Typhlosis • Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Fighter / Cripple
Day 168 of the Alien-Human War
“Sir, the final results of the water toxins have arrived. I am compiling high-lights for you.”
Before, Tony would have just asked to see all the data, but now he nodded and waited for his AI to give him the gist of the newest results. This wasn’t their first approach to analyzing the poison the aliens were pumping into the Earth’s waters, nor would it probably be the last. Even the day Tony got blinded, they had been working on figuring out whether the aliens were terraforming or if it was a long-term weapon aimed at the Earth’s population.
Several more alien corpses had been recovered in the months since Tony lost his vision. Most data had been inconclusive when it came to the toxins in the water and he wondered if these results would be any different.
Perhaps they were looking at all this the wrong way…
J.A.R.V.I.S. began talking again, rattling off numbers and percentages of known and unknown elements, then went on to list various theories that were currently being tossed around. Tony listened, his attention slipping every now and then, much to his irritation, and if J.A.R.V.I.S. noticed, the AI said nothing about it.
“The results seem, for now, inconclusive,” the AI summed up.
“Big surprise,” Tony muttered. He tossed his head back and blinked, eyes aimed at the ceiling he could not see. He tried imagining the irritatingly blue sky, fluffy white clouds and somewhere amidst them the alien space ships. Maybe one was above him right now. And, far beyond the clouds and any other flying objects, the alien Flag Ship hovered somewhere within Earth’s gravitational pull, watching, waiting…
Category 6; something that no one had seen in person. Tony remembered the blurry satellite photos and the first brave attempts to attack the orbiting ship. There were reasons why humanity had left it alone, and it had nothing do with the excuses that the war was being fought down here at sea level, not in space.
“Maybe that’s it,” Tony mused.
“Is Hades still operational?”
“Do we have current data on the Flag Ship?”
“The enemy’s Category 6 ship is currently located above Greenland.”
“Fantastic,” Tony decided. “Remotely deploy Hades and send it up to check on the Flag Ship.”
“Deploying Mark 54, sir. May I remind you that any aircraft, missile or manned space station that has made the attempt has been unable to get closer than 30 miles from the Category 6 ship without being destroyed?”
“I’m aware. Take Mark 54 as close as you can. Cloak it before the final approach.”
“Very well, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
While the AI worked on deploying the sub-orbital suit, Tony leaned forward in his chair, listening for a few seconds. “Dummy,” he called out then – instantly getting a shrill reply. “Bring me the helmet.”
The bot hurried to do his bidding, bumping into furniture only twice before the lightweight helmet was placed in Tony’s lap. His fingers closed around it as Dummy let go, and he rotated it to the correct position. Tony didn’t put it on just yet, instead waiting for J.A.R.V.I.S. to update him on the progress of Mark 54.
“Mark 54, armor designation ‘Hades’, has just launched from your armory in North Dakota,” the AI finally announced. “All systems are operational.”
Tony nodded and shifted the helmet in his hands then aligned it, signaled it to open up and put it on his head. “Prepare for remote HUD connection.”
“Take me for a spin, J,” Tony stated and took a deep breath as the light helmet closed around his skull, trapping half his head inside it just seconds before the implants came to life.
It took him a lot less time than in the beginning to become acclimated once his brain began to receive visual input, and Tony stood up, slowly but surely making his way across the room to where the Mark 52 armor was standing; after Mark 50 was destroyed in the battle in Detroit, everyone had agreed that Tony should keep one of his suits available to him, just in case. It was lucky he had been developing new suits before the war started and had had time to work on a few more even after the aliens began their invasion because he certainly wasn’t working on anything new in his current condition.
Tony reached out for the armor’s helmet, gently tugging it free of the rest of the suit. He heard the pieces moving to release the helmet and even saw the faint pulses of energy traveling near the suit’s surface, relaying information between active components as the implants translated it to his visual cortex.
Taking the helmet with him, Tony moved over to one of the work tables, selecting a few cables that would help him transfer energy from the suit into the helmet in order to keep the HUD online and at full power.
“Mark 54 has reached the optimal altitude to begin the final ascent,” J.A.R.V.I.S. notified him.
“Let it hang there for a bit. Activate the cloaking surfaces and signal disruptors,” Tony ordered, grabbing the necessary tools and moving back to the armor, connecting the helmet directly to the arc reactor.
“Waiting for your command, sir.”
With a deep breath, Tony slid the armor’s helmet on top of the one already hugging his skull, feeling them both tighten slightly. The air smelled different – cleaner, although the filters weren’t working perfectly when the helmet wasn’t connected to the rest of the suit. It calmed him a little, and Tony moved to sit down on the edge of a table the Mark 52 armor was standing next to. “Connect Mark 52’s HUD to Mark 54’s; real time data and visuals, if you would, please.”
“In progress, sir.”
The HUD flickered, going dark for a moment and making Tony feel like someone had just turned off the lights everywhere in the world. Then, just as quickly, a slightly different set of visuals rose to meet him, spreading around him as his brain caught up with the graphics and data streaming in. It was almost like standing in his old workshop, surrounded by holographic displays; he needed only to reach out his hands to seize control of them, to move them and manipulate them.
What lay outside Hades’ HUD came to him more slowly, as if his eyes were adjusting to look beyond what was right in front of him. The faint shapes made little sense at first until Tony realized he was looking at clouds. Instead of fluffy shapes, though, he saw areas of frozen crystals of evaporated water and varying shades of other chemicals, their heat signature separating the clouds easily from the air around them.
