Amaurosis • Chapter 5
Chapter 5: Error / Trial
Day 189 of the Alien-Human War
They stayed at Los Alamitos for the next few days, recuperating from the recent battle and, in the case of some members of their team, giving old injuries time to heal some more.
Once Rhodey was awake and back to being his grumpy self when it came to resting in order to heal – really, he was worse than Tony when he felt like his time would be better spent somewhere else – Tony proceeded to find himself a lab space and began to work through the bits and pieces of data he had about what had occurred on the battlefield.
He spent hours theorizing possible reasons for its origin and the alternative outcomes based on those ideas. Normally, in order to verify and study an event, it was best if it could be replicated, but he wasn’t sure how to achieve that in this case.
Stress must have been a factor; a real life-and-death circumstance. It was nigh impossible to get into that same stage artificially, and his injuries may have been a factor, as well as Rhodey being in danger.
Unless he was going to replicate that situation and all of its unique components, there might not be a way to recreate the outcome and thus no chance to study it and comprehend its mechanics and future usability.
Tony sighed, displeased with the odds he was facing. He could not bend facts to his will – no matter how much he had come to hope for salvation after considering the opportunity so unexpectedly set before him.
If only he could reach it, somehow…
There was a possibility that the reaction from Extremis had been cut short; had Tony allowed it to continue, perhaps Extremis would have finished the job of healing his eyes which it had failed before. Maybe it was not enough to light a match: he needed to throw gasoline on the fire in order to create a blaze.
It was not the first time he missed the light helmet since the battle; if he’d had access to the artificial sight, he could have conducted tests more easily. As it was, he mostly communicated with J.A.R.V.I.S., using his hearing and mind’s eye to follow their progress. The lab space was hardly adequate, but it was the best he had been able to commandeer from the military. He would have loved to get some real-time data of the last stretch of the battle, too, but both Mark 52 and War Machine had been rendered inoperable by that point so there was nothing but his own vague memories to go by.
“Fight-or-flight is jump-started by the sympathetic nervous system. Pituitary gland and adrenal medulla play key roles in their secretion of ACTH and epinephrine… Replace gasoline with adrenaline and we might have us a bonfire,” he decided.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. questioned, sounding like he felt he was being left out of the loop.
“Find out if there are any medical supplies at the base,” Tony ordered.
“Indeed, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded with barely a pause.
“Where is the closest?”
“Down the corridor.”
“Do they have undiluted epinephrine in stock?”
“Accessing database,” the AI informed him.
Tony waited, as patiently as he could.
“Epinephrine located in stock, but for that you’ll have to go to another building,” the AI finally reported his findings.
“Is it accessible to the bots?”
“I believe so, sir.”
“Tell them where to find it and they can guide me there,” Tony decided.
“Should we inform someone of your intentions?” Which was one way for J.A.R.V.I.S. to try and tell him he suspected Tony had a potentially hazardous plan in mind.
“No,” Tony refused. “It might not work. And we need to get our ingredients first, anyway.”
“It may not be wise to cause any kind of fire – metaphoric or otherwise,” the AI cautioned.
“Where would mankind be without the invention of fire?” Tony challenged and reached out, feeling one of the bots rise to touch his hand shortly after. The familiar whirs and clicks calmed him as he prepared to be led around by his mechanical seeing-eye dogs. Before he did so, he reached into his pocket for an earpiece and carefully slipped it in his ear, just in case the bots got lost and J.A.R.V.I.S. needed to relay information to Tony directly.
“Alright, let’s go,” he said once he was ready, and the bot beneath his hand started moving forward.
Tony remembered a rough layout of the lab and opened the door for them, then walked a bit slower once they were outside. The bots didn’t hesitate: they rolled forward steadily, found the door leading outside, guiding Tony through it, and then they crossed the yard to another building, coming upon another door. This time Tony had to figure out how to open it, but it was not locked and they got inside without incident, the bots turning left after passing through the door and going down a hall until they must have reached their destination.
“You are at the medicine storage, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. notified him through the earpiece.
