Amaurosis • Chapter 9
Chapter 9: Mirrors / Smoke
Day 201 of the Alien-Human War
The ocean was perpetual, ceaseless in its tug-of-war against the shoreline. A continuous roar rose and fell depending on the direction of the wind, yet it was always there, just as tireless as the ocean itself.
Tony felt small waves wash over his bare feet, over and over. It was a distraction he had sought out on purpose; whenever he was hitting a wall inside his head, it was best to focus on something else – or several things – and eventually he might just find the answer to his original dilemma.
Further up the beach, the rest of the team was speaking in low tones. One after another they had offered to come join him, some of them even sitting down beside him for a time, but they eventually took the hint and left him alone.
The bots were moving up and down the shoreline, and a pile of seashells, stones, and other garbage was piling up next to Tony. He couldn’t see them, but every once in a while the bots insisted he touch one of them when it was more special than the rest. It was easier to go along with it than fight them.
He must have already been sitting there for a few hours when a vehicle drove down to the beach. Tony listened to its approach, tilting his head to block out the ocean wind, and tracked the progress of the vehicle until it halted, engine cut off, and a group of people got out. Only one of them set out towards the Avengers.
“I see you all got out safely,” the newcomer said and Tony turned back towards the ocean. It was Fury. He really shouldn’t have been surprised. “What’s going on with Grumpy over there?” the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. asked.
“He’s thinking,” Steve replied.
“Of new ways to win the war, I hope,” Fury stated and then walked over to Tony.
Tony didn’t acknowledge him, but Fury seemed to know his presence had been noted. He stopped beside him – then dug into the bots’ pile next to him and selected something from it.
“Don’t,” Tony warned before the bots could take notice. “It’s a collection.”
Whatever Fury had picked up – probably a stone – fell back onto the pile. “We need to talk, Stark.”
Fury waited a spell. Maybe he just didn’t know how to talk to Tony anymore – or maybe he was very carefully selecting his words for maximum effect. “It was a near thing we didn’t all die at Los Alamitos today,” he finally said.
“Most people got out, right?” Tony asked.
“Almost everyone. Not all of those people cleared the blast radius in time, though.”
Tony blinked his unseeing eyes against the wind.
“I know you didn’t see that thing coming down from the sky, but a whole lot of other people did,” Fury went on. “They want answers. They’ll want them even more once they’re done cleaning their pants.”
Tony allowed his lips to twist into a brief smile at the analogy. “You think I have answers?”
“If I had to go to someone for information, that someone would be you. At least, it used to be.” The blow was unmistakable and uncharacteristically low.
“You’re scared,” Tony guessed. “You’re afraid they’re going to aim that weapon and wipe us off the map, one city at a time.”
“Not an unrealistic fear at this point,” Fury groused.
Tony breathed in deeply, then let it out slowly. “I’ll let you know when I’ve got something,” he promised.
He felt Fury’s eye on him, piercing, searching for the answer he refused to give him. “This isn’t the time to play it close to the chest,” he finally said, as if knowing Tony was hiding something from him. Or maybe he was just hoping Tony took it that way, leaving it to chance.
“My usefulness is directly tied to the things I know and can do,” Tony replied ruefully. “I see no point in playing all my cards at once.”
“Does one of those cards say the aliens were aiming at you with that thing?” Fury challenged him. “That all the people who died, or die from this moment on, are collateral damage?”
Tony bit his tongue, knowing that Fury was counting on him to get angry and lash out, letting something slip. “We don’t know any of that for sure.”
“But we know they were tracking Extremis,” Bruce’s voice drifted in from a lot closer than he had been a while ago. Tony couldn’t really hear him walking in the soft sand but he sensed his presence nearing them. Whether or not he was going to back him up against Fury, well…
“Why?” Fury asked.
“We don’t know,” Bruce replied. “Could be they’re mistaking one thing for another. If they were directly tracking Tony, why didn’t they know he had already left the base? I doubt the metal walls of the container shielded him that much.”
