Amaurosis • Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Watch / Hide
Day 184 of the Alien-Human War
The hospital room in Los Alamitos base was nothing fancy, but it offered privacy.
After the team had arrived, they had taken Rhodey away. Tony was not a good enough liar to hide how much it distressed him, and perhaps that was why the others negotiated for him to be allowed to sit with Rhodey after the man was through with examinations and initial treatment.
Tony had cleaned up and eaten when Clint pestered him to do it, threatening to go and awaken Bruce from his post-Hulk slumber if he didn’t eat his veggies like a good boy. It wasn’t that Tony had anything against veggies, but he simply hadn’t felt like he could stomach any kind of food. He knew Bruce needed his rest, though, so he forced himself to eat, and amazingly enough the food stayed down.
Once they had wheeled Rhodey to a private room and allowed Tony to begin his silent vigil at his bedside, the others had pretty much vanished. The bots were outside the room – Tony could hear them every now and then – but otherwise it was just the beeps of the machines and Tony sinking deeper into the darkness when nothing happened.
After a while, he inched his chair closer to Rhodey’s bed and felt his way around, carefully taking the closest of his friend’s hands between his, allowing the touch to ground him. An apology hovered on his lips constantly, but he held it back, knowing no one would be listening to it right now.
When one of the nurses attempted to enter the room, hours later, the bots obviously blocked her path. Tony listened to it for a few seconds, then yelled for the bots to let her through; he wasn’t going to go stumbling around the room to find the door, so he sat and waited like the blind person he was for the world to adjust itself around him.
The nurse entered, not saying a word to him. Tony could feel her eyes on him, though, and it was as if she knew… He inched his chair back, letting go of Rhodey’s hand – fully intending to resume his earlier position once she was gone.
There were sounds as the nurse moved around: more machines beeping, sheets being rustled, pen scrawling over paper fastened onto a clipboard.
Tony licked his lips, tried to wait it out, but in the end he could not make himself wait until Bruce woke up and came to tell him the news. “Is it bad?” he asked the nurse.
There was a startled intake of breath, as if she had expected for him to be mute as well as blind. Tony would’ve been offended if he’d had the time to spare on such a trivial feeling.
“He has a lot of bruising, a sprained wrist and most likely a concussion,” the nurse finally replied.
“And the burn?” Tony asked, trying to make it sound casual.
“Second degree, for the most part. It should heal with enough time.”
Tony suppressed any outward reaction he wanted to give. Second degree burns left a mark, and it could be a month before Rhodey could get back in the suit without risk of pain and further injury. Well, his suit was mostly scrap metal from what Clint and Natasha had reported, so perhaps that wasn’t such an issue…
Still, it sickened him, and for a moment he recalled the smell of burnt flesh, and felt like retching.
The nurse didn’t notice, finishing her inspection before leaving without another word.
It took Tony a long time to convince himself he could move and touch Rhodey without accidently burning him again. The fact that it had been an accident didn’t alleviate his guilt in the slightest, and he hoped the medical staff had at least given Rhodey some painkillers to combat the inevitable pain.
Tony was holding onto Rhodey’s hand, thumb restlessly caressing his skin, when the other man stirred. “Goddamn,” he groaned and shifted. “Where are we?” he asked next, which meant he was awake and probably looking at Tony.
“Los Alamitos,” Tony replied cautiously and extracted his hands from Rhodey’s person, just in case Rhodey recalled what had happened on the battlefield.
“Are you okay?” was what Rhodey asked, instead of an accusation.
“Yeah,” Tony shrugged. “Are you in pain? Do you need meds? I’m sure they have some…”
Rhodey shifted around a bit and hissed. “I’ll be feeling some of this for the next week,” he started – then hissed again and shifted some more. “That looks… nasty,” he stated after a long pause.
Tony resisted the temptation to shift his chair away. “The burn?”
“Yeah. Don’t remember getting it, which is probably fortunate.”
Tony clamped his jaw shut, preventing the apology from escaping just yet, which resulted in a rather suffocated sound.
“What’s wrong?” Rhodey asked.
“I…” Tony hesitated.