Feeling around, Tony found a door, but the handle would not budge.
“The lock requires an access card,” J.A.R.V.I.S. stated. “I shall override the system.”
As he waited, Tony ran his hand along the edge of the door and found the small box that was most likely the reader connected to the lock. He checked its shape with his fingertips until he heard a tiny electronic beep and moved his hand back to the handle, finding it responsive this time. “Thanks,” he murmured.
“Happy to help,” his AI replied.
Tony moved carefully past the bot that had previously guided him and walked into the cool air of the storage room. He ran his hands along the walls and shelves, shuffling his feet in order to avoid stumbling on anything that might be blocking his path. Back in the doorway, he could hear the bots follow him in, their noises amplified in the confined space.
“Find something that says epinephrine on the label,” Tony ordered. “I hope these things are alphabetized…”
Once again he would have been thankful for the helmet, but he could not read labels even if he had it. Not well enough to make out such fine print, anyway. He would have to take that into consideration in the next model. Mostly he just needed to make J.A.R.V.I.S. understand the difference between human vision and the artificial options they had already been using, and then see whether it was possible to replicate biological eyesight that would actually enable him to see things as they were.
Of course, if he managed to trigger Extremis into healing his eyes, none of that would matter.
By the sound of it, the bots were rummaging around in the storage, in search of the label Tony had ordered them to find. There were no distinct sounds of items crashing to the floor, and Tony was hopeful their trip might go without notice if there was no trail of destruction to follow back to his work space; it wasn’t that his experiment would have to be kept a secret, but he knew a lot of people would tell him it was unwise to go to such extreme measures, even if they knew of the brief event on the battlefield.
They would tell Tony to be patient and think it through, but he had been waiting for months to see the light at the end of the tunnel and he was not about to let this theory go untested.
A sharp chirp from one of the bots drew his attention: he could hear a claw scraping against cardboard and moved towards the sound, hoping that it wasn’t a false alarm.
He bumped into one of the bots on his way towards the sound, and the bot in question – he was fairly sure it was Dummy – backed away with an apologetic whir and collided with another shelf in the limited space. Tony wedged himself past the bot and over to You, whose arm he followed until he got to the box the bot was trying to remove from the shelf where it was tightly wedged between other boxes.
“J, do you have eyes on this?” Tony asked.
“Tilt the label toward U’s camera,” the AI requested through his earpiece.
Tony removed the box from the shelf and hoped the bot did the rest because he had no idea which way he was holding the box.
“The box contains 25 ampules of 1:1000 epinephrine for subcutaneous or intramuscular injection,” the AI confirmed.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” Tony decided and turned back towards the door. “Find some needles while you’re at it, boys.”
“Speaking of doctors,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said, “perhaps it would be wise to consult someone before you proceed with whatever plan you have in mind, sir.”
“You remember the thing about running before you can walk?” Tony asked.
“This is just like that.”
“With all due respect, to me it seems like running before you can even crawl…”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Tony dismissed his AI’s protest. He knew why J.A.R.V.I.S. was telling him this was potentially a bad idea – primary functions and all that – but caution had never been Tony’s specialty and if there was a way to dig his way out of the persistent darkness of blindness…
“What size needle is best for intramuscular injection?” Tony asked, to fill the silence.
“20 or 22 gauge, in the length of an inch or an inch and a half,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied almost instantly, sounding like he didn’t want to but knowing better than to ignore Tony.
“Dummy, You: look for those numbers,” Tony told the bots. His instructions were followed by beeps and whirs – and a few colliding sounds that made Tony cringe. He could hear the bots moving about, craning their arms up and down, scanning the shelves. Eventually, there came another affirmative bleep much like before and Tony moved towards it, finding one of the bots already holding a box. “Is that it?” he asked, feeling it over.
“It is suitable,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him, “although you still require filter needles in order to safely draw the epinephrine from the ampules.”
“That’s right,” Tony recalled. “This is getting complicated.”
“Which is why, perhaps, you should not be doing it unsupervised.”
“You and the bots are with me.”
“That hardly qualifies.”