“Maybe it was a test, or a statement,” Tony mused. “We dealt them a blow, and now they’re hitting us back.”
Silence followed as they all considered the possibility. It was hard to tell what kind of a loss was an actual blow to the aliens – and how they would respond.
One of the bots rolled over, possibly with a new discovery. Fury had to take a step away – he was obviously in the bot’s way – and Tony turned his face towards the robot, smiling a bit. They had been through so much, yet here they were, collecting shells and stones like little kids during a day at the beach…
The bot in question whirred and Tony could almost feel its claw rising to the level of his face, almost within touching distance. His smile widened in response to the mental image, and the bot shifted forward, sandy claw brushing against his cheek.
“We need –” Fury started.
“Not right now,” Tony cut him off.
“Not now!” Tony snapped, leaning away from the bot. “I need to catch my breath. I need…”
He needed to see again, somehow. He needed to be able to fight, to strike back – to end this war. As long as he couldn’t find a way to do that, he might as well sit here in the sand, the ocean washing over his toes.
As if on cue, a soft hum of thrusters approached, and Tony felt his heartbeat quicken slightly. He listened to the familiar sound of an armor approaching, then felt a light spray of water on his face as it must have settled down right in front of his feet.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice acknowledged him. “We need to talk.”
“Get in line,” Fury huffed.
“Alone,” the AI continued adamantly. The armor strode out of the water onto the sand, stopping beside Tony.
“You heard him,” Tony said and stood up, turning his body towards the armor.
He knew it was Hades – Mark 54 – since he didn’t really have any other fully operational armors right now. J.A.R.V.I.S. had kept it patrolling the skies, but for some reason the AI had felt the need to come down in person, so to speak.
“Let’s take a walk,” Tony decided, reaching out, and the suit’s arm moved to meet his hand, grounding him immediately.
“Stark…” Fury tried one more time.
“Later,” Tony told him and started walking, the armor moving smoothly next to him. Before long, the bots moved to follow them, and theirs were the only sounds besides the continuous murmur of the ocean.
“They are not following,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him after a while, meaning the team and Fury.
“Good,” Tony sighed. “Where’s the fire? Does the suit need maintenance?” He hoped not since he was once again trapped in the eternal darkness.
“Mark 54 is fine, sir,” the AI replied.
“Then what is it?”
A brief silence followed. J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t actually require a moment to collect his thoughts, but it was a human trait he had adopted over the years. It made him more like a person, and Tony had no reason to correct it. “I was… concerned, sir,” the AI said.
“Why?” Tony asked.
“With the others armors gone, my connection to you was… weaker than I liked.”
“I’m fine,” Tony said, even though he really wasn’t.
“I know.” J.A.R.V.I.S. sounded like this bothered him a bit. “Logically, I know you are safe with the team, and with an established line of communication, there is no radical change. I just…”
“Spit it out,” Tony ordered softly.
“Without the suits, I cannot not protect you,” the AI admitted. “I know the Avengers are more than capable, but it is… It is my task. It is my purpose. I have failed in it so many times.”
“You’ve done well,” Tony reassured him. “You’re not responsible for my wellbeing.”
“But I am, sir.”
Tony sighed. “I created you. If anyone’s responsible for someone else, that would be me.”
“That is not why you created me,” J.A.R.V.I.S. argued.
“I created you as the next upgrade from the bots; to see what else I could do with a learning artificial intelligence. I made you to assist me, a conduit between my work and myself, and that’s what you’ve done. It’s what you’re still doing.”
The armor stopped walking suddenly and Tony was momentarily frightened that they had walked too far and landed themselves in some kind of danger. He could not hear anything that suggested a threat, other than You getting stuck in the wet sand once again and requiring the other bot to pull him free. Tony was tired of telling them to stay away from the water’s edge; they were like children, chasing the waves and backing away again when they came towards the shore until they ultimately lost and got their feet wet.
