In the time that followed Pepper’s funeral in California and their eventual return to the fold, Tony had had time to settle into his blindness. While it should have gotten easier when he had more chances to adapt to it, Tony had begun to realize he loathed the darkness: it left him vulnerable, but more importantly, it made him feel alone. The other Avengers, holding Tony to his word to let them help him, had become the single most important way of alleviating his fear of being abandoned.
Fury and several other high-ranking officers had given all of them a lot of flack for their AWOL departure from Oklahoma, but, honestly, who was going to punish the Avengers – who were one of the main reasons the war hadn’t already been lost?
Rhodey, rather unexpectedly, had decided to stay and fight alongside the Avengers. Until then, he had been doing his own thing with the Air Force, but after Tony’s accident and Pepper’s death he seemed adamant about not straying too far from Tony. If someone implied he was trying to fill Iron Man’s shoes – and successfully at that – Rhodey denied it, but Tony never told him not to do it.
“War Machine isn’t Iron Man,” Rhodey had told him one evening in the back of a truck as they headed out to another base.
“No, but to the untrained eye, they’re enough alike to keep people’s hopes up,” Tony had mused. “As long as I’m not getting back into the armor, you might as well stick around and do your part.”
“Don’t you fear we’ll like Rhodes better than you?” Clint had teased, but it wasn’t the first time and it always put a smile on Tony’s face.
“He isn’t a genius,” Tony had retorted.
“We’ve got Banner for that.”
“When he isn’t big, green and mean.”
Bruce had chuckled and shifted his foot so that his and Tony’s touched across the isle. With the small gesture, Tony had felt secure enough to fall asleep, leaning against Rhodey’s shoulder for support.
It was moments like those Tony had cherished when he struggled with his daily tasks.
The first time he’d felt like he needed to shave, the situation had almost ended in a frustrated huff and a claim that he would get rid of the goatee altogether; he might have been able to do that much without cutting himself and bleeding to death.
Rhodey had sat him down after he’d finished ranting and carefully trimmed his beard for him. Since then it had become a routine between them. The only one who ever presumed to take Rhodey’s place was Clint, strangely enough, but Bruce had said his handiwork was just as good as Rhodey’s, so Tony let it go.
With only his vision impaired, Tony still had the need and desire to exercise. Problem was, there were only a few things he could do on his own without fear of hurting himself; they were at war and there was no treadmill for him to run on.
Steve and Thor had trained together regularly for years, whenever Thor was present, and they had always been a fine match for each other. Tony, after getting Extremis, could have offered them a bit of a challenge, but without the ability to see his adversary, it wasn’t much of one. Or, so Tony had thought: one day he’d wandered into the small gym at their current base of operations, with Dummy as his guide. After he had listened to the Asgardian and super soldier go at it for a few minutes, Tony had suddenly been pulled in with them.
They had gone slow, painfully so, and it had been grappling more than anything else, but after Tony had spent an hour trying to drag Steve’s body down to the mat, he had been blissfully exhausted. When he had gone to bed that night, he hadn’t even dreamt.
On most nights, however, Tony had and still did feel uneasy. He hadn’t actually ‘dreamt’ since he lost his sight, but the feelings of unease and terror had been so palpable that he might have as well been having a nightmare; he heard sounds in the darkness and sometimes he wasn’t sure whether he was awake or caught in a nightly horror show that didn’t differ so much from his waking hours.
In the beginning it had been worse, of course. It always was before nightmares became a routine.
After he had spent several nights tossing and turning after their return from California and had finally refused to sleep altogether, Bruce had confronted him about it: “You need to rest. So much of your energy is used during the day that you can’t afford to stay up all night.”
“Maybe if I’m tired enough, it will be easier to actually sleep,” Tony had snapped. “You know what constant nightmares are like.”
“I do,” Bruce had admitted. “Is there something that would help? Sleeping pills?”
Tony had shaken his head. “Extremis neutralizes their effects.”
“What is it that you dream about, specifically?”