One of the bots let out a sharp whistle, and Tony swore he could hear J.A.R.V.I.S. sigh.
“DUM-E has located filter needles and a larger, 30 milliliter syringe.”
“How much is in one ampule of epinephrine?”
“Alright, so, let me just grab those last two things…”
“And alcohol wipes,” J.A.R.V.I.S. added to the list.
You was helpful enough to locate those, and by the time they had everything, Tony had his hands full with boxes and packages. It took some organizing because he needed at least one of his hands free in order to be led around, and the bots each took one item off his hands, allowing him to settle a hand on Dummy’s arm and start the journey back to the lab.
They got there without being stopped or questioned. Tony didn’t hear other people, either, and he wondered whether there had been a call for an evacuation. He was positive J.A.R.V.I.S. would have informed him of any danger other than the one he was possibly subjecting himself to, though, and so he was simply relieved he didn’t have to explain himself to anyone on the way back.
Once in the lab, he locked the door, then organized the items on the table and slowly began to open the boxes, feeling his way around each item. It helped that he had a general idea of what he was holding, and what they were supposed to look like.
“Could we at least ask Dr. Banner to come join us?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked as Tony arranged the ampules on the table next to the pile of alcohol wipes.
“Nope,” Tony refused. “We’re going to keep this experiment just between us.” He halted in between unwrapping one of the syringes. “I mean it, J. Not a peep to anyone before I say so.”
“Very well, sir.”
Tony could hear it in J.A.R.V.I.S.’s tone that the AI wanted to rebel and go against his orders, but it was not something he had been programmed to do. Up to a point, he could make independent decisions, but going against an express order was yet to happen. Tony knew it was possible, within the virtual perimeters they had been building – and modifying – over the years, and if push came to shove…
He kept on going, setting down the syringe, making sure he had needles ready for it – one with a filter and another one for injection – before moving back to recount the ampules and their position on the table, the alcohol wipes, the box he had set aside to serve as the trash. He then returned to the needles and the syringe.
Connecting the filter needle to the syringe was not as much of a struggle as he had thought it would be: he connected the pieces and kept rotating the needle within its cover until it was tightly attached to the syringe.
“Okay,” he said, taking a steadying breath, and slowly took one of the alcohol wipes, opened the package, then folded it a bit before gripping the first ampule by its slender neck, twisting sharply to break it off. The first effort was a bit clumsy, but he got the ampule open and set it down carefully, reaching out for the syringe. He removed the needle cover and rotated the item in his hand until he could use his fingers to feel where the needle was going, and then picked up the opened ampule and made the first attempt to get the needle into the small vial.
It shouldn’t have surprised him that was easier said than done, and he probably ended up breaching most of the safety instructions by the time he got the needle in and carefully shifted his fingers to pull back the syringe’s plunger, hopefully drawing out the medicine inside the ampule.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., tell me when the ampule’s almost empty,” Tony ordered.
“You should start tilting the ampule after a few seconds, for maximum intake,” the AI instructed.
“Okay,” Tony murmured, and after counting to four he tilted the hand holding the ampule, simultaneously attempting to angle the needle.
“The needle is drawing in air. You need to lower it,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him.
Tony tried to follow instructions, and it felt like forever until J.A.R.V.I.S. deemed they were not getting any more of the medicine drawn out of the ampule, so Tony pulled back the needle and held it upright, wondering how he was going to push out the excess air – of which he suspected there was a lot – without squirting out most of the epinephrine at the same time.
He ended up placing a dry finger against the needle’s tip and pushed the plunger up until he felt liquid against his hand.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” he mused.
“Only 24 more to go, if you intend to drain all the ampules,” his AI commented.
“I do,” Tony said, a bit mulishly even to his own ears, and set the empty ampule down in the cardboard trash box before setting down the needle, grabbing another ampule and starting from the beginning.
