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Del Rion [userpic]

Chitauri Apocalypse; Chapter 26: Trust

[show info]Title: Chitauri Apocalypse
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Era: Post-Avengers movie
Genre: Action, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Jane Foster, Nick Fury, Happy Hogan, J.A.R.V.I.S., Loki, Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Lady Sif and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor
(Brief/smaller appearances: Odin, Maria Hill, Darcy Lewis, The Other, Benjamin “Benny” Pollack, Erik Selvig, Jasper Sitwell, Claire Wise.)
Pairings: Happy/Pepper, Jane/Thor. Mentions of: Benny/Claire, Pepper/Tony
Summary: Iron Man never fell back through the portal. The Avengers must deal with the loss of their comrade and move on – until Earth once again comes under an attack from the Chitauri and their new-found weapons that decimate everything in their path with unmatched power and intellect. As cities and nations collapse around their decreasing resistance, the heroes of Earth must find a way to defeat their enemy before there is nothing left to avenge.
Work in progress.
Written for: Apocalypse Big Bang, Round One (apocalypsebang at LiveJournal)
Art: Imaan (insteadofdeath at dA/DW/LJ)
Warnings: Graphic description of torture, major character death, apocalypse & invasion themes (including but not limited to: mass destruction, terrorism, holocaust, death, violence and gore), brain-washing & mind-control, language (including some remarks that could be seen as racist). Serious spoilers for the ending of The Avengers (and other random spoilers for the rest of the movies in the Avengers cinematic universe).




~ ~ ~




Chapter 26: Trust



The fight had quieted outside, but it wasn’t over; the Chitauri were waiting although their patience was being tested.

Tony felt an itch in the back of his mind, of someone grasping for control, but he was too far away for them to seize it. However, it was but a matter of time before they succeeded and he needed to stay alert, to block them.

The shelter had been lit with a few lamps, leaving plenty of shadows for people to hide in. Tony was hiding in one of them, seated in a corner, legs pulled up. His head felt heavy against his knees. In the distance, the Hulk roared and smashed his fist into something.

“Tony?”

He lifted his head at the weak calling, unfolding his legs and getting up, walking over to where Pepper had been laid out on a makeshift bed. She was covered in blankets to keep her as warm as possible. He could smell the blood on her, still. Her eyes were open, bright despite the weakness in her voice. Tony shuffled over the rest of the way and sat down beside her. She shifted her hand from under the blankets and Tony took it wordlessly.

It felt right, in this moment, in this place.

“Happy…” she started.

“He’s gone,” Tony replied, softer than he wanted to – softer than they deserved…

She blinked. Her eyes got brighter.

“Do you want me to go get his body?” he asked then, surprising himself. So many had been forced to be left behind. Tony had seen them, the fields of the dead left to rot in the open. Somehow it made him angry that Happy Hogan would be one of them; a man who had been his friend, his shield against unknown enemies.

Her lover.

“Did you love him?” Tony asked, despite himself.

“Am I dying?” Pepper shot back. Their eyes met and she seemed to find the answer on his face. “Yes, I loved him. Very much. More than I realized. I keep regretting I didn’t see it sooner, that I forced myself to wait. We lost so much time waiting for the pain of your memory to fade… But it never faded, Tony,” she whispered, a tear trickling down the right side of her face, then a matching one on the other side. Her chest heaved; she was in pain.

“The things you said,” she started again after a moment.

“They don’t matter,” Tony interrupted her.

“Yes, they do,” she tried to snap but didn’t quite manage to get the desired effect. Tony submitted to it, though, not out of habit but out of respect. “I’m sorry,” Pepper went on after a while, fighting to breathe evenly. “So many things went wrong between us. We… didn’t always see eye to eye, I realize that. You might not want to believe it, but I tried to protect you… from yourself… from the rest of the world… I didn’t always do it right.”

“You did okay, Potts,” Tony admitted.