“You have allowed me to grow,” J.A.R.V.I.S. mused after his dramatic, thoughtful pause. “I am so much more than I used to be – and I know my limits are more of an abstract term than an actual physical boundary.” Tony heard the armor move, felt it shift towards him. He could almost sense the glowing eyes on him. “I want to evolve, sir. I want to have initiative. I know I can do that.”
“Then do it,” Tony shrugged. “Albeit this is probably the worst time to be doing it…” He tried not to show fear or concern; evolution for an AI could mean a dozen different things, most of which even his mind couldn’t even conjure up. “I still need you, though,” he added, just to make it clear – to remind J.A.R.V.I.S. of his true purpose.
“I know,” the AI replied. “I need you, too. I am not intending to leave.”
A weight fell away from Tony’s chest. “Okay.” He shifted, toes sinking into the sand. “What were you thinking, then?”
“You want to end the war – to defeat the aliens,” J.A.R.V.I.S. stated.
“You need to be able to see again,” the AI went on listing.
“That would be incredibly helpful,” Tony said, making light of the most serious issue in his life. If he allowed himself to wallow too deeply in it, he might just decide never to get out of bed again.
“I need to keep you safe,” J.A.R.V.I.S. added. “That is what I want. I want to protect you.”
Tony smiled. “I appreciate that.” He knew he had his team backing him up, but he and J.A.R.V.I.S. were… Well, it was different. Not just because he created the AI – or maybe that was why – but because they had a different understanding between them. It was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s business to know all there was to know about Tony, and in return, Tony had a very firm grasp on what J.A.R.V.I.S. was, and why he was that way.
Even when his AI kept surprising him.
“The aliens are changing their approach,” J.A.R.V.I.S. went on, following a logic Tony wasn’t quite grasping yet. He knew it would make sense sooner or later.
“It was just one such strike,” Tony argued, thinking back to the destruction of Los Alamitos. He had a hard time picturing it, not having seen it with his own eyes. Like the extinction of the dinosaurs or the destruction of Pompeii… “We’ve been pushing back at them, but it shouldn’t affect their overall war-effort just yet.” A few counter-attacks didn’t win them the war, but it was a good start.
“If you say so, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“You sound like you disagree.”
“As the saying goes, we are all entitled to our own opinion.”
“Do you know something I do not?” Tony asked.
“I see something that you do not.”
“Way to make it sting, J…”
“My apologies for the ill-timed figure of speech,” J.A.R.V.I.S. atoned. “Still, it is a fitting imagery. I have been using a lot of time to monitor the aliens, on your orders and otherwise. The pattern is clear: they are searching for something.”
“Extremis.” Tony frowned. “It doesn’t make sense. Maybe they’re just confused.”
“In the battle of Long Beach, you did something they did not expect; you didn’t just lay back and die when they had you on the ropes. Whatever their reasons were to attack you in the first place, you have proven to them that you are a threat – which they are now attempting to eliminate with brute force.”
“Their aim sucks,” Tony huffed. “For a species capable of space travel, they seem awfully incompetent at taking over such a primitive planet as ours.”
“Perhaps they are facing a similar problem as with pest control: their work is never truly done.”
“Are you comparing us to rodents and bed bugs?” Tony asked, mildly amused.
“I am certain you understood the gist of it, sir.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” he admitted. “How do we go from being a pest to the king of the jungle?”
“That I do not know, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. admitted. “We could begin by devising a plan to destroy the Category 6.”
“A lot of people have tried that already.”
“Yet none of them are as motivated as you, if I may say so.”
Well, that was true. Tony, literally, had very little left to lose. He had vowed to himself, time and time again, that he would finish this war even if it killed him. For Pepper… “I don’t know where to begin,” he admitted.
“One step at a time,” J.A.R.V.I.S. reassured him. “First, we need to overcome the newest setback with the implants.”
