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ceaselessly into the past

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Tony Stark had been to London multiple times before, but for decidedly more fun reasons than the end of the world as he knew it.

He stared out of the window down at the buildings below, squinting against the early morning sun. They were coming in for a landing, the helicopter circling around an almost deserted Trafalgar Square, and the pilot murmured something low and incomprehensible into his radio. He paid it no heed- it didn’t concern him. His duty was waiting below.
He huffed out a sigh and tugged at his suit jacket as they came down, trying to make himself presentable again. It was a long way from New York, and he had slept almost the entire journey. He would be lucky if his hair wasn’t a complete mess. Pulling his Starkphone out of his pocket, he fired off a quick text to Pepper – arrived. have fun with Dad and Obie!- and barely reacted as they touched down with a bump. He mentally prepared himself for a tedious few hours in a miserable city, and tried not to think of all the wonderful company back home.

Pepper’s reply text came in almost as quickly as he sent it. God help me, it simply read, and Tony managed his first smile in days.

He could see that an unfamiliar woman was waiting for him some distance away, dressed impeccably in uniform. She stood alone and watched as he ducked out of the helicopter, hair tousled by the wind. He made his way to her immediately, taking in a deep breath and preparing himself for the show- and flashed her a winning smile before she could notice how tired he looked.

“Well, hello there,” He dropped his voice low, the voice he always put on when faced with someone either as pretty as her, or someone who looked like they thought they knew him better than he did. Usually, the most they had seen was the front page of garish gossip magazines. They didn’t know a damn thing about him, but he played up to their standards to keep them stupid.

She offered a professional hand, even as she smiled bashfully. He accepted it. “Mr Stark,” She greeted, voice almost lost over the helicopter’s rotors. “A pleasure to meet you. How was your journey?”

“Oh, please, the pleasure’s all mine.” He released her hand after a polite amount of time and she was already leading him away. She knew how short they all were on time. He let it happen, but pulled a face. “In-flight entertainment could have used a bit of sprucing up, but it’s a military ‘copter, so I’ll cut them some slack.”

She laughed. She kept up the inane chatter the whole way to the grand building where Fury waited, from topics ranging to the weather to her mother’s cat tearing up her curtains, but they never touched on the Big Topic. They never did. No one did, unless they were military officials. He didn’t blame any of them, really. No one wanted to think about an alien invasion.

She walked him all the way up, and even let him walk in first. She showed him the waiting room and told him that he would be seen as soon as possible, and to enjoy his stay in London. He thanked her, told her he would even though he definitely wouldn’t, and smiled dazzling bright. She wandered off with a bit of a wobble, and disappeared.

He prepared himself for one hell of a wait, entertaining himself with mindless games on his mobile, but the clock had only just turned ten when there was the sound of sharp heels on the tiles. Tony looked down, and a fearsomely tall woman looked down at him, all business.


“Director Fury will see you now.” She told him, and she was much less friendlier than the woman from before. She looked a tad judgemental, her lips pressed tight, and she didn’t look at all happy that she was fetching him- a secretary’s duties. Tony could empathise.

“Thank you.” He said with the same practised smile, and without a response she turned away, hurriedly walking him down the hall. She clearly had better things to do with her time. She led him down to Fury’s office, brushing shoulders with some of the most important men in the country, and she didn’t give them a second look. Tony liked that.

Fury’s office was large but makeshift, almost empty apart from his desk and a large map spread across the wall. Tony knew he had been in the United States only two days before, with no plans to come to England, but despite everything on his plate he had settled and maintained order well. His room was short and wide, with walls of stone, and it was chilly but Fury seemed to not feel the cold. With a wave of his hand, he gestured to Tony’s seat in front of the desk, but he himself stood in front of the map. “Thank you, Hill.”

She left with the tiniest of nods, and then it was straight down to business.

“Let’s not waste time on pleasantries,” Fury said, his voice echoing around the room. Tony barely had the chance to sit down, let alone open his mouth, but he found himself grateful for the brutal honesty. He didn’t much fancy to linger with the condemned. “We both know what I need.”

“And you’ll get it.” Tony promised. “You’ll get a shipment of more armours this afternoon, nice and ready for the battle tomorrow.”

Fury’s gaze was withering. “Is that a promise.”

Tony summoned the classic Stark smile. “It’s a guarantee.”

It wasn’t as well received as it usually was. Fury’s expression became one of disapproval and he turned, gesturing to the map behind him. “Stark,” He began. “Do you know exactly what this is?” He deliberately didn’t give Tony time to respond, but it was okay. He was a little too tired to be glib today. “This is Operation Downfall. This is the entire might of multiple combined forces, the EDF, SHIELD, you name it, leading from the beaches of France, the Mediterranean, and Scandinavia. We’re leading pressure on the eastern front towards the Russians and the Chinese, trying to push the invasion back.” His hand waved from London, to France, all the way to the very centre of Europe. He rested it there. “We’ll all be meeting here, exterminating this Chitauri scourge along the way.” He paused. “A lot of good soldiers are going to die tomorrow, Mr Stark.”

“I’m fully aware of that, Director.”

Tony had only had personal dealings with Nicholas Fury once or twice before, usually leaving such tedious business visits to Obadiah or his father, older members of SI who had more experience with hard asses like him. But with his father unavailable and Obadiah struggling to calm things with scared employees in the Unites States, Tony was the only one available. Currently, he was wondering if that was a mistake. Tony hadn’t been sure what to expect, only being warned by Obadiah that Fury had one hell of a mask- and by the looks of things, the famous mask was firmly in place today. Stony faced, Fury tilted his head to one side, inquisitively. “How’s your father?” He asked, almost conversationally. But Fury was purely practical, and he didn’t mince words- there was nothing conversational with him.

He had been anticipating questions, mentally preparing himself as soon as his feet hit British soil. Pepper had warned him, formally requested with a glint in her eye not to lose his cool and make Stark Industries have any more problems than they already had. He had promised, with a crooning, ‘Please, Pep, you wound me. I never make trouble for you and Pops.” She had thumped him. He felt like he only half deserved it.

He had promised, but being faced with the frank discussion of his father’s illness was far more offensive than he had expected.

He swallowed back the bitterness as well as he could, sick to death of all the incessant questions of inheritance, power, the direction that he would take Stark Industries in, and tried to be as polite as possible. “He’s doing better. Much better.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that.” Fury said, and Tony tried to convince himself his patronizing tone was all in his head. “But, you see, our soldiers aren’t feeling so great about your dad’s company anymore. They hear about your father, and his illness, the way he’s running his company ragged in some twisted way of asserting his dominance. We need to prove the might of our combined armies, and the power of those suits of yours.” Fury leant against his chair, still towering over Tony. “This isn’t like any war we’ve fought in our history.”