What kind of opening was he waiting for? Then again, he could just say that the exo-suit had caused it and Rhodey would be none the wiser – not unless Steve spilled the beans for him. Hulk, after all, wasn’t one to gossip, and Tony wasn’t sure if the rage monster had paid attention to his and Steve’s exchange when there was a broken exo-suit to kick around.
“Nothing,” Tony finally said.
“I know that face,” Rhodey argued. Tony tried to relax his facial muscles. “Yeah, that face,” Rhodey pushed, then drew a sharp breath as something hurt. “Just spill, Tony,” he ordered. “I got the shit kicked out of me saving your ass, so the least you can do is stop pretending there isn’t something that’s bothering you – which, I might add, you’re unsuccessfully trying to hide from me.”
Rhodey had no idea, and Tony was fast losing his resolve to find a way to wrap the truth in a lie. “I gave you that burn,” he admitted. “I didn’t mean to, but I should have realized it could happen.” People said telling the truth was a way to feel relieved, but Tony didn’t experience that.
A silence followed and Tony wished he could see Rhodey’s face to be able to predict his reaction. Rhodey didn’t have that much of a poker face – not around Tony, because they had long since stopped bothering with that kind of stuff.
“What’d you use to burn me like that?” Rhodey finally asked. He didn’t sound accusatory – at least not yet. Maybe he was just relieved Tony was okay, because the last time he was conscious, things hadn’t exactly been going their way.
“The same thing that I used to rip the exo-suit apart,” Tony admitted. Rhodey may have not immediately found out about the origin of the burn, but there was no way Steve wouldn’t tell someone about Tony’s confession concerning Extremis and his brief ability to see with his own two eyes – sort of.
“You took it down?” Rhodey responded, sounding positively shocked. “How? Did you get another suit to help you out?”
Tony shook his head. “Extremis,” he replied.
It was fairly likely Rhodey was frowning. “But you didn’t… blow up or anything, right? Like those other ones. Or breathe fire.”
Tony bit back a laugh. “Breathe fire? Hell, no,” he denied. “And no blowing up, either – obviously,” he added, even though Rhodey should have figured that out. “The Extremis I’m using is a lot more refined. You remember that, right?”
“It just… started acting up,” Tony summed up, knowing that Rhodey was waiting for an explanation. “I felt all hot and invincible, and then I could see, like I was looking at the world through a wall of fire. I attacked the alien like there was no tomorrow, and I remember being… savage…” There were a lot of blanks in his memory, like he couldn’t tap into that kind of animal instinct in his current state of mind.
“What does that mean?” Rhodey asked.
“Savage?” Tony guessed. “It’s like… I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but it was like all the excess thoughts and emotions left my head and all that was left was the primal need for revenge and to protect you.”
Words didn’t really grasp how it had felt. All Tony could recall was simply an echo of the intensity of those minutes, and he would have to examine his memories to comprise a real answer for later.
Rhodey was silent again, probably mulling over Tony’s words and trying to unlock the hidden meanings lurking inside them. “How long did it last?” he asked eventually.
“Not long,” Tony responded. “Maybe ten minutes. By the time I was done with the exo-suit, my thoughts cleared up a bit. I went to check on you and…”
“Burned my shoulder,” Rhodey predicted.
“Yeah.” Tony felt ashamed again. “I tried to rouse you, and it took just a second to do that,” he explained and motioned towards the general direction of Rhodey’s shoulder. “I cooled down pretty fast after that.”
“It’s okay, Tony,” Rhodey told him. “I’ll live. It stings like a mother, but like you said, they probably have meds for that and I know you didn’t mean to do it.” There was a pause, and then Rhodey was reaching out for him, catching one of Tony’s hands in his. “Now, can we talk about the fact that something happened and you could see again?”
Tony closed his fingers around Rhodey’s, relief washing through him. “It was amazing,” he admitted. “Different, but amazing.” He couldn’t help smiling. “I don’t know how, or why, and it wasn’t the same as actual eyesight, but it was the closest I’ve had since…”
Rhodey squeezed his hand hard. “We’ll figure it out,” he said – much the same as Steve had when he found Tony on the battlefield, and Tony was starting to think that it really was happening.