“I am calculating a delay of approximately 1.395 seconds between Mark 54’s HUD and the implants, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice gently lured Tony back from becoming mesmerized with the fact that he could see the wind – something he hadn’t paid attention to during his first battle in the suit after the inclusion of the implants. It was easy to get lost in the drifting, twisting, smooth curves of the air as it traveled around him – around Mark 54.
“Take us up,” Tony ordered, forcing himself to pay attention to what was important.
J.A.R.V.I.S. made no comment that Tony wasn’t physically ‘there’. It felt like it, the visuals too real for a few seconds as Hades aligned itself and engaged the main thrusters for a controlled ascension into a sub-orbital trajectory. Tony fully expected to feel the armor tremble around him, but he was still seated on the edge of the table in the lab, and the HUD didn’t shiver along with the suit. The image did blink and re-adjust a few times, though, when a higher altitude was reached, but Tony let it happen, taking deep breaths to keep the light nausea away. After all, every time the HUD blinked it felt like someone tapped a ‘reboot’ switch in his visual cortex, which had a rather unpleasant connection to his stomach and vestibular system.
“Approaching enemy vessel, Category 6,” the AI announced after a moment, prompting Tony to focus on the HUD despite the occasional, brief freezing that occurred. He knew it had to do with the distance between Mark 52 and Mark 54, not to mention the effort to cloak them from the Flag Ship.
Before his eyes could have actually seen it, the suit’s scanners spotted the Flag Ship, relaying the information to Tony. An image was painted in his mind in fine graphics and thermal radiation imaging, with engineering details he enjoyed taking apart in his mind: the alien ship’s engines with a fine output to control its path orbiting the Earth, as well as the machines producing a protective energy shield Tony was still trying to miniaturize for use in his suits.
“Sir, the suit is nearing the minimum safety distance,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told him. With the helmet and connected Heads-Up Displays, it was hard to tell where exactly the AI’s voice was coming from – further dragging Tony into the illusion that he was floating in space.
“Is the enemy showing any signs of having spotted the suit?” Tony asked.
“Not yet, sir.”
“Keep me posted.”
Tony gave a few murmured verbal commands to align Mark 54 as its trajectory took it closer to the Flag Ship. “Back up the images and readings we’re getting, in case we get shot down without a warning,” he noted, seeing as there was a very limited collection of data on the Category 6 ship since it was unapproachable on the best of days and it was entirely possible the protective energy shield skewed the readings they had. Hades’ instruments were fine-tuned for a job like this, though, and Tony followed the stream of data the armor was collecting.
“Mark 54 has now passed the 30-mile safety limit; still no sign of activity from the Category 6 ship.”
“What are they doing, sleeping on the job?” Tony asked, wishing he could frown for show but grinning instead: his tech was so much better than the aliens’ and he wished to go over there and rub it in their faces. After months of struggling and scraping by, retreating from fights when there was no sense to push forward, and then losing his eyesight, Tony was ready for something to gloat about, and this was it. “Should have killed me when they had the chance,” he mused.
“Ah. You are not going to do anything foolhardy, are you?”
“I’m not in the suit. How is anything I order it to do from the safety of this lab foolhardy?”
“While that is a good point, sir, may I offer an alternative point of view?”
“If it makes you happy.”
J.A.R.V.I.S. made an almost scoffing sound, but went on smoothly: “Mark 54 is currently your only armor capable of prolonged sub-orbital flight. Also, should the enemy discover that you are within twenty miles of their most protected ship, they may re-evaluate the efforts they must take to eliminate you.”
“Like I said, they should have killed me when they had the chance,” Tony snorted.
“Be that as it may, sir, our current trajectory will take Mark 54 no closer than seventeen miles from the target, and I advise you to keep it that way.”
“Spoilsport… Can I at least fire a goodbye-missile?”
“With the energy shield up, I doubt it will have any effect – other than potentially compromising Mark 54.”
“I’m starting to think you like the suit better than me.”
“It is a very fine suit, sir. Also, seeing as you have them in limited quantity at the current time, it may be wise to not send them on suicide missions.”
Tony let his lips quirk, just a little – knowing that J.A.R.V.I.S. would catch it, seeing as the HUD interface allowed the AI to follow his micro-expressions to keep up with his commands. “I don’t think it matters what we do up there right now,” he stated, but knew that might not be true.
“Captain Rogers and Colonel Rhodes disagree; they are still of the opinion that the attack on you was an involuntary demonstration of a threat the aliens felt they had to eliminate. Had the acid worked as it should have, without Extremis’ intervention, it would have completely destroyed your brain.”
There was that. Tony didn’t want to think about it too much on most days because he didn’t remember anything he’d done worthy of being a risk to the aliens – unless it was something insignificant and easy to overlook. Like the Flag Ship, hovering above the planet but having no crucial part to play in the war itself.
As he gazed at the gigantic ship, he wondered if this was the question that had been haunting him. Only, he was not sure it was the answer. Even if they managed to destroy the Flag Ship, it would not stop the aliens already on the planet. But, they hadn’t known the Chitauri would fall when they closed the portal between their side of the universe and Earth, either…
A small icon appeared within his line of sight, on Hades’ HUD, letting Tony know that the suit was preparing to drop out of sub-orbit and head back down. There was no stirring from the enemy ship and he decided not to poke the anthill to see if he could make that change.