“On the contrary,” Tony smiled, false bravado shining as brightly as ever before. “We’re killing aliens, which is weird, sure, but it’s still a war. A simple war.”

Tony remembered a time where whenever a news reporter said ‘aliens’ they had a strange, faraway look in their eyes that only said ‘what the hell am I saying?’ Five years, millions of casualties and too many miles of destroyed land later and they all said Chitauri with defeated, empty expressions instead.

“And some might agree with you,” Fury said, and his tone was crystal clear. He thought those people were morons. “However, I’m not one of those people. They don’t know how hard it is to fight, how difficult it is to face creatures like this. That’s why we need to get the jump on them tomorrow. This is why we need every soldier we could get.” Fury then smiled, slowly. “Someone like you.”

There was a long silence, and the room was full of only the sound of their soft breaths. Tony could hear Hill’s heels clicking against the floor again, the faint murmur of discussion, too far away to make out. He waited, letting the silence drag out to an uncomfortable level, waiting for Fury to elaborate, the explain himself. He didn’t. They both sat, and waited for the other to speak.

Eventually, Tony broke the silence. He spoke quietly, carefully. “I don’t think I’m the soldier type.”

“How so?”

Tony huffed out a tiny laugh. It was the only reaction he could muster. “I don’t take orders well.”

“It’s not too late for you to play nice with the other boys.” Fury assured him, like a parent preparing his son for his first day at primary school. Tony blustered, but he was cut across. Fury straightened himself with a small smile, and clapped his hands together once, and loudly. It made Tony jump, and he prayed the man hadn’t noticed. “That settles it. You’ll be participating in combat tomorrow.”

Tony’s heart stopped beating in his chest. “Excuse me?”

“You’ll be shipping out to France in an hour,” Fury said, like he hadn’t even spoken. Tony body was suddenly cold, like ice was freezing over his immobile body. “There will be a camera crew standing by, so the world can see your dedication to the cause, fighting on the beach with the first wave of our soldiers.”

“What the fuck, Fury?” Tony demanded, abruptly standing, knocking his chair backward. The ice was creeping into his bones, wrapping tightly around his heart, tight enough to ache. “What the actual fuck? You can’t do this.”

“Actually, I can. I’m drafting you.” Fury’s eyes were hard, like chips of flint. “This isn’t an offer for you to join. I’m ordering you to fight tomorrow.” He took his seat, giving him a tight smile and pulling out thick folders from his desk drawer. “You can ask Hill about what to do. You can go, now.”

“I can go?” His voice was much louder than he intended it to be, but he found he didn’t care. “I can go?! Fuck you. I refuse.” He had to restrain the childish urge to kick the desk, or throw the chair across the room. He hadn’t had a temper tantrum in years- that is, if you asked anyone who wasn’t Pepper Potts- but he couldn’t believe the nerve. “Do you know who I am?”

With a moment’s pause, in which Tony breathed very heavily, his face feeling too warm for comfort, Fury sat back and crossed his arms against his chest. “Tell me who you are.” He challenged.

Tony wasn’t in the mood for any more games, but he played along. “I’m Tony fucking Stark. I can make life hell for you.” He grit out, harshly. “I can make my father do anything, and when he dies, I can do whatever I want with my company. You don’t have the right to push me around like a pawn in one of your fucking games, do you hear me?”
Fury smiled, very tightly. “Are you threatening me?”

“Yes, Director, I am!”


In the quiet that followed, Fury was very still, very quiet. Tony’s breath was caught in his chest, and he struggled to keep himself calm as the Director stood up, slowly. He took several calculated steps around the desk, across to Tony, and looked him dead in the eyes. Fury stood several inches above him and had eyes dark with sharp intelligence, and while he tried not to think about what they could mean for him after he just blackmailed the fucking Director of SHIELD, Tony tried to hide the way his knees wanted to buckle under the weight of all the pure fear he carried.

“Fine.” Fury said, eventually. “You don’t have to fight.”

All the tension seeped out of Tony in that one following moment, and he tried not to smile or exhale heavily. He didn’t want this man to see the effect he had on him. “Thank you, Director.” He said instead, struggling to remain detached. He turned to leave, not wanting to spend a moment longer in his presence, hyper aware of Fury following him closely across the office. He didn’t care how rude he had been, how Pepper was likely going to flay him alive once he got back- he wasn’t being forced into war, and that was all that mattered.

He pushed the double sided doors open, ready to leave all that bullshit behind him.

“Arrest this man.” He heard Fury say from behind him, completely casual, and as soon as his words truly sunk in, Tony span, staring at the Director slack jawed. The mask was still firmly in place, even as he effortlessly attempted to condemn a man to death.

Tony exchanged brief glances with the soldiers at Fury’s door who looked just as surprised as Tony did- and then as soon as he saw the loyalty and the decision in their expressions, he turned tail and ran.

It wasn’t graceful, and it wasn’t brave, but in that moment Tony Stark was neither of those things. He fled through the halls, aware of shouting and heavy footfalls behind him, chasing him down. Tony wasn’t a soldier, but he was one hell of a sprinter, and with a little luck, he would lose them quickly. That was, if no one got in his way. And someone did.

Someone darted out in front of him, standing directly in his path. She stood firmly, immovable with feet planted onto the floor, and raised her weapon. It pointed directly at his chest.

He sucked in a breath, scrambled to a halt and froze- shit, that’s a gun, what do I do, what do I do?- and she pulled the trigger with no hesitation, and Tony jolted when electricity leapt out to meet him, and everything went dark.


He woke slowly, to the sound of vague shouting.

Tony shifted with a gentle exhale and a flicker of a frown. He lay on his side, on something that he wouldn’t describe as comfortable, too firm for that, but it was hardly the worst thing he had ever slept on. Bags, he thought, someone had propped him up against bags. Kind of them, he supposed. As he gradually came too, he was aware of the warmth of gentle sunlight and the sound of movement around him increased, growing in volume. There was shouting, distant commands in confident voices, and the soft roar of voices beyond that, private conversations and murmurs too far away to hear. Over them, a woman spoke over the loudspeaker in a foreign language, sounding like she was issuing orders or making some kind of statement, running through different languages as she spoke.

With all the noise, his head ached a little, pain throbbing between his temples, and with a wince he reached up to rub at the skin- and with soft clicks and sudden restricted movement, he realized that he had been cuffed. They were tight, chafing at his skin, and he stared at them, wide eyed.