He would have his eyesight back.
Day 176 of the Alien-Human War
Steve untangled them from the parachute, allowing Tony a few precious minutes to ground himself. Snow crunched beneath his feet every time he moved, and he was growing increasingly aware of the fact that he wasn’t dressed for the weather. It was like that crash in Tennessee all over again…
“Here,” Steve said suddenly, moving closer. “I grabbed some clothes for you.”
Tony felt a bundle of fabric brushing against his hand and grabbed hold of it, unfolding it and feeling his way around the pants. “When did you find the time for that?” he asked as he wrestled to step into the pants, checking twice that he had them turned the right way.
“Before we jumped,” Steve said, offering Tony a jacket once he was done with the pants. “Didn’t find shoes, though,” he lamented as Tony clumsily zipped up the jacket.
Tony wriggled his toes in the undersuit’s footwear. They would isolate the cold for a while, but they were essentially slippers, meant to shelter his feet and maintain circulation inside the armor while not causing discomfort or getting in the way. “I’ll manage,” he promised.
Somewhere above them, something exploded, and Tony could almost imagine the source of the noise steadily falling down until it hit the ground with a resounding crash.
“A Drone,” Steve told him. “The battle’s ceasing for now.” He didn’t specify whether they were winning, or if both sides were simply drawing back to lick their wounds before round two – or three, if one counted the battle at the caldera. “We need to find the others and regroup,” Steve continued then, determination in his voice. “We’ll find the bots.”
In the middle of falling through the air and realizing it was highly unpleasant doing so without seeing a thing, Tony had momentarily forgotten about the bots. Steve’s words prompted a nod and a wave of concern – as well as gratitude. “Thank you for saving them,” Tony said, hoping that Steve could hear the honesty in his words. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You would have fought me tooth and nail if I hadn’t,” Steve replied. “I simply chose the route that was likelier to get us all to safety the fastest.”
“A tactical decision…” Tony muttered. He felt a bit disappointed that was Steve’s reason – although he was glad, too, for obvious reasons.
Steve must have seen that in his expression because he stepped closer to Tony and laid his hands on his shoulders. “I know the bots are important to you, Tony. They are your family – and you don’t leave family behind. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure why you wanted to have them around so much, always complaining how useless they were. J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed like your natural extension, and he has proven himself extremely useful, but the bots were like a science project gone wrong, yet you were too sentimental to toss ’em.”
Tony stiffened, and Steve’s fingers shifted, rubbing circles that were probably supposed to soothe his ire.
“Then the aliens attacked and you lost your sight. You would have lost your way, too, if not for the bots. Even when you didn’t accept help from us, you accepted it from them, and ever since then… they have protected you, and looked after you. They offer you comfort when you can’t seem to let yourself welcome it from us, and they often seem to have better luck at communicating things to you than we do. There are times when I envy them for that, but I know the two of us never really spoke the same language to begin with – yet it is frustrating that two machines without the ability to speak seem to have a greater understanding of who you are than I ever will.”
“I built them,” Tony shrugged, trying not to smile. “It stands to reason we have a rapport.”
“But they’re not human,” Steve insisted.
“Humans are difficult, often on purpose.”
Steve chuckled. “You think I’m difficult on purpose?”
“Well…” Tony could no longer contain the smile, and that must have been what Steve was waiting for, because he moved to offer Tony a final piece of clothing: a soft, warm, woolly hat to place on his head so that his bare scalp and the implants wouldn’t freeze.
Tony fussed with the hat for a bit, then felt Steve move to his side and slide his right arm down Tony’s left, indicating that he would be leading him forward. Tony accepted it, curling his hand around Steve’s elbow, letting him know that he was ready to move.
When the war started, he and Steve hadn’t argued as much. There had been no time for it, and no energy left to spare in between planning and fighting – and in Tony’s case, developing means to both attack the aliens and sustain life on Earth when their water source became contaminated and the industry was partially crippled in many areas due to alien attacks.
After Tony could no longer see, it felt like his relationship with the entire team slowly morphed into something else, and no matter how much independence he had gained with the activation of the implants, it felt like there was no going back from the shift in the team’s dynamic.