She smiled but it didn’t last. Her fingers untangled from his, trying to move up across the air, but she lacked the strength. Tony lifted his hand, taking her palm, bringing it up to his face. She smiled again as her fingers fanned out on his face, content to just lie there.

“Maybe one day you’ll forgive us,” she mused. “That we let you go. That we let you…”

Tony closed his eyes.

“They think it’s too late, but I know you. I know what you’re made of, and… Save the Earth, Tony,” she pleaded. “You’re the only one who can. Not the Avengers. Not Iron Man. You.” Her breaths grew strained. Tony tightened his fingers around her hand. “Don’t leave me alone,” she whispered, the fear beginning to bleed through.

“I won’t,” Tony promised.

She drifted off soon after and Tony sat there, filled with discontent. People moved around, a medic checking her vitals once. Tony eventually opened his eyes, laid down her hand but kept holding it.

Three hours later her breaths grew shallow.

Another half an hour and she lay there, quiet and still, skin still warm but Tony knew she was dead.

“Would you like something to eat?” Jane Foster offered a while later, walking over. She stopped, hesitating, then seemed to realize what had happened. “Oh my God…” she gasped, then collected herself. “I’m so sorry. I know you and she…”

“Yeah,” Tony bit out and finally let Pepper’s hand go, standing up in one swift movement. Jane stumbled back, to get out of his way as he turned and walked to the door of the shelter, climbing up into the disgustingly beautiful morning.

“Tony?” Steve perked up at once. He and several other people were gathered in a circle, perhaps going over a plan. “How’s Pepper?” he asked.

“Dead,” Tony told him flatly.

Hurt slashed across Captain America’s features but Tony had no interest in his apologies; they didn’t know each other, and he hadn’t known the real Pepper Potts either. In this fucked up world…

Tony’s fists tightened, painfully, a few of the joints snapping in his fingers. His chest felt tight, a fire burning in it. The whispers were back in his head but he drove them out, focusing instead, pacing a small circle as his mind reached out in the other direction, seeking comfort and solace.

He wanted more than that. Needed more than that.

Tony stopped pacing and waited, patiently. He had all the time in the world, although he didn’t need it. Not much longer…

The earth shook faintly. The pressure in his chest eased, just slightly, and he looked up at the space ship still hovering over the destroyed base, not one mile from their current position; the other two ships had either been shot down or had retreated to a safer distance, leaving this one behind to manage the situation. The Chitauri were growing restless, aware of his resistance. The Other would be most displeased.

Tony didn’t give a fuck.

“Sir!” a soldier came running in from a vantage point on top of a partially collapsed building. “A mecha!”

Tony was aware of looks directed at his back, hot and burning like knives.

“He’s killed us all,” someone muttered.

“Tony?” Steve’s voice rose above the commotion that followed the news. It was filled with questions and dread, yet he refused to elaborate. Was he willing to trust Tony to the end, refusing to cast doubt on his motives and actions – denying the genocide he had committed?

Concordia’s massive, sleek body pushed through a five-story building, not bothering to walk past it. Tony’s pulse picked up at the proximity and his mind melded with that of the machine he had created. Concordia didn’t stop or slow down; it advanced on what was left of the base’s above-ground structures, then leaned down to tug free a light mast that still stood tall in the middle of the destruction. Lifting it up, Concordia launched it like a javelin, the metal piercing the hull of the Chitauri ship with the force of the impact.

“Holy shit!” someone swore behind Tony’s back. He wondered if someone was pointing a gun at his head, planning on threatening him to stop the unit – or mecha, as they called them. Really, who had come up with that name? Not that it wasn’t fitting, really, and the geeky side of Tony could deal with it, but…

The Chitauri were scattering, coming out of their temporary hiding places. They seemed confused, uncertain, firing at Concordia.

