Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers & Iron Man (MCU)
Genre: Hurt/comfort, action
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), J.A.R.V.I.S., James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor, Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U).
Appearances & mentions: Phil Coulson, Jane Foster, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, Betty Ross, Erik Selvig.
Pairings: Pepper/Tony (brief), Jane/Thor (implied), Betty/Bruce (implied)
Summary: The apocalypse is happening and Tony Stark has just been blinded by the enemy. Earth’s remaining heroes must work together to protect their own – and to win a war most have already declared will be humanity’s last.
Written for: Round 2 of Apocalypse Big Bang. Written during NaNoWriMo 2013.
Also fills the “loss of vision” square of my card on Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s round 4.
Cover art & fanmix: monkiainen (here!)
Warnings: Major character death, violence and permanent injury (blindness), apocalyptic scenery (general destruction and death). Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World compliant (may contain minor spoilers), language.
In the week following the activation of the vision implants, the Avengers had relocated to a base in Detroit, Michigan, hadn’t had any more alien encounters and were, for lack of a better term, regrouping.
For most people it meant recharging their batteries – so to speak – getting their gear checked and giving their injuries time to heal. For Tony it was a chance to find a proper lab space and start talking to J.A.R.V.I.S.
It was a fortunate thing Tony was a genius and thus possessed a better-than-average brain, because otherwise he would have gotten hopelessly frustrated with the data his AI was telling him about but which he couldn’t see. For the time being they had agreed to let his brain rest when it came to the implants, save for various tests.
Bruce joined them in the lab on most days during their stay at the base. Tony always enjoyed their time together in any lab, and like always, Bruce was ready to immerse himself in megabytes of data, give Tony his opinions, venture past comfortable limits and make vague guesses at things that probably couldn’t happen in their lifetime, but which would be awesome and very helpful if they did.
“I can’t believe there isn’t an outright problem I could poke at,” Tony complained after they had stayed up for nearly fourteen hours straight. Bruce had finally lured him to lie down on a crappy excuse of a couch, with Bruce half beneath him like a human-sized pillow. Bruce’s fingers, where they were laid out on Tony’s stomach, drummed an uneven pattern.
“That’s because the implants are, at this stage, close to perfect,” Bruce replied, annoyingly certain of himself. “We didn’t just do the surgery on a whim. We both went over the data, as did various other people, not to mention J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“I like you better when you’re busy freaking out about letting the beast out,” Tony teased him.
“You always say that when I’m right about something you don’t like,” Bruce chuckled, breaths warm against Tony’s ear. “We’ll figure it out. All we need is a better lab, more number-crunching power, and a lot of good coffee.”
“I thought you didn’t drink coffee.”
“With all the chances to exercise these days, I’m starting to find maybe coffee wasn’t the problem in the first place,” Bruce confessed. He was, of course, referring to their on-going battles against the alien invaders, and the frequent occasions the Hulk had joined the battle. They were long past the point when it was counter-productive to let the Hulk join the ranks of the Avengers; they needed the monster – just as Tony needed Bruce at times like this. Whenever Bruce was prone to forgetting how important he was, Tony liked reminding him of the place he had in his life, if not anyone else’s. It was his opinion that mattered on most days, anyway.
Bruce shifted, his nose brushing at Tony’s scalp. “We should go find something to eat.”
“We should sleep.”
“That, too. But food’s important.”
“I’m tired of war rations,” Tony complained.
“I’ll see if I can find us some actual food. Fruits or vegetables…”
It highlighted how horrible their lives had become that Tony felt ready to beam at the idea. He started sitting up, stomach growling a little at the prospect of food, then detected the faint sound of the electricity going off and turning back on a second later; the second of silence was unsettling yet natural, seeing as they had spent enough time in places that had long been cut off from any power grid.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he called out.
“We should go, now,” Bruce said, speaking faster, and began untangling his legs from around Tony’s hips.
“What’s going on?” Tony asked, voice rising in alarm. He could tell something was up.