“Make sure Mark 54 isn’t followed, then take it back to the armory,” Tony ordered. “Make back-ups of the data and send it to appropriate research teams for analysis.”
“Very well, sir.”
Tony kept sitting there, not removing the HUD, tracking Hades’ descent. The sky looked almost layered with different levels of radiation and changes in temperature. It was like plunging into the ocean, over and over again, each one a different shade and texture than the last.
When the suit re-aligned to take a detour and make sure no one followed it back to North Dakota, Tony finally told J.A.R.V.I.S. to disconnect the HUDs and bring him back to Mark 52’s helmet. The change was fluid, only interrupted by a brief lights-out effect, and Tony felt like he was coming back to himself, no longer engrossed in Hades’ progress.
He wondered, briefly, that should he have become paralyzed as well as blind in the aftermath of the attack in Malibu, would he have done this more often: connecting and living through the armors –
A voice that wasn’t his or J.A.R.V.I.S.’s jarred him almost painfully out of the moment, and Tony turned his head, spotting someone in the doorway. The HUD instantly pointed out the shield and Tony tried to relax a little, seeing as it was only Steve – who was currently being held from properly entering by the bots.
“Come on in,” Tony welcomed – a well-concealed order for Dummy and You to let him pass. The bots rolled back and to the side, and Tony wondered if they had reasoned on their own that Tony shouldn’t be disturbed, or if his AI had told them to keep Steve at the door.
“What are you doing?” Steve asked, walking over. He was carrying his shield but wasn’t dressed for battle, which meant this wasn’t a farewell before he took the other Avengers to battle – especially when Tony was now capable of joining them.
“Stretching my legs,” Tony started then looked down. He still sat on the edge of the table, his legs hanging over the floor. “Metaphorical legs,” he corrected.
“What does that mean?” the blond inquired.
“Aren’t you even trying to guess?”
Steve let out a breath that suggested he was ready to snap at Tony – or worse, preparing to swallow his pride and go along with Tony’s games, which had happened a lot after he had gone blind. It was probably meant to make Tony feel better and put him into a slightly less hostile environment, but he didn’t need that kind of coddling anymore.
“I took one of the armors for a spin, remotely,” Tony explained.
Steve nodded but also let out a sound of understanding – as if he wasn’t used to stopping with the vocal cues whenever Tony was using the implants. “How was it?” he asked.
“Enlightening, I hope,” Tony confessed, slowly sliding off the table to stand on his feet, getting used to the different stance before releasing Mark 52’s helmet from around his head, the HUD disappearing a bit too abruptly. Vertigo overtook him, momentarily, as the implants adjusted, and a hand shot out to steady him. “I’m fine,” Tony managed, settling the helmet down in the other man’s waiting hands before he dropped it – which was a little off because he still felt one of Steve’s hands on his arm.
Once the implants adjusted and the light helmet took over, he realized he had placed the helmet in Steve’s hands while the hand steadying him was one of Mark 52’s. It was strange, looking at the armor with its head missing, but he moved to correct that by taking the helmet from Steve, removing the wires and sticking the helmet where it belonged.
“Better,” he murmured.
“Indeed,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied through the armor’s speakers. “Perhaps you should sit down, sir, and deactivate the implants.” It was a gentle hint that his brain was heating up with the stress and seeing as he had finished his mission, Tony let out a disappointed sigh and slid his hands up to remove the helmet, the world going dark again. Belatedly he thought he maybe should have taken one last look at Steve, but it wasn’t the same as it had been before so it didn’t matter.
Perhaps one day, they would find a way to simulate a human vision exactly, but for now, he would make due with what he had, when he could.
“If you want to go flying, I’m sure Rhodey and Thor would gladly join you,” Steve stated as Tony made his way to a chair he had sat in before piloting his brain into space. Sort of.
“It wasn’t about that,” Tony argued, finding the chair and managing to land his ass in the middle of the seat.
“To take a look at the Flag Ship,” Tony admitted.
Steve was silent for a fairly long moment. “You took one of your suits into space?” he finally asked for clarification.
“Yeah,” Tony shrugged, tapping his fingers against one another in a thoughtful rhythm. “Got pretty close, too.”
“Did they shoot at you?”
“No,” Tony felt like rolling his eyes – he did, too, although he wasn’t sure if it actually worked that well. It felt right to him, at least. “I went in cloaked. They didn’t shoot at me, I didn’t shoot at them, and I got a bunch of really great pictures and readings that the scientists are going to pore over for the next few months, I’m sure.”
Steve continued his silence and it was starting to irk Tony.
“Nothing happened,” he snapped when Steve had been quiet long enough.
“Yeah, I heard it the first time.”
“Then why the silent treatment?”
“You. I think you’re ready.”
“For what?” Tony asked, leaning back in the chair. He would have been glowering at Steve by now, before, and he itched to put the helmet back on just to be able to look at the temperature changes on his skin, to get a hint of his mood.
“To fight,” Steve finally stated, like the words weighed a ton on his chest.
“I don’t… understand. I mean, I’ve already fought, once, after the implants – or did you miss that? A big explosion took place right after I swooped in to save your asses, so it shouldn’t have been hard to miss.”
Steve chuckled. “I noticed. I just wasn’t sure whether you were in the right place, emotionally, to join us out there. None of us wanted to rush it.”
