but impudence, stubbornness and self-sufficiency got him only so far – which wasn’t far at all.
He kept running into things and falling over things that weren’t big enough to run into; he refused to walk around with his hands and feet searching for the next obstacle, trying instead to navigate by sheer force of will, but it got him little more than wounds and a bruised ego. Extremis was quick enough to deal with the worst fixes he got himself into, but minor bruising healed slowly, showing other people just how badly he was doing, despite his claims that he had ‘things under control, so fuck off!’.
It was clearer than ever that Pepper was gone. Had she still been alive and with Tony… well, his life would have been a lot easier, for one. She would have fussed over him, told him he was being an ass, and she would have known where to put a bandage to cover a bleeding scrape from a sharp edge. Pepper would have found the bandage…
The bots helped him to the best of their ability, and seeing as they had been built to assist him, among other things, Tony grudgingly accepted them as his guide dogs. Still, they weren’t particularly well trained for each other when it came to Tony’s new condition, and there were more kinks than smooth interaction.
It wasn’t a surprise that it took less than two days for the others to gang up on him.
“This isn’t coping,” Bruce told him sharply, sounding like he was going to turn big and green at any second. Tony debated whether the Hulk would be easier to reason with. “This is you blocking out what’s actually happened.”
“It’s pretty hard to block out anything when it’s staring me in the face – and I can’t even see it,” Tony pointed out, equally unhappy that they had to have this conversation.
“They’re going to lay Pepper to rest in the next few days, with a few dozen of the other latest casualties of the war,” Rhodey cut in before anyone else could. He had flown in soon after their arrival in Oklahoma City, but for the most part he acted like he had no idea how to talk to Tony anymore, or how to be around him.
“We’re still in Oklahoma,” Tony said, taken aback by the change of subject.
“Yeah,” Rhodey agreed.
“They can’t bury her in Oklahoma.”
“They will, because her body’s here.”
“The fuck they will!” Tony jumped up from his seat at a table and bumped his shoulder into someone – probably Thor, because it felt almost like hitting a wall. He lifted a hand to push him away, but had the limb caught instead, and Tony realized his original estimation had been wrong: it was Steve, not Thor. Well, a wall was a wall…
“Tony, calm down,” their leader told him, voice tight and trying to feign patience.
“No,” Tony spat. “She deserves to be buried somewhere that matters – somewhere she belongs. L.A., if we can’t do better than that.” He stopped for a bit, breathing out the worst of his anger. “She deserves to go home.”
“She does,” Rhodey agreed with him. “So, we’ll make you a deal.”
Tony hesitated for a few seconds. “I’m listening,” he finally offered, although still cautious.
“We’ll come with you and make sure she gets buried in a place she would have loved,” Natasha worded out what had to be the first part of the deal.
“In exchange for what?” Tony asked. He knew the next part would include something he didn’t like.
Bruce started: “If we do this for you –”
“– you’ll let us help you,” Rhodey finished.
“Help me?” Tony was getting truly suspicious now, but the fact remained that Pepper deserved to be properly buried and he would go to some serious lengths to make sure that happened. It was the last thing he could do for her.
“You’re blind,” Clint chimed in, stating the obvious in a painful and strict manner. “You can’t lead yourself around – not the way you have been.”
“I’m getting… acclimatized to the changes,” Tony hedged most of the sting the archer’s words carried and managed to wriggle his hand free of Steve’s hold – to demonstrate his independence.
“Whatever,” Clint snorted.
“What Clint’s trying to say is, we’ve watched you run into walls for a few days now, and we’re done standing by,” Steve took the lead and no one tried to interrupt him. He also reclaimed his hold on Tony’s hand, gentler than before. “People are… talking when you’re not present.”
“Talking about what?” Tony asked, suspicious and afraid of the answer. He wasn’t afraid of gossip, but there wasn’t a whole lot of that going on within these walls.
“They want to take you away,” Bruce said, sounding like a dog protecting his favorite bone. “To stick you in some recovery ward, far away from the war.”