Confusion sinking in, he tore his gaze away and sat up as well as he could on his elbows. Looking around, he found himself surrounded by soldiers, all dressed and ready for playing at war. Small groups marched or jogged past, led by commanding officers with the same serious faces. Army cars drove along a small stretch of road, soldiers hanging off the back. A London bus even rumbled by, spewing smog everywhere, and the steely blue gaze of a somewhat familiar soldier on a recruitment advert stared down at him, a heavy looking gun slung over his shoulder. He couldn’t quite place his face, and it nagged on him, but he supposed it didn’t matter. I’m still in London then, he thought, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He cast his mind back, battling against the headache, and while it took more effort than it should have memories came crawling back to him, and he didn’t like what he found. They had arrested him, tazed him- he was Tony Stark.

No one tazed Tony Stark.

“On your feet, asshole!” A loud American voice suddenly called, heavy footfalls unnervingly close to Tony until a booted foot kicked hard at the bag he lounged on. Tony jerked away like he had been burnt, caught off guard, and looked up at the offender. It was a soldier who stood above him, looking down like he was something disgusting stuck to his shoe.

Anger trumped the bewilderment, and he rolled off of the bag as gracefully as he could- stumbling a little- and squared up to him, sneering. “What the hell did you just call me?”
The soldier glowed back down at him, unafraid. “I called you an asshole, and that’s how I address recruits before I bust their holes with my boot heel. Got a problem with it, go cry to your mama.”

“Excuse me,” Another voice cut in from across the way, and they both turned to stare, dispute momentarily forgotten. Another soldier approached, and he was much smaller and thinner than Tony expected. He knew that the army needed all the men they could get, but he didn’t expect them to hire someone quite like him. Looking him up and down, he assumed he was kept around mostly for experience- there were lines etched deeply into his skin, crows feet and laugh lines, but he wasn’t laughing now. He was smiling, but it was the patronizing sort, the kind you gave a boisterous child. He looked more like an accountant than a soldier.

“Can I help you, son.” It wasn’t exactly a question- it was more of a bored statement that yes, he knew he could help you, and he wasn’t happy about it at all. Tony recognised his rank immediately.

“Where the hell am I exactly, Sergeant?”

“Forward operating base, Heathrow.” The Sargent gestured to a wide, flat building behind him. The name plastered across the building confirmed it- they were still in London, but miles away from where Tony expected to be- where Pepper had expected him to be. They stood on the runway, all cleared out for the soldiers. “You just came off a flight with the fresh recruits.”

Tony shot him a look. “Do I look like a fresh recruit?”

With that same smile, the soldier went through a pantomime of looking him up and down. “No. You don’t.”

“You know who I am?” He demanded, but gave neither man a chance to respond. “I’m Tony Stark. I work for Stark Industries. My father is Howard Stark. What the hell am I doing here?”

The Sergeant arched an eyebrow, but dismissed the other will a jerk of his head. “I got this.” He said, and with one last distasteful look, the soldier who had kicked him stalked away, disappearing into the crowds. “So how exactly did someone like you end up in processing, Stark?” His smile transformed into a full out grin. “Poker night, I’m guessing? Bachelor party? Sleep with someone influential’s daughter?”

“I’d like to explain that to your commanding officer.” Tony said, darkly. “And to my father. I’m not supposed to be here, so if you could get me to a phone I’d appreciate it.”

“I can’t do that. We’re all moving out tomorrow, for the battle. We’re on lockdown, so no calls coming in or going out.” He kept smiling, almost daring Tony to question him. It rubbed him the wrong way, and he seized him up in response, eying him up. The Sergeant’s shirt said Coulson in wide, block letters.

“You’re Sergeant Coulson.” Tony said, and Coulson nodded.

“Well, Coulson, take one good look at me.” He toyed with the idea of striking a sarcastic, ‘draw me like one of your French girls’ pose against the backdrop of army life, but decided against it. He didn’t think the Sargent would take it well, and the handcuffs restricted him too much for the full effect. “Look at where I am. Isn’t it obvious that I don’t belong here? I should be in New York. My father is expecting me. I need that phone call.”

Coulson stared him out for a moment longer, hiding the judgemental gaze almost well enough for Tony to miss it. He was intimately familiar with such an expression. Eventually, he said, “I’ll see what I can do for you. Come with me.”

Relief flooded him, and all the tension left his body. “Thank you.” He said, and meant it. Coulson turned on his heel and walked proudly across the tarmac, seemingly right at home. He had a commanding presence, and Tony was beginning to understand why he was here. He followed behind him as closely as he could, trying not to lose him in the crowds, and ignored the stares as best he could. He didn’t fit in, the one man who stood out against all the dull uniforms in a finely tailored suit.

“How is your father doing?” Coulson asked as they walked briskly, presumably towards a higher upper who would sort Tony out and hopefully put him on the first flight to New York. After the morning he had experienced, all he wanted was to curl up in his bed and sleep off the headache. “I’m sorry to say I’ve heard he’s not doing so well.”

Tony grit his teeth together, and for a moment didn’t say a thing as he struggled to keep his temper under control. “He’s not. He’s old, though, his health is never good.” He was proud to say that his voice came out mostly even, but if he was lucky, Coulson would think it was just emotion in the face of his father’s death.

Coulson hummed softly. “We’ll be sorry to see him go. He’s a good man.”

“We all will.” Tony smiled at him, all teeth. “Though I’d like to assure you that his passing won’t affect the delivery of our Iron Mansuits. When I take over Stark Industries I will honour every promise my father made.”

“I don’t doubt it. But if tomorrow is a victory, hopefully we won’t be needing too many more of them.”

Coulson then stopped and smiled widely at him, and when Tony realised what was going on, he stopped dead.

Caught up in conversation, he hadn’t realized where he was being lead. It was clever of the Sergeant, and Tony was impressed and infuriated all at one point. It was a soldier’s tent, brightly emblazoned with a C. It was one of the first of many, all kept in a net row, no doubt teeming with sweaty and irritable soldiers. Sweaty soldiers he didn’t mind, but only if they were naked and pressed up against him in all the good ways.

Coulson looked almost delighted. It was almost inhumane. “After you.”

“…You’re not taking me to the phone.” He didn’t move a muscle.

At that, Coulson only smiled wider. He took steps forward, invading Tony’s space. When he moved away, the soldier only moved closer. “No, Stark, I’m not. You’ve not been very honest with me.” He reached into his jacket, pulling out a wad of paper. It crinkled as he opened it, and held it out to Tony’s face. He flicked it with one finger.