The distinct sound of Mark 50 activating reached his ears. “Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced through the speakers an instant later, “we must evacuate at once. An enemy force is approaching the base.”
“Evacuate?” Tony frowned, struggling to his feet, reaching out to find either Bruce or one of the bots, seeing as the armor still seemed to be where he had told it to stay along the far wall of the lab.
“Two Category 5: War Ships have been detected, followed by five Category 4: Troop Transfer ships.”
That was bad – and not just bad but infinitely worse than any day they had seen so far. Not once had Tony heard of more than one War Ship being present on any field of battle, no matter the size of the alien assault. “Do you think we pissed them off when we blew up that Category 4?” he asked out loud.
“Probably,” Bruce agreed. “Or, they’re moving up their timetable.” Tony heard him moving around. “J.A.R.V.I.S., make sure Tony stays safe.”
“Of course, Doctor.”
“Where are you going?” Tony asked, alarmed. “Let’s go together.”
He heard Bruce pause his back-and-forth movements, no doubt getting any equipment together that they might want to salvage. “It’s okay, Tony,” Bruce said, fighting for his voice to stay even. “I’m not going to leave you.”
“Okay,” Tony replied, feeling small and insignificant. He knew he was holding Bruce back, because if there was a time to allow the Hulk to be the welcoming committee, this was it. “You should go,” he decided. “J.A.R.V.I.S. and the bots will get me to safety.” He tried getting his bearings, noticing once again that sudden spikes in stress levels made it hard to focus on his whereabouts, even when he had pretty much memorized every inch of this room during their stay.
He could sense Bruce’s hesitation. “Here,” the scientist finally said, pressing the lightweight helmet into Tony’s hands. “Don’t use it unless you have to.”
Tony nodded, although it was hard to resist the allure of vision. Battles like this could drag out, though, and they were currently uncertain how long his brain could withstand the stress of the implants before it became dangerous for him. With Extremis, Tony was confident he could stretch the timeframe, but it wasn’t a risk worth taking at this point.
He heard Bruce leave, just before alarms began sounding in the distance. A door fell shut between him and the rest of the world, and for a moment Tony stood there, lost despite his moment of bravery.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked, either to receive an order or to make sure Tony hadn’t gotten lost in his thoughts.
“How’s it look up there?” Tony asked. The lab was several floors underground, which meant he probably had to get moving so that he wouldn’t get buried alive if the worst happened.
“The attack appears imminent. Mr. Odinson is preparing for battle, and Dr. Banner has just met with Captain Rogers, receiving his orders to join Mr. Odinson.”
Tony nodded. “You know, after all this time, you could be on first-name basis with them all,” he suggested.
“That sounds highly unprofessional to me.”
“Right, because the things we’ve done lately are completely professional,” Tony snorted.
“With all due respect, if you are referring to your close bond with your teammates, I see nothing wrong with that. I am glad they are able to make you feel safe.”
Tony wasn’t sure what to say, so he said nothing at all. “Dummy, You,” he called out instead. “Grab… whatever we need. Do we need something?”
“I will have the bots collect the necessities. If you would carry a bag, sir,” the AI requested, and Tony heard the armor moving further away, then turn and walk all the way to him. Tony reached out blindly and Mark 50 moved so that his hand touched whatever was being offered to him – which in this case was a messenger bag.
It took a little effort for the bots to bring over things that Tony tried to fit in the bag alongside the helmet. Just in case Mark 50 was needed elsewhere, Tony didn’t want to put the helmet inside the armor. It wasn’t a norm that J.A.R.V.I.S. flew one of his suits to battle without Tony in it, but this battle was gearing up to be at a level of destruction that might warrant every able man to fight, and Tony wasn’t going to get in the way of that.
“Okay, I think we’re done,” he decided and carefully made sure the straps of the bag had been fastened. He would hate to lose any of the items in the bag, which consisted of the helmet, a couple tablets, a few miniature hard drives and several of Bruce’s notebooks that he had left behind. It had been good of the bots and J.A.R.V.I.S. to notice them, because while Bruce might have gotten over it, Tony knew he had a lot of useful data scribbled down on those pages – including some test results from the implants and theories for improvements.