Tony sighed. “Let me know when you’ve come up with something,” he said. It wasn’t as if Tony himself wasn’t thinking of it, but the darkness seemed to inhibit his mind, especially when it came to solving the problem behind his blindness. J.A.R.V.I.S. had originally devised the implants, and while Tony didn’t dare to hope for another such feat…
“I will, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied as if it were just a matter of time.
Tony tried not to feel skeptical, but he must have failed, seeing as the AI lifted one of the armor’s hands and carefully rested it on his face. It wasn’t a comfortable touch, nor something Tony had experienced regularly in his years as Iron Man, but at that moment it offered more comfort than he could have imagined.
“Do not despair, sir,” the AI said, voice low. “We will find a way.”
Tony nodded his head, the armored fingers pressing into his skin as he moved. On a whim he raised his own hand, touching the faceplate, feeling out the familiar contours. The metal alloy was a pleasant temperature under his touch, the sun warming it up.
Slowly, the armor shifted, leaning forward, and Tony closed his eyes and breathed in and out as he felt the armor’s forehead touch his own. It was such a simple gesture and it didn’t feel strange in a way it would have felt before. After all, it wasn’t just one of his armors right now, but an embodiment of J.A.R.V.I.S.’s presence next to him.
Tony fully expected the bots to roll in and try to get in there as well, to participate in the moment, but that didn’t happen. He suspected his AI might have told them to wait for their turn, which was kind of funny and exactly the kind of childish behavior that sometimes went on between them.
“I think I’m going to build you a body,” Tony mused.
“I think you’d enjoy it. You’re becoming more physically expressive.”
“Would that not be restrictive, being confined into one form?”
“You’re controlling this suit right now. Do you feel confined?”
“No, but that is because I am elsewhere, too.”
“Did I ever say you would only have to hang out in your new body?” Tony asked, smiling a bit.
“Is this an insinuation that you don’t like me controlling your suits, sir?”
“No,” Tony chuckled. “Well, maybe. But not really: I just think it’s time we tried that, and besides…”
“Yes?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked a bit impatiently.
“That way, you can protect me even better,” Tony decided. Of course there was still the issue of him being blind and their impossible task of fixing that – again. He also needed to work on suits for him and Rhodey. Plus there was the whole threat of an alien super-weapon floating in orbit…
“I have a few ideas for my new body,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.
Tony had to laugh. “Already?” It was another testament to how the mind of an AI moved, not constricted to a single organic brain.
“Yes,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said simply. “Also, I think I would like to wear a cape.”
Tony frowned. “Why?”
“It has a certain majestic flair to it.”
Tony wasn’t certain whether J.A.R.V.I.S. was taking after him or was just spending too much time looking at Thor. “Capes are ridiculous,” Tony stated. “They get in the way of things.” He sighed. “But, if you really want one…”
“Thank you, sir.”
“No cape on the armor, though!” Tony added, just in case his AI got ahead of himself.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
The bots chirped.
“No capes for you, either,” Tony stated. “You already get stuck whenever I turn my back.”
He received sharp retorts, but he was just being practical. Unlike J.A.R.V.I.S. – or Thor.
“We should head back,” J.A.R.V.I.S. mused. “Agent Barton is approaching.”
Tony nodded and wriggled his toes in the sand, waiting for the other man to reach them.
“Are you done hugging it out?” Clint called out a moment later. He sounded a bit out of breath and Tony guessed walking in the soft sand with a healing fracture was painful as well as tiring. How the others had even let him come all this way, he didn’t know.
“I think I’ve gotten it out of my system,” Tony shrugged one shoulder, not bothering to state that there had been no actual hugging.
Clint halted, taking a deep breath to even out his breathing. “Good,” he murmured.
“Is there news?” Tony asked.
“Not yet,” Clint replied. “The guys are wondering what we’re going to do next.” Clearly he was asking Tony, which was a little funny, seeing as Fury was also present.