The unit braced itself, leaning lower, legs working perfectly. Then, in one fluid motion that seemed impossible for something its size and weight, it launched itself up into the air, just high enough to grab hold of the low-flying space ship. Hauling itself up, Concordia dug in, clawed fingers slicing open the surface while the Chitauri scurried around it like ants, firing, feeding the inner charge Tony was so proud of creating. A bit longer and Concordia would reach the power core of the ship…

“Cover your eyes,” he told the people around him, guessing it might be polite. “Take cover, too.”

“What?” Steve asked, having appeared at his side, shield in hand.

“It’s going to blow,” Tony shrugged, then decided he might as well do the same and stepped behind Cap’s shield.

The air ignited, the charge releasing itself. The space ship was blown into a million little pieces, the air filled with an explosion that could probably be seen from space. It was contained, however, the blast radius controlled as Concordia began to suck it back in, taking back what it needed and neutralizing the rest. However, such changes had an effect and gusts of wind kept hitting them, along with debris and burning parts of metal and Chitauri.

Steve was blinking, his eyes running; he clearly hadn’t covered them in time. Tony patted him on the shoulder, watching as the space ship crashed down, Concordia emerging from its ruins with a victorious growl, shaking loose a few parts of machinery that clung to its form. Burnt corpses and broken vehicles crunched beneath its massive feet as it walked over and stopped short in front of Tony.

Craning his neck to look up at the unit’s face, Tony smiled – then felt a hot stab of pain in his neck, piercing his brain. He cried out, fell to his knees, feeling something digging in.

It couldn’t be real. His body was simply reacting to stimuli it had grown used to. That realization made it no easier to banish the sensation and he struggled, trying to find his own thoughts, a thread to follow.

“Tony!” a voice yelled in his ear, almost loud enough to burst an eardrum. “You must fight, my friend!”

He blinked, the world returning to him. People were gathered around, so intent on watching him they may have forgotten about Concordia hovering over them all.

“Which one was it?” Loki’s voice broke through. Tony felt a hand on his temple and jerked back, not wanting anyone touching him, yet Loki’s seemed to make his mind clearer.

“The Engineer,” Tony grunted. The mauled Chitauri had always had a better grasp at controlling him from a distance.

“So it lives,” Loki mused unhappily.

“They both live,” Tony sighed, sitting his ass on the ground, catching his breath. “They weren’t on the ship. But they’re close, which means we must move.”

“We can take them,” Thor vowed.

“If they manage to take over Tony’s mind, we cannot,” Loki snapped back at him. “He just had one of his pets destroy an entire ship; they know they’re losing him. They won’t let this slide.”

“Where should we go?” Steve asked then. “The base is gone. There’s only so many places we can all hide –”

“The Helicarrier,” Tony spat out.

“You destroyed them,” Clint’s voice joined the discussion.

“Not Fury’s favorite,” Tony informed them, looking up. “What, you think I didn’t know one was left?”

Clint fingered his bow then glanced up at Concordia. “And how do we know you won’t just unleash the mecha once we’re there?”

“I’ve been on a falling Helicarrier once in my life; it’s not a displeasure I want to repeat,” Tony grunted and lifted himself. Hands steadied him, several pairs of eyes following his every move. “Where’s Banner?” he asked then.

“The Hulk seems to be collecting skulls from the wreckage,” Natasha reported.

“Call him in; I need Bruce,” Tony snapped and turned, trying to get his bearings. The movement made him stumble face-first into Thor’s massive chest.

Steve’s familiar grip found its way to his waist and arm, pulling him back. “What do you need Bruce for?” he asked.

“We need to switch off the remote control,” Tony explained.

“Remote control?”

“For a guy who’s supposed to be on top of the situation, you’re pretty slow,” Tony glanced at the soldier over his shoulder.

Steve chewed on that for a moment. “Just a few days ago you were hell-bent on killing us all. What happened with that?”