Tony tried glowering, just in case he got the expression right and managed to aim his gaze at Steve. “I never stopped being ready,” he snapped. “It was just a bit… harder,” he managed, then took a moment to really look at it, the facts laid bare in his mind’s eye. Tony had been struggling for months with the basic things, to come to terms with the loss of his vision and to find his place in the midst of his team. He had almost lost himself, literally and figuratively, more than once, and the others had fought not to smother him with their concern and the need to protect him.
Until now, Tony had told himself his place was on the sidelines until he could be of use again, as if his will to get out there and fight had been diminished when he could no longer see the enemy. It had perhaps been healthy because he most certainly had not been ready – but today, when he took the initiative and had J.A.R.V.I.S. fly one of his suits into space to take a look at the Flag Ship, it felt like the game had finally changed.
“I hate it when you’re right,” Tony told Steve.
He could not see it, but he was certain he sensed Steve’s smile on his face like the sun coming out from behind a thick veil of clouds.
Day 81 of the Alien-Human War
Their arrival in New York City was smooth and without trouble. The only downside was that they landed directly at one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. bases in the area, whereas Tony had hoped he and Bruce would at least get a chance to go to the Tower.
“We could just sneak out and go,” Tony suggested as the other Avengers were busy getting settled. Whether the base was short on accommodations or someone had made an exception for their group, they appeared to be sharing their quarters. There were three bunk beds against either wall, leaving very little room in the middle – most of which was taken up by their gear and the bots. To be exact, there was one less bed than they needed, but seeing as someone tended to sleep with Tony, no matter the narrow bunks, it didn’t matter.
“I’ll see if we can make that happen,” Bruce promised Tony as he moved by him, and Tony heard one of the bots follow him, probably trying to be of use.
Tony nodded absently and listened to the small pieces of conversations around him, then frowned. “Where’s Rhodey?” He hadn’t heard his friend’s voice for a bit – nor had he heard the sounds of the War Machine armor, either.
“I think he went to see if someone could check his suit for damage from the latest battles,” Steve replied.
“I could…” Tony started, then shut his mouth. While he could repair a suit even without his eyesight – no bragging necessary – he knew it wasn’t time-effective or necessary as long as the damages were minor enough to be handled by someone who didn’t understand the design of the suit.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. piped up in Tony’s earpiece, “Colonel Rhodes is currently in the middle of an argument with his senior officer. It would appear to concern you and Colonel Rhodes.”
“Are you eavesdropping?” Tony smiled. He hadn’t known J.A.R.V.I.S. had already uploaded his programming to this particular base, seeing as S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t approve of that kind of thing on most days without Tony getting difficult.
“I am listening through the War Machine armor,” the AI explained.
“Patch me through,” Tony ordered and pressed his hand to his ear as J.A.R.V.I.S. connected him to the ongoing discussion.
“Sir, with all due respect, I’ve made up my mind,” Rhodey was saying.
“The choice is not yours alone, Colonel. You are still in the service of the Air Force –”
“I’m affiliating myself with the Avengers, who are one of our greatest allies in this war. They may yet hold the key to victory, and I do not see how assisting them is doing a disservice to my country.”
“The Avengers are good for morale, for sure, and an asset in this war, but I know those reasons you just gave me are a smokescreen to hide your actual motive.”
“Who’s the stiff?” Tony asked J.A.R.V.I.S., referring to the older man speaking with Rhodey.
“Major General Bryson of USAF, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied at once. “He is visiting with the sole purpose of talking to Colonel Rhodes –”
“To get him to return to the fold,” Tony rolled his eyes then closed them to concentrate on the ongoing argument the War Machine armor was relaying to him.
“Tony Stark is my friend – has been before I became an airman. That has nothing to do with what I think is the right thing to do, to win this war and to protect the people,” Rhodey stated, voice like ice ready to crack and swallow his opponent down into the cold darkness beneath.
General Bryson’s reply wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, either; clearly the man didn’t like being refused: “I understand your sentiment, Colonel: you were not there when your friend got injured, but while the loss of Mr. Stark’s support weighs heavy on us all –”
“We didn’t lose him, sir. He’s getting back in the fight, soon. As I’ve told you, the aliens attacked him for a reason.”
“Have you discovered this reason, yet?”
“No, sir, but I expect we will, soon.”
“Listen to yourself. Stark is a cripple – worse than a cripple, because we cannot stick a prosthetic on him to replace a missing limb and make him carry his weight. He’s slowing down the war effort and tying down the War Machine armor. We’ve given you time to recover and lend him your support, but we need you back on active duty –”
“You think I’ve been sitting here, twiddling my thumbs?” Rhodey snapped, and Tony could tell he was losing his cool. “I’ve been working with the military, every chance I’ve got. Everyone knows we’re at war, on a global scale, and War Machine has his part to play. He’s just playing it here, with the Avengers.”
“You may be piloting the armor, Colonel, but from now on you will do it where the command deems it necessary. Otherwise we will be forced to find another pilot to –”
“The War Machine armor was entrusted to me, personally. Tony would have refused Air Force access to his armor, but instead he chose to make its use conditional on my continued piloting. The armor’s staying with me, and I’m staying here, where I’m needed and where I can make a difference. Sir,” Rhodey added, not even close to trying to make his statement less insubordinate.