Dummy rolled over to him, assuming his duty as Tony’s guide. It might have been easier to get in the armor, but Tony had felt highly unpleasant the last time he was in the armor without the ability to see, and he wasn’t about to repeat it unless he absolutely had to; the feeling of being pulled at unexpected times and in startling new directions had made him feel totally out of control, no matter how he rationalized it in his head afterwards. J.A.R.V.I.S. had been surprisingly understanding of Tony’s reluctance, and it wasn’t as if they had known how it would work until they tried it.
They left the lab together, You leading the group, Mark 50 bringing up the rear. The fight either hadn’t started yet, or it was very far away, but Tony kept the pace brisk and asked them to lead him to the elevators, seeing as he couldn’t get the bots to ground level on his own. Fortunately it was an industrial elevator, because otherwise they might have had a problem between the armor and the bots’ combined weight.
Tony waited uneasily as the car moved up. The smell inside was of dirty metal and rust. You and Dummy kept up a steady concert of small sounds that either had no meaning or were meant for Tony’s comfort as a type of elevator music. When the elevator came to a halt with a small jump, Tony feared the power had gone out again. However, he heard the door open, and Dummy started moving forward.
At ground level, it was much easier to hear that things weren’t going their way: people ran past him in both directions, forcing the bots to halt. Tony turned his head left and right, clutching the bag with his free hand although the strap was safely over his left shoulder.
“This way, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. finally announced, briefly touching Tony’s right arm, and they all turned to follow the armor. They stayed near the wall, moving in single-line formation save for Dummy who kept Tony between his own body and the wall – effectively keeping anyone from running into Tony.
Outside the few rooms he had almost learned to move around in during their stay, Tony eventually had to let go of the bag and trace his free hand along the wall, his left resting on Dummy’s arm. With every step he tried convincing himself there was no obstacle waiting for him to trip over. If nothing else, J.A.R.V.I.S. would warn him.
The hallway seemed to go on forever before Dummy slowed down and Tony did as well. He heard the armor halting altogether and tried following its lead, but bumped into it anyway. “What now?” Tony asked.
“I am… awaiting news,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied, clearly focused on something. Tony gave the AI a moment, trying not to feel anxious. The crowd had almost magically vanished, only a few striding or running footsteps drifting past him. For a second he wondered if they were in an area that had been ordered to be evacuated, but J.A.R.V.I.S. wouldn’t have taken him here if that were the case, so he breathed in and out, waiting for the AI to figure out their next move.
If only he could put on the helmet and see for himself…
“We must move, now,” J.A.R.V.I.S. finally said. Tony heard the servos complain and suddenly felt the armor’s painfully tight grip on both his forearms, making him start and lean away from the touch. “Sir, please,” the AI begged.
“What?” Tony asked. “Just pick a direction and I’ll follow.”
“The fight is starting.”
“Then take us to shelter!” It shouldn’t have been so hard for J.A.R.V.I.S. to comprehend that, which meant the AI was truly afraid for his wellbeing.
The armor let go of him and Dummy jerked forward. Tony hurried along, one hand on the robotic arm and the other following the wall, to have some semblance of control. He couldn’t run, which they all should have known, and the fast pace started to make him feel uncomfortable after a little while because he had no idea what lay ahead of him, one or a dozen steps away.
They turned a corner and Tony lost touch with the wall – just before the hallway they had left behind imploded. The wall of air and debris that hit him from behind threw Tony forward by several feet. He was slammed down to the floor, fine shards of glass, metal and plaster digging into his skin like needles.
His AI’s voice was barely audible over the rush in his ears.
Tony struggled to his knees – only to be blown back down as another blast shook the entire building. The bots shrieked, loud enough to pierce the thick veil thrown over Tony’s senses. He tasted dust, smelled smoke and felt an unyielding grip take him by his right arm, dragging him forward before forcing him up. Tony’s hands slid across the familiar front of the armor, searching for purchase. He heard something collapsing and even more creaking sounds, like the entire building was coming down around them.