“I may still change my mind,” Tony started, then glanced up at Concordia. The truth was in there, buried deep in their minds should they forget… Not the truth he had been telling himself the past few years but the newfound realization. “I made a promise to someone,” he murmured. Yinsen’s face flashed in his mind, briefly, but was soon replaced by Pepper’s desperate plea.

The ground trembled slightly as the Hulk jogged over. He didn’t have a collection of skulls but it looked like he had done a fair bit of smashing since the attack on the base started. The mouth opened into a sneer and fists tightened, ready to pound, as the green eyes regarded the mecha. “Hulk smash robot!”

“No, you won’t,” Tony called out. “Come here, big guy.”

The Hulk re-directed his gaze at Tony and took one step forward, looking like he might smash him instead. “Do you know who I am?” Tony asked.

The Hulk growled, from deep in his lungs.

Steve shifted, moving the shield, ready to jump between them by the looks of it.

The Hulk’s muscles rippled, toes shifting in the rubble, the eyes locked on Tony.

“Do you know who I am?” Tony repeated.

A huff met his words, like an annoyed, bored child trying to weasel his way out of a situation. “Tony,” the beast finally muttered, turning slightly away from him.

“Good,” Tony let out the breath he had been holding. “Then you also know I need Banner. Smashing’s over.”

“Puny Banner cannot smash,” the Hulk informed him.

“You’re the man for that job,” Tony agreed. “But I have a job for Banner, okay?”

Another half-hearted huff followed and the Hulk sat down, still frowning at the unmoving mecha. Slowly he began to shrink, turning a bit gray as the skin slowly adopted the human shade of pink. Eventually Bruce sat there, torn pants not covering anything of importance, a dazed expression on his face. When he blinked and looked up, noticing the shape standing above him, he almost jumped up to his feet in shock.

“Don’t give yourself a stroke, Doc,” Tony reassured him.

Bruce’s head whipped around to look at him, then surveyed the area with expertise; to see what the other guy had been up to. “We took down a ship?” he looked at the huge pile of destruction.

“The mecha did,” Steve informed him.

Bruce looked at Steve, then at Tony. A question was clear in his gaze, looking for the catch.

“Pepper’s dead,” Tony told him, knowing it was enough to explain things for the time being.

“I’m sorry,” the scientist breathed out and got to his feet slowly, clutching at the pants until he realized it didn’t make a difference whether he wore them or not. “What’s next?” he asked.

“We’re going to cut some strings,” Tony told him.

- - -

It was late the next day when they finally got to the Helicarrier. Fury hadn’t been happy about its location being compromised but once Tony described it to him, in detail, the Director had to accept Tony had already known where it was.

“How are we going to stay alive from here on out?” Agent Hill asked once they had all gathered in a room that could hold the necessary personnel.

“By changing the game,” Tony replied.

“I didn’t ask you,” she snapped.

“You’re welcome to leave,” he fired back just as rapidly.

“You’re the reason we’re in this shit to begin with –”

“Enough!” Fury barked, looking exasperated. His eye pinned Tony down, attempting to once again draw answers out of him.

“As long as you don’t have access to my brain, controlling me with the evil eye isn’t going to work,” Tony told him. “However,” he went on pointedly, “there are two creatures on this planet who can control my mind – from a distance.”

“And how do we know those two creatures aren’t controlling you right now, Mr. Stark?” a younger man asked from the side.

Tony wheeled to look at him, pinning him down with his stare, studying his character. The guy didn’t back down, exactly, but he didn’t look comfortable either.

“Benjamin, it’s okay,” Bruce calmed the man down then directed his attention to Tony as the moment dissolved. “The Other and The Engineer – two Chitauri in a leading position within their army.” His hands slid over each other – just like the first time they met. Bruce looked at Tony again: “How close do they have to get to take control, or does the distance matter?”

“If they really want it, I don’t know, but I assume they need to be closer than they are right now,” Tony admitted slowly.

“But you don’t know?” the guy, Benjamin, clarified.