Tony felt the tension flee from his body where it had been growing for a bit. He trusted Rhodey – had trusted the original Mark II to his use. Everything Rhodey said was spot on because no one else was trustworthy enough to pilot one of his armors should Rhodey ever choose to step down from being War Machine, or however else they would re-brand the armor. Tony hadn’t thought he actually needed to tell the military all that again because he had been pretty straightforward about it the first time, after the whole Iron Patriot and A.I.M. debacle.
“You are being given an order, Colonel,” Major Bryson tried to reason with Rhodey – or force him to bend backwards and return home with his tail between his legs. Tony knew that wasn’t going to happen. Threatening to take the armor away from him was a surefire way to turn Rhodey into a prickly bear, and anyone who thought it a good idea to poke at that bear in any given situation was in for a nasty surprise.
“We’re fighting an alien invasion all over the world,” Rhodey stated, voice flat. “The Avengers have the power to do more damage than most carefully executed military attacks I’ve seen. Tony is getting better, will continue to get better, and whether he does or doesn’t, his place is with the Avengers – as is mine for the time being. You can put that in your report,” Rhodey finished, then left, and Tony was fairly certain the armor followed him – which wasn’t something that happened unless J.A.R.V.I.S. was present in the armor because War Machine’s current interface wasn’t as sophisticated as the one in Tony’s own armors, and Rhodey had no interest in a backseat driver.
Tony straightened in his place on the bed, paying a bit more attention to his whereabouts again. His team was still moving around and it sounded like the bots were helping with gear check-ups; they couldn’t do much, but sometimes pointing a light or holding onto something was enough, and they could do that without problems.
It didn’t take long before the door opened to a busy hallway and Rhodey walked in – followed by the armor. The door closed an instant later, cutting off the sounds of the people passing by their room.
Tony waited patiently although it didn’t take more than three seconds for Rhodey to walk over to him and sit by him on the bed.
“Did you hear that?” Rhodey asked.
“Hear what?” Tony questioned innocently.
“The conversation I just had with the Major General,” Rhodey clarified. “I figured J.A.R.V.I.S. was playing house in my armor when its helmet moved to look at the General, so I thought he might have told you what was going on.”
Tony nodded and played with his hands, stretching his fingers and popping joints. “It’s nice to hear the Air Force thinks so fondly of me,” he replied at length.
Rhodey leaned closer to him, bumping their shoulders together. “I don’t think like that,” he reassured Tony, voice dropping lower. No one else was talking, which meant they might be listening to their conversation. “I’m going to stay right here, with you, until… Until something comes up, or I need to be somewhere else.”
“They want to stick me in a hospital somewhere,” Tony retorted.
“They’ve wanted to do that since day one, but we’re not letting them,” Rhodey promised. “You’re worth so much more, and just because they can’t see it…”
“But I haven’t figured it out!” Tony snapped, shifting his head to aim his eyes in the direction Rhodey’s face might be. “I don’t know why the aliens attacked me and tried to kill me. I might never figure it out.”
“You will,” Rhodey told him. “I’m sure of it. I know you – have known you for such a long time – and you always come out on top.”
Tony had several replies to that, starting with the fact that he hadn’t been able to save the woman he loved and he counted that as a huge, gaping loss, but he took what he could from Rhodey’s conviction and leaned against him, nodding. “Did you get someone to take a look at the armor?” he asked instead.
“No, and I don’t think I’m going to,” Rhodey groused. “Not before I’m sure General Bryson is gone and done giving me orders I’m not going to follow.”
“You had an argument with your superior?” Steve asked from somewhere in the room.
“Didn’t go well, I take it,” Natasha guessed.
“They want me back in their part of the war, making it sound like I’ve abandoned them and taken their best weapon with me to joyride with you guys.”
“That’s pretty much what you did,” Tony piped up.
“Maybe, but I’m doing more good here than trying to put out fires elsewhere,” Rhodey decided. “I know I can help, wherever I am, but there would come a time when War Machine wouldn’t be enough and I would still worry about you,” he finished, voice dropping again, one of his hands gently grasping Tony’s. “You’re not a cripple,” he added, as if he needed to say it.
“I would welcome a prosthetic, if there was one,” Tony volunteered.
“Give it time,” Bruce said, not for the first time, and Tony wondered how much time was ‘enough’. Extremis wasn’t doing anything in the way of fixing his eyes – not without some tweaking – and Tony wasn’t yet confident he was able to make the necessary adjustments to start re-programming Extremis in order to try and find a way for it to regenerate his eyes and the other damaged parts inside his skull.
“You’ll figure it out,” Rhodey told him, squeezed his hand and then got up. “How about J.A.R.V.I.S. and I tell you what’s wrong with my armor and you tell us how to fix it?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Tony agreed and lay back on the bed, seeing as it didn’t matter what position he was in; all he needed to do was to listen and then use his brain and explain things in a manner that would make sense to Rhodey.
They spent the next few hours making minor repairs to Rhodey’s armor. Tony got frustrated every ten minutes or so, getting up and shoving his way to the armor to feel his way around ‘because he could do a better job of it even when blind’, but they got the most pressing problems sorted out and Tony was glad he could do at least that much. It kept him busy, too, which was one of the worst things about being blind: there was so little he could do.
Clint had told him to learn Braille, but Tony had so far refused; it would have been a step closer to defeat and admitting that he might never be able to see again. If he ventured too far down that road, he might forget he ever held onto the hope that his condition wasn’t permanent. On the other hand, Bruce had said it would be a good brain exercise for them both, so Tony was considering the whole Braille thing just to keep himself stimulated.