“Darkness. Sounds and noises I can’t see. Being alone, left behind, and waking up not knowing if I’m actually asleep or not.”
“To put it mildly,” Tony had huffed. “Got a remedy for that?”
They had both known that the real problems were the psychological effects of going blind in a time where the weak were left behind to fend for themselves. Just because the Avengers had vowed to keep Tony with them wouldn’t change the fact that they were at war, and war took its toll on everyone.
“I think we should try something,” Bruce had offered, sounding thoughtful.
“If it includes yoga –”
“Maybe you shouldn’t sleep alone,” Bruce had cut him off with a sound of sharp determination. “If you’re not alone when you wake up, maybe it will alleviate some of the anxiety. I realize you barely have a moment to yourself as it is, but you need to sleep.”
Tony had known that, and just like with the shower thing, Bruce had been the first to get in bed with him. After the initial strangeness of it, Tony had relaxed and drifted off, worn out from lack of proper rest, and when he had woken up at night, sweaty and disoriented, Bruce’s voice had been in his ears, fingers combing through his hair, and instead of forcing himself to stay awake for the rest of the night, Tony had drifted back to sleep.
For the first few nights it had been Bruce, but then he had been needed at the lab and Rhodey had been Tony’s obvious second choice. It had worked just as well, although Rhodey hadn’t been sure what to say when Tony had woken up whimpering at night; before Tony’s injury, they had learned to see each other’s strong side, trying to keep up a solid front. Rhodey adapted to the changes, though, and Tony had a feeling the other man rather enjoyed being able to be there for Tony, finally.
When it had come time for the Avengers to join the war effort again, Tony had known he would be left to fend for himself at night. He had been a trooper about it, though, saying he would manage. The two first nights had been hard, and then Clint got shipped back to base, after he had been injured during the fight, and it had led to the first time Tony slept next to someone other than Bruce or Rhodey.
After that, it had been a steady rotation amongst all of them, and depending on their location, sometimes even two of the Avengers shared his bed. Tony had gotten the feeling by then that it wasn’t just to comfort him, but all of them.
It had been odd, yet not completely unexpected, that Steve had become one of his favorites. In bed, he was solid and so fucking warm, and every time Tony woke up, Steve did as well, and Tony could almost hear his heartbeat, which was almost better than just feeling him and hearing his breaths in the dark.
Tony tried not to play favorites, appreciating the extra effort from his team. He never caught them arguing about who had to sleep with him next. Tony liked to think that even a hardened spy like Natasha actually meant it when she whispered Russian endearments in Tony’s ear when he had trouble getting back to sleep after a particularly oppressing dream. They both knew he understood every word, even the little verse of an old Russian lullaby she murmured into the night; it was moments like those when Tony had to believe it wasn’t a hardship for any of them to be there for him, with him.
Their sleeping arrangement was just one thing that became a routine between Tony and the others. It was rare that Tony was completely alone with the bots and under J.A.R.V.I.S.’s supervision; at least one of the Avengers was always somewhere in the room, doing their own thing, and as crowded as it made Tony feel, as if his independence was being questioned, the benefits were too blatant to be overshadowed by his light irritation.
With the constant company came the subtle announcements whenever someone was coming or going – either by J.A.R.V.I.S., which was an old, comfortable habit for Tony and the AI both, or by the Avengers themselves. Whenever a stranger approached, it was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s duty, if possible in the current setting, to instruct the person to maintain their distance from Tony; he didn’t like being touched out of the blue – or out of the black, as it were. People tended to forget that, especially when something urgent happened, but as long as Tony could avoid it, he did.
Besides, he still didn’t like being handed things, more so than before. He would rather have people set the item down somewhere and let him take his time figuring it out and then seize it. Tony made an exception for most of his teammates, if the situation called for it. His absolute favorite way of having others hand him things came to involve Dummy or You playing the middle man; the bots had been built to help him, to interact with him, and it made sense they would only give him things that weren’t dangerous.