“I’ve been told that you’re a deserter.” Coulson said, and his tone was suddenly venomous, eyes like chips of ice. “That you were conscripted because of the new law coming in, and then tried to run away like a coward. We know you, Stark, you’re a slippery one. No doubt you’d do anything to get out of combat and run back to your daddy where it’s safe.”

Rage was like fire in his veins, and he suppressed the urge to punch Coulson directly in his self-righteous face. He wanted to see that face all bloody. It was bullshit, and he wanted nothing more than to lash out. He clenched his fingers, nails cutting in his palms, cursing the cuffs as Coulson prattled on. “Don’t you worry, boy. I’ve been assigned, alongside some other good people to make sure you don’t get out of seeing your side of the action tomorrow. You’ll be watching what our boys do for people like you.” With another jerk of his head, Coulson summoned another soldier, who looked far too eager to grab Tony by the shoulders and force him into the tent. Tony went alone half willingly, barely protesting, mind working a mile a minute to figure out just what the hell was going on- and then, what he could do to get the hell out of it.

The tent stank of sweat, like he had just walked into a gym, and he couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. It got him some less than pleased looks from the soldiers inside, a mix of men and women tucked away in alcoves who all looked like they could kick the shit out of him at a moment’s notice. The soldier who grabbed him pushed him forward, refusing to give him a moment’s peace. He turned his head, and of course, Coulson was following them closely, still droning on. “These people will know you as a deserter, I can promise you that. They do everything for people like you, when you’re all high and mighty and hiding behind all that wealth of yours.”

Tony became hugely self-aware of the fact that he while he wasn’t a short man by any means, almost everyone in the room had at least two inches on him and a lot more muscle, and they were all beginning to notice the cuffs. He wondered if any of them recognised his face, and hoped that Coulson wouldn’t say ‘deserter’ so loudly. He squirmed uncomfortably under their gaze. “Don’t worry. When you bleed with them tomorrow, it’s all the same blood. We’re all human, after all. Especially in battle.”

They had reached the far end of the tent, and Coulson darted forward, turning into the alcove on their right. Music poured out of it from a radio, and there was the distinct sound of murmuring voices. The smell of cigarette smoke was clear, even smothered under the odour of sweat as it was.

“Squad,” Coulson called cheerfully for their attention, but he already had it. The soldiers in the alcove jumped to attention, almost guiltily, and stood almost painfully straight in the presence of their Sargent. There were six of them, two women and four men, who all looked mostly as capable as the other. They all watched Coulson with alert eyes, and those who looked at Tony seemed suspicious. “Stark, this is J Squad.”

“Is that Tony Stark?” One of them, seemingly the youngest man, almost a boy, blurted out. “You invented the suits!” He stared at him like he couldn’t quite believe he was standing there, his eyes vivid with emotion. Tony could empathise- he couldn’t quite believe it either.

“Is that’s Stark, why’s he cuffed and why’s he here?” Another one said, frowning. “Wouldn’t think someone as big and clever as him would be here with the likes of us.”
Coulson ignored the question, and instead surveyed the team like a proud father with a brood of children. “It’s good to see all of these fine people being so productive on an important day like today. Warms the heart, and makes me glad to know that soldiers of your calibre will be leading the charge on the beach tomorrow.” As he spoke, he roamed the room, peering at each of them like he was interrogating them. Tony watched with confusion as most shifted uneasily, apart from one unflinching red headed woman who stared back at him, arms crossed against her chest. He smiled at her- and then reached down and ripped up the duvet from one of the bunks, revealing a card game underneath. There was a heavy bet going on, surprisingly so for soldiers.

There was a chorus of colourful curses, practically in unison. Coulson snatched up some of the cards, and began, “What’s my opinion on gambling, Private Barton?”

“Dislike it, Coulson.” He supplied, immediately. Coulson arched a brow.

“Excuse me?”

“Sergeant Coulson.” He corrected just as quickly.

“Good. And Romanoff, why is that?” As he spoke, he handed Barton a card.

She spoke with a dry lilt, like it was rehearsed, carved into her eyelids. “Because it entertains the notion that our fate is in hands other than our own, sir.” He nodded, and passed her one as well.

“And how do I feel about the concept of fate, Odinson?”

“Through vigilance and discipline, we are masters of our own fate.” The biggest man in the room rumbled, and he accepted a card when offered. Coulson handed them out to the others, the bright eyed man who spoke before and a dark haired woman.

“That’s right. Go ahead, now.”

Sharing looks of equal misery and resignation, but refusing to protest, they all tore the cards into several small pieces and shoved them into their mouths. Tony stared.
“You might call that notion ironic.” Coulson said, joining him once more as the sounds of almost mournful chewing gradually died down. “But don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll come around.” Producing the keys from a pocket, Coulson made quick work of his cuffs. Tony immediately rubbed the skin, raw from the tightness. Turning back to the squad, he made sure to speak as loud as possible from them all to hear, “Tony Stark is a deserter. I’m making each of you responsible for him tomorrow, and I want him combat ready by the time we move out tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll treat him gently, won’t you?”

Against the chorus of not very reassuring laughter, Tony stepped forward with a protest. “Combat ready? I don’t- I’m not-”

“Mr Stark believes he doesn’t belong here, and it’s your job to make him see the truth.”

“So we have to be careful he doesn’t go running all the way home to daddy dearest?” Barton had a nasty grin, and he eyed Tony like he was a rare cut of meat.
“Yes. If he tries anything, show him your own personal brand of persuasion. Widows Bite might do the trick.” There was another chorus of laughter, and Tony found that Romanoff had an even meaner smile. “Dismissed.” Coulson nodded at them all, and moved to shove past Stark.

Panicked, Tony reached out and grabbed for him, moving to follow. “No- I’ll never be combat ready, not by tomorrow morn-“

He had never fought a day in his life, outside of the occasional bar fight with drunken idiots who thought he was completely physically incapable because he was, in their words, a nerd, but Coulson had limited sympathy. He shoved him back into the alcove, merciless and rough.

“You’ll be a different man tomorrow.” Was all he said. “If you make it through, you would have learnt several valuable life lessons, I’m sure.” With that, he turned on his heel and left Tony to the mercy of J squad. He was out of Tony’s reach before he could protest, and before he could chase after him again, a hand fell, clamping down on his shoulder. Jumping almost out of his skin, he turned to find Odinson eyeing him with distaste.