“Sir, you must get inside the suit,” J.A.R.V.I.S. urged him. “The building is coming down on top of us.”
“No,” Tony protested feebly. “The bots –”
“You are more important than the bots.”
“I’m not leaving them behind!” Tony snapped. “Pick a direction.”
J.A.R.V.I.S. let out a sound of hot desperation that he must have adopted from Tony over the years, but the armor relinquished its hold – only to drape an arm around Tony’s waist. “This way,” the AI said and led them forward and then sharply to the left. Tony wasn’t walking so much as being dragged along, but he heard the bots following, struggling over some of the uneven terrain where the floor was either cracked or covered by debris. He knew it was insane, but they had all come this far and after losing Pepper he wasn’t about to lose the bots, too.
They were suddenly outside.
Tony hadn’t even noticed a doorway – if there had been one – and he sniffed the air. Something was burning but not in their immediate vicinity. The armor’s arm loosened its death-grip on his waist and Tony slid out of the embrace, taking the armor’s elbow instead. It wasn’t as easy as following a human but J.A.R.V.I.S. had observed the Avengers long enough to be able to mimic their small cues.
The bots trailed behind them, tires crunching, a chorus of reassuring beeps and whistles following Tony’s progress.
A brief whine crossed the air behind them, followed by a massive explosion that seemed to blow the air in all directions and shook the ground. Tony faltered, feeling the pressure from the blast pushing from behind. He didn’t hear cries or shouts – not over the roar of a crumbling building.
“Keep moving,” J.A.R.V.I.S. urged.
Tony clutched at the armor, forcing his legs to keep moving, trying to ignore the sudden roar of weapons, human and alien, and the obvious destruction that followed them. The hard ground, most likely asphalt, kept heaving like a wave of water, reminding Tony of an earthquake. A chopper flew over their heads, the sound sudden even in the midst of all the other noises, yet it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.
“Down,” came a warning from the armor before Tony was wrenched down towards the ground, with a bruising force that felt like it might dislocate his shoulder. The armor’s arms wrapped around him, pulling him further down and to the side, and the bots shrieked just before another whine and an explosion traveled through the air, uncomfortably close. Tony felt heat on his skin and pressed his head down, trying to protect himself although he had no idea what was happening and where the danger was coming from.
A hum filled the air, starting so low it seemed to rattle his bones. The armor rose abruptly, yanking Tony to his feet, and the hum intensified to an almost unbearable level.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said, dragging Tony’s consciousness away from the hum and towards the familiar sound. “A Category 5 ship is above us.”
By ‘above us’, Tony assumed the AI meant it literally. For once he was glad he couldn’t see it, although the knowledge was enough to make him shake.
“I must go,” J.A.R.V.I.S. added. “I must join the fight, to lead the ship away. Go with the bots. They will keep you safe.”
“No,” Tony protested, heart jumping into his throat. “You can’t just leave me.” First J.A.R.V.I.S. had wanted him to crawl into the armor and abandon the bots, and now the AI was going to just ditch him while a War Ship hovered above them? It didn’t make sense.
“Captain Rogers knows where you are. He and the other Avengers will come for you.”
The words sounded hollow, like lies told to a child to make him cooperate.
“You will be safe. Mark 50 is attracting the enemy’s fire; I will cause a distraction and you will have time to get to safety. They will come for you, soon. Until then, stay with the bots. Use the helmet if you have to, but not unless it is necessary.”
Tony felt numb when armored fingers framed his face, and he reached out for the chest-plate he had designed with his own two hands. The steady hum of the arc reactor was easy to focus on, even with the War Ship’s engines stirring the air all around them. “How is this logical?” Tony asked. “You’re supposed to stay with me, no matter what,” Tony argued weakly.
“I will never leave you,” J.A.R.V.I.S. promised. “But I must take the armor away from you. To do what you would do, if you were wearing it.”