If there ever came a day when he could see again… Tony wasn’t sure what would happen to that new dynamic. He already knew he didn’t like thinking about the possibility of losing the rather intimate closeness with the others. It was a selfish thought, he knew that, but he liked to at least pretend that helping and safeguarding him had given the team as a whole a new purpose and a sense of unity they hadn’t had before.
Whether they needed a cripple in their midst to bring out the kind of cohesion they have been experiencing lately…
“Watch your step,” Steve said quietly. “Tree line ahead.”
Tony nodded in affirmation but couldn’t do much about it. He needn’t have worried, though: Steve guided him past trees and bushes, warning him about traps like pointy tree roots and stones; Tony could hear frozen branches dragging against the vibranium shield, and every now and then a soft whoosh of snow falling down, but not once did a branch hit his face or snow fall on top of him. It was slow going, but Steve did not complain or suggest Tony stay behind while he could go out to scout.
Knowing how he felt about being left behind, Tony did not suggest it either, even though he knew they would have proceeded much faster that way.
Every now and then, something flew through the air. Tony suspected they were enemy aircrafts because Steve didn’t try to get their attention. A couple times they halted and crouched down, and Tony was extremely conscious of how Steve hovered above him, shielding Tony with his body as well as his shield. Without his ability to see, Tony could hardly complain or move in a way that would enable him to hide himself.
Tony began shivering before long, even though he wasn’t as cold as he probably should have been; thank Extremis for small miracles, and the clothes Steve had thoughtfully grabbed for him to wear in a situation where he should have been more concerned with the falling Quinjet.
Considering the time that must have passed, Tony was fairly certain that night had fallen. The woodland around them was silent, save for the occasional cracks of trees and distant sounds of engines. There was no familiar sound of the armor thrusters, however, and it began filling Tony with concern.
“How far do you think we are from the others?” Tony asked.
“Hard to say,” Steve replied. “Clint and Natasha didn’t jump that long before us, and the Quinjet was starting to tilt back the way we came as it fell…”
Tony wished they had a flare or something, to signal their position – or at least an operating comm. Any sign sent out for their fellow Avengers would mean drawing the enemy fire, though, and he knew why Steve hadn’t explored that option.
Walking in a snowy forest was hard work, exhausting Tony faster than he’d thought it would. It also drew most of his focus into what he was doing, not leaving him with a whole lot of extra concentration to worry about the bots, the other Avengers, or his AI. Well, he wasn’t really worried about J.A.R.V.I.S., who would be just fine until they found a way to contact him again.
They hit rockier terrain and the ground began to go steeply downhill. Tony slipped a few times, and only Steve’s fast reflexes kept him from tumbling down to whatever depths awaited them below. It was possible it was a ridiculously small stretch of downhill, but without being able to see, even a minor dip in the landscape became a terrifying obstacle.
Steve hesitated and stopped, and Tony stood still, toes prickling a little at the cold seeping in from the frozen earth. “I don’t think you can walk safely from here,” Steve observed.
Tony bit the inside of his cheek, trying to rein in his pride. “Can we go around?”
“Not without wasting a whole lot of time and energy.” It wasn’t his own stamina Steve was worried about, of course, and Tony knew this was not a time to boast that he wasn’t so easily tired.
“And this is the way you think we should go?” Tony guessed.
“I’m pretty sure I saw a flash of light that could be Thor, War Machine, or your armor. It is also in the direction I would think the others are.”
Tony hesitated – although not really, because he already knew what he was going to say next. Being blind and depending on others had slowly taught him not to speak his mind when it might do him a disservice. After all, none of these people were obligated to do a single thing for him. “You already have a plan, don’t you?” Tony said then. “Just say it, Cap. My toes are freezing.”
He could feel the other man’s eyes on him, no doubt giving him one of those concerned and annoyed looks Tony was so familiar with. Steve often accused him of being dishonest and secretive, holding onto facts that he should have shared, according to whatever code Steve liked to follow. Apparently it would make things ‘easier’ if he changed that. Tony rarely abided by his wishes, too used to playing things close to his chest.