“Don’t bother.” He told Tony, and shoved him into their little piece of hell. Stumbling, he almost fell into Barton. Romanoff was staring with dark, intelligent eyes as she nibbled on the last piece of her card. Most of the squad surrounded him, like crows around carrion, and murmured what were no doubt mocking insights to each other. What seemed to be half of the soldiers from the tent were peering in, jeering at him, and Tony wondered if he was even going to make it to the morning before being eaten alive.

“You better be getting in uniform,” The dark haired woman said, apparently disinterested as she sprawled across one of the bunks. “Private Stark. There’s physical training in ten.”

So this is real, was the last thought Tony could manage before a pile of clothes and combat boots which stank to high heaven were shoved into his chest.

Morning came far too quickly for his liking.

He didn’t need to be jostled awake by anyone- he was already wide awake. He didn’t get a single second of sleep that night, kept awake by the twisting and turning of his stomach, the fear that clenched his heart. His mind whirled with possibilities, ways that he could escape his fate, but he didn’t think that J squad would let him go quite so easy.

Romanoff was the first to wake at five in the morning, coming alive quicker than he had seen anyone move in his life. She sat up to see him staring and arched a dark brow, but didn’t say a word. She only stretched and waited, relaxing until the rest of the tent woke. Odinson and Sylvan woke then, muttering to each other as Romanoff woke Parker.

Barton had to be kicked awake, and even then he had to be threatened multiple times by Odinson and then once by Romanoff for him to finally get up, grumbling and cursing.
Tony wondered if they felt the same fear that he did, deep in his belly, curling like snakes, tendrils of cold darkness. If they did, they didn’t show it, not even Parker, the confirmed youngest of the squad. He simply got up like everyone else, dressed with military efficiency, and began to prepare for war.

Tony didn’t feel prepared, not in the slightest. He had experienced a day of little but half-hearted training and taunts, the soldiers seemingly more interested in kicking him while he was down than helping him up and teaching him how to survive. They had dragged him out to physical training where he had only just managed to match their speeds under the judgemental eye of Coulson, and then to a gym to be trained in hand to hand and to improve his stamina so he could storm alongside the others. He was exhausted within the hour, and every single one of his slights were picked on by the others, every failure a certainty of his death.

He had sat alone in the mess hall, sat alone in the alcove, and wondered if he was ever going to see Rhodey or Pep again. He wondered who would take over Stark Industries when he was gone- Obie, he assumed, and he wondered what would happen after he passed, having no children of his own. He supposed that could change. That was all, of course, assuming that Tony was killed come the morning, but he didn’t have the energy to be optimistic. He didn’t see the point.

All day, he had been looking for a way out. And he had found none.

And now he was being shipped out to France, where he knew he would die on one of the beaches. He supposed it was a good thing he hadn’t gotten any sleep- he had all night to think about how doomed he was.

He got out of bed with the others and dressed silently. Parker almost look perturbed at his lack of protests, but there wasn’t any point. He listened to Coulson rousing speech without a word, staring into nothingness the whole time as the fear threatened to swallow him whole.

Then in what seemed like no time at all, he was being pushed into one of his own creations- his Iron Man suit. It seemed only fitting he would die in one of those. He thought back to Coulson; you might call that notion ironic. He wondered if he was going to be sick.

The suits were kept in row, which would be guided into a ship once the team were all suited up. They were all perfect clones of each other, painted dark and nothing special, perfect for the military. The squad clambered in with practised efficiency, adjusting the necessary parts and checking the systems. They flexed their hands in the gauntlets, and only Parker still seemed impressed with the design, almost childlike as he smiled and crooned at what he called ‘his baby’. The helmet closed around them, but they flicked up the faceplates, chattering to each other as they geared up. Some had their chests bare of armour, strapping themselves with explosives instead. Clint did, opposite him. Romanoff watched him silently.

Sylvan checked him over before gearing up herself, and he was almost grateful to her. Barton mocked her relentlessly for it, asking if she was feeling motherly, but she flicked the V’s towards him and he fell quiet, but still grinned. She was silent as she worked, and Tony simply flicked down his face plate, trying to hide his expression from the others. He only hoped he remembered how to pilot one of these things- it had been years since he wore one last.

He gazed at the HUD, the little dots than consisted of his 'teammates'.

Greetings, sir.

Tony smiled, mirthlessly. “JARVIS.”

The AI said nothing more to him. He wouldn’t, unless prompted. He was one of the depersonalized versions, something they had made to market, and he was nothing like the AI he had at home in his mansion, but it was a little comfort. Sylvan moved on once satisfied the suit was fully functional, and he was left to his own thoughts until the order was given to move, and then he was in the ship, on the way to France.

“We lost Germany,” Coulson was calling out over the carrier’s engines. “We lost France. If we lose today, we won’t be able to fight another. I know there’s a huge pressure on every single one of you, but this victory is essential.” He paused. “Two minutes to drop.”

He may of well have said two minutes to death. The room was mostly still and silent, waiting for arrival, no doubt psyching themselves up and taking peace in the last moment of silence they would experience in a while, or for some, ever.

At least, it was until Clint started yapping.

“Oi.” He shouted out, and for a minute, Tony wasn’t aware he was being spoken to. “Hey, Stark. There’s something wrong with your suit.” He barely had time to frown before Clint elaborated with a shit eating grin. “Yeah. There’s a dead guy in it.”

A ripple of laughter went through the jet, and if Tony wasn’t strapped to the bar that ran across each of the suits, he would have tried to kick Clint directly in the nuts. And then Odinson too, when he chimed in, “Watch your back out there, Stark.”

“Cause no-one else will!” Barton crowed, and even Coulson had the kindness to look faintly disapproving.

One minute to drop, JARVIS said in his headset.

Tony breathed through his nose, trying not to panic, and when half the minute was up, it all went to waste. An alarm sounded throughout the jet and seconds later, the floor moved away, revealing a wide expanse of pale French sand. “Holy shit.” He yelped, safe in the knowledge that no one could hear him over the roar.

Thirty seconds to drop.

Coulson was shouting again, and Tony was beginning to think the man would never shut up. “Stand by to deploy. Activate drop lines. Remember, I-”

The metal of the wall behind him gave way suddenly to a huge explosion without warning, uncomfortably close. Coulson surged forward, almost knocked off his feet, and screams of surprise went up around the carrier. Following explosions ripped through without mercy, fire swallowing half the jet, and Coulson barely had time to scramble to his feet before he was issuing more orders. “Drop!” He yelled over the wailing alarms, and half a second later, soldiers were dropping out of view, quicker than Tony could blink. “Drop! Drop!”