Tony nodded numbly. He told himself not to be afraid. It probably sounded worse than it was. J.A.R.V.I.S. was just taking precautions, seeing as the aliens had come to attack in force and it was possible the Avengers were in their targeting system. “Make me proud,” Tony ordered.
“I will,” J.A.R.V.I.S. promised. The armor’s hands fell away and Tony felt it step back. The telltale whine of the repulsors momentarily drowned out the hum of the War Ship until the thrusters shot the armor into the sky and the sound faded away.
One of the bots tugged on his hand. Tony turned, reluctantly, feeling even more lost and blind, but he held onto the bot and followed it as he heard the familiar sounds of repulsor blasts rise to the challenge.
The sounds of battle intensified for a few minutes. Tony walked in a crouched position, instinctively, expecting the War Ship to drop on him at any minute. Crouching didn’t make it less likely but it helped him feel small and insignificant.
Part of his mind pondered whether this was the moment when all promises came to an end. Was this where his usefulness ended? J.A.R.V.I.S. never would have left him if the AI didn’t believe the Avengers were coming, which made the possible betrayal even more painful.
Despite all the possibilities, he kept walking. The bots directed him a little to the right until the ground started dipping downhill.
The direction of the battle had turned, moving further away; thunder rumbled and lighting struck down to the ground, making Tony jump a bit but keep going; thunder meant Thor, and if Thor was still in the game, so the others should be.
After a long while, he began to hear the sound of lazily running water. The gentle slope had come to an end and the bots guided him forward. Tony smelled salt and oil, the odor unpleasant, almost industrial. You moved ahead again, then banged against something that sounded like a large metal wall, and Dummy took him closer to the source of the sound.
Tony reached out, feeling a wall beside him. Metal, possibly a shipping container. When they reached You, Tony felt around some more, finding the door and the lock keeping it closed. The bots protested loudly and You snapped his claws around it, almost clamping Tony’s fingers in the process, trying to pull the lock off.
“Find me cutters, or a metal pipe. Maybe an axe,” he instructed. In the distance, he could still hear the battle going on. High-energy weapons from the aliens struck down. Tony could almost smell the destruction; he had witnessed it often enough when he could still see. He wasn’t sure how hiding inside a container constituted safety, but he could either keep walking or find cover and wait for someone to come get him.
If someone came…
He refused to think about it. J.A.R.V.I.S. had said he’d talked to Steve, and Steve would come if he was alive.
That was another unpleasant thought Tony refused to dwell on. When he had still been fighting, at least he had known when things were going downhill. Now, he was left sitting on the sidelines, fearing the worst and hoping for anything else.
The bots moved away from him, rummaging around. Tony tried to focus on them, to envision what they were doing. As enough time passed, his fingers began to clutch the bag he was still carrying. The helmet was safely inside, and if he put it on, he would know where they were, if they were in immediate danger, and what to do next.
J.A.R.V.I.S. had told him not to put the helmet on unless he had to, but Tony knew the AI was overly cautious. If he got killed standing around, it wouldn’t matter whether he fried his brain or not.
A slight dragging sound came closer to him, metal against asphalt, and one of the bots nudged his arm carefully. Tony reached out, letting go of the bag and the helmet, and found the bot holding a metal pipe in his grip. He took it, measured it in his hands, then fit it inside the padlock’s loop. He pulled at it with all his weight, then felt a bot grab onto the pipe as well, but none of it worked.
Frustrated, Tony flung the pipe to the side, kicked at the crate door – hitting it hard – and almost doubled over from the brief stab of pain. “Fucking hell!” he screamed and curled his fingers around the padlock, the heat of the pain seeming to transfer from his toes to his hand, and suddenly the padlock fell free, the metal turning hot in his hand.
Tony dropped the lock, hearing the telltale clunk as if fell on the ground, then smiled smugly. “See?” he asked the bots. “I’m still useful.” Dummy and You praised him unanimously, never the ones to disagree. Tony nodded and faced the door, felt around for the rest of the locking mechanism and finally managed to open the crate doors.
