Amaurosis • Chapter 6
Chapter 6: Lightning / Thunder
Day 189 of the Alien-Human War
The deep voice was familiar, shifting the balance within the darkness from heavy uneasiness to a cocoon of comfort. It gave him a sense of calm and created a web of safety, banishing the illusion of fear and danger even when there wasn’t necessarily any reason for either of those.
“Tony, you need to awaken,” the voice insisted, piercing the darkness like sunlight fighting its way through a wall of fog.
He wasn’t certain he wanted to comply, everything felt so heavy, but as he grew aware of that he also grew aware of himself. Still, it felt like too soon…
“Tony, you must come back to us,” the voice continued calling, but that only served to make him feel afloat, the cocoon closing over him.
He could stay a while longer…
The sound of a distant beep fought its way to him, weak and far-away. It stirred something within him, though, and the cocoon shattered as the floodgates opened, his consciousness snapping back to full awareness.
“Easy,” Thor murmured from his side.
Tony tried to move, the bot’s faint call still echoing in his mind. His entire body felt like it had been wrapped in a cast, though, making his limbs heavy and uncooperative. He inhaled in order to try again, prompting his lungs to expand and burn as if he had breathed in acid instead of air. It made his entire body seize in distress, both at the pain and the impending fear of not being able to breathe, which was an old issue for him. Before he could grow extremely alarmed, though, the pain suddenly receded – only to come back with a vengeance inside his head.
“Fuck,” he gasped, afraid to speak in case that would prompt his lungs to act up again.
“Take your time,” Thor told him. Tony had almost forgotten he was there.
Another beep reached his ears, and as far as he could tell, it wasn’t one of distress as much as concern. It was joined by another, and he hoped it meant both bots were okay.
In the next minute and a half, his lungs continued to function normally whereas the pain in his head refused to relent. Thor and the bots remained quiet, and Tony eventually began to wonder if they had left – or had been there in the first place. All he could hear was a soft, continuous patter of raindrops falling, and each time one landed on his skin it felt like it cooled down something deep within him.
“Thor?” he called out finally, tired of counting seconds and raindrops.
“I am here,” came an almost instant reply – and the soft pressure of a hand on his arm.
“Okay,” he sighed and waited another forty seconds for his head to stop hurting, then gave up on that hope and started sitting up again. It was still hard to move his body, but little by little he got his upper body into an upright position. As feeling began to return to his body, Tony started to feel like he was sitting naked on the ground, seeing as he could feel the air on his skin – all of his skin – in addition to the rain.
“How are you feeling?” Thor asked.
“My head hurts,” Tony admitted.
“Aye… That is to be expected,” Thor mused.
Tony frowned and blinked. Nothing but darkness greeted him, and he tried to trace his way through recent events to sort out his memories. “What happened?” he asked finally. “Where are we?”
“You do not recall?” Thor questioned him in return.
“Well, I was…” He recalled the burn of epinephrine. “I was conducting a test. It may have gone awry.”
“To put it mildly,” the god of thunder stated solemnly. “We got word that you were in potential danger just seconds before the entire building exploded. Seeing as I could withstand the infernal heat better than the others, I came to find you. We are still in the center of the blast, since I was not certain if you had calmed down.”
“Save for the hellfire gnawing at the insides of my skull, I’m good,” Tony said. “Disappointed, but good.”
“Whatever you were trying to accomplish…”
“Didn’t J.A.R.V.I.S. tell you?” Tony asked, knowing his AI had been the one to alert the rest of the team.
“We were too busy trying to save the people in the vicinity of the blast to have him recount the entire tale,” Thor explained.
Tony cringed. “Did anyone get hurt?”
“The last I spoke with the Captain, three people are dead and many others injured.”
It felt like a large stone had just settled in his gut, making it hard to breathe and stopping him from digesting the news. He had seen what unstable Extremis was capable of, yet he had been more concerned with people trying to stop him than making sure he would not hurt anyone if things didn’t work out the way he wanted.
“Is the team okay?” Tony had to ask. He was selfish to a fault, but if he had hurt them…
“The Avengers are well,” Thor told him, “as are your bots.”
“Thank God,” Tony whispered and hung his head. Water trickled down the back of his neck, cool against his skin, making him shiver.
“Here,” Thor said, and by the feel of it he had laid his cape around Tony’s shoulders. There was a faint smell of burnt fibers, but apparently Asgardian garments could withstand combustion. “Do you feel like standing up?”
“I think I need a moment,” Tony said. He could have tried getting to his feet, but the weight of his guilt still sat heavily on his shoulders and he was not sure he could shove it off just yet.
There was a faint scraping sound followed by the light thud of a weight settling down, and Tony felt Thor’s shoulder brush against his through the cape. “Whilst I waited for you to awaken, I had time to think,” Thor mused.
Tony lifted his head far enough to crane his neck, feeling the rain directly on his face. It was strange Thor had not just carried him to a shelter – then realized perhaps the rain was not a natural occurrence. He had seen Thor whip up a thunderstorm countless times, and rain often accompanied the lightning.
Also, rain was a good way to put out a fire…
“Think about what?” Tony asked slowly. Speaking did little to distract him from the pain in his head, but it was better than nothing.
“Many things,” Thor started, and Tony rolled his eyes. Surprisingly, that wasn’t as painful as he had thought it would be. “I wondered what drove you to do this to yourself, in secret.”
“I thought you didn’t know what I did,” Tony challenged.
“The evidence is all around us. I have learned it is not always the actions but the outcome that matters.”