If there was room to choose – and there often was, unless the Avengers were out fighting – there were certain routines that grew between them. Natasha never helped Tony in the kitchen: she didn’t bring him his food, didn’t pour him a drink, or help him unwrap his lunch. There was no obvious reason for that, as far as Tony had figured. It made even less sense that she would voluntarily help him in the bathroom – even the shower – and Tony never felt like he was expected to do anything other than shower or do bathroom-y things. Perhaps that was why she did it; to make a point.
Clint never trained with Tony. Whether he was afraid he would hurt him – which didn’t make sense since Thor and Steve didn’t share that fear – or if he just didn’t want to slow down to be on Tony’s level, no one knew.
Steve was the least eager to offer Tony help when he struggled, which Tony thought came from Steve’s own past of being the sickly little guy. However, when Tony’s pride prevented him from asking for Steve’s assistance, the other man knew when to step in – wordlessly, without comment, as if he were a natural extension of Tony for as long as he needed it.
Thor had always enjoyed describing things, and he still did so. Tony had never really listened to his tales of Asgard more than was necessary, but he found that Thor’s descriptions, even when he lacked the proper vocabulary, were often the most satisfying – save for Bruce’s, but that was just because Tony clicked with his science bro.
Bruce came out of his shell when they were alone, which was perhaps the most pleasant surprise to come out of the whole experience. He liked to touch, which Tony allowed, and he slept close to Tony whenever they shared the bed. He recited scientific formulas to Tony when he couldn’t sleep and even told Tony how it felt to be inside the Hulk’s head. In the darkness, it seemed they were both at ease, finally, and Tony didn’t look too hard at why that was.
Rhodey was… he was doing his best to adjust, but took the longest. He wasn’t particularly good at leading Tony around, too stiff to give him enough cues, but he tried so hard that Tony let it go rather than suggesting someone else give him their arm. The things Tony did with the others – showering, shaving, checking him for injuries – didn’t feel nearly as intimate with someone else as they did with Rhodey. It wasn’t the bad kind of awkwardness and they often laughed about it, forcing the miniscule amount of lingering tension to retreat. Rhodey said, one time, that he hated seeing Tony like this and that it was really hard for him sometimes, but he held firmly onto Tony’s hand afterwards, unwilling to let go, and Tony took it as it was.
As a whole, the team had grown closer in a relatively short span of time, in a way fighting together had never done. Tony had often wondered whether it would have happened if he had never lost his sight; the war would have still gone on and the Avengers would have struggled through one battle after another, and while it surely would have brought them closer as a team…
Tony’s condition had made them all a bit vulnerable, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
Still, it didn’t take much to upset the delicate balance and breach the cocoon of safety Tony had woven around himself.
The alarm came in the middle of the night, jarring Tony out of his sleep. On either side of him, both Clint and Natasha jerked into wakefulness as well, scrambling off the bed, leaving Tony momentarily alone in the midst of the sheets.
“Fuck,” Clint swore, over and over. Tony could tell he was pulling his clothes on at top speed, and then he heard his bow snap open. “They’re here,” the archer said, words coming fast, like he didn’t have a second to spare. He must have already heard something Tony hadn’t, and Tony tried to remember if he had taken off his own earpiece just before bed, or even earlier.
“Go,” Natasha ordered, and Tony hoped she was talking to Clint and not him.
“Just do as you’re told, Nat,” Clint murmured an answer. “Take him and keep him safe.”
“You stay safe,” she replied harshly, then tugged on Tony’s arm abruptly. “You need to get dressed. The aliens are attacking the compound and Cap ordered me to get you out of here.”
Cap, not Steve, which meant Natasha was annoyed by the orders. Tony didn’t pay attention to that part when the actual news reached his brain. “The aliens are attacking us? Here?”
“As we speak,” Natasha said, and as if to agree with her, a loud bang echoed through the entire building they were in, coming from the outside. The power went out, an eerie silence falling around them that even Tony could detect.