The smell he encountered was dank but not rotten. Tony considered it good luck and slowly entered, then stopped, retreating to see how high the threshold was. One of the bots came over, trying to climb in, but it wasn’t working. Suddenly Tony’s hiding place looked less appealing. He wasn’t going to huddle inside a shipping container while the bots were left outside.
“Either find something to make a ramp or we’ll find a different place to hide,” Tony decided.
One of the bots – probably Dummy – protested loudly. That left You, who tried to move inside the crate again and failed.
“I’m going to build you rocket boosts the next time I’m in a lab,” Tony promised. “Then you can fly around.”
The bots let out a series of beeps.
“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?” Tony teased. He didn’t think the bots could experience vertigo, but who knew…
Something heavy landed on top of the crate.
Tony crouched down and let out a small yell of alarm, then forced himself to stay silent. If it was an alien, he would be screwed. Something shifted, scraping along the roof of the crate, heavy steps following. Tony’s fingers reached for the straps of the bag while he tried to remember where he had thrown the metal pipe: he was not dying without a fight. The alien bastard was going to get cooked, but first he needed to see what he wanted to hit –
He almost yelled again, a war-cry dying in his throat when he registered the sound as his name, not some alien screech. He gripped tight at the bag as his heart thundered in his chest. “Thor!” he exclaimed. “You gave me a fucking heart attack!”
Tony heard the weight drop down from the top of the crate, as well as the tell-tale thud of Mjolnir being lowered to the ground. The bots cooed and Tony envisioned them looking up at Thor’s post-battle sweat-and-grime-covered body.
“Fangirls,” he muttered.
Thor moved inside the crate. “I do not –”
“Never mind; not important,” Tony told him and tried to listen for something else. “Where are the others?” He always hated this part; one or more of the Avengers came back, to join him in the aftermath of a fight, and he wasn’t sure whether the rest of them were in the infirmary, cleaning up or lying dead somewhere. So far it had never been the last option, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t acknowledging it as an eventuality.
“They are coming,” Thor reassured him. “The battle is not going in our favor. There have been many casualties and we are retreating as fast as we can. The Captain said we would be better off going on foot; less noticeable to our enemy.”
Tony nodded, understanding that. He also felt a little guilty because this was a possible retaliation for his attack on the Troop Transfer ship. “Do you think this is my fault?” Tony asked, his voice echoing inside the crate. “The last battle –”
“Was glorious and well-fought,” Thor told him confidently. “It raised our spirits and showed we still stand a chance against this enemy. If this is a repercussion, I can only feel that it is because we have struck a chord of fear in our adversaries.”
Tony supposed there was that, but it didn’t justify all the destruction and the deaths that inevitably followed. “Did you see my armor?” he asked instead. “J.A.R.V.I.S. took it in to battle.”
Thor let out a deep sigh. “I am sorry: your armor took a bold approach against the enemy, diverting their main attack for important minutes before it was decimated by our foes.” Tony felt the Asgardian’s hesitation. “Is he going to be okay?”
Clearly Thor meant J.A.R.V.I.S.
“Yeah,” Tony said confidently. “He’s… He wasn’t only in the suit, you know? His consciousness has been transferred to multiple locations – some of them orbiting Earth, just to be safe – and he’ll be back. Already is, probably, if we have some manner of wireless communications up.”
Thor hummed and moved closer. Tony could tell when they were within touching distance: it was like there was a charge in the air, making his skin crawl like he was expecting to get shocked. However, when Thor’s hand reached out and grasped one of Tony’s hands, gentle despite the power he wielded, there was no pain and no current charging between their bodies. “Come,” Thor said softly and pulled Tony along. He was one of the few who had not yet comprehended the best way to lead him around, but Tony knew the way out this time, minding the small drop at the threshold, and then stopped when Thor stopped.
Tony waited, as patiently as he could. Thor was still holding his hand, and whether that was to ground Tony or to keep him feeling secure, he wasn’t sure. It worked, oddly enough, like some pre-programmed animal instinct. Tony felt less alone, more secure, and the fear of the unseen wasn’t as pressing.