It wasn’t as if the news surprised Tony. The doctors and nurses who had dared to come into his vicinity had subtly hinted it might be best for him while he got used to the new life he had to lead from now on. Tony felt insulted and hurt by those suggestions – as if his usefulness had suddenly come to an end. He knew the facts, though – knew it would have been for the best, considering the big picture…
“They think you’re a liability,” Rhodey added. “That you’re not of use to anyone before you get back to work again.”
If Tony was ever going to be able to work; so far it had been difficult, even with just him, the bots and J.A.R.V.I.S.
“They’re wrong,” Steve stated before Tony could say anything at all. “The aliens made a precise strike against you. That’s never happened before, no matter who was where. They’ve passed up chances to kill world leaders gathered in the same building many times, and have shown no interest in our planning and strategizing. Not until they attacked you.”
“We told those idiots that,” Rhodey agreed, anger sharpening his words. “They refused to see the facts we were presenting them. They implied that we were biased; that we wanted to keep you around because we felt sorry for you and your loss. That we wanted to make you feel important and useful.”
“Do you?” Tony asked, because the answer to that question was more important to him than a lot of things he was facing up against. If his team bailed out on him…
“Yes and no,” Steve replied. “You’re hurt, obviously, and there’s no certainty when, if ever, you’ll be able to see again. But,” he added sharply when Tony opened his mouth to protest, “you are an Avenger; you’re one of us. And you’re an asset. Whatever the aliens wanted to kill you for, we’ll be able to use it against them.”
“Well…” Tony hesitated, knowing this could be a deal-breaker. “I’m not sure why they attacked me. I wasn’t making any headway when they attacked.”
Silence followed his words, but not for too long.
“You’ll figure it out,” Steve decided. His fingers tightened fractionally around Tony’s wrist, as if in encouragement. “Until then, you’re staying with us, we’re staying with you, and you’ll let us help you.”
“And you’ll help me take Pepper home,” Tony reminded them of their end of the bargain.
“Yes,” Steve replied. He was the most honorable of them all, and if he said so, it would be so, and Tony wouldn’t need to doubt his word or the depth of his commitment.
It was his own commitment Tony doubted, yet he already knew that he wouldn’t make it through this alone. Such simple things as eating and going to the bathroom gave him so much grief he didn’t even want to think of something more complex. He knew he had to re-learn all those things, but he also knew that part of being blind and independent was about learning his surroundings, becoming familiar with them and then finding routines to follow. With the apocalypse upon them, one blind man’s struggle was insignificant – an unnecessary complication – and he wasn’t sure why his team was willing to put up with that.
Still, if Tony had to accept help from someone…
Not so long ago, he had still been of the opinion that he couldn’t show anything but his best and bravest behavior to these men and this woman. They were all strong and Tony needed to be at least as tough to be one of them. That meant hiding all his weaknesses at all cost. Lately, though, when they had suffered from the war and its effect, it had become clear that putting up a brave front wasn’t necessary. Little by little they had all shown their true colors, and if Tony had to choose someone to be weak around… it would be these people and no one else.
“Okay,” he finally replied, knowing they were waiting for his decision although it had been all but made from the beginning.
“We should leave soon,” Natasha said almost immediately. “Get him cleaned up; Clint and I will prep a plane and get Pepper.”
“What do you mean, get me cleaned up?” Tony asked her, or the general direction where he hoped she was.
“You’re wearing your shirt inside-out and backwards, your socks are mismatched… and when was the last time you washed your face?” Rhodey listed.
Tony tried not to flush and call this off immediately.
“Come on,” Bruce’s voice drifted closer and a hand touched his shoulder; Steve’s hand fell away, as if Bruce had been given him a cue. “You’ll feel better once you’ve showered and brushed your hair.”
“Couldn’t find a comb,” Tony murmured, following Bruce’s lead clumsily, but for the first time he managed to make his way to the bathroom without running into anything.