He hurried to the edge of the bed, taking the clothes Natasha handed to him, dressing as quickly as he could. “The bots –”
“We don’t have time to get them,” Natasha said, tugging on Tony’s shoes for him. He fought not to pull back his feet to do it himself, or to argue with her until she dropped the hard-ass act and agreed that they should get the bots. “They’re safe,” she stated next, as if knowing what Tony was considering. “They’re at the mobile lab, where you left them, and that place is safer than where we are right now.”
“So let’s go there,” Tony suggested.
“Too far and in the wrong direction.” She zipped up his jacket and pulled him to his feet, then stepped away, leaving Tony standing there dumbly, waiting for her guidance. He heard her moving around, collecting items, and finally she returned, just as another bang shook the building.
The aliens had never attacked a base of any kind before. Mobilized military force was more their thing, or a heavily militarized base, and Tony was starting to feel that this was some kind of repetition of the attack on his house in Malibu. However, it was more likely that the aliens had decided to change tactics and bring the fight to them, instead of allowing the humans to choose where their battles would be fought.
Natasha forcefully lifted Tony’s hand to her arm and pulled him along. When they got out to the hallway and down a short flight of stairs, Tony heard broken glass crunch under his shoes and smelled smoke in the air. In the distance, people were shouting and screaming. The sound of weapons followed soon after, familiar, making his blood rush loudly in his ears.
Tony wasn’t sure why Natasha didn’t just dump him in some shelter and join the others in the fight. Well, he knew how useless shelters were against the alien weapons, which could dig craters in the earth, collapse a building and shake others within a quarter-mile radius; if they wanted Tony to survive this, the only way was to take him outside the fight zone – and that was, most likely, what Natasha had been told to do.
No one else was joining them, by the sound of it, and Tony tried to fight the sick feeling in his stomach.
“Keep moving,” Natasha told him when they got outside. The air was thick with smoke and dust, smells and sounds assaulting Tony’s senses. At one point he was certain he stepped on a body, but Natasha forced him to keep walking.
For the longest time it didn’t sound like they were moving away from the fight. Tony felt like suggesting that Natasha should just take him to the bots and leave him there, seeing as they weren’t putting any distance between themselves and the danger, but the fact that she could see their situation with two healthy eyes and he could not made him keep his mouth shut; his ears struggled to make sense of every sound, but most likely didn’t give him the perfect glimpse at what was really happening.
The smooth street ended abruptly, forcing Tony to slow down. He heard a sharp exhale of either disappointment or frustration from Natasha and tried to move faster, but he either took his time or risked falling and hurting himself, and they both should have known which was preferable. A few steps later, despite her feelings on the matter, Natasha slowed down as well, allowing Tony to find his footing as the terrain got harder to read with bumps and slippery grass.
They came to a steep downhill grade soon after. Tony stopped in hesitation, not knowing how far it would go or whether it would end in a sudden drop if he moved too fast. Natasha didn’t leave him time to debate, however, tugging him along, and Tony focused on keeping his balance and not falling over. He yearned to ask her for a description of their surroundings – anything to know what lay in wait. It wasn’t in Natasha’s nature to divulge such information if someone couldn’t already see it for themselves, and occasionally Tony wondered whether she forgot Tony couldn’t see, despite his hesitation.
“There’s a drop coming,” she said. “No more than three feet down.”
Tony slowed down, instinctively. Three feet was a lot when you didn’t see it. He had been forced jump before, and there was a reason why someone was usually ready to catch him – usually Steve or Thor, both of whom were able to hold him up effortlessly and soften his landing so that it felt like nothing to him.
He doubted Natasha would do the same.
When they got to the edge, Tony toed the line between solid earth and emptiness. Somewhere below, he heard water. Natasha jumped in without warning, a splash following. The steady, rising sound of something exploding began to grow behind them, and Tony stiffened to wait for a stirring of air and heat on his skin.
“Come on,” Natasha urged. Her arm had disappeared from Tony’s hold just before she jumped, and now she reached up to urge him to join her. It startled and scared him all over again, and his foot moved out over the emptiness. Her hand came to rest on his knee, squeezing, steadying him. “Three feet, no more. There’s water at the bottom. The surface is smooth and a little slick.”