Tony snorted. “This isn’t the outcome I had in mind.”
“Yet it is the one at which we have arrived,” Thor pointed out.
Tony was silent for a moment, the pain persisting in his head. He was tempted to touch, to see if there was physical damage to feel out, but he was simultaneously afraid of what he might find. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he finally said, to end the silence and distract himself anew. “To be stripped of one of your senses.”
“That is true, but I know a little something of being stripped of one’s honor.”
“But this isn’t honor!” Tony burst out. “This is not something you can regain, or restore. I’m blind, and it makes me weak. I can’t stand it. I don’t want to live with it. I’ve struggled for months, trying to adapt, trying to outsmart it, but with every win there’s another drawback. I’m tired of stumbling around.”
“I know you’re frustrated –”
“It’s not just that anymore,” Tony cut him off. “In the last battle, something happened. For a moment, Extremis allowed me to see again, and all the struggles seemed amplified afterwards in comparison. I had to make it happen again. I had to make it permanent. All I had to do was find a way and I could remove this wretched darkness I’ve been trapped in.”
Thor breathed out a slow exhalation, as if adopting one of Bruce’s calming exercises. “It is true I have little experience with weakness,” he admitted. “You are one of the strongest people I have ever met, to have come this far without your ability to see.”
“But I am weak,” Tony argued. “The helmet has a limit. Without it, I’m just a liability – something that slows the rest of you down and endangers everyone around me.”
“It is a complication, for certain,” Thor agreed. “One we could well do without.” He laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder before speaking again. “May I say something else?”
“Can I stop you?” Tony groused.
Thor chuckled, then sobered again. “As I said earlier, weakness is not something I have dabbled in, save for what I had to endure to rediscover my humility and honor. However, there is something else I understand very well: helplessness. As you are helpless without your sight, grasping for a way to end it, I have found myself helpless in the face of my own brother turning against me.”
Tony hadn’t expected the conversation to go that way, and it must have shown on his face.
“You might not think you and Loki have much in common, but I see your paths crossing many a time,” Thor explained, his voice growing softer with emotion. “To this day, I am not certain when he lost his way, and how it could fuel such anger against his family and friends – his home and the people living there. Your struggle is much the same, and I fear it will poison you before long, as only desperation and bitterness can. I could not save Loki from becoming what he is today, but I want to save you.”
Tony wasn’t sure how to feel about that. “You wouldn’t happen to have some magical solution back home?” he ventured to ask. May it mark the depth of his despair that he deigned to use the word ‘magic’ and not cringe at the very idea.
“Our science is much more advanced, that is true,” Thor agreed. “I do not possess enough knowledge of it to know whether we could heal you, should I take you to Asgard – but I see a much more immediate need for my help, and that is to keep you from becoming infested by your despair and anger.”
“I don’t need you to save me,” Tony told him and scrambled up to his feet, stubbornly maintaining his footing even as vertigo threatened to throw him back down. “I don’t need anyone to save me.”
“Yet you are hoping your science will provide an answer to your plight,” Thor challenged. “If it does not, what will you do then?”
Tony took a sharp breath. “I’ll end it,” he said. “I won’t –”
Before he could finish, there were arms wrapping themselves around him, his body being pressed into Thor’s wide chest. Tony initially wanted to struggle and protest, because hadn’t he just said he didn’t want Thor’s help? The fight bled out of him before he could master his ire, however, and what should have been an empty gesture of comfort with no true meaning began to weigh him down.
He felt tired; tired of struggling, fighting, and constantly trying to finding his footing, whether it was against the aliens or within his team. There was no escaping the fact that being blind made him weak. To this day, there was no certainty as to whether making him a target was a sign that the aliens feared him for a special reason. There was no guarantee he would ever see again – just like there was no knowing whether Earth and its people would survive this war.
“I know,” Thor murmured, even though Tony was fairly certain he had not said a word out loud. It sounded like Thor knew all those doubts that plagued his heart, though, and forgave him.
Tony took a shuddery breath and leaned against Thor’s body, allowing himself to be held for now, drawing strength from Thor’s presence.
The rain slowly ceased, exhausting itself just as Tony felt the helpless anger flow away. He still felt the burning need to fix his sight, but it was returning to the level it had been before their last battle. He would keep working on it, waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, but until then…
“I’ll try not to blow up a building due to a failed experiment in the future,” he promised out loud.
Thor nodded, bearded jaw catching against Tony’s temple. “Good,” he mused.
“And I’ll let you help me,” Tony added, not specifying whether he meant the entire team or just Thor.
“Better,” the god of thunder accepted it either way.
“I’m getting cold,” Tony complained next. “I need to take a shower, see the bots, talk to J.A.R.V.I.S. – and probably let Bruce have a look at me.”
It was time to face the music concerning his recent actions, and considering the pain in his head, he predicted that what they would have to tell him was unlikely to make him feel better.
One of Thor’s arms moved from around him while the other remained wrapped around his waist. There was the telltale sound of Thor summoning Mjolnir to him, even the short distance from where he must have set the hammer down, and then he started walking, pulling Tony along. It wasn’t the easiest thing, following his lead, but Tony managed it nonetheless and trusted Thor to lead the way even when the bots rolled over to them, greeting Tony with enthusiastic beeps and whistles.
Come what may, Tony wasn’t alone right now, and he needed to worry about it a little less until something forced him to re-evaluate the situation.
Day 177 of the Alien-Human War
Tony heard the footfalls in the snow before Clint spoke up; he knew that under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have heard the archer approach until it was too late, but Clint obviously wanted to make his presence known.