Once inside the bathroom, Bruce helped him undress. “Hold on,” he told Tony after a bit, and the next time he spoke, it was louder and from a different direction – probably in the doorway: “Can one of you find Tony some clean clothes?”
“Sure,” Rhodey’s voice replied.
Tony heard a door close afterwards, then Bruce was moving closer. “Can you shower on your own if I show you where everything is?” he asked.
“Probably,” Tony shrugged and turned in the direction where he remembered the shower stall stood. He remembered to lift his foot over the threshold for once, instead of stubbing his toes, and felt his way to the controls to turn on the water. The tiled floor made his balance precarious – something he had learned the hard way by now – and perhaps that was what spurred Bruce’s next question.
“Do you mind if I get in with you?” the man asked. “I could use a shower before we leave.”
The obvious thing would have been to ask for Bruce to wait until he was done, but Tony had a feeling Bruce wouldn’t have asked if he expected that outcome, and Tony shrugged one shoulder, proceeding to shuffle to a small shelve on the shower wall. There were two bottles there, one probably body wash, the other meant for hair, but there was no way of knowing which was which. That was why he had aborted his earlier attempt to shower – that, and the fact that he had stubbed his toe and fallen on the wet floor.
Behind him, the stall’s door closed and he felt Bruce’s skin brush against his. “Turn on the water,” Bruce told him, and Tony did because that was simple. He left it for the other man to choose the right bottle, then jumped a bit as Bruce’s hand slid into his wet hair, clearly with the intent to wash it for him.
“I can do that,” Tony said quickly. “Just give me the right bottle.”
“Okay,” Bruce retreated hastily. He handed the bottle to Tony – not even opening the lid – and left him to it while he probably washed his own hair. After that it was easy to select the body wash, and Tony was grateful that he had long since stopped being self-conscious about his body because showering in a small space with another man was definitely a new experience. Not necessarily a bad one, though, when Bruce learned his pace and allowed Tony to do his own washing.
“So, whose idea was this?” Tony asked as they rinsed.
“Having the team babysit me. Getting in a shower with me to make sure I would wash behind my ears.”
Bruce chuckled. “We’re not babysitting you, and it was a fairly mutual choice: Steve and Rhodey had a small shouting match with a room full of men who outrank them, and after that… we all knew what we would have to do.”
Tony imagined Rhodey actually going up against a commanding officer – something he never would have done before. How he wished he had been there to see it… or even hear it, as it were. “And the showering thing?”
“I wanted to make sure you would get cleaned up, plus I wasn’t lying when I said I needed one myself.”
“Never thought you were so comfortable being around people in confined spaces,” Tony teased.
“I’ve gotten used to being half-naked around strangers over the years,” Bruce pointed out. “Besides… If you agreed to it, I figured that the least I could do was to get over my own anxiety issues and be there in case you needed me.”
“To select the right bottle,” Tony reminded him.
“To select the right bottle,” Bruce repeated. “I think we’re done,” he said then.
Tony was a little sad to see their strangely comfortable shower session coming to an end, but he turned off the water and reached out for the stall door. He moved to step out – only to kick his foot against the threshold again. “Fuck!” he snapped, moving carefully over the obstacle now that he had been reminded of its existence again. “I can’t believe my brain can’t remember such a simple thing. Every fucking time…”
Bruce didn’t offer him comfort, which Tony was thankful for: there was nothing the other man could do about it. He handed Tony a towel, though, then opened the bathroom door and closed it a few seconds later, letting in a gust of cooler air. “Rhodey found you some clothes,” he explained.
“I trust you to tell me if they are in some way offensive,” Tony joked.
“Rhodey doesn’t seem like a man who gets up to tasteless pranks.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know it now, but he used to get involved in a lot of shit –”
“That was you, not me!” Rhodey yelled through the door. “Don’t change the story.”