By the time he was nearing the finish line, he had stabbed himself with the needle multiple times, had tilted a few of the ampules far enough to pour some of the medicine straight out, and was feeling frustrated. More than once J.A.R.V.I.S. had suggested that he just ask for assistance from someone capable of seeing what they were doing, but Tony had come this far and wasn’t about to let his AI subtly sabotage his revolutionary idea at jump-starting Extremis. After all, he doubted the person he might find and ask for assistance would refrain from asking questions and instead begin suspecting he was about to do something dangerous. No one could possibly think he needed a box of epinephrine for one of his suits, especially when he had none hanging around.
“How much did I manage to get into the syringe?” he finally asked as he squeezed the last of the air out of it and then spent a while sucking on his bleeding fingertips before removing the needle and replacing it with the other one.
“21.4 milliliters, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“Huh,” Tony hummed, surprised by his own success. “That’s pretty good for a blind guy.”
“Indeed, sir.” There was a pause, but Tony could tell the question was coming before it did: “What are you planning on doing with the epinephrine now that you have it?”
“Using it,” Tony said simply and set the syringe down. He felt tired from the drawn-out effort to obtain the drug and then make it usable, but he was determined to push forward and there was no time like the present. Maybe a little weariness and frustration would even prove helpful in raising his stress levels. “Dummy, You, I need the two of you to get out of here for the duration of the experiment.”
The bots let out questioning sounds, as if they did not agree.
“They could stay and assist,” his AI noted.
“It might get messy, and I’m not going to have you get caught in it if things get a little… hot.” That was his intention, after all. “Come on,” he urged and walked to the door, twisting the lock and pushing the door wide open. “Out you go, boys. Don’t make me tell you twice.”
He almost had to, because the bots came to the door and then stopped, protesting again, but Tony motioned towards the outside and finally the bots rolled past him.
Tony wasted no time closing the door again and locking it, just in case. The bots were stubborn sometimes – and over-protective when Tony couldn’t see – and he didn’t want them to sustain damage if worse came to worst.
After all, he had seen what an unstable Extremis could do, and the way he had tinkered with his own over the years…
“J.A.R.V.I.S., feel free to shut down if you want to,” Tony said as he sat down by the desk and slowly worked his shirt up and over his head, baring his upper body.
“My files are saved in multiple offsite locations, should something go wrong here,” the AI said by way of reply.
“I’m expecting things to heat up if they go the way I want them to,” Tony said and slowly picked up the needle. His heart rate picked up right alongside the motion, and he felt nervous. If something went wrong – really wrong – there might be no coming back from this. But at the same time, what was there to lose? Sooner or later, being unable to see would get him killed. That was inevitable.
If he got killed searching for a solution, that was his choice.
With a steadying breath that really didn’t steady his hand at all, he uncapped the needle and shifted it in his hold, aiming it towards his upper arm. He was clumsy and slow to determine whether he was even close to hitting his mark, but eventually he decided to just go for it – that with a dosage like this, it didn’t really matter where he stuck it.
Closing his eyes, pretending that was why he could not see, he adjusted his grip on the syringe one last time, aligned it, and then pulled it towards his arm.
“Fuck!” he yelled as the needle sank in with less coordination than when someone else was doing it, or even when he did it to himself when he could still see. His arm throbbed, but he gritted his teeth and pushed the needle just a bit further, telling himself the pain would eventually subside.
His left arm was tense when the needle finally could go no further, and Tony carefully shifted his hold so that he could get his thumb to the plunger without dislodging the syringe; he wasn’t sure he had the willpower to do this again if the needle pulled out.
As he stilled, thumb on the plunger, he momentarily listened to his own breaths, loud and unsteady, pain hissing past his teeth. Man up, he told himself, then tried to relax his left arm before he started pushing the plunger down, the drug being squeezed into his body through the needle.
For a little bit it barely burned more than it already did from the needle. There was a mild sensation of pressure mounting in his arm – then in his chest, like the pressure in the room was changing, squeezing his insides, making breathing difficult. His heart didn’t seem to beat any faster, as if it could barely cope with the sudden pressure within his veins.
Knowing something was sure to happen soon, Tony pushed harder against the plunger, forcing the rest of the epinephrine into his body before pulling the needle back with a gasp of relief, the syringe falling down as his grip on it faltered.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. questioned.