Eventually he heard footsteps: a person came jogging over, movements light, and it had to be Clint; a roar and a heavy crash introduced the Hulk to the scene, and Natasha came soon after the beast, a burnt smell clinging to her.
“You okay, Nat?” Tony asked, unable to get the smell out of his nose.
“Lost a few inches of my hair, but I’m fine,” she replied, knowing better than to lie.
“Where’s Cap?” he asked next.
“On his way. He wasn’t that far behind me,” Clint replied.
“And Rhodey?” Tony hadn’t heard the approach of the armor just yet.
“Rhodey’s taking off with another group, to secure a bunch of civilians. We’re taking another lot,” the archer explained.
“We would move faster alone,” Natasha sighed.
Tony made no comment about speed. Between him and the bots, it would already be slow going, but he wasn’t about to leave the bots behind, even now. The others would just have to pick an easier route and walk slower for all he cared.
The Hulk marched over then, effectively halting the discussion. The ground trembled as the monster drew closer, but Tony refused to move out of the way; he knew he could trust the big guy, and besides, Thor wasn’t moving either.
“Do we have clothes for Bruce?” Clint asked, which was a good question.
“Puny Banner,” the Hulk huffed with passion.
“A naked, puny Banner, if we don’t have anything for him to wear,” Natasha observed.
Tony felt the air stir as the Hulk huffed again. The big guy liked his smaller alter-ego just about as much as Bruce still trusted the Hulk, but the war had forced them to co-exist more than before, which slowly seemed to be taking them in a better direction. Not a perfect harmony, by any means, but Bruce rarely fought the transformation anymore and his first questions weren’t about whether he had hurt someone.
Thor shifted minutely, and Tony could smell smoke and ruin as the Hulk leaned closer to him; Tony heard every breath like a storm trapped in a barrel and he wondered what the big guy was doing. “Let him be,” Thor mused.
“Dirty,” the Hulk growled.
“Speak for yourself,” Tony shot back. He didn’t know how dirty he was, or the Hulk, but with years of experience from battles of various scales he could tell that no one left a fight without a smudge or two on their faces.
A too-large hand caressed his head, suddenly, gentle around the implant sites. Tony could feel fine dirt falling off him and grimaced, closing his eyes against it. “Stop,” he ordered, although softly. “You’ll tear off the gauze.”
The Hulk pulled his hand back, letting out another huff. “Need to move,” he announced next.
“As soon as Cap gets here, we will,” Natasha agreed.
“Better be here soon,” the monster grunted, the words followed by the telltale sounds of the transformation. Everyone waited until it was over, and once it was, Tony let go of Thor’s hand and moved forward, having a fairly good idea where Bruce might be. A hand reached up for his soon enough, guiding him in, and Tony crouched down beside the half-naked scientist. Sometimes he thought Bruce felt less uneasy around him because he couldn’t see the awkward state he was in, post-transformation. Then again, Tony had been rudely interrupting Bruce’s attempt to center himself since they met, so it was nothing new.
“I think I might have a pair of pants in my bag,” Tony said. “Something the bots picked up from the lab before we left.”
Bruce gave him a weak chuckle and Tony slid the bag around his body, allowing the other man to take a look. Most likely the discovery was pleasant because no one voiced their disappointment, and Bruce shifted around for a moment before settling down again.
“Steve should be here already,” Clint noted, taking a few steps.
“I shall go look for him,” Thor volunteered.
“Give him a few more minutes,” Natasha asked. “He’s bringing other people with him, and you flying around could attract the enemy.”
Thor wasn’t happy about it, but he stayed put.
Bruce, in the meanwhile, continued where the Hulk had left off, bringing up a gentle hand to brush any remaining dirt off Tony’s shaved head. “The wounds are healing nicely,” he stated.
“They’ve taken their sweet time and you know it,” Tony grumbled. Extremis should have completely mended the implant sites by now, instead of healing slower than normal, if possible.