Explosions detonated below him even as people entered the battlefield, but some didn’t make it. He assumed Clint had made it safely- he snorted at that, despite everything- to the warzone, but the man beside him hadn’t been so lucky. He had been shot down before he even had the time to fall, falling out of the sky in a blaze of fire without even the time to scream. People kept dropping around him, one by one, before he and Coulson were the only ones left.

“Stark!” Coulson yelled, grabbing his attention. “Drop, or die!” Then, the Sergeant hit the button beside the armour, and he was gone too.

Left alone in the rattling, burning jet that he knew was going to go down at any second, Tony’s gasping breaths were overwhelmingly loud. JARVIS issued repeated orders to drop, warning of explosives too close for comfort and enemy targets close by, and Tony watched as the metal of the wall opposite was ripped away like tin foil. His heart switched residence from his chest to his throat, and he knew it was time to go.

He hit the same button, and the fall was immediate. He was pretty sure he was screaming, but the wind snatched the sound away. He spun, out of control, and he could only hope that he didn’t land and break both of his legs. That would be a fine way to spend his first ever day in combat, crawling in the muck. He fell for a long time, teammates probably screaming or whooping around him, explosions surrounding all of them. Tony didn’t understand that- the Chitauri weren’t supposed to know they were coming. How did they make it this far already?

That train of thought was cut abruptly short- he crashed to the floor. He found it hard to feel grateful that he retained use of his legs, and he slammed heavily to the floor and fell to the wet sand with a splash of seawater. He was glad for the faceplate.

Someone was cheering, not too far away. “We made it!” He was screaming, no doubt grinning like an idiot. Tony wasn’t sure there was much to celebrate. He crawled on all fours, feeling incredibly self-conscious despite the fact he knew people were preoccupied with much greater things, and wobbled when he finally got on his feet. Aforementioned idiot was still shouting out, and Tony turned to tell him to shut the fuck up and move on, when a great hunk of machinery fell from the sky and squashed him flat.

It nearly knocked Tony off of his feet, but he staggered backwards, almost blinded by the sand the crash threw up. He threw up his arms just in time, but choked. He waited it out, until it settled, and he knew there was nothing he could do. He felt sick, and supressed the urge to fall to his knees and vomit.

People ignored him or simply didn’t see him and kept streaming in one direction, storming down to the fight. Tony supposed he could do nothing but join them, having no other choice, and on unsteady legs he slowly made his way down. Soldiers were being brought down around him, picked off one by one. An artillery struck a soldier, disturbingly close to Tony’s left, and he moved as fast as he could, hyperaware of JARVIS’s comments in his headset, warning for incoming, feeding him information on the bulk of enemies he was heading towards. He didn’t know how long he moved for, but he forced himself to keep going, unsteady footed and fearful, ignoring the way bodies were falling around him like dominoes.

Cries went up around him and the sounds of engines working overtime reached his ears- a carrier jet sailed overhead, sinking in the sky, and crashed to the ground not too far away. He didn’t want to think about the people it may have landed on.

He planned to move past, maybe find someone friendly to team up with or somewhere to cower until it all died down, but before he could stumbled past the ship, ominous creaking and groaning came from within. Tony stopped and listened, frowning, and wondering if he should help.

Before he could decide, the door exploded outwards and a body emerged, no doubt having kicked the door down. The figure was huge and hulking, and a fearsome sight- the Iron Man suit had been painted black, rather than the uniformed grey everyone else wore, and the bicep was painted with a small symbol, too far away to see closely, but blue, red and white. SHIELD soldiers, Tony thought, and watched dumbly as a small group of surviving soldiers streamed out, seemingly not wounded. Their leader, he assumed, checked on them all as they joined the fray, testing their footing on the slick sand.

“Is this all of us?” He called out, voice just as deep as Tony expected for a man his size.

“Yes, Captain.” Another said, and he had the exact same symbol painted in the exact same place. Tony noted that they all had, clearly some kind of special group.

“Alright. Move out, and quickly.”

The soldiers obeyed the order without question, and they moved in uniformity. They stuck in pairs, watching each other’s back. From what little Tony had seen, they worked as a good team- better than J squad, anyway. He wondered how they were doing, and if any of his ‘friends’ had survived the landing.

“Captain Rogers!” A regular soldier called out, and the leader froze. “Enemies inbound.”

Rogers lifted a gauntlet immediately, and his palm began to glow as he fired up the repulsors. His hand went to his hip, where he drew what may have been a sword or a baton. Tony immediately staggered back, currently wanting to avoid close quarters combat if he could. “Team!” He shouted, drawing their attention, and when the Chitauri arrived, they were battle ready.

They crawled over the wreckage of the ship, humanoid forms with alien faces, as they hissed like snakes as their claws dug into metal too easily. Tony wondered what their claws could do to bone, and quickly decided that he didn’t want to find out. The SHIELD soldiers, however, had no such fear, and they immediately shot at the enemy. Quicker than any creature Tony had ever seen, the Chitauri leapt from the ship and lashed out, and a few of the regular army soldiers went down with wails of fear. Rogers stormed forward, freeing one with a single blow, and spun on his heel, ready for his next victim. He fought without hesitation, killing as many as he could as quickly as possible, and he made surprisingly short work of his foes.

But he didn’t see the sole survivor creeping up behind him.

“Behind you!” Tony shouted out, and every soldier spun around, ready for attack. Rogers did the same, and barely managed to deflect the Chitauri’s hit in time with the hilt of his weapon. Lifting his leg he delivered a swift kick to the creature’s stomach, sending it down to the ground, and one of his companions lifted their gauntlet and shot it, killing it instantly. It was over as quickly as it began.

The other soldiers immediately moved on, following the Captain’s previous orders, but Rogers lingered, turning his head and surveying the area, as if searching. Tony took a step forward, and the soldier’s head stopped on him. He stared for a brief moment, even as his soldiers sprinted away and precious time began to run out, and then he reached up, lifting his face plate and pulling it free.

Tony’s breath caught for just a second. Fierce blue eyes he had seen before on a London bus stared at him, and the embodiment of a perfect soldier looked at him, eyeing him up and down, and Tony wondered if he was grateful. Captain Rogers, famed hero of Verdun looked down at him, expression blank, breathing surprisingly lightly for someone who stormed a group of enemies and brought them down in no time at all. He tilted his head to one side, inquisitively, and opened his mouth to speak.