“Stop eavesdropping!” Tony yelled back at him, then accepted a pair of underwear from Bruce and managed to get them on after a bit of struggling. Bruce corrected him when he almost put the shirt on backwards, then found a comb somewhere and offered to comb Tony’s hair. While Tony could have done it himself, he knew it might have ended up looking like a mess, so he trusted Bruce to do it.
Once they were clothed and done, Bruce led the way to the door, allowing Tony to take his time to find the way there on his own. It didn’t feel like being left behind, exactly, but Tony wasn’t sure he liked it, although it allowed him to be independent.
“All set?” Rhodey asked. It was quiet in the room, save for him.
“Where are the bots?” Tony asked, frowning.
“Captain Rogers and Mr. Odinson are currently taking the bots to the plane Agents Barton and Romanoff are getting ready,” J.A.R.V.I.S. supplied through the pathetic sound system Tony had managed to plug the AI into after several hours of struggling. “Captain Rogers noted that it may be for the best if the Avengers leave the premises in secrecy, and thus they are not taking the straight path to the hangars, which led them to take a few extra flights of stairs.”
“With the bots?” Tony cringed.
“Between the two of them, the bots are in the process of being carried up the stairs. Worry not, sir: they are in good hands.”
“They had better be,” Tony frowned. He was starting to get the big picture, which included the Avengers doing something unsanctioned. It wasn’t like Steve to act like this. “We’re not coming back here, are we?” he mused.
“Most likely not,” Rhodey agreed. “We thought it best to be prepared. If there’s anything you need, tell me and I’ll grab it. Otherwise we’re heading out to the hangar to join the others.”
“Just grab the tablet I have hooked up to the sound system,” Tony motioned at the wall. “J.A.R.V.I.S., let’s turn wireless functions back on.”
“Bruce, can you find me an earpiece?” Tony asked because he had no idea if he had one lying around.
“I’ll get you one once we’re on the plane,” Bruce promised. His elbow nudged Tony’s arm. “Shall we?”
Tony hesitantly grabbed onto Bruce’s arm, unsure how this was going to work. The time he had spent awake, he had struggled on his own, trying to find his balance in the darkness. Tony didn’t know the first thing about guiding a blind person – or about being the blind person being guided. However, Bruce moved forward, and all Tony could do was follow him or let go and return to walking into walls. So, following Bruce it was.
Rhodey walked behind them, and Tony’s senses became filled with noises he tried to analyze: people passing them by, doors opening and closing, fragments of discussion, things on wheels moving by, smells and drafts. It was either focus on those or focus on walking, and eventually he had to block out most of the outside world as he tried to follow Bruce and not stumble or freeze in doubt.
“You’re doing great,” Rhodey told him at one point.
“Shut up,” Tony shot back under his breath, and the other man got the point.
They finally got to the hangar. Tony hadn’t walked this much since his accident and he was ready to collapse. Bruce guided him up a ramp and the familiar sounds of the bots greeted him. “Sit down,” Bruce said and guided him down onto a bench that was in no way a proper airplane chair. They were either in a Quinjet or some kind of cargo plane.
“We’re almost ready to go,” Natasha’s voice drifted by them, her steps barely audible as she rushed by.
Tony tried to follow the sounds, to tell who was where. One of the bots rolled closer to him and laid its clawed hand on his shoulder, the touch light. Tony reached up to touch it, getting a small beep in return.
“Let’s buckle up,” Steve announced. “We’re almost ready to go.”
“Do we have everything we need?” Bruce asked, his voice coming from close by before Tony felt something brushing against his waist: a belt.
“Almost,” Rhodey replied. “Okay, there it is,” he went on almost instantly, and Tony could hear a familiar clang of metal coming up the ramp: the War Machine armor must have just arrived. “Thanks, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Rhodey said.
“You are most welcome, Colonel Rhodes. However, I believe the armor’s exit caused some alarm and it may be for the best if we take off as soon as possible.”
“Noted,” Steve replied. “Close the ramp. Sit down and secure… well, whatever needs securing,” he finished, probably looking at the armor and the bots.