“I’m fine,” Tony reassured the other man. “I’m not about to freeze to death, but I would rather keep moving than stand still, so if you have a way out of this, spill it.”
“I could carry you,” Steve said slowly, wording it like a suggestion when it really wasn’t one. It only went to show that Steve had learned the best way to make Tony do something – or any smart, full-of-themselves person – was to make them think the idea was their own and thus something worth considering.
Tony frowned. “That’s your big plan? Just give me your shield and I’ll slide down the hill.”
“And brain yourself on a tree?” Steve scoffed. “Not likely.”
Tony pursed his lips and shifted his right left foot to test the ground again. They were wasting time, but he didn’t want to sink so low that he needed to be carried around –
A familiar bleep carried across the quiet land, and Tony perked up at the sound of it, his heart beating a little faster. He knew Steve heard it, too, and the man made the tactical choice not to say anything while Tony battled his pride and his instinct to go and seek out the origin of the sound.
“Fine,” he snapped. “As long as we go towards the bots.”
Steve made an affirmative noise and moved in front of Tony, crouching down. It took Tony a moment to understand what he was supposed to do, then he reached out with his arms and found Steve’s shoulders, clumsily moving so that Steve could lift him up piggyback style.
The shield got in the way a bit, so eventually Tony made a grabby motion and Steve handed the shield to him. It took some struggling with the straps, but Tony managed to sling it on one arm while still firmly holding onto Steve, and then they took off, a lot faster than Tony had anticipated.
Steve wasn’t running, but he probably looked a lot like a mountain goat going down a steep hillside, surefooted even with the extra load on his back. Of course, it was possible they weren’t moving fast at all, but it felt a lot like falling all over again to Tony, who just clung to Steve and tried not to hinder his movements too much.
It didn’t take as long as falling from the Quinjet. Tony could feel it when they reached horizontal ground again, and Steve halted, crouching a bit to indicate Tony could get off his back.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Steve asked him once Tony was on his own feet again and pulling the shield off his arm.
“I’m just glad no one was around to see it,” Tony stated.
“I know you feel helpless, but really, it doesn’t mean –”
“Don’t,” Tony cut him off. “You would be the same in my position. Worse, probably.”
Steve made a sound of assent; for him, it hadn’t been all that long since he was a weakling aspiring to do things his physique simply didn’t allow. In that respect, he probably understood Tony’s dilemma better than the rest of their team.
Tony reached out for Steve’s arm again, and once it was offered to him, they set off in the direction of the noise they had heard. Not long after they began walking, another bleep reached their ears – louder this time. Tony tried walking faster, but it only ended in a bruised ankle when he hit it on a frozen branch and almost twisted it on top of that, so he had to be content with the pace Steve set and follow his lead.
Once upon a time, Tony would have thought Steve would enjoy a moment like this, where he got to dictate how fast and in which direction Tony moved, but this wasn’t a power struggle and they both knew it.
They drew closer to the origin of the sound, and Tony tried not to dread what they would find. With the bots pretty much falling down from the plane, slowed down by a couple parachutes and unable to control their landing, it was possible the end result wasn’t pretty. One of them was making noise, though, and the closer they got without actually finding them, the more tempted he was to ask Steve to just pick him up again and start running towards them.
With one last stumble through thick bushes, leafless and scratchy in their frozen state, there was a rather cheery mechanical chirp and Tony knew they were finally close enough for the bot to see them.
“It’s Dummy,” Steve told him. “He’s fine, although a bit tangled in his parachutes. Looks like he landed somewhere else and made his way over here.”
“Any sign of You?” Tony asked.
As if on cue, there came a faint beep – from above. Tony frowned and craned his neck, but obviously he could not see anything.
“Huh,” Steve hummed.
“What?” Tony asked, wanting facts.
“You is stuck in a tree.”
Of all the possible scenarios, that wasn’t one Tony had entertained in his mind, yet now that it was placed in his brain, he wondered how he hadn’t considered it. “But he’s okay?” he asked.
“He’s moving,” Steve confirmed and led them forward still, until Tony felt Dummy’s touch on his hand.