The explosion that came from behind him, caused by god only knew what tore the wreckage apart, and threw him completely off his feet. So close, the armour couldn’t do a thing to help him. Rogers landed heavily, thrown forward to just in front of Tony’s feet, and he didn’t get up again. His soldiers didn’t even know he was gone.

“Jesus!” Tony swore, stepping back. He had just about seen enough death for one day, and he knew he was going to be seeing a hell of a lot more. He stared down at Rogers’ corpse, those eyes staring blankly up at the sky, and a minute later Tony was staring down at a puddle of his own vomit. He had wandered away, blindly and on weak feet, and he didn’t know how far he had wondered. The long stretch of beach was all the same to him now.

A soldier barged past him, their shoulders slamming together. Tony grunted at the surprise force, jerking forward. The soldier turned to shoot him a glance, face plate turned up- and a familiar face beamed brightly at him.

“Private Stark!” Coulson called out, sounding awfully smug. He was covered in blood, seemingly human but not his, and he didn’t seem particularly bothered by that fact. “What a surprise.” He reached out, grabbing at a curving edge of Tony’s armour, and yanked him forward. “How good of you join us.” He dragged him away, to a group of other soldiers with roughed up armour, scratches and gouges, but they all seemed to be fighting fit. They were huddled in a small pit, crouched down low, ready for anything. Coulson shoved Tony down a small slope, into the middle of their loose circle with no ceremony, and no one reacted to his presence. He assumed they all had bigger things to worry about than mocking him. He counted four others, all with face plates closed- if it were J squad, they were short one soldier. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that- they were assholes, but he didn’t want them dead.

Sylvan’s voice called out to her Sergeant, her tone clipped short as if with irritation. “I thought they weren’t supposed to know we were coming. I don’t understand.”

One of the soldiers face plates lifted, and Romanoff’s snarling face was revealed. “This is a slaughterhouse,” She said, sticking to the truth. “This is a mess.”

“Get in line.” Coulson said, tersely, and the soldiers all obeyed. Tony followed orders, with hesitation, and Romanoff simply nodded at him, somewhat respectfully. “Stand your ground.”

Enemies approaching, JARVIS warned, as polite and casual as someone announcing the weather forecast, and Tony watched his HUD carefully. He saw blinking red dots, five hundred meters away, and they were closing in on their location quickly.

“Take position! Eyes forward!” Coulson stood fast at the front, palms glowing. Sylvan and another soldier took point beside him, the woman with a unfriendly expression as if she hoped to scare the enemy away- to be fair to her, Tony guessed it would have worked on a majority of human beings- and Romanoff stood at Tony’s side. The other soldier stood in-between the two groups, and turned his head to speak to Tony even as Coulson called out warnings and orders.

“I’ve surprised you’ve made it this far, Stark.” Barton told him, and he sounded almost impressed. Then, he turned back, and steadied himself for the attack.

Tony’s HUD was lighting up, targets appearing on the horizon, almost a dozen coming out of nowhere. The three at the front took shots first, and two targets flickered out. He waited until they ventured closer, taking in deep breaths and waiting for ugly heads to pop over the slope before taking a shot.

It hit, and a Chitauri corpse tumbled down the hill, long and uneven limbs flopping everywhere like a ragdoll. Barton and Romanoff took their shots and also hit, although Barton’s target survived a little longer, wailing and clawing at its ruined chest. There were five already down, and it almost gave him hope.

But then one of the Chitauri screamed and leapt, flying directly for Coulson’s face. He struggled, fighting with all he had, but there was a sudden spray of blood and he convulsed, choking. The Chitauri dropped him ungracefully, before moving on to its next attempted target- Sylvan, who brought it down with a furious scream. The soldier with her missed his target, and backed up, aiming again as soon as he could. Missing again, he swore, and Sylvan took his target for him, blasting off the creature’s spitting head. Coulson had hit the floor between them, and barely moved. The sand was quickly stained red. Romanoff missed her shot while Barton and Tony took theirs, bringing down another two.

Two remained, and one lunged for Sylvan, who lashed out in defence, but staggered back, losing her footing. The creature clawed at her, and she screamed, tumbling to the floor. Tony could see her face was slick with blood, and he wondered if she had been blinded.

He had no time to be concerned with that. Panicked, Barton and Romanoff missed both shots and the creature’s descended- but the sand shifted underneath Tony’s feet, making him wobble, and he looked down to see an unfriendly face emerging from the sand. Freaked out, he leapt backwards. “Hey!” He called out in warning, and Barton only had the chance to stare at him, brows furrowed with confusion, before hands clawed at his ankle, and yanked him off his feet.

He went down heavily, hitting his head against the sand and the Chitauri seemed to spasm, rearing out of the ground and dragging claws down Barton’s side, cutting through the armour like it was nothing. He cried out in pain, and Romanoff howled a denial, bringing her fist down on the creature’s head. She shot it for good measure, but in the throes of death it lashed out once more, piercing Barton’s throat with its clawed hands and tossing him to one side. It fell, finally dead.

But there was no reprieve- in the madness, they had forgotten the other, and before either had a chance to react, the Chitauri descended and hauled Romanoff away, hands coming around her throat, either preparing to choke or snap the bone. She struggled, and put up an impressive fight, but the repulsor blast that killed the creature came a split second after a sickening snap.

Tony had barely time to react before it happened again.

“Stark!” Sylvan cried out, voice desperate, but her cry was cut short with a terrible sound, like something wet being slapped across a stone wall. Tony turned, holding up his palm and ready to aim, but it was too late. The other soldier had been killed while he had been preoccupied with Romanoff, and Sylvan was choking on her own blood, twitching, and it was only a matter of time before she was still. The Chitauri that stood over her, body wet with blood turned to him, the last survivor of its group, and before it could even think about attacking he shot it through the chest. It wailed and swiped at him, but caught only air, and it collapsed on him, a heavy burden.

He kicked out desperately, kicking the corpse away, splashing in the puddles. He was laughing hysterically, choking on his breath, and he felt sick to his stomach. He may have been shaking, trembling in the armour, and he thought he may have thrown up from the overpowering stench of blood. He couldn’t be sure. He was alive, and for the first time in a while, he truly felt it.

Rolling onto his back, Tony looked around. Struggling to calm himself, arse firmly planted on the ground, he saw the others. The soldier at the front was face down alongside Sylvan, both unmoving directly across from him. Their suits were ruined beyond repair, better to scrap it and start again, sparking uselessly. He didn’t want to think about what the human bodies looked like underneath, or who the second soldier was. Coulson lay at his feet, and he could see his face, slick with filth and blood. He couldn’t see Romanoff, but he knew she was dead too, likely flung over the mound somewhere, one causality among no doubt thousands of others. Explosions ripped up the ground, ceaseless, and he wondered exactly how many of the screams he could hear had been cut short.