“No,” Tony spat in his direction. “I wasn’t exactly given a manual.”

“He’s going to get us all killed – and he’ll probably survive it, too. Of course he will, I mean, that’s what he’s here for, isn’t he?! To kill every last one of us!”

“Mr. Pollack, please calm down or leave the room,” Fury intervened.

The young man visibly restrained himself from hurling something at Tony, which was kind of amusing.

“I’m not sure I’m that comfortable with his change of heart either,” Clint leaned forward. His bow was strapped to his back, he was almost out of arrows, but he didn’t need any of those to kill Tony.

“None of us are,” Natasha agreed. “But we have to roll with it.”

“And when we roll into a landmine?” Clint challenged. “Just because they killed an ex-girlfriend whom he had vowed to kill, just like the rest of us, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly jumping into our boat!”

Voices began to rise and Tony reflexively looked at Bruce, who hadn’t been that comfortable with all the tension and noise years ago and didn’t look much better now. Well, he was doing a lot better, perhaps because of the things he had been forced through recently, but he still appeared a bit edgy. The brown eyes met Tony’s and he stepped closer. “You said something about cutting strings,” Bruce said, leaning closer to his ear to be heard over the commotion.

“We need to cut my connection to them,” Tony nodded. “Otherwise it’s just a matter of time before they get close enough, like at the base… and they won’t give me another chance to slip.”

“Why did they allow you free will to begin with?” Bruce frowned. “Trust me, I prefer this, but I’m the kind of guy who wants to look the gift horse in the mouth before accepting it.”

Tony smiled at the half-assed attempt of a joke. “They needed me to operate the mecha,” he revealed. “That could only be done with my mind at least relatively free. And I think this is the only time in five years that I’ve been thinking straight, ever since…” He fell silent, not wanting to think about it. How they had taken a look at him, all of him, and torn everything to pieces: every relationship, every disappointment, every betrayal. It was so easy to sink back into that dark abyss where nothing mattered and he might as well wipe the slate clean and start over.

The slate being the world.

“If we manage that,” Bruce frowned, already running equations in his head, trying to see the way this was going to be done, “will it also severe the… physical connection?”

Obviously he had been told of what the others had seen on the ship.

Tony shook his head. “That can’t be undone. If you plug in, there’s no way around it.”

“Unless we remove the harness.”

“That’s not on the table, even if you could,” Tony shook his head.

“Sir, engine preparations are completed,” a smooth voice penetrated the room, making everyone fall silent. “All systems are responding.”

“Thanks, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony replied.

“What the hell?” Agent Hill started.

“J, lower the main hangar hatch before preparing for take-off,” Tony went on. “It’s time to board our last passenger.”

Fury stepped over to the windows so fast others had to jump out of his way. “Stark, you have two seconds to explain –”

“J.A.R.V.I.S. is running your systems,” Tony rolled his eyes at the obvious answer. Outside, the main hatch was lowering itself and Concordia crouched down beside it, climbing in. The hatch began to close behind the unit and its movements rocked the Helicarrier slightly.

“That mecha is on my ship,” Fury noted needlessly.

“It’s riding with us,” Tony replied.

“How in the hell did you gain control over our systems?!” Fury turned and was in his face before Tony could even blink.

“I broke in once,” Tony noted, referring to his first visit to the Helicarrier – this very same one. “I left a few cookie crumbs waiting back then, and by the time the other Helicarriers went down, I had established that J.A.R.V.I.S. would be ready to slip in and complete taking over.”

Agent Hill’s hand started moving to her gun.

Fury just scowled. “That means the Chitauri can find us –”

“Please,” Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “All that information – all your locations – are in my head, behind my access. Why do you think it took the Chitauri so long to pin down your secret base? They’re not going to find you, nor can they because I’m the only one who can access the real data.”