“Extremis knows they’re important, and instead of possibly harming the implants by regenerating at a normal rate, it’s letting your body heal around them.” Bruce sounded so sure about it, and Tony decided it was better for his mental health to trust in his opinion.
As Bruce finished cleaning up his head and clothing of small pieces of debris and dust, a large group of people reached them. Tony couldn’t tell how many there were, but he hopefully thought he could tell Steve’s purposeful stride apart from the others’.
“We need to move out now,” the Captain’s voice rang out a few seconds later. “We’ve wasted too much time already, and the enemy’s spreading out after us. It’s getting dark, and we won’t get far.”
“Where are we headed?” Clint asked, probably preparing to scout ahead.
“South, along the water’s edge. There should be another base near Toledo.”
“In Ohio?” Natasha confirmed. “That’s nearly…”
“Sixty miles away, I know,” Steve said. “Let’s move out. Tony…”
“I’m fine,” Tony said, because that was always the big question.
“I know,” Steve said surprisingly. “I have something for you,” he said, moving closer, and Tony prepared for a touch somewhere on his body. Steve pressed something in his hand, and Tony curled his fingers around it, finding an earpiece. “J.A.R.V.I.S. is online. The suit didn’t make it, but he seems okay.”
“Of course he is,” Tony tried rolling his eyes, then placed the earpiece in his ear and tapped it.
“Sir,” the AI said promptly.
“Taking a vacation, are we?”
“Good job today,” Tony offered, getting to his feet.
Bruce rose beside him and reached into the bag one more time before securing it and adjusting it on Tony’s shoulder so he could keep carrying it. The item he had picked last was a loose woolly hat – selected to keep his shaved head warm should they venture outside like this – and Bruce placed it on Tony’s head with a few, careful tugs before offering Tony his arm. Tony took it, thankful; Bruce was tired after the fight and could match Tony’s sightless pace easily. Also, he was a reliable guide.
The bots rolled into motion beside them, and Tony heard the noises of dozens of feet shuffling on their trail. Most of them weren’t military, their strides too uneven.
“It will be dark in less than two hours,” he heard Natasha tell someone, probably Steve. “We need to find shelter –”
“We need to put distance between us and the base, first and foremost,” Steve replied, voice sharp. He clearly didn’t like it, but either he had orders or it was his choice to begin with. Whatever the reason, Steve was sticking to the plan, which meant it was the most strategically sound option they had.
“We won’t be able to see more than a few feet in front of us when the sun goes down,” Natasha went on disagreeing. “How are you going to lead these people through unknown terrain without backtracking and adjusting the course every half a mile?”
“I can see in the dark,” Tony offered. “The implants don’t differentiate between light and dark.”
Silence followed his offer, but he knew they were thinking about it because there hadn’t been an outright objections.
“We go on as long as it can be deemed safe for you,” Steve decided. “Then we take a break. By then, I bet everyone will just want to get some shut-eye and rest their feet.”
They had a plan, which stopped any other arguments people may have felt like volunteering.
After walking for close to half an hour they stopped to open Tony’s bag and fit the light helmet around his head. It locked into place and Tony breathed through the initial burn of the connection; he was glad J.A.R.V.I.S. was back in contact with them because the AI detailing the progress to him made it slightly more pleasant.
The second calibration was less unsettling than the first, as if his brain had adjusted to the new mode of vision. Tony took all the time he dared to get his bearings, then checked his surroundings: there were almost fifty people with them; a third of them wore S.H.I.E.L.D. or military gear, the rest looking like civilians.
With an idea of what kind of group he was going to be leading, Tony looked up ahead. The implants picked out the water on his left, rippling, deep, oddly colored due to the small temperature changes. It looked alive, ready to spring up and swallow him, but Tony told himself it wouldn’t – because it was just water.
He focused on walking instead, moving past obstacles and looking beyond the obvious, leaving the others to trail behind him. The bots stayed near him, as if he still needed their protection and guidance, but Tony was happy to be his own man for a moment. To serve his purpose and be of use to the others, instead of a burden.