Tony nodded, lowered his foot, then waited for her to move. Once Natasha let go of his knee, Tony took a step forward and sort of jumped, hoping he wouldn’t hit the edge on the way down.
However, the water shocked him, even when he knew it was there, as did the slick, hard bottom of whatever ditch they had jumped into. Tony began to fall, his brain imagining the icy plunge before it happened, but Natasha’s arm reached out before he ended up lying in the water, helping him regain his balance before it was completely lost.
“You good?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Tony nodded, straightening. The water was moving, not rapidly but enough for him to feel it even through his clothing. He was glad there was nothing important in his pants pockets.
“Come on,” Natasha urged, once again guiding Tony’s hand onto her arm and pulling him forward, against the current. “There’s a step coming,” she informed him before he felt her body move upwards. It wasn’t much, but his shoe collided against the edge and he slowly stepped at least ten inches up to higher ground.
Their movements started echoing, suggesting they were entering an enclosed space. There were smells, too, damp and wet, which Tony didn’t particularly like, but Natasha kept moving forward and he followed, the feeling of claustrophobia increasing as they went on. They didn’t get far before the air started to smell far from fresh. There wasn’t as much water, which made walking easier, and the current was almost lazy. The steady sound of water and their movements were starting to drive Tony insane, but he didn’t know the way out, other than the way they had come, and he had no way of knowing if they had passed a juncture or not. He was fairly certain the answer was no, but even if he went back, what would he do? Climb back up the hill, cross the uneven terrain to find the road and then stand there or start running into things.
Following Natasha was the only real option he had.
They walked for what felt like hours until the sounds started changing, the air turned fresher, and Tony felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel. Not that he saw a light, which would have been a miracle, but he tried walking faster to make it less like Natasha had to drag him along. They hadn’t spoken since entering the tunnel, which was what Tony called it in his head, and he didn’t think breaking that silence now would make a difference.
The exit to the outside air was unceremonious: Tony almost fell on his face when Natasha failed to tell him of the sudden drop into deeper water, and Natasha grunted as Tony’s weight landed on her, close to taking them both down. She stayed on her feet, though – and didn’t comment on it either, so she must have realized her error.
Natasha pulled them out of the water to even, partly dry partly muddy ground, and Tony started feeling cold for the first time. “Can you stay here for a moment?” she asked. “I need to see what we’re up against.”
“Up against?” Tony asked, trying to listen in order to find out if they weren’t alone.
“Figure of speech,” she corrected him. “There’s a piece of pipe at your seven o’clock. Can you hide inside it?”
Tony moved slowly without her lead and found it. His hands felt it out, deciding it was a concrete storm drain pipe, big enough to fit him if he hunched over a bit. They must have come through a tunnel made from pieces much like this. “It will do,” Tony mused, then turned in the direction he thought he had heard Natasha last. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“Scouting,” she repeated. “I won’t be long. Stay put, be quiet.”
Tony frowned then got inside the pipe, curling up to feel a bit warmer and waited.
As she had promised, Natasha didn’t take long. When she returned, though, Tony could tell that she wasn’t happy. “I spotted a couple Drones. I either need to take them out or they need to leave before we can move.” Which was her way of saying that Tony was too slow and clumsy to keep up with her.
“Or we could just hang here,” Tony offered. “The pipe’s kind of cozy.”
She chuckled, then cut off the sound and grew silent. Somewhere above, far away, a sound of something flying by reached Tony’s ears. Maybe it was one of the Drones; it was hard to tell, what with the echoes and the steady sound of running water nearby.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Natasha spoke up, voice hushed. “Stay here. You’re completely out of sight the way you are.”
“We’ll come for you,” she promised, and then she was gone.