“I think it will start snowing soon,” Clint said.
The bots let out beeps, to either welcome the archer back or to comment that there was already too much snow for them to move around comfortably.
Tony didn’t need to comment that snow was not the best thing that could happen right now. “Any sign of the others?” he asked instead.
“None yet,” Clint replied. “Should we find shelter and wait for them?”
“Did you spot any five-star hotels in the vicinity?” Tony joked. Honestly, a warm hole in the ground would be good enough, or an abandoned shack.
“I saw a couple cabins while checking the area, but all of them were long since destroyed, courtesy of the aliens,” Clint grumbled. “None of them even had one solid wall still standing.”
“Then I guess we keep walking until we come across something suitable,” Tony decided. It wasn’t like they had a choice, unless they wanted to start building an igloo.
Clint grunted his agreement and Tony resumed walking, prompting the bots to move. Unlike before, Clint stayed close this time around. Perhaps the snowfall was more imminent than Tony had realized or Clint simply didn’t feel the need to go on patrol again so soon.
It was perhaps fifteen minutes later when Tony grew aware of extra coolness on his skin and realized it was indeed starting to snow. Five minutes more and he couldn’t stop noticing it, the temperature plummeting, wind picking up and snow falling so heavily there was no mistaking its caress on his skin.
Clint remained silent and Tony guessed there was still no shelter in sight. Whether or not their long-term plan was to keep trudging through snow, he didn’t know, but step after step Tony’s mind began to freeze solid around the thought that they needed a better option – especially since he wanted to get rid of the prickling cold seeping into his skin. Extremis kept him from getting frostbite, but it didn’t prevent the deeply unsettling sensation of permeating cold.
“We need to find some kind of shelter, at least until the snowfall stops,” Tony declared after several minutes, his lips uncomfortably stiff as he spoke.
The bots agreed with low bleeps of their own.
“There’s nothing but woods around us, as far as I can see,” Clint replied, sounding like the cold was getting to him, too.
“Then you’ll have to go look further,” Tony stated. “We’ll both freeze out here otherwise.” Well, he wouldn’t, but Clint wasn’t as lucky.
“It’s snowing pretty hard,” Clint replied. “I think we should stay together.”
From that, Tony deduced the visibility was poor and Clint didn’t want to chance them getting split up. The way Steve had chewed Natasha out when she made the call to leave Tony behind that one time about three months ago…
“Keep your eyes open,” Tony said finally, disliking how limited their options were but knowing there was nothing either of them could do to change them.
“Always,” Clint murmured over the abruptly rising howl of the wind.
The wind didn’t relent for the longest time, and it was getting increasingly difficult to move forward through the snow that was piling up all around them. It was either keep moving or stay still and become buried.
Tony was just about to suggest they try to build some kind of shelter amidst the trees and possibly make a fire when the wind carried over the violent sound of a tree being snapped in half. Tony stopped, waiting for the familiar growl that would welcome the Hulk into their midst, but it never came.
“You heard that, right?” he asked Clint.
“Yeah,” the archer confirmed.
“Think it’s the big guy?”
The sound of the tree falling came as if from a slow-motion film, dragging and lingering. Tony could imagine frozen limbs clutching onto nearby trees for support, threatening to drag them down as well until gravity and momentum became too much and the lone, broken tree fell the rest of the way to the snowy ground.
Still there was no growl or grunt, and Tony hesitated. The Hulk was never this quiet.
Clint moved past him slowly, making as little sound as possible. The bots shifted restlessly, as if knowing something was up, and one of them let out a low whine.
“Shh,” Tony hushed, reaching out to lay his hands on both robotic arms.
A faint thump floated over to them, distorted by the wind. It was followed by another, growing into a fairly regular rhythm that resembled heavy footfalls.
The Hulk, while not light on his feet, didn’t move quite that heavily, and Tony had a nagging suspicion that soon the snow wouldn’t be their biggest problem anymore.
“I’ll check it out,” Clint said and moved forward.
Tony pressed his teeth together to keep from replying. He knew it was logical to find out what they were up again, but he didn’t want to be left alone in the middle of the forest, clinging to the bots, waiting for someone or something unknown to come for him.
Clint didn’t get far; a muffled yelp reached Tony’s ears, then a genuine cry of extreme pain. It was loud even with the wind mixing things up, making Tony cringe and stiffen. Making so much noise was sure to attract someone to their location, and as if responding to that thought, the distant footfalls halted.
“Clint?” Tony hissed out, as loudly as he dared.
There was no reply.
“Shit,” he muttered and stepped forward. “Can you find out which direction he went?” he asked the bots. “We need to find him.”
The bots let out low beeps of confirmation, sensing that they needed to be silent. They led him forward a short distance before starting to hesitate, and Tony wondered whether or not they’d seen where Clint went.
“Clint?” he called out again. Aside from the wind, he could not hear anything, and it was making his already questionable nerves fray at the edges. There were no distant footfalls that he could detect, which was probably good – or bad, in case someone unfriendly was trying to pinpoint their location.
Frankly, Tony was circling an inevitable conclusion in his mind; there were only a few things he knew of that could move with enough strength to make trees fall like dominos. If not the Hulk, then they were being tracked by an alien exo-suit, and he knew it was only a matter of time before it started circling and stumbled upon their location.
A pained moan reached his ears, closer than the potential enemy, and Tony turned his head this way and that to pinpoint it. “Don’t move,” came a call from Clint. “There’s a drop right there. Walked right into it.”