Tony couldn’t speak. He could barely breathe as it was, and the pressure was growing unbearable, making it feel like his insides were about to burst. It may have been stress that made his heart beat faster and skin heat up, but he prayed it was Extremis instead, responding to the stimulus.
As the pressure mounted, he started losing sensation in the farthest reaches of his body: his fingers and toes tingled and suddenly he could not trust his limbs to hold him up or support him anymore, even in the seated position.
A smaller dose would have worked, he knew. A smaller dose would not have been enough to kill him…
For months, Extremis had failed to heal him while keeping him alive and functioning. It had helped him survive the implant insertion, and ultimately peaked in protecting his life on the battlefield. To actually push it to the limit, Tony was certain it took more than cautious measures, and even if he overshot the mark by miles, he refused to later find himself regretting that he hadn’t pushed harder.
He was going to give it his all and by God, if it was not enough…
The heat spread through him as if someone had just cracked open a miniature sun within him. It was overwhelming and all-encompassing, stealing his breath and his presence of mind, shoving him into that special state of shock where everything froze into place in his brain.
He lost his grasp on what was happening around him for what may have been seconds or minutes. When he began regaining awareness, though, he could see through a sheen of glowing, vibrant red that the world was on fire and he most certainly wasn’t breathing in air in the midst of the billowing smoke.
The pressure inside his skull transformed into pure heat, and for an instant before it all vanished again Tony couldn’t be sure whether or not his brain was getting fried from the inside in a way he absolutely hadn’t intended.
Day 177 of the Alien-Human War
In the mountainous, snowy terrain, walking was difficult – especially if you couldn’t see where you were going, or were supposed to be rolling around on four tires.
Five minutes after they left the small clearing where the bots had been found, the Hulk began to grow increasingly frustrated. It didn’t sound like Bruce was coming back but more like the Hulk was contemplating dashing off, and that was potentially worse since Bruce was going to emerge eventually and they didn’t need him to be stranded in the middle of the Oregon wilderness when that happened.
“What’s wrong, big guy?” Tony called out, trying to focus on Steve’s arm beneath his grip and the faint hints it was giving him about the terrain.
The Hulk let out a mighty huff. “You’re slow,” he grumbled.
“Newsflash, big guy: I’m blind,” Tony snapped back. He knew the Hulk was aware of that fact, but sometimes he was a big, inconsiderate brute… “Besides, the bots can’t travel much faster out here.”
The Hulk stopped, as did Steve, and for a moment Tony worried the green goliath was going to lash out with all the pent-up frustration and weariness left over from the battle. That fear was further increased by the shrill sounds from the bots, and Tony stiffened, then stepped forward despite not seeing a thing. He had dragged the bots all the way here; he had to protect them.
“What are you doing?” Tony asked, aware of how sharp his voice was getting. He had a theory that showing the Hulk your fear was not a good idea, especially if you were trying to tell him what to do, but he was long past the point where he could fake confidence.
“Hulk carries robots,” the Hulk stated. “Carry Tony, too. Find team faster – and suit,” he added, as if finding Mark 52 was the magical answer to all their problems.
“Uh,” Tony started.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Steve dared to state from his side, quick as lightning. “We don’t know how much time we have, and like you said, the bots are not designed for terrain like this.” He tactically left it unsaid that Tony, too, was unsuited for traversing the current landscape.
Tony allowed his pride and sense of practicality battle it out for a moment. By the sound of it, the Hulk hadn’t lowered the bots back to the ground, and the longer he took to make up his mind, the less patient the Hulk would be.
“The big guy has his hands full with the bots,” Tony finally said. “I don’t want him to drop one of them if he’s carrying me, too.”
The Hulk snorted, clearly not seeing any such problems, but then, he wasn’t always the gentlest around others and could accidentally cause harm to those he tried to help.
“We need to move faster,” Tony agreed before the Hulk could come up with a verbal reply – or take off, with or without the bots. “I can’t see where I’m going and I doubt it’s going to get any easier from here on out. We need to find the others as soon as possible.”