Tony had never felt so alone. He sat in the pipe, holding his breath in long intervals before he absolutely had to breathe, trying to hear everything. The Drone didn’t fly by again, or he just didn’t hear it. The water kept on flowing, a gust of wind teased the leaves of several trees nearby, and Tony shifted deeper into the pipe, trying to find a place where he couldn’t feel a draft. He got colder as minutes and hours trickled by, but eventually Extremis kicked in, banishing the shivers and the chattering teeth he tried to keep from making a sound. He drifted off, slept uneasily, waking up at sounds he may have imagined or actually heard in his sleep.
He tried not to sleep so much after, but as the hours grew longer, his doubts grew with them.
How long had it been? When was Natasha coming back – or the others? How far away was he from the battle?
Tony couldn’t hear the sounds of fighting, which was a consolation. Perhaps the battle had ended and the others were coming for him right now. He didn’t need to worry.
It must have been close to twelve hours when the need to pee became overwhelming. Tony loathed getting out of the pipe, feeling safe inside it – out of sight – but he wasn’t going to urinate inside his safe place, so he eventually risked crawling out, walking a few feet from the pipe and then struggling to open his pants enough to relieve himself.
Nothing moved around him, other than leaves rustling in the wind. The trees weren’t right over him but further away, yet Tony didn’t dare go look for them; the others were coming for him, and if he strayed too far, they wouldn’t find him so easily. Besides, the aliens might still be out there, or Drones at least, and so Tony made his way back to the pipe, sat down, curled into a ball and wished the hours away.
Time passed. He was unable to count it or measure it, having already lost so much time while sleeping and aimlessly thinking of stuff to pass the time. It had been too long, however. He was getting hungry and tired all over again – cold, too – and there were no sounds and no rescue coming for him.
The battle had to have ended, because they hadn’t come that far, and new fears began to claw at his mind.
What if the others were dead?
Tony refused to believe it. The Hulk and Thor, for one, were too hard to kill; the aliens had tried and failed in the past. Steve was too stubborn to go down, and Natasha… she had promised to come back – that they would come back. It wasn’t like her to break promises… only it was. Tony had just forgotten about it, about the life she had led until becoming an Avenger. She had survived things worse than the apocalypse – or so she would say – and she would keep on surviving.
Leaving Tony behind was probably a calculated move. She hadn’t even left him any food, or clothes, although they had both been wet from their trek through the pipe.
Being abandoned didn’t sit well with Tony. He accepted it, of course, because it had been an eventuality. He was a burden, slowing the others down, making them weak and vulnerable. He hadn’t been able to work on whatever may have caused the aliens fear, and there were no guarantees Rhodey and Steve’s theory was a sound one.
Tony wished Natasha would have allowed him to take the bots, at least. That way he would have made it a bit further before their batteries ran out. Hell, he wished for a suit of armor right now, with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice in his ears, filling the darkness with something other than the darkness itself.
In the hours following his deduction that he had been left to fend for himself and die alone, Tony told himself, several times, to get up and walk away. After each time he found himself still sitting inside the pipe, legs pulled up, small shivers telling him it was too cold to be out here alone. Hours and hours he sat there, envisioning how he would get out, go towards the sound of the trees and then move on – and then eventually collapse and just drift away, parched and too hungry and tired to move. The aliens wouldn’t even need to come for him again because his body would just shut down eventually, Extremis or no, giving up.
He tried sleeping, in case that helped him make up his mind about actually leaving. The dreams were worse, filled with the trickle of water, his labored breaths in the dark and the splashes of footsteps echoing on round concrete walls. The trickle and breaths were still there when he woke up, a wind curling inside the pipe.
A few times Tony heard a noise from further away, giving him hope, but the high squeaks that barely fit within his hearing range made shivers run up his spine instead. Rats, he told himself. They’ve got to be rats.
He hoped they were rats because anything else was just him taunting himself, hanging hope on a dark wall of desperation.
Tony Stark was going to die in a drain pipe or blindly walking around, and that wasn’t the end he had envisioned for himself even after he got blinded. Fate was a cruel mistress…
to be continued…