“Brakes on, boys,” Tony told the bots. He felt someone – Bruce – sit down next to him, and heard the armor move. The ramp rose as Tony made sure the belt was properly fastened around his waist. Normally he wouldn’t have cared so much, but right now he could use a safety net of sorts; something to hold on to.
Their take-off was without fanfare. The only voice he heard was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s, which possibly meant the AI was guiding them past flight control. They flew low before suddenly arching higher, and Tony’s stomach lurched, then settled, and the robot hand that was still on his shoulder shifted minutely.
Tony closed his eyes and drifted for a bit. He had hardly been sleeping since he woke up to find himself still in the darkness after those horrible hours in Malibu, and he was more rest-deprived than Extremis could casually handle. Drifting must have turned into active napping because Tony started when he felt someone moving his body into a horizontal position.
“Sleep,” Bruce’s voice urged him.
Tony stiffened, trying to get his bearings, and eventually realized his seatbelt had been opened although he was still on the uncomfortable bench. Bruce was still beside him, and Tony finally allowed the man to guide him down, which had him laying his head on Bruce’s thigh.
Something or someone moved beside him, and Tony felt something warm and light being draped over his form. A blanket. He didn’t know who put it there, but he suspected it wasn’t one of the bots because that he would have noticed…
Bruce’s hand settled in his hair, suddenly, drawing slow, gentle circles on his scalp. Tony closed his eyes, trying to think back to when he had allowed someone to touch him so intimately. It had to have been Pepper, otherwise it had been years, probably all the way back to Tony’s teenage years. Suffice to say, his one-night stands hadn’t been into that kind of stuff, and Tony wouldn’t have let them even if they had been; he could fuck and suck and kiss, just to get a list started, but to actually let someone sink their fingers in his hair and caress him? Tony hadn’t needed such a gentle gesture before, but he sure felt lucky to have it now, and was drifting back to sleep in seconds.
He didn’t wake up until they had landed, which was saying something. The others were moving around when he came to; Bruce’s thigh was no longer beneath his head, but something that felt like a folded blanket was stuck there instead.
Tony sat up slowly to find his balance, then pushed away the blanket on top of him and lowered his feet to the floor of the aircraft. From his left he heard an inquiring whistle and turned his head to follow it. He didn’t hear much of anything, but he knew Dummy was close by. “Find me something to eat,” he told the bot and heard it move away. A crash followed shortly – and a series of stomping footsteps running up the ramp.
“Hey!” Clint shouted. “Get off there!”
“He’s getting me something to eat,” Tony interjected, patiently waiting for the bot to complete his task.
“How about you ask one of us next time? It’s a fucking mess. No, don’t move, robot! You’re going to crush that pack of… okay, now you did,” Clint muttered and strode past Tony, closer to where the bot was. “Give me that!” he snapped, and the bot – Dummy, for sure – let out an angry sound. There was a sound of something tearing, like a wrapper, and then Tony had a second to smell something before someone grabbed his hand and shoved an item in it. “There,” Clint told him.
Tony sat there, stiff, not at all appreciative of the manhandling. Dummy and You must have noticed that because they let out a series of sounds. One of them must have poked Clint, hard, because the archer let out a sharp cry.
“You interrupted Dummy’s mission,” Tony told Clint, side-stepping his actual issue. “Don’t do that.”
“You interrupt them all the time,” Clint defended himself.
“That’s because it’s me. That’s different. If I tell them to do something, let them do it.”
The bots let out a joint beep, clearly liking his stand on this point.
Clint had either left or was taking a moment to think it over, so Tony carefully focused on the item in his hand. It was some kind of energy bar, most likely, already opened at the top. Tony could have done that himself, had Dummy just brought him the snack.
“I’m sorry,” Clint suddenly spoke up. Tony barely contained a start at the sudden re-appearance of his voice. “I don’t… I’m not qualified for this. I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t treat me like a cripple,” Tony offered as a place to start. “Don’t presume I can’t do something just because I can’t see it.”