“A pit?” Tony asked, trying to keep his voice as low as possible while he tried to figure out how far apart they were.
“More like fifty feet of downhill,” Clint replied, a strain in his voice.
“Can you climb back up?” Tony asked. “Or should I come down?”
“Don’t,” Clint warned. “It’s steep.”
“Then you’d better hurry because I think there’s an alien about,” Tony ordered.
There was no reply, or a sound of Clint climbing back up to them.
One of the bots let out a long whine and Tony slid his hand along its arm, feeling it craning forward to his left. He slowly moved his feet, knowing the snow was slippery and could hide deadly traps. The bots seemed to figure out what he was doing and let out sounds of warning, but Tony shushed them again and kept searching until he found the edge of the drop.
Moving his body as close as he dared, he kept feeling it out. Clint hadn’t lied: it was almost a vertical drop, at least near the beginning, and Tony obviously couldn’t see whether there was anything that might slow down his slide. There might be trees – or just broken branches that would impale him, amidst stones awaiting his bones to break against them.
“Tony, just stay put!” Clint called out to him. There was something about his voice that upset Tony, like a vibe telling him everything wasn’t okay.
“I can’t hear you climbing up yet,” he retorted, withdrawing his foot for now and scooting back from the edge.
Again one of the bots let out a whine, and Tony began to suspect that their luck had just run out.
“I… I can’t climb up,” Clint replied after a moment. Tony thought he heard a muttered ‘fuck’ follow that statement.
“Then I’ll have to come down there,” Tony stated. One of the bots fisted its claw in the back of his jacket as if afraid he was going to blindly jump off the edge. “Can you see if there’s a gentler slope nearby?” he asked, hinting that he wasn’t insane enough to throw caution to the wind and trust in God to deliver him down there in one piece.
“I can’t see anything like that,” Clint answered. “Just stay up there.”
Tony frowned. “Is he hurt?” he asked the bots, voice low.
Both of them let out sounds of confirmation.
“Is it bad?”
The pitch of the first set of sounds was repeated and they made his stomach twist in discomfort.
“Damn it,” he swore, testing the edge of the drop with his foot again. “Can you see a safe path down there?”
Sounds of denial soon followed – so soon that Tony was tempted to tell them to keep looking. There had to be some way down there that didn’t leave him with a broken neck.
He could always put on the helmet, at least for a little while. His brain wasn’t yet rested enough for full-time use, but he could put it on long enough to make his way over to Clint.
In the distance, a new series of footfalls signaled that the alien battle armor was moving again. Tony could have prayed for it to be something other than it was, but that didn’t change the reality that his own armors were more lightweight, as were Thor and the Hulk, and it had been only a matter of time before the aliens gained on them.
Tony tried snapping his fingers to bring his focus to the problem at hand, but his hands were too cold to manage such a delicate motion. “Come on,” he berated himself and brought his hands to his mouth to breathe warm air onto the icy cold skin. “You can think of something. You’re a damn genius…”
The bots let out sympathetic beeps, as if voicing their condolences on his failure to out-think their current situation.
“Fuck it!” Tony decided finally. He was doing all in his power not to deploy the one solution he had available, wasting precious time and energy to find a secondary alternative.
Grabbing onto the messenger bag he had been carrying around, he pulled it over to his front and snapped open the buckles. His freezing hands reached inside, rummaging through the contents until he carefully pulled out the light helmet.
“Tony?” Clint called out. “What are you doing?”
“Saving your dumb ass,” Tony muttered, shifting the helmet around in his hands until he knew it was turned the right way. Beside him, the bots let out concerned sounds, but there was no alternative he could think of. Just because he couldn’t hear continuous movements from the enemy didn’t mean they weren’t approaching, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of his teammates hid their own injury so as not to alert Tony, who apparently couldn’t handle such distress in addition to his own blindness.
Well, to be honest, it wasn’t a particularly nice feeling knowing one of his teammates was hurt and that he couldn’t do much of anything to help, but it didn’t mean they had to keep it from him.
Tony needed a bit more help and guidance than usual, but he didn’t need to be coddled.
With a deep breath to steady himself, Tony pulled the woolly hat off his head and replaced it with the helmet. The metal parts were cold against his skin, instantaneously making him want to pull it away from his bare scalp, but Tony resisted, pushing it firmly onto his head and waiting for the helmet to tighten and the initial discomfort of the implants activating.
He ticked off the seconds like a countdown in his mind, but when he hit zero, nothing happened. “No,” he said, refusing to believe it, and waited some more. When nothing continued to happen, concern inevitably followed disbelief. Had the helmet been damaged in the fall from the Quinjet, or by the cold? It should have worked independently without J.A.R.V.I.S., but Tony felt no indication that the helmet was responding to him.
Unwilling to give up just yet, Tony pressed his cold fingers along the helmet’s surface, moving his fingertips around, trying to force the helmet to tighten manually and prompt it into action. Nothing felt broken to him, but the cold weather was still a possible factor.
“Work, dammit,” he muttered, trying to stop himself from getting frustrated even though he knew it was inevitable. Besides, frustration was better than fear. If he couldn’t get the helmet to operate, he had to find a way to reach Clint in his blind state, and he knew what the odds were; there was a reason why he was willing to work his brain overtime rather than to fall downhill and split his skull on a tree or a rock.