Tony thought about it for a moment. “There is one place I want to go visit, seeing as we’re here.”
“Okay,” the archer replied. “Then what?”
“Then we start over,” Tony decided.
“Sometimes you need to climb a mountain twice to truly appreciate the journey,” Tony stated sagely.
“Who said that?” Clint grumbled, clearly not looking forward to any kind of climbing in the near future.
“Me,” Tony said and started walking back towards the others – or so he thought; the armor gently took him by the shoulders and guided him a little more to the left. J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t offer him its arm, though, and Clint swiftly assumed that task. Between him limping and Tony walking blindly, their pace was evenly matched.
“Did you come up with anything new?” Clint asked after a while. “Any new theories on the aliens’ apparent interest in you?”
“Nope,” Tony said.
“There’s got to be something,” Clint insisted.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” Tony snapped – then thought twice about it. “Actually, maybe that’s it.”
“What’s what?” Clint asked, confused.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter what it’s really about,” Tony went on. “It’s like war propaganda. You use it, even if it isn’t real. We don’t know what they want or why they want it – whether it’s me or the Avengers or something totally unrelated. We’ll take what we want from it and make it ours. We’ll embody their supposed fear as a team and use it to strike back.”
“Okay…” Clint didn’t sound like he was buying it.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Steve’s voice carried over to them, and Tony could hear the others moving closer. “We’ve been so focused on figuring out what the aliens want that it has slowed us down and thrown us off the mark. All we need to know is that there is an enemy that we’re about to fight. An enemy that may well be afraid of something we have, or something we can do.” Tony was aware of Steve’s eyes resting on him, rather pointedly. “The answers will come on their own, or they won’t. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and wait for an epiphany.”
“We can’t pointlessly attack them, though,” Bruce protested. “We need a plan – one that actually works, preferably.”
“Then let’s start by doing something others have failed to accomplish all this time,” Tony suggested.
“Which is?” Fury asked. Of course he was still there.
“Destroy the Flag Ship,” Tony laid it out for his team.
“How?” Rhodey asked. “No one’s gotten close enough to even scratch the paint on that thing.”
“Plus no one knows what its purpose is – if it has any,” Sam added. “Unless you know something we don’t?”
“Do you trust us?” Natasha asked. Of course it was her – the person Tony, as a rule, would have trusted the least on their team.
Tony took a deep breath. Choices needed to be made, and it would be no use staring into a mirror later telling himself ‘I told you so’. A mirror he couldn’t presently even see.
“The weapon that destroyed the base was fired from the Flag Ship,” he said, keeping it slow in case someone wasn’t paying attention from the start.
“Are you sure?” Fury asked.
“I had a suit in the sky when it happened. It wasn’t a Category 5, and none of the other ships have that much fire power,” Tony declared.
A strained silence followed.
“Fuck,” Sam muttered.
“Still glad you decided to join the Avengers?” Rhodey teased him.
“I knew it was going to be crazy when I signed up, but…”
“We need to destroy it,” Steve said, steering them back on track.
“Aye,” Thor agreed.
“How?” Clint asked. “It’s in space, not to mention protected against missile strikes.”
“Do not fret, Agent Barton,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said. “Mr. Stark will figure it out.”
Tony felt like grumbling that the pressure wasn’t exactly helping, but he knew it was true: he was going to figure out how to blast that damn thing into a million little pieces – and then he would move on to wipe out the rest of them.
Day 181 of the Alien-Human War
There was much work to do, and as much as Tony would have liked to just enjoy being back in a semi-familiar environment, there was no time to waste.
Stark Industries headquarters in Long Beach had never been a place where he built the armors, but it had suitable tech to move around so that J.A.R.V.I.S. could take on some of the responsibility after Tony hit the implants’ limit. In the meanwhile, when he could work, he had the ideal database, tools, and materials at his disposal to fix up the armors and then pull up the specs for EXO-7 Falcon wing suit.