“Your trust issues haven’t really improved since your days on Earth,” Rhodey noted from the side. He was actually smiling, just a little.

“We’re talking about… aliens… who tortured me and broke into my mind,” Tony elaborated. “While they gave me the tools for my… revenge, or whatever the hell this was really all about, I didn’t forget that. Once I had taken care of Earth, I would have cut them to pieces. I’m just skipping a step here.”

“First we need to remove their access into your mind,” Bruce pointed out.

Around them the Helicarrier came to life, moving away from the shore and lifting off the water slowly.

“Yeah,” Tony admitted, looking out the window for a moment. “No point thinking past that at this point.”

“Why’s that?” Steve asked.

“Because we only have one chance at it, and it might work, it might fail – or I’ll die.”

He didn’t want to die but in this strange moment of clarity, when it felt like he was seeing straight for the first time in years, Tony knew what he had to do. And he might have to die in order to do it.

- - -

They had prepared a room in the med bay. It was just Tony and Bruce there – and Steve.

Steve knew he wasn’t going to be needed, not for this, but he had been their leader – still was, in a sense – and he would stick around until they told him to leave.

“It could be their influence is fading as you spend time apart from them,” Bruce was musing, looking at some readings and scans of the harness. The thing still made Steve uneasy, the alien aspects of it, but since they couldn’t remove it, he knew he would take it in stride, just like the glowing circle in Tony’s chest.

“Or maybe for the first time since my capture I actually want to think straight,” Tony challenged.

Bruce glanced at him. “Do you believe that? That all you’ve done has been your own conscious decision? Killing billions? Killing everyone you ever knew and loved?”

“Didn’t love a whole lot of people…”

“But there are a lot of people who loved you,” Steve had to intervene. Both men looked at him, almost startled. For a big man, Steve still acted like the small one he had once been and he could become the wallflower very easily when he wanted. Now he shrugged, looking Tony in the eye. “I looked at all those people after you… after we thought you died. I had to apologize to them and accept the fact they would hate me forever for what I allowed to happen.”

“People hated Captain America? That’s a first,” Tony huffed.

“I was your leader and I stood by while you sacrificed your life,” Steve recalled the moment, so clear even after all this time, after all the destruction. If that sacrifice had made Tony lose his mind and come back to avenge whatever wrong he had felt had been done to him, it was on Steve as well. He couldn’t blame Tony for all of it.

“Okay,” Bruce finally breathed out, “how are we going to do this? The harness makes no sense to me, not on such short notice.”

Tony moved his hand, pointing a finger at the image on one of the screens. “There. You have to stab that spot, and you have to do it fast. If you miss it, the whole thing will heal and create an even harder scar-tissue which can’t be penetrated. If you do it too slow, the same thing happens. You have one shot, and it has to be precise.”

Bruce looked at the image then pulled his glasses from his face and stepped back. “One shot?”

Tony shrugged, looking grim. “It protects my nervous system.”

“And The Engineer designed it to regenerate?”

“That is… mostly my own handiwork. I didn’t like that people could just shoot me in the back and be done with it,” Tony confessed.

Bruce closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. “I’m not sure I can do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” Tony reassured him.

Bruce opened his eyes, more doubtful than Steve had ever seen him. After a long moment Bruce walked around the table and to Tony’s back, touching the harness, knocking his knuckles against it. “How hard is it, on the inside?”

“It’s compact and it will react to damage instantaneously,” Tony responded. “The surface is the part you mostly need to worry about, because if you don’t punch through it in one go, it’s game over.”

“And we can’t just… drill a hole?”

“Too slow.” Tony looked at him over his shoulder. “I upgraded it. It’s not meant to be penetrated.”

Bruce stepped back again. “I can’t do it.”

“Sure you can,” Tony argued.

“No, I can’t,” Bruce’s tone was final. “I don’t have the strength. The other guy, maybe, but he’s not exactly the precise type.”

Tony’s eyes darkened slightly. “You could try.”