One of the bots whirred and tapped their claw against the side of his head. The collision wasn’t hard, but apparently it knocked something into place because a moment later Tony felt a smarting pain spread across his head, cold sweat breaking out in response to it. The peak of the discomfort didn’t last long, transforming into a dull throb that was a constant reminder that he was not yet ready to put on the helmet – but then the implants connected to the helmet and it was as if someone had turned on the lights around Tony.
His brain had a hard time adjusting to the visuals without J.A.R.V.I.S. directly monitoring the progress, but Tony had done this often enough to stabilize the imagery and shift through various options until he had the best possible option selected in order to look down.
Slowly, to give his inner ear time to get used to it, Tony straightened and took a good look around. He made out the trees around them, the continuous snowfall like a layer of static laid over everything. Tony tuned it out, focusing on the stuff that mattered; he looked towards where Clint was, and the archer hadn’t lied about the steep drop. It was a good thing Tony hadn’t tried to climb down because he may have ended up just like the archer, lying at the bottom in a pose that suggested he was injured and couldn’t really move.
From that distance it was hard to be certain, but it looked like there was blood coming out of his left leg. Its warmth was swiftly cooled by the elements around them, but it lingered just long enough for the implants to pick it up.
“Tony,” Clint called up to him. The visibility had to be poor for his human eyes, but Clint had always been the one who spotted the little details in the distance. “Take off the helmet!” the archer called out a moment later, clearly having figured that was the way Tony had chosen to go.
Ignoring the other, Tony looked around. The steep drop continued as far as he could see, and since Clint hadn’t gotten up by now, Tony suspected it was because he couldn’t get up.
Which meant he had to go down there.
“Wait here,” he told the bots. “Be quiet and still.”
Both robots drooped their arms as he looked at them, letting out unhappy sounds that were quite close to fearful.
“I won’t leave you behind,” Tony told them. “I just need to go down there to make sure Clint is okay.” How he was planning on getting back up, he didn’t know yet, but there had to be a way around the drop in front of him.
The bots shifted but stayed silent. Tony patted them both, then adjusted the bag on his shoulder and looked for the least hazardous route to the bottom of the slope. Once he thought he had found it, he didn’t waste his time; his head was starting to hurt like he was getting a migraine, and had his actual eyes been used for seeing, he was certain he would have been unable to see in front of him by now.
Crouching down, he laid himself low near the edge of the slope and then shifted his foot down, reaching a nearby tree. That provided him a firm foothold to lower his body further down, using anything he could to keep himself from falling uncontrollably.
Tony had done as much rock climbing and spelunking as could be expected from a billionaire, but he had no climbing gear on and this was no solid wall. Every time he trusted the snowy hillside too much, his hand or foot briefly sank into the snow, threatening to unbalance him and land him at the bottom. He kept relying on trees, branches and rocks rather than snow, always trying to make sure that if he slipped, there was something he could grab on to stop himself. It was tiresome, in between his body being exhausted from the battle and feeling cold from the extended stay in the cold outdoors in insufficient clothing. He kept moving, though, knowing that stopping meant using the helmet for a longer period of time, and the worsening headache alone was threatening to break his concentration.
Every now and then, when the whirling wind was blowing from a favorable direction, Tony could make out muttered swears from Clint. The other man didn’t call out to him or tell him to climb back up, though – not that Tony would have tried climbing back up because he was having a hard enough time getting to the bottom in one piece.
Tony’s entire body was aching by the time he deemed it safe to slide down the rest of the way. There were stinging scrapes on his hands which the snow hadn’t managed to render numb with cold, and he could feel Extremis starting to respond to the pain radiating inside his skull. He made a tiny leap from the tree he had been leaning on for support, then skidded down on his ass until the steep downhill ended rather abruptly.
While he would have appreciated a break, Tony knew he had no time to waste. He got to his feet, shook off some of the snow clinging to his clothing, then made his way over to Clint. The man was half-laying on his back, propped up on his hands, face turned towards Tony.
“You should have stayed up there,” Clint informed him when he got a bit closer.
“You should have paid attention to where you were going,” Tony snapped back and halted a few feet away from Clint, trying to assess his injury. “How bad is it?”
Clint hesitated. “You can’t tell?”
Tony took that as an invitation to move closer, stepping up to Clint and crouching down by his feet. Now that he was much closer, he could detect a wide-spread stain on Clint’s left thigh – blood, because there was no other explanation – and after he forced the implants to give him a few alternate glimpses at it, he felt his stomach twist uncomfortably; what he hadn’t been able to comprehend earlier was a broken bone poking out of Clint’s thigh at a very unnatural angle.
“It’s not so bad,” Clint lied.
Tony fought the urge to get sick and opted to look away. It was hard, seeing as the implants still gave him a 360º-view around him, but he moved his attention elsewhere so as not to focus on the gruesome details of Clint’s injury.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the sound of wood cracking was carried to them by the wind, reminding Tony why it had been important they regroup and keep moving.
Despite the pain in his head, Tony tried to focus on the origin of the sound. Try as he might, they were too far apart for him to detect the approaching threat – a fact that should have made him happy. Instead, his ears kept picking up the heavy footfalls and an occasional groan of wood as a heavy weight squeezed its way between two trunks that grew too close together to let it pass freely.
“It’s getting closer,” Tony stated.
“Can you see it?” Clint asked.
He could make out the motions of Clint’s jaw. “You need to hide.”
Tony knew that, but it was possible it wouldn’t do them any good. Besides, the bots were pretty much out in the open and Clint wasn’t going to move in the condition he was in, plus Tony would just cause him more pain if he tried to haul him up. “Do you have the bleeding under control, or do you need me to…?” Tony really didn’t want to feel his way around Clint’s injury, even when he could see it through the implants. It wasn’t the same as normal eyesight, and there were certain things he would rather not do – like trying to fix up a leg with a bone poking out of it.