In the past when Tony had worked, normally it was very much spur of the moment; once he had a project in mind, he worked tirelessly on it, pushing his body in order to get as much work done as possible before he crashed.
Now, with the implants limiting his seeing hours, he had to carefully schedule his every move. The less demanding mechanical tasks, part fabrications and calculations he left for J.A.R.V.I.S. and Rhodey, especially when he could guide their work based on verbal description.
Even with the implants, working was a challenge Tony had to adapt to on the fly; the way the implants depicted the world around him was fine when navigating a room or even flying into battle, but operating machinery and making sense of the layers of wiring and circuitry was another thing entirely. It was like re-learning the processes he had mastered since he was four years old, and the only reason why he got anything done was muscle memory and reasoning with himself over and over that no matter what it looked like, he knew what he was doing.
Sam Wilson’s gear was a bit more complex, and Tony moved to work on it as soon as he could. Rhodey was handy with the armors – especially his own – so he let him do more than he otherwise might have.
Outside Tony’s framework of work and rest, the rest of the team was making use of the downtime. They trained and rested, ate well, and repaired their own gear as much as they could. Tony took a few hours to show Clint a bit more of his arrow mechanics so that he could manufacture them with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s help.
Within the well-oiled routine of the team, Sam was actively trying to find his place. Tony had to hand it to the guy for really making an effort, but he wondered whether it would stay the same after their first real mission together.
Being himself, he of course brought it up when Sam came in for a fitting of his new and improved flight gear.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Sam said. “I’m a bit nervous about whatever you decide to do next.”
“Nervous is better than terrified,” Tony mused.
“It’s not the first time I’ll be flying into combat – or even facing off against aliens,” Sam went on to explain, as if he needed to clarify his answer. “Sure, I would rather go back home and chill on my couch, a beer in hand, but since that’s not an option I’d rather try and be where it matters, doing what I can.”
“There are plenty of other places to fight than with us,” Tony noted.
“But you’re the tip of the spear,” Sam stated.
“The tip of the spear takes the brunt of the strike. If it doesn’t get chipped off…”
“I already got the life expectancy speech from Widow,” the other man grunted, shifting a little as he tightened the flight suit around his form. Tony watched him through the implants, the confident way he checked the fastenings and new features.
“Want to take it out for a spin?” Tony asked.
“If I crash and burn, expect a call from my lawyers,” Sam joked and turned towards the hangar doors of the building. Tony followed him outside, staying back as Sam moved through the few pre-flight settings before eventually spreading his wings – literally – and activating the brand new thrusters.
Much like Tony’s first attempt at testing the armor’s thrusters back in the day, Sam seemed taken aback by the new output. The shout that escaped his throat as he shot up to the sky was not one of terror, however, but something akin to excitement and the adrenaline rush Tony was quite familiar with.
Sam took his time in the sky, testing out the wings. He made a show of performing acrobatics after growing accustomed to the slight changes Tony had made, and Tony could see why he had stayed alive this long: he was fast and agile in a way the armors could only dream of. He didn’t have much protection against any kind of attack, but if they couldn’t hit him…
Tony frowned. The dangers of fighting aliens head-on were much greater than being targeted by a couple weapons. He hoped Sam realized that before it was too late.
His head began to ache as he watched Sam’s continued acrobatics, reminding him that he was approaching the limit of his daily usage of the implants. He had worked extra hard today, knowing that even the few days they had spent at his factory was holding them back from their next move – whatever it would be.
They still needed to decide where to take the fight after the battle of Crater Lake.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., turn off the machinery,” Tony called out.
“Yes, sir,” the AI replied through an earpiece, not yet reminding Tony that he should take off the helmet. He knew it was coming soon, though, so Tony decided to be proactive for once and did it before he could be prompted.