They ventured out to eat in a canteen on base once Tony and Rhodey were finished. Knowing how uncomfortable Tony was about eating in public, the team decided to grab some food and head back to their room. They were standing in the queue, Steve using his height and superior eyesight to inform Tony what they were having for dinner, when someone walked over to them, quickly and purposefully.
“Agent Hill,” Steve said, cutting off his food description at ‘rye bread and butter’. “This is a surprise.”
“I need you to assemble, now,” the agent said, brisk as usual. Tony imagined he felt her gaze sweep over him, then past him, as if he was of no significance to her.
“We’re all here,” Clint pointed out.
“An enemy force has been detected in Washington. We need you there to engage the aliens while we proceed with evacuations,” agent Hill explained.
“I thought all the key personnel had long since been evacuated?” Rhodey asked.
“Most of them have been, but you don’t move a mountain in a day,” Hill replied.
“Generally it’s not advisable to move a mountain at all,” Tony noted.
“You should prepare for immediate departure,” Hill went on as if Tony hadn’t spoken at all.
“Of course,” Steve agreed, then nudged Tony’s arm. “Do you want to grab something to eat before we leave?”
“I’ll be fine,” Tony promised.
“I’m sure they won’t mind if we cut the line to get you something to eat,” Steve reassured him.
“I can’t have Captain America getting resentful looks because of me,” Tony mocked. “It would be unprofessional, to put you in that sort of position. Besides, we have something to eat back at the room, right?”
“Nutrition bars are meant for prolonged combat situations,” Natasha answered him. “They’re hardly a proper diet if there’s actual food available.”
“I’ll get Tony something to eat,” Bruce promised. “I don’t need all that much time to prepare,” he added ruefully.
“Just change to your worst pair of pants,” Tony grinned, then followed Steve out of the queue and back to their room, trying to keep track of where they were going but failing more often than he would have liked, even when they had come that way once already.
Back in their room, Tony sat down on the bed he had chosen for himself and listened to the Avengers bustle around: zippers were drawn, belts tightened, protective gear strapped on. Steve’s shield banged against a wall a few times, the sound faint but distinct, and then Rhodey did something to test the suit, the whirs and shifts of mechanical parts an almost soothing undertone in the commotion.
Bruce joined them when everyone else was almost done suiting up. Tony smelled the food and allowed the scientist a chance to explain to him what exactly he was going to be eating. Tony knew from experience that the food would be almost tasteless, made in large quantities from easily stored ingredients – or in a few rare cases, something fresh that needed to be eaten before it went bad. Today wasn’t one of those days, apparently, and Tony picked with some resentment at the sandwich Bruce had put together for him. He was hungry, though, and regular meals were not so common these days that he would turn up his nose at it.
“The bots will stay with you,” Bruce said unnecessarily, sounding a little out of breath; he must have taken Tony’s advice and changed into a pair of pants that might just survive the battle – or if they didn’t, it wasn’t a huge loss. “Is J.A.R.V.I.S. installed in this base?”
“No, but they’ve got really good reception here so he’ll be hanging around,” Tony replied, tapping his ear suggestively. “I’ll be fine,” he added, although he didn’t necessarily feel great about being left on his own. However, the bots would be with him, which was a lot better than most of the other alternatives.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Steve promised.
“I’m sure J.A.R.V.I.S. will keep you updated on the fight,” Rhodey added and came over long enough to squeeze Tony’s shoulder. “Don’t go wandering around on your own.”
Why he would think Tony would go wandering around a base at which they had just arrived, Tony didn’t know. He didn’t bother voicing his opinion, however, knowing that the others were gearing towards battle and didn’t need a distraction that might prove fatal. “Give ’em hell,” Tony encouraged.
“Aye,” Thor agreed. “Let us go, for we shall return faster that way.”
One by one they walked out, Rhodey bringing up the rear after getting in his armor. As the door closed, Tony felt a bit alone, but Dummy and You decided to roll over to him then, as if sensing he wanted company. Tony feigned disinterest, but eventually decided to check the bots for exterior damages, feeling around them with his fingers, one inch and screw at a time.
“Sir, would you like live updates from the battle?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked through the earpiece after a while.
“They aren’t there yet, are they?”
“Well… let me know if something drastic happens; I don’t need a blow-by-blow.”
“Very well, sir. I assume you don’t wish to log in to the team’s comm frequency, either?”
Tony sighed but resisted the temptation. He felt left-out as it was; he didn’t need to make it worse. “See if you can do a remote installation of your visitation sub-program into the base’s system. The transition between S.H.I.E.L.D. bases should start getting smoother by now.” That task would keep the AI busy for a bit, with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s firewalls in the way.
“Alternatively, you could just ask Director Fury for permission to have the visitation sub-program installed at their facilities in order to make you and the Avengers’ periods of residence easier.”
“Like that’s going happen,” Tony snorted.
“We are at war, sir, and the Avengers are, to use a crude description, the strongest weapon humanity has to battle the aliens. Director Fury most certainly sees it in that light and should not find your request unreasonable.”
Tony debated it. Perhaps if the mission in D.C. went well, he would try a less sneaky approach.