“I’ve got it,” Clint told him. This time it didn’t sound like he was lying through his teeth.
Another tree fell to the forest floor, still at least half a mile away, but the origin of the destructive force was getting steadily closer to them. They needed a plan right now, and Tony cursed the continuous pain in his head that was becoming a real distraction. Perhaps if he stuck his head in the snow for a bit…
It wouldn’t help, of course: the pain was on the inside, singing across his nerves. The longer he used the helmet the closer he got to the dangerous limit all of them knew existed. Until now Tony hadn’t pushed it, not wanting to risk it, but it wasn’t as if they knew where exactly the limit was – and what would happen if he ignored it.
Clint spoke up, as if guessing his train of thought: “Tony, you need to take off the helmet.”
“I don’t think this is an ideal time for that,” he replied. He had barely gotten the helmet working the first time, and with an alien exo-suit coming their way, he couldn’t afford to be blind.
“You’re bleeding,” Clint went on.
Instinctively, Tony looked down at his hands, but he couldn’t detect anything more than scrapes. “I am not,” he denied.
“I can see a trail of blood on your neck.”
Tony raised his hand and detected a faint trail. He hadn’t even felt it because the cold was making the blood dry up faster. Still, he managed to follow it up to his ear, which seemed to be the origin of the flow. Not good, his mind decided. He moved his other hand up as well, testing the other side of his face, and found a near-identical trail there as well. Crap.
“You’ve pushed it far enough,” Clint told him. “The others will kill me if you end up brain-dead.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Tony said. “If the stress becomes too great, Extremis will kick in.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” the archer snapped. “Everyone wouldn’t be so worried about you overusing the helmet if it wasn’t a serious danger!”
“An alien battle armor is also a serious danger, and we’ve got one incoming!” Tony retorted in kind. They were being too loud, he knew that, but he also felt backed into a corner, out of options, and he didn’t like how it made him feel. He was defenseless again, just like when Pepper…
“Find a hole in the ground, dig in and stay put,” Clint ordered.
“I’m not leaving you out here alone,” Tony refused.
“I can defend myself.”
“You can’t even stand up,” Tony reminded him. “Also, I won’t leave the bots.”
“You already did,” Clint pointed out, and Tony almost kicked him in the shin for that. He didn’t need Clint roaring with pain, though, so he restrained the urge to hurt him and instead looked up towards the bots. The two of them were still hovering on the edge of the slope, looking down at them.
It burned, knowing he had left them up there with no way down. He tried to find one now, searching their surroundings frantically, ignoring the pain in his head. It felt like his brain might start melting at any moment, boiling inside his skull, and there was no guarantee Extremis could prevent it.
He gave up on that idea and looked at Clint, eyeing up his quiver, trying to determine what he had left in it. “Is that a flare?” he asked, pointing at the quiver and the single arrow-head that looked slightly different from the other ones in thermal imaging.
“I think I have one of those, yeah,” Clint nodded.
“Let’s use it,” Tony decided.
“That’s like a homing beacon for the alien,” Clint needlessly informed him.
“It will also be a signal for the others, because as far as we know, the aliens haven’t fired a single flare as of yet,” Tony said.
“The aliens might not have located us yet, but they most certainly will if we fire a flare,” Clint kept arguing.
“The sounds have been coming steadily closer. If we wait until the aliens have a visual confirmation on our position, it will be too late to fire the flare,” Tony shot back. The chances were slim they would go unnoticed. If there was one alien about, it was logical others would follow. In the meanwhile, they had no idea how far away the other members of their team were, and if they didn’t get backup in time…
Clint was smart, and he had to be aware of those facts. Tony didn’t need him to be happy about it, but if they wanted to survive, they needed a plan. The two of them would have had a hard time fending off a single battle armor even on a good day, but with Clint’s injury and Tony without his suit – and running out of time with the helmet – they were truly outgunned.
“Fine,” Clint finally agreed and shifted. His breaths immediately turned sharp with the pain he was trying to suppress, and Tony moved to help him release the correct arrow from the quiver. He also went to pick up the bow from where it lay next to Clint on the snow, knowing that Clint was in no shape to stand up and deliver the shot. The archer must have guessed what he was planning: “You know how to do that?” he asked.
“Can’t be too hard,” Tony shrugged and slowly fitted the arrow on the bow, trying to mimic the motion he had seen Clint execute thousands of times in the past few years they had worked together. He had a good memory, but there was a difference when it came to things he had witnessed versus things he had done.
Usually Clint would have given him a lecture on exactly how difficult it was to hit one’s mark with an arrow, but he saved it for later: if this failed, they were seriously out of options. “Make sure you have a good grip,” Clint told him instead. “It won’t matter where you shoot it, as long as it’s upwards.”
Tony nodded, fingers gripping the arrow tight as he fought to position it.
“Tilt the bow to a more horizontal position and find the arrow rest,” Clint kept instructing him. “You’re not supposed to grip the arrow with your fingers, but I think this isn’t the time to do it by the books,” he added. “Aim up before drawing, in case you can’t hold it steady. When you draw back the string, try to feel it in your back muscles more than your arm. Draw it as far as you can, but don’t try to hold it for too long.”