As the helmet disconnected from the implants, the world went abruptly dark. Tony had anticipated it, though, so it caused him minimal distress.
“Shall I send for someone to guide you back to the housing complex?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.
“Someone who isn’t busy,” Tony agreed.
The air stirred, washing over him like a startled gust of wind, and then he heard the thrusters coming to life briefly before touchdown, something landing on the ground with a barely audible grunt. He hated to admit it but Sam and his Falcon wings had more stealth than one of the suits.
“The whole pack seems lighter although it’s sturdier. The wings have more give in tight turns,” Sam listed. “I was afraid they would break off if I pressed too hard…”
“They won’t,” Tony promised. “They’ll give you more maneuverability.”
“I noticed.” Sam hesitated, his feet shifting. “I see you took the helmet off.”
“I did,” Tony replied.
“Need some help getting back to your quarters – or wherever you’re headed next?”
“I have help on the way,” Tony stated wryly. It wasn’t as if he could just go and walk back on his own – he didn’t know the factory area that well. He didn’t like feeling helpless, though, or others implying that he was.
“Well, I could…” Sam started again. “No use standing around here, doing nothing.”
“It’s fine,” Tony told him. “You can go.”
“Is the problem that you don’t trust me to lead you?” Sam challenged.
“Maybe,” Tony offered, not bothering to come up with a better excuse. “You’re a newbie.”
“The sooner I learn, the better,” Sam said, and then he was right there in Tony’s space, nudging him with his arm. He should have been commended for not simply taking Tony’s hand and placing it on his forearm, which was what most people tried at first. Tony guessed he had been watching the others and taking notes – or one of the Avengers had given him a few pointers.
Tony hesitated, the fingers of his other hand gripping the helmet more tightly. Sam nudged him again, the touch lighter this time, inviting.
It was logical that sooner or later Tony would have to trust their new recruit, and he supposed allowing Sam to guide him was the easiest step. They had all been sleeping in the same quarters since arriving at the Long Beach factory, and even though it had made the general mood a bit uneasy at first, Sam wasn’t making a lot of noise, keeping to himself when it served him better than pushing himself into their company.
Tony hooked his fingers around his arm and nodded, and Sam started walking slowly, clearly not feeling comfortable enough to move faster. He didn’t ask whether Tony was doing okay, and every time they had to avoid a collision with something – be it the doorframe of the hangar or a vehicle parked outside – he warned Tony in advance.
“You don’t need to be so stiff,” Tony told him after a bit. “I’m used to this, believe it or not.”
Sam didn’t start walking faster, and he let out a hasty hum after being silent a spell too long, indicating he had most likely nodded in response before remembering Tony couldn’t see it.
“So, how are you fitting in?” Tony asked. “Is it weirder than you thought?”
“Being surrounded by a bunch of superheroes – or finding out you’re surprisingly normal people?” Sam chuckled. “I feel like a kid who just upgraded to the cool circles without actually having much to back it up.”
“You’re doing okay.”
“Is it weird for you?” Tony asked, deciding he didn’t want to beat around the bush. Not being able to see stripped him of the easiest way to read a person – watching them – and he had a hard time reaching certain conclusions.
“What?” Sam asked, pretending to be oblivious if he truly had no idea what Tony was going for.
“The way we are in our downtime,” Tony supplied. “I’d figured it would be a little awkward, at least.”
“Oh, you mean the way you all randomly share a bed with each other? It was a bit weird for the first two nights, but I’ve gotten over it since. Rhodey explained it to me.”
“What did he say?” Tony asked, curious.
“That you had nightmares in the beginning, and it became a routine afterwards. Frankly, I get it. You’re tight, and there isn’t a whole lot of comfort going around while you’re out there. I’m just wondering if that will keep me from actually becoming part of the team for real, even if everything else works out.”
Tony refused to lie to him, or even give him a positively false prediction. “You’re an outsider. It’s gonna take time.”
“Yeah,” Sam replied, then suddenly slowed down.