In the meanwhile, with the bots checked out to his satisfaction, Tony laid back on the bed, trying to relax. He needed to get used to this for as long as he was unable to join the others. How could he, though? He would only get in the way or be left behind – or require someone to keep an eye on him, to keep him safe. His place wasn’t on the field anymore.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly, with a far more urgent tone, “there are people approaching your room.”
“Someone I know?” Tony asked.
“What do they want?”
“It is… unclear.”
Just then there was a knock, and Tony heard someone open the door. “Mr. Stark,” an unfamiliar female voice called out. Not a monotone agent, he could tell. “Would you come with us?” she requested next.
Tony sat up slowly, turning his face towards the door although he could not see it or her – or what lay beyond. “Why?”
“I will explain on the way.”
Tony frowned. “Has something happened?” he asked, not getting up just yet. “Are we under attack?”
“Not that I know of. Do you need assistance?” she asked, changing the subject slightly, and Tony bristled.
“No,” he replied, then snapped his fingers and reached out. One of the bots was at his side in an instant and Tony used the robot’s body to lift himself to his feet and find his balance. “What is this about?” he asked again.
“It will all become clear soon enough,” the woman promised, and then Tony felt someone taking his arm. The touch was firm and not a woman’s, which made him shift away from the intruding touch.
“We don’t have time to waste,” a male voice informed him. This one was either military or S.H.I.E.L.D.
Tony tried shaking off the hand, and the bot he wasn’t currently holding onto let out a sharp noise from across the room, moving closer. “Let go of my arm,” Tony ordered, but instead of letting go, the fingers tightened.
“This is for your own good,” the man told him and pulled him forward.
“What is?” Tony snapped, suddenly not at all comfortable with the situation.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. started, the AI’s tone suggesting he shared Tony’s apprehension.
“Please, come with us,” the woman pleaded again. “You will be safe, I promise.”
“Do the other Avengers know you are here?” Tony asked them, still trying to release himself. He let go of the bot at his side and tried prying the man’s touch from his arm, which wasn’t working – not before one of the bots must have intervened, causing the man to jump and let out a cry of pain.
“Tell your robots to back off!” the man snapped at Tony, and the grip that had loosened briefly returned twice as hard. Clearly they had moved from polite requests to brutal force in short order.
“How about you back off before one of them runs you over?” Tony challenged. His pulse was picking up, and while he didn’t like to do it, he would use Extremis to get these people away from him. Of course, he would have preferred not to burn down the room to make a point.
“He’s heating up,” the man holding his arm noted.
“Shit,” the woman murmured. Tony was so used to listening for small, previously insignificant sounds that he caught it easily. “Hold him still; I’ll sedate him.”
“No, you won’t,” Tony balked, fighting the grip. “Get off me, or you might lose that hand.”
“Nurse?” the man called out.
“Hold him still,” she ordered, moving into the room – only to be blocked by the bots, probably, because she let out a surprised breath. “Get away from me!”
“Call them off or I shut them down permanently,” the man threatened, and Tony thought he heard a gun holster being snapped open.
“You shoot them and I’ll punch my fist through your face,” Tony promised.
“This isn’t necessary,” the woman tried to say, sounding flustered. “You will be transported to a facility more suited to your needs, to rehabilitate you.”
So, the day had finally come. Tony wondered why this hadn’t happened the first time the Avengers were out fighting and Tony was left behind. Perhaps Rhodey’s argument with his senior officer had something to do with it, the military’s patience running short.
“Fuck you,” Tony hissed and focused, feeling his body heating up in response to the threat he could not see.
“Give me the needle!” the man still holding onto his arm ordered, and Tony wished he knew what happened in the next few seconds because he would have preferred to intervene before he felt a sting at his neck and heard the telltale hiss of an injector gun.
His world grew fuzzy in seconds, the heat sucked out of him and disappearing, leaving only coolness behind. Tony was dimly aware of someone catching him before he fell, dragging him over to a flat surface, and then something closed around his wrists, cool and hard.
The haze disappeared much sooner than it should have because even though Extremis had been momentarily set back, Tony’s designs hadn’t left room for a lot of things to interfere with it. Once he could feel his limbs again, he tried getting up, but found his wrists cuffed to the surface he was lying on.
“Stay calm, please,” the woman was pleading with him.
“J,” Tony called out, the single syllable harder to form than it should have been. There was no response from J.A.R.V.I.S. and Tony tried to lift his hand up to check his ear, remembering too late that his hand was cuffed near his waistline.
Somewhere at his side, the bots let out furious sounds and then something heavy crashed into a wall – or a closed door. The bots’ sounds grew weaker, and Tony felt a slight draft, as if he was being moved.
“Prepare the transport,” the woman said, probably to the man whom Tony was going to personally beat into a pulp if he had hurt the bots in any way. The woman went on talking, a little breathless like she was walking fast: “Make sure they’re ready for him at the –”
She was cut off by the sound of a massive crash and alarms began wailing all around them. For an instant Tony was certain the aliens were attacking, and while it may have served as a distraction to let him slip away, he was still doped up and cuffed to a stretcher or something like that.
“Move away from him, please,” a voice demanded from dead ahead, and Tony’s heart jumped in relief.
“We are authorized by –” the man started speaking.
“Step away from Mr. Stark or I will fire,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said through the familiar resonance of the armor’s speakers.
“You don’t understand,” the woman tried her luck. “He will be looked after, away from the horrors of the war. He is in no condition to be dragged around the country!”