Tony took a deep breath, visualized it in his mind, then tried to follow through without thinking about it too much. They had one shot at this, and if Tony accidentally released the arrow too soon and sent it into the trees, it wouldn’t be much of a sign to their friends.
“You’re doing great,” Clint encouraged him.
“You’ll regret saying that tomorrow,” Tony replied, unable to help himself. “It will go to my head…”
He lifted the bow, made sure he had the arrow more or less secure in his grip, then tested the tension of the string. Technically, he knew just how Clint liked his bows – he had redesigned many of them. He recalled it took effort to pull the string backwards, and now that he was doing it for real he felt it in both his arms and his back.
Not caring about finesse, he aimed the arrow skywards. It was as if every muscle in his body grew tense as he pulled on the string with rigid focus. The implant had a hard time adjusting to the view of the sky, but Tony trusted he was aiming in the right direction.
“Let it go,” Clint told him, breaking through his near-painful concentration, and Tony released the arrow. He could barely see it fly up, and for a moment he feared he had failed horribly. He was about to ask Clint when the man shifted and reached out to press a remote trigger near the handle of the bow, and shortly after the sky lit up.
Tony hissed and tried to block it, the brightness literally hurting his already aching brain. The flare wasn’t as bright in reality as the thermal imaging suggested, of course, but Tony lacked the ability to fine-tune the implants’ input without J.A.R.V.I.S. and eventually had to admit defeat and remove the helmet before he blacked out from the pain.
“About time,” Clint said and took the bow from him while Tony sucked in air and tried to convince his brain that it could stop hurting now that the helmet was off. “You okay?” he asked after a bit.
“Yeah,” Tony said, even though he didn’t feel fine. He sank down to his knees on the ground and scooped up some snow, rubbing it carefully into his scalp. It didn’t make the hot pain on the inside decrease, but it distracted his mind and helped him focus on the important stuff – like the far-away sound of trees creaking and a heavy weight starting to push towards them at a rapid pace.
“At least someone saw it,” Clint muttered.
“Just wait,” Tony ordered him. “Have faith.”
Clint didn’t reply. Maybe he had a hard time accepting Tony Stark was the one willing to go out on a limb and believe the rest of their team would come to their aid in time.
It wasn’t all that surprising, really: ever since their first battle together, Tony had had faith that their team would work in a certain way. Back then he had believed Bruce would come and join the fight, and right now their survival depended on someone other than the aliens spotting the flare. So, he was going to believe the others would come because otherwise everything would cease to matter very shortly.
The alien exo-suit kept approaching. It was hard to tell exactly how far away it was, but Tony, without his ability to see, was able to discern little details that marked its continuous attempts to locate them.
On top of the slope, the bots let out soft whines.
“Find a place to hide,” Tony ordered them, as loudly as he dared. He wasn’t sure if they did as they were told, or even understood what would constitute hiding, but he hoped against all hope that the alien would come for the winning prize and not care about two harmless robots.
Silence landed again, all of them listening to the telltale sounds of their doom making its approach. There was no indication that one of their team was coming for them, just as they had no idea how far apart they were to begin with – or if the others were in a place where they could spot the flare and come to their aid. The Avengers moved fast when they needed to, but the alien had already been close, and Tony was beginning to have doubts about his plan.
“Get behind me,” Clint said at length.
“What good will that do?” Tony asked.
“I’m going to take a shot at it once it’s close enough,” the archer replied sharply. “I don’t want you standing in the way.”
Tony didn’t ask whether or not Clint could make that shot while barely able to sit up. Since Clint didn’t request to be moved, Tony figured the other knew what he was doing and he slowly moved around him, using the time to place the helmet within the bag again and to pull on the woolly hat. His head was still irritated and far from cooling down, but the hat gave him a sense of protection – which it really wasn’t.
He crouched down behind Clint, making sure he was far enough back not to get in the way. The bots were quiet, whereas the heavy footsteps from the battle armor were getting much clearer.
“Maybe it will fall down like you did and break its metallic neck,” Tony murmured wistfully.
Clint just grunted by way of reply.
“Do you need me to do something?” Tony asked. “Prop you up, reload…”
“Just stay where you are,” Clint told him, tension in his voice. “I would tell you to run for your life, but…”
Tony reached out to clasp his teammate’s shoulder briefly. “That wouldn’t be very heroic of me.”
“No point in both of us dying out here,” Clint noted.
“How far do you honestly think I would get?” Tony challenged. “We’re in this together.”
A heavy branch or a thin tree was torn in half somewhere on their right, and Tony shifted back again, pointlessly trying to make sense of his surroundings. The footfalls were coming from really close by and his heartbeat was shooting up in anxiety and dread.
“Can you see it?” Tony asked in a whisper.
Something flew out above their heads and crashed into the treetops. Whatever it was, its weight dragged it down for the next half a minute, one branch at a time, but it never hit the ground.
Tony could hear Clint breathe, inhales and exhales forced into a slow pace that shuddered a bit near the end. There came a faint tick-tick as he adjusted his bow.
The next footfall came from above them where the steep hill started, and Tony felt like urging Clint to take the shot. A mechanical foot adjusted its stance, causing a mini-avalanche to rumble down the hill. The exo-suit wasn’t directly above them, but Tony could feel the breeze the tumbling snow created, not too far away from them.
“How much closer do you want it to get?” he asked Clint, unable to hold his tongue. There was no way the alien hadn’t spotted them.
“I think it’s planning on coming down to us,” Clint replied.
Tony wasn’t sure why Clint wanted to wait for that to happen. The fall down the hill would not kill the alien or damage the battle armor too badly, so it wouldn’t work in their favor. Maybe Clint just didn’t think he could make the shot from his current position.