He couldn’t lay here forever, he knew. And he hardly wanted to remain among the dead, with their accusing eyes. He took in a breath, steadying himself for a second longer. He needed the moment to himself. His thigh muscles were killing him with all his panicked running, and the weight on his shoulders was not a comfortable one.

Tony readied himself to move, and then dirt from the heaping mound to his left shifted, sprinkling over his head. What now, he wondered, agitated and irritated, and he looked up.

Before his eyes, there was a blur of blue, and a Chitauri almost triple the size of any of the others darted in front of him, conveniently blocking any escape. It shone silver and sapphire rather than silver and orange like the others, and Tony might have thought it beautiful if it wasn’t coming to kill him. Humanoid in shape, it still crawled like an animal, jerking and snarling like something out of his weirdest nightmares. Its eyes fell on him, and it only growled louder and Tony wondered if the sound made the Earth shake or if it was just the falling bombs. The huge creature prowled forward, and it hurt his eyes to look at- it shimmered like a jewel, but pulsed and shifted like a computer glitch, and Tony’s mouth was bone dry, and his stomach was bottomless.

He lifted one hand in survival instinct, powering up the repulsors even though he knew damn well it wasn’t going to do shit against a monster that size. He scrambled backwards until his back hit the dirt mound- he could go no further. The Chitauri advanced, unopposed.

Half hoping that someone would come to his rescue but knowing it wouldn’t be so, Tony swallowed his fear, turning his heart to stone. He steadied himself, splaying one had to the side- and his gauntlets met something smooth and hard, thudding against some metal cover. He glanced at it, and found Barton, dead eyed and empty sprawled by his side. His hand had fallen on the explosive device he had seen him tape to his chest earlier, ripped free and loosely embraced in Barton’s arms. He hadn’t the chance to use it.
An idea bloomed, and it was comforting- even when faced with almost immediate death, he was still having ideas. Hearing the Chitauri squelch in the mud, he tore the device free and clutched it to his chest like a child with a favoured toy. Breathing heavily with wide eyes, surrounded by death, he began to count down in his mind. He tried not to think about what all this meant, dying alone and afraid in the muck, a far cry from what he used to be, and he tried not think about Rhodey and Pep-

The creature roared and lunged forward, and Tony enthusiastically greeted it with an explosive and a repulsor blast, shoving it firmly into its chest.

The Chitauri shrieked with mindless rage even as it’s chest collapsed, falling apart, and blood splattered across Tony’s clothes and skin. The blood was ice cool rather than heated like he expected, and it was so alien, so bitingly cold against his skin that he screamed. It only splattered across his cheeks, into his eyes and mouth, and it burnt and hissed like corrosive acid. He wailed at the pain, thrashing and shaking, the fire scalding his skin and making it curl like paper set aflame, falling apart.

Tony clung to agonizing life just a moment longer, and he didn’t understand why, the explosion should have taken them both, surely- and then he jolted wide awake, still screaming.

His hands came up to shield his face, far too late, and he was quaking. He screamed at the pain and horror- and then froze.

Gentle warmth heated his cheeks, and he no longer felt restricted by the cold embrace of the armour. He was seated on something firm, and he was blessedly dry. His clothes weren’t damp with the blood and seawater, and he felt no pain. The sounds of the dying and the terrified were also gone- replaced with jeering cries and laughter, familiar commands being shouted across. Compared to what he had seen, what he had experienced, this sudden shift was heaven.

Pulling his hands away, noting the cuffs clamped tightly around his wrists, he stared owl eyed back at his surroundings, his heart rate slowly settling. He was sitting on the bags again, and he watched as soldiers jogged by for physical training, led by their commander. A London bus drove past, the same dark blue eyes of Rogers staring down at Tony from the poster, and the Heathrow sign gleamed under the sun.

Confusion made Tony’s head spin.

“On your feet, asshole!” A voice called from behind him, and it still caught him off guard. He rolled off the bags quickly, getting to his feet without stumbling, and the soldier didn’t kick the bags. He still had the same rotten attitude however, and when Tony didn’t respond, he growled, “Need me to bust your hole with my boot heel, asshole?”

He stared, fully aware of how much of an idiot he looked. He stumbled over his words for several long moments, completely lost. “I… I’m not…”

“Excuse me,” A familiar voice rang out, and the confusion was only amplified. Both he and the soldier turned to stare as Coulson approached, just as small as Tony remembered outside of the armour, with the same easy smile and defining wrinkles. “Can I help you, son.”

“I… I don’t understand?”

Coulson arched a brow. “What don’t you understand?”

He shook his head, disbelieving, and he had no idea where to start. What the hell just happened? Was that a dream? “Sergeant Coulson?”

His eyebrows only raised further, at serious threat of disappearing into his receding hairline. “That’s my name and rank, yes.” He paused, pressing his lips together firmly. “Alright. I think I get it.” He leant in, almost conversationally, as if trying to share a secret. “What was it? Poker night? Bachelor party?”

Sleep with someone influential’s daughter? Tony’s mind supplied, half fascinated and dreading to hear what Coulson said next.

“Sleep with someone influential’s daughter?”

“…I don’t know.” Tony said, honestly, flexing his hands in the cuffs. They were uncomfortable against the skin of his wrists, and the sharp bite was telling him that this was reality, that it wasn’t a dream of some sort. But the pain was just as sharp as it was the last time he and Coulson had met.

This time, Coulson seemed genuinely a little sympathetic in the face of his quiet confusion. Tony wondered how many people like him followed a similar path after taking part in those poker nights, those bachelor parties. “It happens. Don’t worry. I’ll sort you out.” He dismissed the other soldier again with the exact same words, the exact same tone, and something uncomfortable and heavy sat in Tony’s stomach. He guided Tony along with one hand, back through the space, across the tarmac, and he lost himself in the sounds of combat boots thudding across the floor, the shouting, the engines.

“What day is it?” Tony asked, eyeing everything with a feeling of wonder. He had aimed to make his tone innocent, conversational, but judging by the look on Coulson’s face, it wasn’t successful.

Coulson regained that smile, the one with the hard edge, and patted his pocket where the papers labelling Tony a deserter waited. “For you? Judgement day.”

Tony cast his mind back to the beach, if he had ever been there, back to when he laughed and cried in the sand with the dead around him. Back then, he thought he had gone mad- and now, he almost certainly had.