“Okay,” Clint said slowly. “I just thought that if you were hungry, you would prefer eating now and not sometime next year.”
“Some things take time,” Tony replied bitingly, then felt the snack bar all over again, pushed the wrapper down and took a bite. It was spectacularly non-tasty, but it would do.
“I know you still want to do things your way,” Clint said, “but it’s hard to watch someone struggle – especially if you know them.”
“If I don’t do it now, I never will,” Tony pointed out, although he hadn’t really thought about it that way before now.
“This might not last forever, you know.”
“Or it might.”
“You really want to keep thinking that?” Clint challenged. “I hear positive thinking is a lot more useful to a person with problems.”
Tony knew that, but right now he just wanted to eat his stupid snack bar and then get on with what they had come here to do. He hadn’t forgotten the reason they had left the base in Oklahoma – and reminding himself of that killed his appetite. “Where are the others?” Tony asked.
“Outside, looking for transport,” Clint replied. “We’re about five miles outside a graveyard Natasha said Pepper would have liked.” He was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry she had to go like that. I know you would prefer her to be around, even to see you like this.”
There were two ways to respond to that: to take Clint’s words or shove them back at him.
“See me like this?” Tony growled.
“You know what I mean,” Clint hedged.
“I don’t care if she would have seen me like this, or if I had died instead of her: I would give anything for her to be alive. Anything.”
“I hear you,” Clint replied and left, clearly done with the argument.
Tony sighed, pulled the wrapper back over the snack bar and then laid it aside – most likely to be forgotten there. “Dummy,” he called and heard the bot move over. He reached out, and the bot touched his hand, offering support as Tony lifted himself up and tried to determine which way the ramp was. If his memory served him right, it was to the right, and he turned that way. “You, pick a path. I want to get out of here.”
The other bot moved up ahead and Dummy slowly moved to follow, leaving Tony time to respond and follow. They were doing just fine until the ramp came up and Tony had to make a stupid stick-out-your-foot-and-feel-around movement to make sure he wasn’t going to fall off the side or lose his balance. Dummy guided him down, though, and Tony could tell they were in a relatively open area. No trees although there was a lazy wind blowing; no sounds of traffic, either.
“Do not wander off, my friend,” Thor’s voice suddenly entered his limited world, and Tony tried to determine where the Asgardian was. Had he heard Tony and Clint’s exchange?
“I just want to stretch my legs,” Tony explained. “Maybe take a leak, too,” he mused. Not knowing where they were, he had no idea where to go.
“Shall I walk with you?” Thor asked.
“I’m fine on my own,” Tony replied in the general direction of his voice. “Besides, I’ve got my boys with me,” he added and patted Dummy’s arm.
“Well, I find this a fine day and could use a chance to stretch my legs as well,” Thor decided in a very poorly concealed intent to follow him. Tony heard his footsteps, smelled the leather of his armor, then almost felt static on his skin as the Asgardian settled beside him. “Lead the way,” Thor offered, which was actually surprising.
Tony took a step, and Dummy started moving again. Ahead of them, You was left to pick the path, and the hard ground suddenly turned into something softer, like gravel or a dirt path running between fields. Tony itched to ask where they were, but what did it matter if he knew? They would just have to go over it again when they moved to another location.
“How’s Jane?” Tony asked, deciding that they needed to talk about something before he went insane with not knowing so many things.
“The last I spoke with her, after the attack on you in Malibu, she was fine. She told me to give you her condolences, and add those of Lady Elizabeth Ross as well.”
Tony nodded, not knowing whether Thor was looking. Jane and Betty, along with many top scientists of the world, were in one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best protected hide-outs, trying to work out a way to defeat their enemies, and until that could be accomplished, come up with ways to keep the population of Earth alive. That’s what Tony had been doing, that day. Analyzing data… he wondered if any of that was related to the alien attack, although he doubted it, because those projects had been too recent. If there was a reason for the attack, other than taking out one of the Avengers – who were being a pain in the invaders’ asses – Tony didn’t know what it was. Everything he had done since the war started may have been the cause for Pepper being dead and him being blind.