“Move away, now,” the AI commanded, and it must have looked convincing because Tony heard her take a couple steps. “You as well, agent,” J.A.R.V.I.S. demanded, which meant the man wasn’t cooperating. Tony closed his eyes, hoping things didn’t get bloody.
“We have our orders, and some metal bucket isn’t going to stop me –”
There was one sharp hiss and the sound of a falling body. Tony didn’t instantly recognize the weapon but he knew J.A.R.V.I.S. hadn’t used deadly force.
“Please,” the woman pleaded.
An instant later, Tony felt something tug at the cuff around his left arm – then tear it apart. The same procedure was soon followed on his right hand, releasing him, and Tony struggled to sit up despite the dizziness that overtook him.
“Are you alright, sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.
“I take it you deployed Mark 50?” Tony guessed, slowly moving his legs over the edge of the stretcher he had been lying on. It swayed slightly beneath him as he moved his weight, further increasing the sick feeling in his chest.
“Indeed. After I lost contact with you, it seemed prudent.” The AI fell silent for a moment and Tony tried lowering his feet to the floor. “Sir, it would appear there is some confusion whether the order to take you to a recovery facility in Houston is sanctioned or not.”
“Taking me anywhere against my will is breaking just a few of my rights,” Tony grunted, trying to find his balance. “That’s some strong stuff they injected into me,” he confessed, uncertain how much J.A.R.V.I.S. knew of what had happened in the room.
“There are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and military personnel on their way. Sir, for your safety, please get in the suit,” the AI requested.
Tony thought of fighting it, but given the circumstances, he would feel a lot better in an environment he could control – or in which he felt safe – and the suit was just that.
“Open it up,” Tony ordered, swallowing, and he heard the telltale sounds of the armor unfolding to let him in. Reaching out with his hand, Tony felt around the familiar curves, then tried stepping into the armor. He missed his target by several inches, almost crashed to the floor as vertigo tugged at his head, and J.A.R.V.I.S. must have seen that because an instant later the armor was moving around him, enveloping him in a firm embrace that was almost suffocating in its suddenness.
Tony gasped, tasting the filtered air. The sounds around him were familiar but not at all comforting in a way he had expected they would be. He had a second to come to that conclusion before J.A.R.V.I.S. took the first step, and Tony grunted at the sensation of his leg being moved without his approval. Had he been limp and relaxed, it might have been different, but it was instinctual to resist the pull – and then resist the next step even more.
“J, this isn’t working,” Tony said. “Let me out.”
“Sir, that is highly ill-advised.”
“You’re going to make me pull a muscle!”
“Please try to relax.”
Tony tried, and then tried again as step after step took him somewhere he couldn’t see or hear. His arm moved next, fingers extending, locking around something – a handle, perhaps, because the motion was familiar. He heard the bots again and the helmet carried their elated greetings to his ears.
Other sounds started coming in as well: shouts, commands – an order to stand down, to get out of the suit or power down.
J.A.R.V.I.S. did not reply verbally, perhaps expecting Tony to speak for them this time. The AI did move the armor into a slightly better stance in case of an attack.
Tony tensed, the pose feeling strange although it mimicked his usual battle position. He could not relax, try as he might, and the air in the armor was starting to feel thicker. He knew it wasn’t a malfunction in the suit, though, but his body gearing towards a panic attack.
“Fuck,” he whispered, trying to focus, to get with the program. “Just, can you not move for a bit?” he finally requested his AI.
“Try to move with the armor and not against it,” J.A.R.V.I.S. offered unhelpfully.
“How can I when I don’t know where you’re going to move it next!?” Tony snapped.
“The motions are mostly derived from your usual patterns of –”
“It’s not the same as me doing the moving,” Tony argued. “I can’t see anything and can’t feel anything but the suit, and every time you move even a little it feels like I’m being forced to obey.”
The AI, hopefully, spent the next few seconds considering this. “Would you like to take over instead?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked at length.
While that sounded tempting, Tony knew how it was going to end – and how it wasn’t. “I can’t see, J. Where would I take us, other than through the nearest wall?”
“I could guide you – verbally.”
“Just let me out,” Tony pleaded. His chest was feeling tight, still, although talking had made the worst of the panic disappear.
“It is not safe. These people cannot be trusted.” J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn’t usually the suspicious type, but Tony forgave the AI after what had just happened.
“Okay,” Tony sighed. “Take us back into the room, get the bots in there with us, and then just… I’ll find a good position and we’ll wait for the others to come back, okay?” He knew it could be a long wait and he hadn’t even gotten a chance to eat yet. It was highly unlikely he would manage to sleep inside the armor, either, and if he did, he could just imagine the pain he would be in afterwards.
“Shall I walk, or will you?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked, not questioning the huge holes in Tony’s plan. Most likely all the AI wanted was to keep him safe – and keep him calm.
Tony knew that if he tried walking in the armor, it would look highly unnatural. “You do it,” he sighed. “I’ll… try to follow your lead.”
Even though J.A.R.V.I.S. warned him before each step and turn, every motion felt totally foreign. Tony didn’t complain, to make it end sooner, and they finally made it back in their room, barricaded inside with the bots while S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and military personnel stood outside, arguing over whose idiotic plan it had been to try and smuggle him out of the base. Tony tried to relax inside the armor and closed his eyes to pretend that the darkness surrounding him was simply him resting his eyes after a long day.
to be continued…