“Then what do you want to do?” Steve asked.
Tony turned his head towards the sound of his voice. “Feel like giving me another piggyback ride?” He wished he could have seen Steve’s expression, to be able to predict his reaction to the query before he said anything. Becoming blind had made him more patient out of necessity, but it was rarely easy to be forced to wait.
“Sure,” Steve said, and Tony heard and felt him move, adjusting something. “Can you carry this on your back?” he asked soon after and handed a bag to Tony, which contained all their possessions – including the light helmet. Tony shouldered it and then waited, sensing Steve moving in front of him. “Hop on,” the other man said soon after, and Tony felt out with his hands, finding Steve crouched to a comfortable level in front of him.
It felt awkward, still, not seeing what he was doing, and Steve ended up hoisting him up after Tony had sort of clambered onto his back. There was much more shifting than the first time – probably because they were planning on a more drawn-out trip – but eventually Tony was mildly comfortable, thighs hugging Steve’s waist while the super-soldier carried most of his weight by supporting his lower buttocks. Tony got to hold the shield again, and he tried not to bump it against anything as he supported his arms on Steve’s shoulders.
“Ready?” the Hulk asked.
When Steve did not reply, Tony guessed the question was directed at him. “Yup.”
The Hulk grunted and started moving. The bots let out faint bleeps, and Tony held his tongue against asking the Hulk to be careful with them.
Steve started moving, too, and Tony soon decided not feeling the ground with his own feet made traveling a dizzying, scary adventure. He had always enjoyed speed and the pull of g-forces, and later, with the suits, the game of gravity and free-fall twisting his insides in a way no amusement park ride could provide. Those things had been under his own control, though, and being robbed of the ability to see his surroundings didn’t make it easier, just like when they had been falling from the plane. Hanging onto Steve was much the same; he could feel his motions, but he could not predict what would happen next.
They remained in the woods for most of their journey. Tony could tell because every now and then a branch brushed against him, or a shower of snow landed on top of him despite Steve’s attempts to steer clear of them. The sounds of frozen wood cracking marked their progress, and more than once it sounded like the Hulk had kicked over an entire tree to clear the path.
Tony had expected everyone to be in agreement on stealth being of the essence, but clearly Hulk either didn’t get the memo or was too tired to care. Steve started reprimanding the green goliath, but he never quite finished and eventually just let it go, knowing just like Tony that they couldn’t afford to piss off the Hulk in their current situation.
And, in the end, the noise the Hulk was making may have worked in their favor:
“We could hear you from two miles away,” Natasha’s voice rang out from somewhere on their left.
“And see how well that worked out to bring us together,” Tony quipped, just to be part of the conversation; he had started to get cold soon after Steve began carrying him, and even moving his lips was a welcome change to sitting still and trying to conceal the chattering of his teeth.
“Any sign of the others?” Steve asked as he bowed down slightly. Tony took it as a hint to get off his back and welcomed the chance to warm up. He handed Steve his shield back so that he could properly rub his arms to get the circulation working again.
“We thought we might have heard something up north, but it was further off than you,” Clint reported.
“Could have been the enemy, too,” Natasha guessed.
The Hulk muttered something about smashing, but with less enthusiasm than usual; he had to be tired and aching for a break, just like the rest of them. Tony heard the bots making soft beeps, then it sounded like they were lowered onto the ground, and soon enough the two of them were making their way over to him.
“We need to speed things up,” Tony said when no one else spoke. “The longer we spend walking around, looking for clues, the more chances the aliens have to regroup and start hunting us down.”
“We need a plan,” Natasha agreed.
It was obvious they were all waiting for Steve to speak, but he did not.
Tony frowned, wishing he could see in order to determine whether Steve was still in the middle of laying out a plan or simply refusing to make a decision. It wasn’t like him, to avoid making the hard call, but Tony also knew why he would hesitate.
“Cap?” Tony called out. “Any thoughts?”
“We need to find the rest of the team, as fast as possible. Sending a signal would be like a homing beacon for friend and foe alike.”