The heavy weight shifted again – then began a violent slide down the slope. Trees groaned and snapped, rocks were forced out of their cocoons in the frosty ground. There came a few hasty steps, as if the armor was forced to run downhill to keep its balance, and when it finally landed on the bottom, it was with a heavy thud that rocked the ground beneath Tony.
Clint drew an arrow but didn’t fire.
Tony closed his eyes, out of habit, and wondered if it was too late in his life to start praying.
The exo-suit moved again, and after the second step, Clint released the arrow with a harsh breath. An explosion followed soon after, throwing Tony back from his hunched position. Snow was everywhere, along with bits of earth – and a groan from the alien battle armor as is straightened itself and continued to approach.
“Tony,” Clint said, pain lacing every syllable, “you need to run.”
“Not a good plan,” Tony managed and sat up. “I can’t… go on my own.”
Clint obviously wanted him to try anyway, but Tony wasn’t going to run like a coward. He was going to stick by his friend and face his enemy, and on that note he rose to his feet, stepping to the side and then forward, past Clint and towards the advancing enemy. He didn’t know what he was planning on doing, other than dying on his feet, but that was infinitely better than cowering on the ground, waiting for the final blow.
The armor moved in front of him, and Tony imagined it training one of its weapons on him.
“Come on,” he muttered. “Time to finish this –”
A sound like the sky splitting in half overwhelmed his ears, and what Tony assumed was the blast from the alien weapon sent him backwards. The pain he felt was more from the impact with the ground, though, and that threw him off for a moment.
Then he recognized the continuous sound: a thunder so loud and intense it felt like it was going to rip apart the entire mountain, and from somewhere in its midst, the unmistakable ring of Mjolnir hitting the exo-suit square in the chest.
A familiar roar soon echoed in the air and Tony almost peed his pants with relief as the Hulk landed beside them, delivering a devastating blow to whatever was left of the alien at this point.
“Sir,” another familiar sound reached his ears, the hum of the thrusters like a soft kitten’s purr compared to the noises Thor and the Hulk were making as they finished off the battle armor. “Are you alright?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked through the speakers of the suit. The snow billowed as the Iron Man armor landed nearby.
“I’m fine,” Tony replied. “Clint needs help.”
“Already on it,” Rhodey joined the conversation, briefly startling Tony because where did these people keep coming from? Eventually he allowed himself to relax on the ground, acknowledging that his best friend had returned safely, hopefully along with the rest of the team.
He received a confirmation on that soon enough when more people approached on foot, moving over to them quickly.
“It’s bad,” Natasha observed out loud a moment later, obviously meaning Clint.
“I’ve had worse,” Clint retorted.
“No, you haven’t,” she argued.
“You don’t know that…”
“Yes, I do.”
“Stabilize him to the best of your ability,” Steve ordered, cutting off the soft banter. “Rhodey, give her a hand.” Tony could hear him walking closer as the sounds of battle ceased and the thunder yielded with a final rumble across the sky. “Are you really okay?” he asked Tony, stopping beside him.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony promised.
“We should regroup and move out,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said. “I have successfully contacted a nearby air base and they are sending out a team to pick us up. In the meanwhile, we would do well to avoid any more alien patrols.”
“It’s not like we invited this one to dinner,” Tony complained.
“You fired a flare,” Steve countered.
“When it was already closing in on us!”
“Should I resume aerial patrol?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.
“Get the bots first,” Tony ordered.
“On it, sir.”
Tony sighed and sat up, accepting a hand from Steve to get to his feet.
“You put on the helmet, didn’t you?” Steve said in a low voice. It didn’t sound like a question, exactly, but Tony felt like he was waiting for an answer.
“The situation called for it,” Tony responded. “Clint was in no shape to help himself, and I would be lying next to him if I had tried to reach him blindly.”
Steve accepted his answer, shifting his attention to the rest of the team. “We need to move out. Rescue is coming, but until then we’re sticking together and playing it safe.” He then shifted his hand to touch Tony’s elbow. “Can you walk or shall I carry you?”
Tony wasn’t sure why he asked. Did he look worse than he felt? Although honestly, he did feel pretty horrible, what with all the adrenaline gone and his head still hurting.
“Take care of Clint. I’ll manage,” he decided.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” Steve told him, then moved away. A soft murmur of voices continued in his absence as the team tended to Clint’s injury and prepared him to be moved, and Tony allowed himself a moment to rest his mind now that the danger had briefly passed.
“Tired,” the Hulk rumbled suddenly.
Tony jumped a bit, not having heard him come over. “You and me both,” he replied. The Hulk had to be wanting a nap right now, but they also needed the big guy around until they were truly out of danger. “We can rest soon, when rescue comes,” he promised the giant green rage monster, who sounded like he had pounded most of his rage out on the aliens.
The Hulk huffed and, by the sound of it, sat down heavily. Tony reached out to pat his arm, waiting for the others to be ready to move out. “Hawkeye got hurt,” the Hulk mused after a while.
“Yeah,” Tony nodded. “He’ll be fine, though. We just need to make sure there are no more nasty alien surprises before our ride arrives.” He tapped the giant arm with his fingers. “Can you hang around a bit longer, make sure we’re all safe?”
The Hulk huffed again, but he didn’t say ‘no’ or start shrinking back to a more Bruce-like shape, so Tony took that as a good sign. It was about time something started going their way since the battle at the crater.
to be continued…