“There’s no try in this, Tony!” Bruce yelled suddenly. “It needs to be done in one go, you know that. You said that.”

Tony’s shoulders fell, just a little. He hung his head, looking away. Steve wondered if he was giving up, that they would have to come up with something else. Eventually he looked up again, shifted around, looking at the two of them. His eyes moved from Bruce to Steve and his arm reached out blindly, to a thin metal stake with a flat end on the table beside him; it was made of a very hard material, hard enough to punch through the harness. That’s what Bruce would have used, but now…

“You do it,” Tony spoke up suddenly, offering the stake in Steve’s direction.

“What?” Steve blinked.

“You have steady hands, right? I know you have the strength,” Tony went on earnestly.

“I do, but I don’t know how –” Steve stammered. Suddenly the tool was in his fingers, Tony’s grip making his hand curl around it, to hold it.

“Bruce will guide you through it,” Tony promised.

Steve gave the man in question a look. He wasn’t entirely convinced by what he saw, but they needed to do this.

“Okay,” Tony pulled back and moved to lie on his stomach on the table.

Bruce moved closer, taking some more readings, scanning the harness once again, pinpointing the location Tony had showed. “Are we ready?”

Steve wanted to say no, wanted to back out of the room and come back when it was done.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony called out before Steve could actually bolt.

“Yes, sir?”

“If… if this doesn’t go as planned,” Tony started, lying his face on his folded arms, “everything’s in place, right?”

“Everything should be in order.”

“Okay,” Tony sighed, closing his eyes, then opened them again after a while. He looked at Steve expectantly, waiting for him to move closer.

Steve shifted the stake in his hands. It was way too thick in his hold, for something that was supposed to go into Tony. His palm was sweaty around it. There was no way he could do this –

“Steve?” Tony prodded.

“Yeah?” he managed.

“I trust you.”

Steve’s fingers tightened and he nodded. The air left him, then filled his lungs again and he felt calm – or calmer. He moved over to the table, laid his left hand on top of Tony’s back, feeling both skin and harness. He looked at the image then at the real thing, not certain at all he could pull this off but Tony trusted him to do it right, and that meant he had to.

He positioned the stake, angling it, gripping it tight.

“Just so you know,” Tony spoke up suddenly, almost making him flinch to the side, “it’s going to hurt like hell and there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

Bruce and Steve looked at each other, after which Bruce laid his hands on Tony’s shoulders while Steve pressed his weight against his lower back, bracing himself. His eyes looked at the image again, shifting his right had minutely, fingers clenching, preparing for impact.

“I trust you…” Tony muttered into his arms.

Steve lifted his hand and drove the metal stake down, as hard as he could. There was a sickening crack, as if he had broken a very thick egg. Tony screamed, his body jumping violently in pain he couldn’t disguise as anything else. The spike sank for almost four inches before he stopped it. Blood gushed out, dark and thick, covering his fingers. Tony’s body seized, jerking as if he were having a seizure and then stopped moving altogether.

“Is he –?” Steve’s eyes shot up to get a better look.

Bruce moved to the side, turning Tony’s face towards him, his fingers landing on his neck to check the pulse. “He’s alive,” he replied then rushed back down. “We need to stop the bleeding. Pull the spike back out.”

“But won’t that make the injury heal?” Steve asked, having already forgotten what he was supposed to do at this point. Had Tony ever even told them?

“He’ll heal around it. Yank it out!” Bruce ordered and Steve did. There was even more blood coming out of Tony’s back if possible, running from harness to skin, pooling on the table. Bruce found a towel and pressed it to the wound, pushing at it, the white cotton turning steadily redder.

The stake fell from Steve’s hold and he looked down at his bloodied hands, wondering if the risk had been worth it. What if they had just lost Tony all over again?

When he looked up, he could see the exact same fear mirror itself in Bruce’s eyes.





to be continued…


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