“Hey, buddy,” Tony greeted and abandoned Steve’s arm, allowed his cold hands to travel down Dummy’s form instead, to find the remnants of the parachutes. It was more than just the parachutes, though: it seemed Dummy had been dragging them across the forest and attached many a branch to his tangled collection. How he had made it through the snow with the parachutes slowing him down and getting stuck in every imaginable obstacle, Tony didn’t know.
You made another sound and Tony looked up, wishing he could somehow comfort the bot in his predicament.
Dummy made a much louder sound, and Tony shushed him sharply. “You’ll attract enemies, idiot,” he admonished, although softly, trying to pull at the mess of canvas and suspension lines.
The soft sound of a switchblade opening reached his ears. “Let me,” Steve volunteered, and while Tony was tempted to say he could do it himself, he would most likely end up cutting himself at least a few times.
Steve made relatively quick work of the trap Dummy had got himself into, and once the bot was free and rolling around, enjoying his freedom, they stopped to consider You’s dilemma.
“Is he in danger of falling down?” Tony asked. He hated not being able to see, and he was tempted to ask Steve to hand him the light helmet in order to fix that.
“If he keeps moving around much more, possibly. He’s tangled up pretty good, but he’s hanging upside-down and I know he isn’t exactly lightweight.”
You let out a sad sound much like an apology, and Tony tilted his head. “Can you climb up and release him?”
“He’s about thirteen feet in the air. Do you think he can survive the fall?”
Tony grimaced. “Let’s try not to do that,” he decided.
“I could go up and see whether loosening some of the suspension lines will lower him closer to the ground,” Steve offered.
“Sounds like a plan,” Tony agreed.
He heard Steve take a couple steps, snow crunching as he moved, but before Steve got to the tree, there was a much louder sound and You positively whimpered up in the tree.
“What’s happening?” Tony asked, alarmed.
“Hulk!” announced the Hulk as he plowed in through the trees. Tony didn’t need to see it in order to comprehend what was happening – and then there was a loud snap of frozen wood and You let out a shrill scream.
Tony froze, not knowing which way to go, but even though there was a sound of a falling tree coming from above him, nothing ultimately crashed on top of him – other than a shower of snow that made him shiver and sputter as some of it managed to get inside his jacket.
“Hulk find Tony,” the Hulk informed him – also from above him, and then the rage monster let out a grunt and the tree was obviously being shifted and tossed to the side.
You let out another sound of protest, and Dummy chimed in, snapping loudly at someone.
“Careful,” Steve ordered. “One of the bots is tangled in that tree.”
The Hulk huffed and moved. There was a sound of branches snapping, canvas tearing, and then a long, dubious whistle from You. “Robot free,” the Hulk proclaimed. “Bots not belong in trees,” he added, as if they had been fools to think otherwise.
“Thanks,” Tony said, even though he wasn’t completely certain what had just happened.
Dummy shifted beside him, and then there was the sound of the other bot rolling closer to them and Tony reached out, feeling You’s claws brush against his fingers.
“Any sign of the others?” Steve asked while Tony tried to check the bots over for damage.
The Hulk grunted, which wasn’t really an answer.
“We need to regroup,” Steve pressed.
“Aliens gone,” the Hulk replied. “Hulk smashed aliens.” He cracked his knuckles.
“They’ll be back,” Tony warned. “We need to find the team and get to safety. Somewhere less cold, preferably.”
“Hulk not cold.”
“Well, I am,” Tony retorted.
The Hulk hummed. “Build fire, get warm – signal team.”
“It will also signal the aliens,” Steve warned.
“Smash any aliens that come,” was the Hulk’s reply.
“You’ve been smashing a lot today,” Tony reminded the green goliath. “You’ll get tired, too, and if the aliens get back-up, we’re screwed.”
“Get back in the suit,” the Hulk suggested. Whether he thought that would be enough to beat a horde of aliens or simply a way to keep them safe, Tony didn’t know.
“I don’t know where my suit is,” Tony admitted.
The Hulk huffed.
“He’s pointing,” Steve informed Tony. “I think he saw at least one of the others, after all.”
“Then we have a heading,” Tony said.
They had about half their team together, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find the rest.
to be continued…