“I am certain they wish they could be here today, with us,” Thor went on. “To help Lady Pepper on her final journey.”
“If you believe in that stuff,” Tony mused, but left it at that – as did Thor, surprisingly.
“It is good of you to bring her here, where she would wish to rest,” the Asgardian said after a while had passed. They had turned to the right, choosing another path. For all Tony knew, they might have been walking in a very big circle.
“Couldn’t have done it on my own,” Tony confessed and tried to look at Thor – or at least fake it, and knowing about the visible damage done to his eyes, he wasn’t sure whether trying to look at people was a good idea to begin with. Perhaps he should start wearing shades…
“We are your shield brothers, as you are ours,” Thor said solemnly. “To honor your beloved’s passing is the least we can do. It will unite us in your rage when we meet our enemies again.”
Tony tried not to scoff; he wasn’t meeting any enemies in the near future, he was sure of that.
“The others approach,” Thor said suddenly. “They have found a vehicle, it seems.”
“About time,” Tony decided and felt Dummy turn and start pulling him back.
When they got back to the plane – at least that’s what Tony guessed happened – people were moving around again. “We should hurry it up,” Natasha spoke up, probably to Tony and Thor. “We don’t have that much daylight left.”
“Is that important?” Tony asked. For him, it didn’t matter.
“I don’t know, but better safe than sorry,” she replied.
“The bots need to stay on the plane,” Steve spoke up. “Rhodey’s armor will also stay behind, and J.A.R.V.I.S. promised the bots will be safe.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Tony claimed and let go of Dummy, taking a step away from the bot. “Get inside. Guard the plane.”
The bots beeped and whistled and moved up the ramp. One of them must have run into something inside because there was a sharp clang a few seconds later. The small grunt that came from Tony’s right must have been Clint trying to suppress his response to that.
“Come on,” Rhodey urged and took Tony’s arm. “The pickup is a bit wobbly but it will do.” He guided Tony around the car, tugging a bit too hard, but Tony didn’t complain. When Rhodey indicated for him to lift his foot, Tony felt around, finding the pickup’s door already open. It took him a few tries to locate the running board, and he could tell Rhodey was itching to direct his foot to it. The man didn’t, however, and Tony patted his arm as thanks when he was finally seated inside and Rhodey let go of him.
“Alright,” Bruce said from beside him, starting the engine. Tony heard sounds from behind – the other Avengers getting seated in the bed of the truck, most likely. “It’s going to be bumpy.”
“I was warned,” Tony noted, feeling around for a seat belt.
“There are no seat belts,” Bruce informed him a second later.
“Great,” Tony mused and leaned harder against the seat. Not being able to see and anticipate the car’s movements, he felt strangely unprepared for everything. “Why are you driving?” he asked.
“We talked about it and I had the most experience driving crappy cars,” Bruce chuckled weakly. “I’m sure Clint would have gotten us to the cemetery in one piece, but he flew the plane so he deserves a break.”
That may have been one reason why Clint was so on edge when Tony woke up.
The drive felt way longer than a couple miles. Tony’s fingers squeezed the edges of his seat and it felt like Bruce was driving insanely fast and making turns at full throttle. The car was jumpy, clunky and sounded like it was going to break down a few times, but they got to their destination in one piece and that was enough.
It was Natasha who helped him out of the car, and her actions were much more suitable to the task than Rhodey’s. Tony wondered if she had been trained in this stuff, or whether she just got inside his head better than the others.
Bruce joined them, offering his arm to Tony again, leading him along. Natasha stayed beside them, and no one talked.
They stayed on a path until they must have reached the site the others had selected. Tony wished he could see it, to approve of it, because this had been his part of the bargain.