“So, we need to go looking for them,” Tony summed up. “Only, we’re moving too slow as it is – which is why we need to split up.”
“No,” Steve refused at once.
“You know the bots and I are slowing the rest of you down,” Tony went on, not caring about how it sounded as long as it was the truth.
“I am not leaving you behind!” Steve snapped. The anger in his voice made Tony feel a bit warmer, oddly enough.
“It’s a tactical decision. One of you can stay to hang around with me, but the rest of you should move out to locate our flying team members so that we’ll have some air support on the way off the mountain.”
“I’ll stay with him,” Clint volunteered. “Hulk’s too fast and strong to waste on carrying duties, and if we move slowly, the rest of you will have an easier time locating us again once you’ve found the others.”
Tony nodded. He would have thrown Clint a thankful look, but he wasn’t sure where exactly he was standing.
“I don’t like this,” Steve said.
“But it’s the call you would make if you didn’t feel responsible for my wellbeing,” Tony pressed. “I don’t need to remind you that we’re at war – a war we’re losing if we don’t man up and do what we’re supposed to. Bringing the team together is the most important thing right now – not playing my seeing-eye dog. Clint will be my eyes and ears until you’ve located Rhodey, Thor, and my armor.”
There was a soft intake of air and Tony imagined Steve opening his mouth to argue.
“We’ll be fine,” Clint threw in his two cents. “Find the others so that we can regroup and stop freezing our asses off out here.”
Steve’s sigh of defeat was strained, but Tony sensed he was giving up. “Keep him safe,” Steve ordered Clint.
Tony raised an eyebrow – whether anyone was looking or not. “I’m debating putting on the helmet just to sock it to you…”
“No helmet,” Steve immediately told him. “I’m serious, Tony. You need to let your brain rest.”
“Then stop being a mother hen and lead,” Tony ordered. “You won’t find the others by putting my comfort first – and I don’t want you to waste your time trying to, only to arrive at the same conclusion the rest of us have already reached.”
No one argued, so either they agreed or didn’t see the point in voicing dissident opinions.
“I stand by my words,” Steve retorted. “Keep him safe,” he said, obviously to Clint.
“I will,” the archer promised.
“Don’t use the helmet,” Steve continued.
“I know my limits,” was all Tony said, but Steve didn’t draw it out so he must have decided it was the best he was going to get out of Tony.
The others divided their few supplies, leaving Clint with some extra clothes and tools to start a fire in case they had to make camp. Tony felt like pointing out that their missing teammates might also need the extra clothes, but he supposed it was likelier he and Clint would be needing them in case it took more than a few hours for his teammates to track the others down.
“Keep moving southwards,” Natasha said to Clint before they parted ways. “Try to hit Route 62 and stay on it when you do.”
“You’ll probably catch us before we get that far,” Clint replied. He didn’t specify whether that was due to the slowness of his company or that he wished they would find the rest of their team quickly.
Once again, there were no drawn-out farewells: Steve didn’t approach them for instructions or words of caution, and Tony listened to the sounds of them disappearing, the Hulk sprinting into a run while Steve and Natasha followed more quietly. Soon all that remained was the wind in the trees and the bots letting out small sounds of nervousness.
“So,” Clint started. “Do you actually have a plan, other than looking for the main road?”
Tony blinked. “Let’s start walking,” he decided. Blindly, he thrust out his hand furthest from Clint, and heard one of the bots struggle to reach him.
“We’ll move faster if I scout ahead and find the best path for you and the bots,” the archer offered. “I won’t go far,” he added, as if he thought Tony feared he would abandon him.
“Let’s get to it,” Tony nodded and listened to Clint take off. He waited a moment before taking a step, and the bots moved to follow, one of them leading him through a maze of obstacles while the other clearly tried to navigate a path they could take. Considering how many times he walked into a tree, stumbled on a hidden trap in the snow or simply had to stop since the bot guiding him got stuck in the snow before Clint returned for the first time, he decided they were in for a long, painful journey until their team rejoined them.
to be continued…