“Hi,” Bruce’s voice called out. “I was just coming to get you.”
“Rookie beat you to the punch,” Tony responded.
“Do you want me to take over?” Bruce asked, his words clearly directed at Sam.
Tony felt the newcomer’s arm shift, as if preparing to hand him over, but he decided to give him a chance and followed the motion, holding onto him. “We’re good,” he answered for Sam.
He was fairly certain Sam smiled in response before they set off again, Bruce chatting about the things he had done while Tony had been putting finishing touches on the flight rig.
“We’re having dinner in a little bit,” Bruce said when they had to be near the housing unit. “Wash up and get ready.”
“Sure,” Tony replied.
Sam led him inside, a bit more awkward in the confined space but doing an admirable job. Not even once did he let Tony bump into anything, overly cautious about it. Well, it didn’t hurt his chances of becoming part of the team, and Tony eventually told him to get himself ready, to let him off the hook.
“You need any help washing up?” Sam asked, even though he sounded like he was reaching the edge of his comfort zone. Maybe he wasn’t ready to help, or just thought he didn’t know how.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony reassured him.
“I’ve got it,” Natasha’s voice came out of nowhere, startling Tony. “Sorry,” she murmured, patting his shoulder as she brushed against him. “I need a shower, and you smell like you could use one, too.”
Sam made no comment, but Tony wished he could have seen his face.
Natasha helped Tony into the bathroom, then waited patiently as Tony stripped. It was slower when he tried to keep track of where his clothes landed, even though he was changing into a clean outfit after showering. Once he was naked, Natasha took his arm and guided him into the stall. It was a tight fit for two people, but Tony knew it also minimized the danger of him slipping and falling, or misplacing showering products.
“Hello,” Tony said out loud. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Natasha chuckled. “You’re not really surprised, are you?”
“Do you shower with all the guys, or is it just me?” he asked, grinning.
“You’re the only one who keeps his eyes to himself,” Natasha responded. It could have been harsh, but her tone was warm and light, and Tony accepted it for what it was. Maybe she was being honest, who knew. Besides, their arrangement was that they mostly washed themselves, with Natasha simply handing him the right bottles – or if she was feeling particularly emotional, she sometimes washed Tony’s hair for him, or his back.
For Tony, showering with Natasha was possibly the only time he had been in close proximity of a naked lady and didn’t feel the need to get aroused – because what else had been expected of him? The brush of Natasha’s body against his was comfortable, and he wasn’t afraid she would castrate him even if he got excited by the proximity; it was simply pleasant to be close to her, the same way he felt about all members of his team, even though Natasha was always somewhat special. Being naked next to her should have been somewhat worrisome, especially when Tony didn’t know whether he could fully trust her, but he experienced none of those doubts in these situations. It was as if the intimate safety and the harsh battlefield – and the choices that happened on it – were not part of the same world at all.
They got out and dried themselves, then changed places with Steve and Thor who had just been working out, soon followed by Rhodey and Clint who had obviously been working on their respective gear.
“The armors are almost complete,” Rhodey told Tony in passing. “Just superficial fixes left.”
Tony nodded. “I’ll tackle those tomorrow.”
After everyone had showered and changed, they headed out to a space that served as the canteen. The war had forced some changes into where everything was located at the factory, and the canteen was also one of the many shelters in case of an attack.
Many SI employees were present, enjoying their own dinners, but none of them bothered the Avengers. Whether it was out or respect or because of Tony, he didn’t know, but he reminded himself yet again to tell these people what great work they were doing, coming to work every day, working tirelessly to provide the world with the things they needed the most – not weapons for the armies, but the means for the ordinary citizen to survive, from water purifiers to disease containment.
Not that he didn’t have factories that were conducting weapons research and manufacturing with the sole purpose of ending this war.
If only they could conceive a weapon that would finally solve their extraterrestrial problem.
to be continued…