“I know you can’t tell,” Rhodey’s voice interrupted his thoughts, “but this is where she would have been buried if… you know, if you had still been together at the time, and still stayed in Malibu. This is your spot.”
Now Tony wished he could see it, but it was perhaps better that he didn’t. This was the location Pepper had chosen, on Tony’s orders, because Tony didn’t want to be buried in the family plot in New York City. It had been a small ‘fuck you’ to his father, although he hadn’t thought about it for years – not even when he was dying, strangely enough. She had said it was beautiful, although Tony hadn’t cared about that. He had trusted her judgment.
Tony heaved a deep breath, an earthy smell filling his nostrils, then nodded. “Did someone bring a shovel?” he asked.
“We found a couple from a shed nearby,” Steve volunteered. “It’s all ready.”
They couldn’t have been gone for that long, which led Tony to imagine Captain America digging a grave – which, not so subtly, led him to assume this wasn’t the first time, seeing as Steve had been in a war. “Thank you,” he said, because that was appropriate, then stopped because now they were here and he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He turned his head towards Bruce, who was still at his side. “We got her a coffin, right?” he asked in a whisper.
“A nice one,” Bruce told him, also in a low tone. “Come on,” he said then, and moved forward, leaving Tony to follow. When they stopped again, Bruce moved his arm forward, and Tony took it as a hint to step up beside him. His foot bumped against something and he reached down, feeling a smooth wooden surface beneath his hand.
He couldn’t cry, which some may have considered a blessing. Tony didn’t. He wished he could let it out: all his regrets, his failures… His breaths got uneasy and Tony busied himself by feeling the surface of the coffin more thoroughly. No one talked or rushed him. It didn’t feel awkward like in those horrible funerals where no one had anything to say about the deceased; they chose to remain silent out of respect to him, and he didn’t ask for speeches. He didn’t offer one, either.
“I love you,” he finally said, stilling his hand on the coffin’s cover, then stepped back. Everything else he could have said, Pepper had already known in her heart. She had probably known how he would feel now that she was gone, too.
He was going to miss her, so much.
Tony heard someone move and shift the coffin. Steve and Thor, probably, and maybe Rhodey, too. There were whispered words, like final farewells, and a light scraping sound as the coffin was lowered into the earth. Tony had a brief desire to jump in after it, but that would insult her memory: she had wanted him to fight, for once; to protect this world and to help them find the keys to victory.
He heard them shovel the dirt back in, smelled the freshly turned earth, and realized he had nothing to leave here: no flowers, no small memento to place on her grave. Did they even have a gravestone, or a wooden plank to put her name on?
“It looks fine,” Rhodey said after a while, settling beside him, their shoulders brushing. “I wish we’d had more time, to get this done properly…”
“I’m not sure if I could handle proper,” Tony stated.
Rhodey chuckled and fell silent, and Tony was fairly certain he was crying. “I don’t know if anyone told you, but… One of the bots – You, I think – collected a bunch of flowers while you were on your walk. Thor just placed them on the grave. They look lovely.” Rhodey was definitely crying now. Tony reached out and pulled him close.
Tony’s own eyes burned, painfully so, and it felt like his tear ducts were exploding with pressure, but slowly the sensation passed and no tears leaked down his face. The air was getting cooler, the wind picking up, and he knew it was getting dark. Still, no one suggested they should leave, a silence hanging over them.
It was up to Tony, obviously.
There were so many things he wanted to say, but he couldn’t let them out just yet. He hoped the others knew how grateful he was.
“Let’s go,” Tony finally said, quietly.
Rhodey sniffed and pulled his head from where it had been lying on Tony’s shoulder for the last few minutes. As Tony slid his arm from its place around Rhodey, he let it linger on the arm closest to him, and Rhodey took the hint, slowly guiding them to turn around and then leading the way. Tony heard the others follow, still quiet, but he also thought he sensed something… Perhaps it was that anger Thor had talked about, all of them possessing a small part of it and when put together… it would be a force to be reckoned with.
to be continued…